August 18, 2003
Nuclear Power Has Cost And Proliferation Problems

MIT chemistry professor and former CIA chief John Deutch has co-authored a New York Times Op-Ed with MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz entitled Nuclear Power Can Work.

We built a model to compare the costs of producing electricity from new nuclear, coal and natural gas plants. The model focuses on economic cost, not regulated or subsidized cost. According to our study, the baseline cost of new nuclear power is 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 4.2 cents for coal and natural gas (when the price of gas is $4.50 per thousand cubic feet). Plausible, but unproved, technology could reduce nuclear costs to those of coal and gas.

However, if a cost is assigned to carbon emissions either through a tax or some other way, as in a current Congressional proposal that would limit emissions but allow companies to buy and sell the right to discharge more pollutants nuclear power could become an attractive economic option. For example, a $50 per ton carbon value, about the cost of capturing and separating the carbon dioxide product of coal and natural gas combustion, raises the cost of coal to 5.4 cents and natural gas to 4.8 cents.

Well, even with the cost of CO2 removal included that still leaves fossil fuels cheaper than nuclear power. Clearly nuclear power can not currently compete on the basis of production costs.

The Op-Ed alludes to a recent study done at MIT on the future of nuclear power of which both Deutch and Moniz were among the co-authors. That study, The Future Of Nuclear Power, outlines a number of problems with nuclear power.

"Fossil fuel-based electricity is projected to account for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020," said Deutch. "In the U.S. 90% of the carbon emissions from electricity generation come from coal-fired generation, even though this accounts for only 52% of the electricity produced. Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions."

But the prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited, the report finds, by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.

The study examines a growth scenario where the present deployment of 360 GWe of nuclear capacity worldwide is expanded to 1000 GWe in mid-century, keeping nuclear's share of the electricity market about constant. Deployment in the U.S. would expand from about 100 GWe today to 300 GWe in mid-century. This scenario is not a prediction, but rather a study case in which nuclear power would make a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions.

"There is no question that the up-front costs associated with making nuclear power competitive, are higher than those associated with fossil fuels," said Dr. Moniz. "But as our study shows, there are many ways to mitigate these costs and, over time, the societal and environmental price of carbon emissions could dramatically improve the competitiveness of nuclear power"

Nuclear power used worldwide would greatly accelerate nuclear proliferation. In my view this isn't just a hypothetical risk to manage and minimize. Place nuclear reactors all over the world and it is inevitable that more countries will use the presence of reactors as an opportunity to get the materials needed to make nuclear weapons. Just a single nuclear bomb exploded in an American city could kill millions of people and cause hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars in economic losses. Nuclear power has to be weighed against that risk.

The biggest argument Deutch and Moniz make for nuclear power is that increasing its use will slow the growth in CO2 emissions. For the sake of discussion leave aside the question of whether CO2 emissions are a threat to the environment. Reduction in CO2 emissions can be accomplished at less cost by using methods to capture CO2 emitted by fossil fuel plants.

The use of fossil fuels from the Middle East also sends money to the Middle East that helps fund the spread of Wahhabism, support for terrorism, and efforts to make weapons of mass destruction. But an increased use of nuclear power only in the United States will do little to decrease those cash flows. What is needed are power sources that can displace Middle Eastern fossil fuels at a cost much lower than current Middle Eastern fossil fuels market prices.

As far as increasing the use of nuclear power is concerned, the US government should pursue two main policy objectives:

  • Develop a nuclear fuel cycle that greatly reduces the risk of proliferation.
  • Develop technologies to much more cheaply build and operate nuclear power plants and to dispose of nuclear waste.

If a form of nuclear power that does not pose proliferation risks could be developed and if it could be made to be much cheaper than current fossil fuel-powered electricity then it would become a viable option.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 August 18 12:21 PM  Energy Nuclear

Patrick said at August 18, 2003 4:39 PM:

Thorium rather than Uranium based reactors could be the solution. Only used in a couple of test reactors so far, but they are perfectly capable of producing vast amounts of heat, and the rest of the reactor would use existing technology.

The thing with Thorium is that it cannot sustain a chain reaction. The whole point of Uranium is that as the atoms split, they release neutrons which go on to split more atoms, a reaction that can accelerate over microseconds (under special conditions) to give a nuclear explosion. Thorium atoms just can't do this. Trying to make a bomb out of Thorium is like making one out of lead. Deadly if dropped from a plane, but no explosion.

An added bonus is that Thorium is a lot more common than uranium.

Mike Holt said at August 19, 2003 1:29 PM:

I beg to disagree with you. The issues cited in the article are all easily handled with existing reactor technology. Indeed there has only ever been one nuclear accident in which a significant amount of radiation has been released to the environment: Chernobyl.

"high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes."

Long term management of nuclear waste can be handled by storing the waste on the reactor site indefinately. In other words, each reactor site is in itself a nuclear waste depot. This limits transportation issues also.

Proliferation is really only a reasonable concern in regard to the liquid metal cooled breeder reactor. In the breeder reactor, Plutonium is used to generate Uranium through fission. In the breeder reactor, the spent fuel rods actually contain fissionable material capable of being used in nuclear weapons. Other types of reactors, such as the pressurized water reactor, gas cooled reactor and the boiling water reactor use up all of their Uranium and their nuclear waste is not fissionable.

"Perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects" are just that: perceived. Nuclear power plants are some of the safest and cleanest industrial settings to work in. Environmentally nuclear plants outstrip their conventional power competition in terms of emmissions, waste and degredation caused by mining. This is an issue that can be easily overcome with a little education.

The cost of nuclear energy is lower than has been estimated. First off coal is no where near 4.2 cents/kwh. It's more like 5.7 cents/kwh. Likewise natural gas has a wildly fluctuating cost as you may remember from the last few summers. I've seen studies where small, say 600 Mw, nuclear plants were cost competetive with similar sized coal plants. Also, the U.S. nuclear marked is dominated by the pressurized water reactor because this is the type used by the U.S. Navy in their propulsion programs. Other types may be safer and cheaper. What we have is in essence an emerging market. Once nuclear plants are once again being built in this country and the support infrastructure is in place and the regulatory burden is once again reasonable, the we'll see the cost of nuclear energy drop dramatically.

Other industrialized countries, such as France, Germany and Japan, rely heavilly on nuclear plants for the same reason the U.S. should begin to. They do it to reduce the need for foriegn energy sources, which increases national autonomy, and also because it is cleaner, safer and in the long run cheaper.

Randall Parker said at August 19, 2003 2:28 PM:

Mike, I'm citing figures from two MIT professors who are advocates of nuclear power. One is a former CIA director. Both have served as officials in the US Department of Energy. If you can cite competing authority figures or electric power industry sources for your sources please do. Every time I cite some reputable source that claims nuclear power costs more I get posts such as yours begging to differ. Well, I have no axe to grind here. I want to know what is true. So if you have sources for your claims then post the URLs.

Yes, other reactor types could be made safer and cheaper. Fine. I'm all for technological advances that increase safety and lower costs. But right now if you were in charge of an electric power generator company you couldn't call up some company and order up this hypothetically cheaper and safer nuclear power plant.

Yes, natural gas prices fluctuate. It would be useful to look at running averages over a period of a few years and also to look at long term past price trends and reasonable arguments for why future prices will be higher or lower than they are now. If Japanese researchers continue to develop improvements in pelletization technology it may be possible to ship natural gas from fields where it is not currently economical to extract it for example.

As for proliferation: here I have to disagree. If the number of nuclear reactors goes up dramatically around the world then larger amounts of uranium will be shipped around and will be shipped to places where it currently never is shipped. Therefore it will become easier to divert it for use in nuclear bomb building. Until nuclear power can be used safely and cheaply all over the world it will not become a major substitute for Middle Eastern oil and it will not contribute much to the decline in CO2 emissions.

Patrick said at August 21, 2003 5:13 PM:

The cost of a coal or nuclear plant depends a lot on where it is. A nuclear plant put up in New York state will have enourmously higher costs, due to environmental, safety and political/public relations reasons, that would not apply even in Japan, let alone India. Likewise a coal plant. Coal also has the transport cost of coal to take into account.

A brand new high efficiency coal plant set up in China near their coal fields will have much lower costs than an older plant that still has to meet the environment standards of say Holland, that is relying on imported coal.

Hence someone can say 4.7 c/kwh, or 5.5 c/kWh, or 2.9 c/kwh, and all be correct, depending on what they are measuring, and where, whether it is the project cost of new plants or the average of existing plants, whether the capital costs are being amortized, etc. etc.

Invisible Scientist said at August 23, 2003 12:29 PM:

I would like to mention the Integral Fast Reactor, and similar
new designs. The latter reactor burns ALL the long term nuclear
byproducts, leaving only elements with half-life less than 100 years.
As far as uranium is concerned, this design is up to 60 times more
fuel efficient. Of course, this does not mean that the electricity
will be produced at a price that is 60 times lower, but certainly,
nuclear energy can be made a lot cheaper. The problem is that the
existing US plants are very old, and new designs were not adopted,
since very few reactors were being built. There are many new designs
that are very exotic, but not difficult to build.

Invisible Scientist said at August 23, 2003 12:31 PM:

I made a typographical error above. The half-life of
the remaining nuclear waste in the integral-fast reactor,
is not 100 years, but between 150 and 200 years.

mike ilott said at December 15, 2003 11:48 AM:

My comment on nuclear power is that its really coooooool and there should be more(thumbs up) yeah guys i made it on the site :) love for ever mikey

kt said at July 20, 2005 9:18 PM:

What is the cost to set up a Nuclear power plant?

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