Nuclear power generates approximately 20 percent of all U.S. electricity. And because it is a low-carbon source of around-the-clock power, it has received renewed interest as concern grows over the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on our climate. Yet nuclear power’s own myriad limitations will constrain its growth and make it an infeasible solution for making energy more affordable as well as more sustainable.
1. Nuclear faces prohibitively high—and escalating—capital costs.
Nuclear power plant construction costs—mainly materi als, labor, and engineering—rose by 185 percent between 2000 and 2007. More recently, costs have been increasing even faster: In mid-March, Progress Energy informed state regulators that the twin 1,100 MW nuclear plants it intends to build in Florida would cost $14 billion, which “triples estimates the utility offered little more than a year ago.”
Jim Harding, former direc tor of power planning and forecasting for Seattle City Light, estimates that nuclear plants constructed today would provide electricity at between 12 and 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. To put this cost into perspective, the average U.S. electricity price in 2006 was 8.9 cents per kWh, and well-placed wind turbines can produce electricity for less than 5 cents per kWh.
In August, 2007, the Tulsa World reported that American Electric Power Co. CEO Michael Morris was not planning to build any new nuclear power plants. He was quoted as saying, “I’m not convinced we’ll see a new nuclear station before probably the 2020 timeline,” citing “realistic” costs of about $4,000 per kilowatt. Since then, The prices utilities are quoting for nuclear have soared 50 percent to 100 percent.
2. Plant construction is limited by production bottlenecks.
Japan Steel is the only company in the world “capable of producing the central part of a nuclear reactor’s containment vessel in a single piece, reducing the risk of a radiation leak,” but it can only produce four per year. Even if Japan Steel increases its capacity, American power companies would be buying components in a global market at a time when China and India are increasing their nuclear capacity to meet growing energy needs.
Supply bottlenecks, coupled with soaring commodity prices, have resulted in enormous price increases for nuclear, which is already capital intensive, even though new reactors have only been coming online at an average rate of about four to five per year in the past decade. Increased nuclear plant construction will be constrained by these factors.
3. New nuclear plants probably won’t be designed by American companies.
Because no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States in over 30 years, foreign companies have more experience building such plants. The New York Times reported that, while considering constructing a new nuclear reactor, the American utility Constellation partnered with the French-German company, Areva, to build a model plant in Finland.
The United States must produce more electricity to keep up with increasing demand, but relying on foreign companies to build nuclear plants means fewer jobs for Americans in the energy sector.
4. Unresolved problems regarding the availability and security of waste storage.
There is currently nowhere to store the radioactive nuclear waste that is a byproduct of nuclear energy generation. In the unlikely event that Yucca Mountain is opened to nuclear waste, the repository will not be large enough to store even current waste.
Proponents of nuclear power note that nuclear waste can be reprocessed, although this would not actually reduce the waste problem, and would add 1.5 to 3 cents to the cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity.
5. Nuclear faces concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues.
In 2007, the United States imported 47 million pounds, or 92 percent, of its uranium. Increased nuclear capacity would either make us more dependent on foreign uranium, or have us risk repeating the environmental debacle of the uranium boom that accompanied the buildout of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the first wave of nuclear power plant construction.
6. Nuclear reactors require water use amid shortages.
Large areas of the United States already face water shortages, and the effects of global warming are expected to exacerbate this problem. “Elec tricity generation accounts for nearly half of all water withdrawals in the nation,” and nuclear power stations require more water than fossil fuel use does. The only alternative to the water usage associated with nuclear energy is less efficient (and more expensive) dry cooling systems.
7. Safety concerns still plague nuclear power.
After the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, the United States stopped granting licenses for new nuclear plants. The crises demonstrated that the nuclear industry is vulnerable to public concern. While modern reactors are safer than those that failed in the past, another accident anywhere in the world could turn public opinion against nuclear power as a whole.
8. Nuclear is already a mature technology—it will not get cheaper.
The American nuclear industry has benefited from $100 billion in direct and indirect subsidies since 1948, and nuclear power provides 20 percent of electricity in the United States. The technology behind nuclear power is fully developed, so nuclear energy is unlikely to get much cheaper. Continued subsidies would be necessary to make nuclear cost-competitive with other energy sources, but will not lower the overall price of nuclear power.
9. Other clean energy technologies are cheaper, cleaner, and faster to build.
Solar power, photovoltaics, advanced biofuels, wind power, and other energy technologies promise to revolutionize how electricity is generated in the 21st century. Already, wind energy can produce electricity for less than five cents per kWh, and concentrated solar power can produce energy for 11-12 cents per kWh—even at night—and these costs are decreasing. Alternatives do not produce nuclear waste, and they do not face the same extensive safety, regulatory, and construction costs and delays that nuclear does.
10. Nuclear subsidies take money away from more effective alternative energy subsidies.
Subsidies for nuclear reactors wouldn’t subsidize nuclear technology—they would subsidize the nuclear industry. Congress should fund research of clean, alternative energy technologies that promise to rival fossil fuels in cost—without subsidies. Congress should also provide tax credits that would make such technologies cheaper by encouraging production and moving them down the experience curve.
Such support would encourage a growing American industry and create American jobs. By squandering our limited resources on subsidies for the nuclear power industry, the United States is missing an extraordinary opportunity.
Read more about why subsidizing nuclear power just doesn’t make sense from our partner organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund: