« The gulag of our time | Home | Life in a theocracy, part 2 »

June 4, 2005

Nuclear power's lost years

I have a love-hate relationship with nuclear power. Like most people, I worry about its inherent safety and allure as a terrorist target. The problem of nuclear-waste disposal is far from being solved. And the industry’s estimates of lifetime operating costs rely on unrealistically low discount rates to make its economic case more compelling. Thanks to nuclear’s higher capital costs, its slim cost advantage over coal swiftly evaporates if interest rates rise. As I wrote in a previous post, that’s why the nuclear-energy industry likes to talk about “Nth-of-a-kind” capital costs—i.e., those achieved after first-time design, engineering, construction-management and SNAFU costs have been sunk and “recovered” (read: subsidized). All this dissembling makes me nervous.

Having said that, climate change continues to accelerate, thanks to strong global economic growth, rapid industrialization in Asia, little commitment to conservation in developed economies—and lots of coal-fired power plants that account for over 80% of greenhouse-gas emissions. The usual green alternatives—sun, wind, waves, biomass, hydro—would have little impact, even on the most optimistic forecasts. Natural gas? Cleaner than coal, but costly and still environmentally damaging. Super-clean coal? Even more expensive—and unproven.

Nuclear power, on the other hand, is a viable large-scale way to slow climate change. And yes, I know they’re biased, but the statistical exercise just posted on the NEI Nuclear Notes blog is intriguing nonetheless—and the numbers mostly hold up:

There are 103 operating nuclear power plants in the United States. In 2004, they avoided approximately 697 million metric tons of CO2, 3.4 million tons of SO2 and 1.1 million tons of NOx (click here for the graph). Without nuclear power, emissions would be about 30 percent higher.
…Since 1973, 97 nuclear power plants which had been ordered were cancelled. 68 of those were cancelled after the Three Mile Island accident. If all the plants had been built, nuclear would avoid twice as much the emissions it does today.
According to the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. would be required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from the 1990 emissions level over the commitment period of 2008-2012.
In 1990, total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States were 5,932 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. 7 percent of this is only 415 million metric tons of CO2. If the additional nuclear plants were built, they would easily prevent more than the 7 percent reduction target.

By 2003, U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions were 17.6% higher than in 1990—and those additional emissions would not have been offset by the 97 hypothetical nuclear plants. But as the NEI blog points out, we’d still be about halfway to Kyoto.

Posted by Stephen at 1:51 AM in Energy + environment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


To clarify, when looking at a higher discount rate of nuclear's lifetime operating costs, nuclear's economic case is still more compelling. When looking at a 10% discount rate; nuclear ranges between 30 and 50 USD/MWh; coal, 35 and 60 USD/MWh; and gas 40 and 63 USD/MWh. Even at a higher discount rate, our slim cost advantage still does not evaporate.

Posted by: David Bradish at June 6, 2005 1:40 PM