Cost of Nuclear Energy is Misrepresented
To The Faculty Newsletter:
Thank you for your efforts in the latest MIT Faculty Newsletter (September/October 2010). And thank you for your comments about clean energy. I write to correct the misperceptions you appear to hold in respect of nuclear energy. It is not painting a true picture to say (as you do) that “nuclear energy is still costly.” Nor is it correct to imply that dismantling facilities and used fuel disposal is a significant additional economic cost.
The operating costs of producing electricity by existing nuclear plants have for several years now been lower than those of the cheapest fossil fuel, coal plants. They are far lower than the operating costs of natural gas (which are dominated by volatile fuel costs. Gas generator capital costs are low.) Moreover, if you were to consult the MIT Nuclear Power report (2003) or the recent update (2009), web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/, you would discover that current estimates of total Cost Of Electricity (including capital) from new nuclear plants are already practically competitive with new fossil, and require only the most minimal internalization of fossil’s true costs, such as a moderate carbon tax or the requirement for CO2 or further particulate emission reduction by coal, to make nuclear economically clearly the most attractive option. This is, of course, one reason why utilities are proposing new nuclear plants and why approximately 25 new reactors are under license review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Incidentally, China is moving rapidly forward with nuclear plant construction that bids fair to equal the nuclear capacity in the U.S. within a couple of decades.
There are, of course, serious political challenges to used fuel storage and disposal. Political challenges. However, since the 1980s, the costs of disposal have been set aside by a 0.1¢ per kWhr tax on nuclear electricity, totaling $35B so far, fully sufficient to build a repository such as Yucca Mountain. Similarly, most utilities have set-asides for reactor dismantlement that are more than sufficient. The only remaining necessity to bringing closed nuclear plants back to green field, is for the Federal Government to obey the law and accept the spent fuel currently stored on power plant sites. By the way, the environmental impact of nuclear electricity generation is undoubtedly the smallest per kWhr of any of our current options, including those that are uneconomic.
Nuclear energy has challenges, especially with respect to anti-proliferation concerns. But as far as the economics are concerned, the main issues for new reactors are to demonstrate that their actual capital construction costs can be kept within acceptable bounds, by building on budget and schedule, and to convince the capital markets that the big outlay is a manageable financial risk. Since we have not built new reactors in the U.S. for a while, people naturally want to see a demonstration before they are going to believe this will all work. But as far as existing reactors are concerned, which are all going to be running for a long time, there's no financial downside. Nuclear generators are making money, and consumers are benefitting from low nuclear rates.
Finally, I’d like to offer a more general remark of personal opinion, in contrast to the facts that I feel you have misrepresented. MIT's reputation is made by the Institute being able to address the big picture with quantitative analysis that takes the realities of science, engineering, and policy into account. Idealism is all very well, and I'm as idealistic as the next person, but in the end, the nation's and the world's energy challenges are going to have to be addressed by government policy, setting the economic balance, not by individual idealists, however passionate and clever. The call should therefore be not for us individually to be willing out of idealism to pay more, but rather for us to work for and advocate that the full (including environmental) costs of all energy sources should be internalized. That's not happening right now because the special interests of for example fossil energy and industry have too much influence over legislators and over public opinion.
Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering
Editor's Note: In a recent Nature (2010, 467, 391-393) there is a Comment entitled, "A US Nuclear Future," which is most timely regarding Prof. Hutchinson's letter and the Faculty Newsletter editorial it addresses. There are Point and Counterpoint which cover many of the issues he and the editorial raise, including cost analysis.