The True Cost of Nuclear Power

Taxpayer subsidies have disguised the high cost of nuclear power for years. The money should be redirected to promote alternative energy.

  • cost of nuclear power - Trojan cooling tower
    The Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Portland, Ore. is a testament to the cost of nuclear power. It began operation in 1976 but was plagued by structural problems before it was closed in 1992. The cartoon show "The Simpsons" used it as a symbol of greed, evil and environmental negligence.
    Photo by AP Photo/Don Ryan
  • cost of nuclear power - Trojan reactor core
    The reactor from the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Portland, Ore., is positioned for burial at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash.
  • cost of nuclear power - Yucca Mountain tunnel
    A construction worker walks through the main tunnel inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which the U.S. government has proposed as the long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. The repository is tentatively scheduled to begin accepting waste in 2012, but it is widely opposed by Nevada residents because of safety issues, security concerns and seismic activity inside the mountain.
  • cost of nuclear power - PV arrays
    More than 200 solar panels generate power outside an abandoned nuclear power plant near Richland, Wash. This solar project is an exploration into renewable energy by the public power agency Energy Northwest, which provides electricity to public utilities in the Northwest.

  • cost of nuclear power - Trojan cooling tower
  • cost of nuclear power - Trojan reactor core
  • cost of nuclear power - Yucca Mountain tunnel
  • cost of nuclear power - PV arrays

During a July 2005 lecture in San Francisco, Jared Diamond, author of the best-selling book Guns, Germs and Steel, became the latest and most prominent environmental intellectual to endorse nuclear power as a necessary response to global warming.

Addressing an overflow crowd at the Cowell Theater about why some societies fail and others don't (the theme of his most recent book, Collapse), Diamond three times cited global warming as a threat that could ruin modern civilization. During the question period, Diamond was asked if he agrees with Stewart Brand, whose Long Now Foundation sponsored the lecture, that global warming poses such a grave threat that humanity should embrace nuclear power. It was a delicate moment, because Brand the former editor of The Whole Earth Catalog was on stage with Diamond.

"I did not know that Stewart Brand said that," Diamond replied. "But yes, to deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including nuclear power." Nuclear power, he added, should simply be "done carefully, like they do in France, where there have been no accidents."

"I did not expect that answer," Brand said. Neither, it seemed, did much of the audience. Overwhelmingly white and affluent, most audience members had nodded reverentially at everything Diamond had said thus far about the self-destructiveness of ancient civilizations that leveled forests (Easter Island) or eroded soils (the Mayans) in pursuit of short-term gain; and about the need for the United States to rethink its core value of consumerism if it hopes to survive. They had clapped when Diamond mocked President Bush's see-no-evil approach to environmental protection. Yet now Diamond was urging an expansion of nuclear power, a technology most environmentalists regard as irredeemably evil.

"Deal with it," crowed Brand as the crowd sat in stunned silence.

It was smug but useful advice, for this debate is bound to intensify. The Bush administration and much of Congress are pushing hard to revive the nuclear industry, which currently provides 20 percent of America's electricity.

Pat Miketinac
8/23/2009 8:34:04 PM

In Florida, a surcharge will be added to our bills for 9 years before the new plants produce power. This is like buying a new car and making payments for 9 years before you can drive it. The price will change during that time too. Also, no warranties. You pay all costs if anything goes wrong, assuming you survive the defect. Junking it when it is retired will cost more than the purchase price. I installed the elevator in the Crystal River nuclear powerplant containment building. This plant is operating beyond it's original design life right now. I remain unconvinced that adequate security and safety measures will be taken at nuclear plants.

Donny Fix
6/9/2009 9:08:21 PM

Even if what supporters say is totally true, it does not address the extreme costs of building a reactor, which is the premise of this post. Whether through mining or from "recycling" spent fuel rods and processing new fuel, radioactive wastes are created not easily folded back in to the processes that threaten the health of workers and off site contamination. And there will always be wastes. Maybe 5%, maybe more of unusable REMs will be produced. Doesn't sound like much, but it'll be with us for a long, long time. And, in order to claw back usable fuel from lower concentrations of radiant energy available would require constructing enrichment facilities capable of producing weapons grade materials and enable weapons proliferation. I hear as an alternative to that there is serious consideration of ocean dumping of nuclear wastes. People of conscience need to continue opposing development of nuclear power and embrace conservation and lower consumerism as the most effective action take that can have an immediate effect.

4/26/2007 10:14:54 AM

Lochbaum objects to nuclear power because it cannot do anything for transportation or home heating? C'mon! It doesn't take a scientist to recognize that a LOT of people use electricity to heat their homes. Also, in case he hasn't noticed, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles use electricity too. Then he talks about the waste, as if no other form of electrical production has it. To be sure, this so-called "waste" is the best thing going for nuclear for three very important reasons: 1. There is very little of it. One pellet, the size of the tip of your finger can replace 2000 pounds of coal. 2. It can easily be contained. Used fuel from a nuclear facility consists ofa solid ceramic material that doesn't emit anything into the environment. It has been safely contained for decades and can continue to be contained until it is recycled, which brings me to point 3. 3. Used nuclear fuel is 95% recyclable. When something is 95% recyclable, it is hardly accurate to call it "waste". France, Great Britain, and Japan have been recycling used fuel for years, which drastically reduces the radioactivity, volume, and toxicity. The problem is much more political than technical. Although nuclear isn't the panacea of energy, environmentalists are wise to support it, or at least consider it, especially when the alternative for the immediate future is to dig, drill, or pump stuff out of the ground and set it on fire.

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