The most interesting legislative moves on nuclear power in recent months were made not in the U.S. but in Germany and India. Late in August, the Indian parliament passed a bill which grants India access to foreign nuclear technology, letting it buy reactors and nuclear fuel abroad. One controversial aspect of the bill limits liability in event of a nuclear accident. Nevertheless, critics claim the law could deter foreign and domestic companies from building nuclear reactors in India because of a clause allowing pursuit of suppliers of nuclear equipment, raw materials, and services for 80 years after the construction of any plant in the event of an accident.
In Germany, the government has laid out a controversial new energy policy strategy paper outlining plans to extend the lifespan of the country's 17 nuclear reactors for another 12 years on average. The German government says it wants to keep nuclear in the mix until renewables can take over completely. Written only after a lot of jawboning with the country's large utilities, the strategy paper includes provisions for the nuclear industry to pay a new “fuel rod” tax of around $2 billion per year starting next year. The tax supports renewables and climate-protection efforts.
Both these measures are controversial among the citizens of the affected countries. It is worth examining why.
Nuclear power is an energy source so concentrated that nnuclear power plants require complex and redundant controls to keep them from causing another Chernobyl. In the U.S., nuclear waste are controversial. Today, there isn't a locale in the entire 2.8 million square miles of the U.S. willing to permanently store it. It took a special act of Congress to store it at Yucca Mountain after the Governor of Nevada vetoed the idea. Citizens of the Silver State now refer to this action as the ‘Screw Nevada Act.’
In the U.S., around 20% of electricity is produced by 104 nuclear reactors. Because no permanent waste storage or reprocessing plant has opened, wastes are stored on-site.
Still, nuclear power handled carefully (while avoiding hype of its safety and friendliness) is a technology that society can and should use. Though potentially dangerous, it's benefits trump tearing down mountains in Appalachia to mine a mineral that puts billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and tons of mercury into the downwind environment. But it is worth taking a closer look at that notion of nuclear as an ‘inexpensive’ option as portrayed by some of its promoters.
France is commonly held up as a paragon of nuclear efficiency. Nearly 80% of French electricity is generated in 59 nuclear plants, and another 18% of total production is exported. French power prices are somewhat complex, based on the need to encourage electric use at night, because nuclear plants don't really throttle down effectively. On average, residential rates are about $0.12 per kWh, compared with about $0.08 in the US, not outrageously high.
Areva, the French nuclear construction giant, is struggling to complete a large new plant in Finland at Olkiluoto Island. The 1,600-MW facility has been under construction for the past six years, with construction defects noted and no end in sight. The cost has risen from initial estimates by 50% to over $6 billion. Another plant of the same design at Flamanville, France, is experiencing similar problems and cost overruns. A sister plant planned in Missouri by Ameren was canceled over price concerns.
Now for some simple arithmetic. At a simple interest rate of 4% on a 50 year, $6 billion mortgage, the payments amount to about $280M per year. For 1,600 MW running at 90% capacity, that's $0.022 per kWh for capital costs. Fuel costs run another $0.02 per kWh, at least. Factoring in waste disposal, decommissioning, and maintenance, one arrives at a minimum cost of $0.05 per kWh. This doesn't include the expense of installing and maintaining transmission and distribution infrastructure.
For comparison, consider the lowly compact fluorescent light, which saves about 75% of the energy of an incandescent bulb. One can replace a 60-W incandescent with a CFL producing the same light and saving 45 W. Over its 6,000-hour life, it saves 270 kWh, worth well over $13.50 at the same $0.05/kWh, and it doesn't take anything like six years to install.
There are many other technologies that deliver similar benefits in energy efficiency. No wonder, then, there is a move to energy efficiency as more cost-effective efforts than building more generation capacity.