The Economics of Nuclear

by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Administrator

Here at Fairewinds Energy Education, we believe that this year, 2015, marks the tipping point for our energy future. For years, we have heard visionaries like Amory Lovins, Mycle Schneider, and Dr. Mark Cooper present real data and economic analyses that show a renewable energy-future is more feasible than the current paradigm of coal, oil, nuclear, and gas.  Now we see their projections come to fruition with inventions like Elon Musk’s Powerwall, a home or industrial-sized battery, that charges using electricity from solar panels. Paving the way towards a clean energy economy around the world, Musk’s storage invention reduces battery storage costs down to between 2 and 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.  Solar electric production costs about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.  Adding solar production and storage costs therefore costs 10 cents or less,  while the production cost from a new nuclear power plant lingers at 16 cents.

Amory Lovins has dedicated his 40 years of energy policy experience to the idea that our energy future does not have to look like our energy past. A preeminent environmental thinker and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins is the author of the 2011 book Reinventing Fire. Heralded by President Bill Clinton as, “A wise, detailed, and comprehensive blue print,” Reinventing Fire explores pre-existing market based solutions in transportation, building, industry, and electricity that don’t rely on energy from fossil fuels or nuclear and yet save industry trillions of dollars. A friend of Fairewinds, Lovins visited Vermont two years ago and he and Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen spoke on video about a global energy future without nuclear power by growing renewables and clean energy.

Gundersen emphatically points out in his presentation on the economic analysis of nuclear power at the World Uranium Symposium that utilities and energy corporations are trying to keep us trapped in a 20th century paradigm of central station power. Suggesting policymakers and the energy industry support a locally distributed electric grid with small generators and battery storage, Gundersen, like Lovins, pushes for an energy future that does not mirror our energy past. With numerical data collected by Mycle Schneider, an independent international energy and nuclear policy consultant and another friend of Fairewinds, Gundersen details not only the economic benefits of a renewable energy future and also the real economic risks of a nuclear powered one.

“Policymakers would not be making the decision to build nuclear if they viewed risk based on the real world statistics,” says Gundersen. Influenced by the companies that build nuclear reactors and its regulators, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, policymakers are convinced that the chance is about one in a million of a nuclear reactor accident – per reactor year. Gundersen shows that with 400 nuclear reactors in the world – a million divided by 400, means a nuclear accident once every 2,500 years. And yet, Gundersen notes, we’ve had 5 in the last 35 years, for a historical accident frequency of once every seven years. When you look at the real world data, the economic cost and safety risk is too high.

Mycle Schneider has provided nuclear energy consulting services to countless international institutions, governments and NGOs. In a video Q+A with Fairewinds Energy Education, Schneider discussed and debunked the nuclear power fantasy of the French nuclear reactor fleet.  As Schneider presented the economic history and data assessment of nuclear power at the World Uranium Symposium using calculated, accurate graphed numbers, he made abundantly clear the truth of former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford’s famous quote, “Trying to eliminate global warming by building nuclear power plants, is like trying to solve global hunger by serving caviar.”

Finally, this month another leading visionary, Dr. Mark Cooper, released his report entitled, Power Shift: The Deployment Of A 21st Century Electricity Sector And The Nuclear War To Stop It. In his 2011 report, Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Economics, Dr. Cooper cites previous nuclear disasters such as the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island as “severely [multiplying] the cost of reactor construction."  A Yale graduate and Fulbright Fellow, Dr. Cooper holds a PhD from Yale University and is a senior research fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School. Along with his 2014 report, The Economic Failure Of Nuclear Power And The Development Of A Low Carbon Electricity Future: Why Small Modular Reactors Are Part Of The Problem, Not The Solution, Dr. Cooper’s position is clear, we are not witnessing a nuclear renaissance but rather a total collapse in expectations.