Part One: Economics Of Nuclear Power with Arnie Gundersen

In April of 2015, Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer, Arnie Gundersen and the Fairewinds crew headed to Quebec City for the World Uranium Symposium. Attended by more than 300 delegates from 20 countries that produce uranium for nuclear power and weapons, the symposium brought together experts who are calling on governments throughout the world to end all uranium mining. 

In this presentation, Arnie provides an economic analysis of the cost of nuclear power.




AG: Bonjour. Good morning. I’m Arnie Gundersen with the Fairewinds team, and we’re all here today (repeats). I have to mentioned we’re really a crew. And every crew has the person that’s telling us how to row and when to stroke. And that person’s not me. I’m just the talking head here. The strategy behind Fairewinds is my wife, Maggie, and she’s over there. (applause) I do not have Power Point for this speech. I have a Fukushima presentation after this. And then after that I have a Three Mile Island and Chernobyl presentation. So if you are addicted to Power Point, I have two in the next two segments. But I wanted to speak from my heart for the plenary.

Mycle has pretty well shown the myth that nuclear power is inexpensive. I just wanted to add two pieces to that. The first piece is the enormous role of subsidies in nuclear power. We all know about decommissioning, whether it’s a nuclear power plant or whether it’s a mill tailing site or whether it’s an old uranium mine. We are deferring costs into the future with nuclear power. And those numbers are not reflected in the economic analysis that Mycle has. So we’re all bearing that cost years into the future after the last nuclear plant shuts down. The second piece of that is the nuclear insurance. In the states, we call it Price Anderson. And no nuclear power plant would run were it not for the fact that the people are subsidizing the risk and the corporations are making the profit. So those are two key pieces of the economics. I will leave you with one takeout on that, and those are the words of Peter Bradford. Peter is a former commissioner and member of – he lives in Vermont – he was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And he said trying to solve the world’s problems with carbon by building nuclear power plants, trying to eliminate global warming by building nuclear power plants, is like trying to solve global hunger by serving caviar. So that’s a take-home for you – a one-line take-home that sort of summarizes a lot of what we were talking about here.

If you go up on the different nuclear lobbyist sites – NEI and the state’s Nuclear Energy Institute – there are many – they will tell you that nuclear power is inexpensive. And Mycle clearly showed that that’s not true. But there’s three other pieces – it’s clean, safe, reliable – they seem to all roll off the tongue.

Is nuclear power clean? I really don’t think so and I think we probably as a group already all know that. Obviously, we’ve discussed uranium mining extensively yesterday. Uranium mining will stop when nuclear power plants stop buying uranium. And uranium waste disposal will stop when nuclear power plants stop making waste. And so I think that the key here is that we need to stop building nuclear power plants and safely shut the fleet that we have done, which of course will solve the problem of mining and waste disposal. So is nuclear power clean? I think we all know better.

Gordon has a great saying on the issue of nuclear waste, though. And he will call it, instead of waste storage, Gordon calls it waste abandonment. And I think that’s a really great concept, Gordon. My hat’s off to you there. That we are not just putting this nuclear waste in the ground so that we can go back in and check it. It’s not like your self-storage unit, you can undo the door and look in and take something out. Once this stuff is there, you have abandoned it forever. And I think that’s a critical piece in this. Is it clean? It’s not clean on the front end with the mining and it’s not clean on the back end with abandoning waste.

And in between is the issue of consumptive use of water. Nuclear power plants use more water per kilowatt of electricity that they generate than any other source of electric generation in the world. We think of it as being such a modern technology, but it’s just boiling water. And it does it less efficiently than a coal plant; less efficiently than a natural gas plant. So the consumptive use of water from a nuclear power plant is also enormous. So, is it clean? No. So let’s look at, is it safe? We have a – let me get back to this issue of shutting nuclear plants down will solve the mining problem and will solve the additional nuclear waste that we’re abandoning. There’s a saying that when you find yourself in a deep hole, to prevent it from getting deeper, you have to stop digging. And I think that’s really what we need to think about here is that when we stop building nuclear plants, we will stop the nuclear waste production.

So is it safe? Nuclear power is being chosen by executives in either government or – in government in countries that have socialized the risk and privatized the profits. As Mycle said, we’ve got China. That decision is not being made by the Chinese. It’s being forced down on them by a group of bureaucrats. I studied in Jordan – the King of Jordan made a decision, we’re going to have nuclear. And despite the fact that a significant fraction of the population wanted no nukes, the Jordanians wound up buying Russian nuclear reactors. So all of these countries are where the bureaucrats at the top are forcing nuclear power down on the population. Well, I think that – and it’s not just China – it’s also a country within my country called South Carolina and Georgia. And Mycle showed the five nuclear plants that are being built in the states. Well, those five nuclear plants are being built where the rate payers are subsidizing the risk and the companies are making the profit.

So in all of these situations, we’ve distorted basic capitalism and people are accepting the risk while others are making the profit. You know, it really boils down to on the cleanliness issue – it’s an environmental justice issue. And we haven’t used that word a lot here, but I’ve heard it a couple times. I had a chance to set up a study at Savannah River. And I thought the locals would love to know what’s really happening in the mud in the Savannah River.

Savannah River is between Georgia and South Carolina. And it’s a nuclear waste dump that dates back to the bomb age. And I thought the locals would love to hear that. And I was told, no, you don’t want the locals to even know you’re doing it because they want the jobs. And the same thing happened – I was at Sellafield last month and we wanted to take dust samples inside people’s homes. And we were told, they’re not going to help you because they want the jobs. But the money stops flowing long before the risks end. And I think that’s an important piece here.

Okay. The last piece on waste and nuclear cleanliness, I’d like you to think about the person who builds a nuclear power plant is going to convince you that don’t worry, we are smart enough to store that waste for a quarter of a million years. But you are so dumb, you can’t store electricity from the sun overnight. That’s really the – (applause) – that’s a hard argument to win when you’re in the nuclear industry. Okay, safety. The policymakers are looking at the risk of nuclear as a one-in-a-million event. But we know that we’ve had five meltdowns in 35 years.

We’ve had TMI – partial meltdown; Chernobyl, complete meltdown; and three meltdowns at Fukushima. Thirty-five divided by five is the odds of a nuclear meltdown somewhere on the plant are about once every seven years. Policymakers would not be making the decision to build nuclear if they viewed risk based on the real world statistics. But in fact, they’ve been influenced by the companies that build nuclear and the regulators – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is probably at the top of this heap. And they crank out numbers convincing policymakers that the chance is about one in a million of a nuclear reactor accident – per reactor year. With 400 reactors, like Mycle said – a million divided by 400, means a nuclear accident once every 2,500 years. And yet we’ve had 5 in the last 35 years. So where are our policymakers getting that number from? When you look at the real world data, it doesn’t support the decision that this is a risk-free proposition.

I spoke of Pickering two years ago. And I was in the second day, and a bunch of locals said, we love these people, they pay their taxes, we love these people, they go to our church; we love these people, they play on our soccer teams, their kids are great. And if it weren’t safe, they wouldn’t work there. And I say to myself, well what does that mean about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Did those workers come in every day on a jet plane from a thousand kilometers away? Did they know it was unsafe? And this is a technology that can turn on you overnight; that can, regardless of the ethic of the individuals in that power plant, it can have a meltdown tomorrow. And I think that’s something that decision makers have pushed out of their mind, thinking it’s not going to happen at my power plant.

In America, we have this mythical place called Lake Woebegone. It doesn’t exist on the map, but it’s a place where all the women are strong, all the men are handsome and all the children are smarter than average. Think about that. And wherever I go around the world, I hear people saying well, my nuclear plant, these people are better than average. I’ve never gone to a site where the people in the town have said, oh, no, mine’s worse than average. So the people in the towns are firmly convinced that because these people are nice, because they are safety conscious, that their nuke is not going to have an accident. But history shows we’ve had 5 meltdowns in 35 years with nice people, brilliant people, safety conscious people, at the controls.

I have a saying that sooner or later – I think nuclear fits this very well – sooner or later in any foolproof system, the fools are going to exceed the proofs. And that’s nuclear. So that’s clean? No. Safe? No. Reliable. Dr. Mark Cooper and Mycle have clearly shown that nuclear power plants are really not as reliable as policymakers would have you believe.

When they make decisions going forward, they believe that nuclear power plant will run about 93 percent of the year. But that number has been fudged, because every time a nuclear power plant fails, they take it out of the database. So it’s sort of like saying the average American is 100, because if you don’t get to 100, we’ll take you out of the database. In fact, when you look at all of the nuclear plants that have failed in the United States, the actual reliability of a nuclear plant is less than 80 percent, according to Dr. Mark Cooper. And policymakers believe (1) nuclear plants will run for 60 years, when in fact the oldest nuclear plant is about 48 years right now; and that they’ll run at 92 percent.

And of course, Japan lost 35 percent of its capacity – 54 nuclear plants – and still continued to function as a society. Yes, there were hardships. But they got through without nuclear. So it can be done. This is a technology that is really not reliable. I’ve met with Naoto Kan. I’ve read Gorbachev’s memoires. We all know about Merkel (?14:26) and three other prime ministers in Japan have all said this is a technology that can destroy the fabric of a country overnight. So it’s not clean, it’s not safe and it’s really not reliable. Then why, then, are policymakers continuing to pursue this nuclear road? And I would submit to you that it’s because they can’t envision a different future. They’re trapped in a 20th Century paradigm of central station power. And the 21st Century does not have to be like the 20th Century. They can be different; and in fact, Mycle’s numbers show it will be different. We will have a distributive grid with small generators and battery storage that will be cheaper than nuclear power.

So I submit to you at the end of this conference, we should probably say, yes, I’m against mining and I’m against waste abandonment and I’d love to shut nuclear power plants down. But if that’s what we’re saying, policymakers’ eyes will glaze over, and they’ll say what are you going to do without it. So we all need to take the opposite approach here and talk about a future that can be nuclear free and be inexpensive as well. The actual cost of solar voltaic plus storage – Elon Musk, the guy who built Tesla is now – he now believes that – and Space X and a whole bunch of other things, smart guy – is now getting battery storage down to about 2 cents. And solar is about 6 or 8 cents. So we can have solar electric with batteries. That takes away the base load argument for something in the order of 6 to 10 cents and a new nuclear power plant is 15.

So the future doesn’t have to be like the past. We can have in the 21st Century, small distributive power just like we’ve done with our cell phones and just like we’ve done – my God, this computer here has more power than the one I did my thesis on. And so the concept of a distributive network that costs less than the central station paradigm that we had in the 20th Century is what we have to leave our policymakers with. They have to understand that there’s an alternative. And I think given an alternative, they’ll jump at it. Thank you. (applause 17:04)