It is easy to find recent news stories describing the effects of high energy prices on the world’s economy. A more challenging task is finding articles or analysis describing effective alternatives to watching increasing quantities of money flow from energy consumers and to energy suppliers.
A large portion of this torrent of cash is flowing to people that are least likely to put it to beneficial use. Oil, coal, and gas are controlled by a small number of wealthy, often dictatorial and occasionally violent people. The history of the battle for control of fossil fuel resources can fill several aisles in a good university library.
Atomic energy is an alternative that does a much better job of spreading wealth to hard-working people whose priorities are much more in line with those of the majority of the world’s population. In addition to its many other positive benefits, nuclear power development is a tremendous job growth opportunity. The range of employment opportunities includes technicians, clerks, information technologists, engineers, security specialists, and scientists.
The differences in employment in nuclear power versus fossil power can be seen both by analysis of cost statistics and by anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately, it is not something that is obvious to many observers and it is definitely not a topic that has been frequently discussed in places that the average thinking person looks for information.
Here are some numbers that illustrate the point. An average nuclear power station in the United States produces electricity at a cost of 1.8 US dollar cents per kilowatt-hour. That cost can be divided into several different components. Fuel costs about 0.6 cents, other materials cost 0.2 cents, allowances for decommissioning and spent fuel storage are about 0.2 cents and the remaining 0.8 cents pays for the people in the engineering, planning, regulators, and operations staff.
Even those numbers do not tell the whole story. If one breaks down the fuel cost, it turns out that only a tiny portion of that pays for uranium, the natural resource component. The rest includes labor and return on capital invested in sophisticated conversion, enrichment and fabrication facilities. It would be hard to produce firm numbers, but most of the capital invested there flowed into the pockets of engineers, machinists, construction workers, scientists, clerks, contract specialists, and accountants. The same argument can be made about the materials purchased for the plant and about the eventual expenditures for decommissioning and spent fuel handling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a simple cycle gas turbine power plant burning distillate oil produces power at an average cost per kilowatt-hour of about 6 US dollar cents. Of that much larger figure, about 5 cents is the cost of the fuel. Though there is a substantial labor component in that cost, much of it goes into the pockets of people that do not spend it buying of American products and services.
Another way to understand the difference between nuclear power and fossil power is to look at permanent, full time employment numbers at the plants. Large nuclear plants often employ 700-1000 people; similar size gas turbine power plants have a payroll of 100 or less. There is a reason why the small towns near nuclear power plants are often prosperous communities with good school systems.
The opportunities for spin off employment are also quite impressive. If cheap nuclear power were more available, there would be opportunities for energy intensive industries to remain in America, employing Americans while gaining advantages on a total cost basis over their foreign competitors.
Nuclear power is clean, cheap and reliable, and it represents a way to put people to work while avoiding the conflicts and uneven monetary distributions that have plagued the natural resource industry. Shifting the world’s energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels is going to require a tremendous amount of work Ð that is good news for people looking for beneficial, long-term employment.