In a recent paper, Mark Cooper and Peter Bradford advocate expanded use of natural gas, even if that expansion requires using hydraulic fracturing. They believe that fossil fuel plants should continue dumping vast quantities of combustion waste into our shared atmosphere, even after new nuclear energy plants start operating. They dismiss the notion of a direct fee placed on atmospheric waste disposal and do not advocate even a cap and trade scheme to increase the cost of dumping CO2.
Unlike their fellow Vermont resident, Bill McKibben, Cooper and Bradford are not just nuclear energy doubters; they are active campaigners working hard to halt the early adopter projects that might enable nuclear energy – once again – to become a competitive choice for producing electricity in the United States.
Since Peter Bradford is a lawyer and Mark Cooper earned his PhD in Sociology but now bills himself as an “economic analyst”, they use a lot of words and graphs to explain why they have determined that nuclear energy is a lousy deal for consumers, even in a world that is being threatened by climate change partially driven by fossil fuel related CO2 emissions.
Cooper wrote the paper, but Bradford appeared as a supporting expert at the press conference. His presence and impressive resume lent credibility to Cooper’s paper, at least in the view of one of the reporters I contacted about her article. Neither of these two Vermont residents think it is a good idea that electricity customers in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia have chosen (via their elected officials) to spend a few dollars per month to pay early costs associated with building four large new nuclear plants.
Admittedly, Cooper and Bradford have not clearly stated that they do not believe in climate change. However, that is the conclusion I reached about their position on the issue after wading through Cooper’s paper titled Public Risk, Private Profit, Ratepayer Cost, Utility Imprudence and listening to the associated press conference.
The paper’s analysis of the increased cost of pursuing the completion of the VC Summer units 2 and 3 (South Carolina) and the Levy units 1 and 2 projects (Florida) compared to other alternatives rests on a shaky foundation of questionable assumptions as follows:
- Power demand in the Southeast US will shrink, even as economic development efforts aimed at attracting industrial investments continue to succeed
- Natural gas will remain as available and cheap in the future as it is today
- Utilities can – and will – purchase natural gas futures contracts that last more than 4 years
- The economic benefit of lower and less volatile electricity prices in the future has no value to today’s customers
- If there is no price placed on carbon emissions, avoiding those emissions has no value for electricity customers
- The nuclear industry is led by people who are too dumb to learn lessons from the past and are doomed to repeat previously made mistakes
- Reducing financial risks and their associated premium interest rates benefits only companies, and not customers
- Distracting company leadership with time and resource-consuming prudency hearings is an appropriate course of action for people who claim to be consumer advocates
- Expected challenges associated with first of a kind construction are indicative of a trend that will lead to inevitable cost escalation
- Low natural gas prices during construction makes nuclear energy less competitive instead of improving its future prospects by reducing initial capital costs
- The failed repair at Crystal River is a representative example of nuclear construction and repair quality, not an unusual outlier
Unfortunately, most of the reporters who covered the issuance of the commissioned paper and attended the news conference apparently had little time for critical thinking or research.
They did not point out that the paper starts with an emotionally charged conclusion that is not supportable by historical facts. For example, here is a quote from page viii that reveals the author’s preexisting position on nuclear energy.
In a remarkably short period of time, the “nuclear renaissance” has suffered the same fate as the construction boom of the 1970s (that came to be known as the “Great Bandwagon Market”). The failure of nuclear economics is not just bad luck.
- Nuclear power is inherently uneconomic because it relies on a catastrophically dangerous resource that is vulnerable to human frailties and the vicissitudes of Mother Nature.
- The severe threats to public safety posed by nuclear power and the evolving demands of safety result in an extremely complex technology that requires long lead times and large sunk capital costs.
- The technology suffers constant cost escalation and does not exhibit cost reducing processes that are observed in other industries.
Therefore, any nation that claims to have the wherewithal (technical expertise and economic resources) to build a “safe” nuclear reactor will have the wherewithal to meet its needs for electricity with alternatives that are less costly and less risky. Thus, at present and for the foreseeable future, it is a virtual certainty that nuclear power is not going to be the least cost option or close to it, even in a low carbon utility sector. Providing powerful incentives to pursue economically uneconomic projects will inevitably saddle ratepayers and economy of any state that enacts advanced cost recovery laws with tens of billions of unnecessary costs.
Most of the reports also fail to mention that Cooper and Bradford have repeatedly produced similar works aimed at discouraging nuclear energy investments.
Aside: I wonder, for example, how much this current paper differs from one that Cooper published in April, 1984 titled “The Consumer Economics of CWIP: A Short Circuit for American Pocketbooks”. (Note: CWIP stands for Construction Work In Progress, which is a financing mechanism that has a lot in common with the ACR – Advanced Cost Recovery – program that Cooper criticizes in his most recent work.) I suppose I should avoid criticizing consistency; after all, I have been commenting on nuclear energy for more than 20 years without changing my mind very much. End Aside.
The paper announced on March 14 is simply the latest in a series of antinuclear issuances camouflaged as an academic study. It is worthwhile to notice how often the two researchers cite each other’s work and how frequently their two names appear on the list of references by other agenda driven writers. Sadly, the following stories dutifully reported on the Cooper/Bradford work as if its conclusions about costs were based on actual numbers vice uncertain predictions of the future.
- Bloomberg (March 14, 2013) Scana Reactors to Cost $10 Billion More Than Gas Plants
- Tampa Bay Times (March 12, 2013 reporting on an advance copy released prior to the press conference) Better to abandon nuclear plans, report says
- Tampa Bay Times (March 14, 2013) Florida Senate to hold hearing Monday to address advance nuclear fee law (Note: This article helps explain the timing of releasing this particular installment in Cooper’s series of papers on the excess cost of nuclear energy compared to today’s natural gas prices. I suspect that Cooper is seeking employment as an expert witness or just seeking to influence the decision process.)
- Charleston, SC Post and Courier (March 14, 2013) SCANA, Santee Cooper should scrap South Carolina nuclear expansion, report says
- Citrus County Chronicle (March 15, 2013) Nuke customers get soaked: Report: Consumers will ‘eat’ billions from capital risks
- Salem News (March 15, 2013 – summary article pointing to some of the above) Reactor Reax Top Stories – Washington Post: In U.S., Nuclear Energy Loses Momentum…
- Miami Herald (March 13, 2013 – dutifully republishing the initial press release on a page clearly headlined as “Press Releases”) Report: Southeast U.S. Ratepayers Will Be Gouged For Billions Of Dollars In Excess Costs If Nuclear Reactor Projects Proceed
I have tried repeatedly since early Friday morning to make contact with Cooper and/or Bradford though the Hastings Group, which organized the press conference and stated that they would help set up media interviews for people with follow up questions. Unfortunately, my emails and voice mails have not been returned. Just in case either of them read Atomic Insights, I would like to offer either or both of them the opportunity to engage in an Atomic Show round table.
The media treatment of the paper reminds me of another instance of media sources covering a Cooper-related paper. That episode led to one of the most frequently read blogs on Atomic Insights titled Gullible reporting by the New York Times on the cost of solar electricity versus nuclear electricity. I suppose I should be heartened by the fact that I cannot find any mention of this latest work on the Times web site.
PS – Just in case you think that Cooper’s estimate of future natural gas prices is a valid starting point, I recommend reading this excellent post from Gail Tverberg titled Why US natural gas prices are so low – Are changes needed?