Joseph Romm recently published an article at Salon.com titled Nuclear Bomb that attempted to prove that nuclear fission power plants were too expensive to consider building without massive government subsidies. He has apparently failed to understand or acknowledge what is happening in the electrical power industry and in the energy industry in general. He also fails to understand the difference between establishing rules that enable industry investment and handouts to powerful companies and interest groups supplying technologies that would not survive without them.
The number of comments on Joseph’s article already number well over 170, so I did not bother to add mine to the mix. I did make the following comment on a short post on Grist titled Nukes, part II: nuclear bomb where Joseph pointed to the existence of the Salon article.
Your article ignores fossil fuel cost increases
The problem with your article from an economic analysis point of view is that you have focused on the increases in the projected costs of nuclear plant construction while ignoring the very obvious increases in the current and future cost of purchasing fossil fuel.
Even with a very efficient gas turbine combined cycle plant using natural gas, the cost of fuel represents nearly 85% of the total cost of operating the plant. In 2000, the average price for natural gas sold to electric power producers was $4.38 per thousand cubic feet (roughly the same as a million BTU) and it dipped down to $3.68 in 2002.
Because of changes in the way that the EIA computes gas prices, the current price of natural gas for electric power producers is not available, but the commercial price for March 2008 is listed as $11.96. That is a HUGE increase above the 2000 price and has a large effect on the cost of electricity from both existing and future gas plants.
Historically, March is a cheap time of year to buy natural gas since the weather is mild. Who knows what gas will cost in 15, 20 or 50 years when any new nuclear plant ordered today will probably still be operating?
What is not as evident is that even coal prices have increased rather dramatically since 2000. While uranium prices have also risen, the cost of uranium represents only 13% of the O&M cost for a nuclear plant. (Aside: Uranium prices spiked as high as $135 per pound last summer. Today, the spot price is down to $59 per pound. Just imagine the sigh of world relieve if by some miracle the price of oil follows the same curve. I consider it pretty unlikely.)
Conservation is not a competitor to nuclear power; if effective programs are implemented that will simply allow the combination of nuclear power and conservation to shut down more coal and gas plants quicker. After all, we have about 1.2 Billion tons of coal consumption per year in the US alone to replace if we are going to attack climate change.
Wind and solar power are also not competitors to nuclear power. Though you call them “new” industries, humans have known that there was usable energy from the sun and the wind for thousands of years.
The millions of really smart, innovative and motivated engineers who have lived and died during that time have also recognized that there are known limitations to the amount of that energy and our ability to efficiently collect and store it for those known times (night and still, muggy days respectively) when those sources are simply NOT AVAILABLE.
In contrast, nuclear fission is a very recent discovery that has been recognized by technical people around the world as a vast, controllable, clean energy source. We are still operating many plants that were designed within 20 years after the initial laboratory demonstration that a self sustaining chain reaction was even possible! How can you call that a mature industry? The nuclear industry is at the same stage now as the computer industry was when Big Blue had 80% of the market and the only people who could buy computers were Fortune 500 companies.
Established business people (including their cheerleaders at The Economist) have been far less accepting of the potential for nuclear power, partially because it is hugely threatening to the profitability of all other energy sources. If you are even dimly aware of business and technical history, you will know that the fossil fuel industry has played an influential role in business, military and political decision making for about 150 years. Powerful people do not give up that power without a fight and sometimes they play dirty by using surrogates like the “green” anti-nuclear movement.
Unlike many other new, disruptive technologies, nuclear fission, by an accident of history, was discovered at a time when it was possible for the government to declare complete ownership of all knowledge and material. Entrepreneurs were not invited in during the First Atomic Age.
That is changing.
Editor, Atomic Insights
Host, The Atomic Show Podcast
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
One more thing – if fission power plants cannot be designed to follow loads, please tell me how my submarine was able to operate on a single reactor at speeds from 0 to in excess of 20 knots and back again with just a couple of minutes between the two.