The Problem with Nuclear Energy Isn’t the Technology

“All of the above” is a catch phrase used by many to voice support for more nuclear energy. The argument goes solar and wind can’t accommodate all of our energy needs so we must keep, or increase, nuclear, coal, oil, or gas. Nuclear, they say, is safe and constant, while renewables are intermittent.

It is true that nuclear energy is largely safe. We’ve had one disaster in the US in our history and, while Chernobyl weighs on people’s minds, it is an unlikely scenario here. Even if it is safe, most people still would not want a nuclear plant near them and they are not irrational for thinking so. Nuclear plants are massive enterprises that significantly mar the local area and a problem, however unlikely, would be devastating to people and their property and property values. Renewables pose no such issue.

And while nuclear may be considered a base load energy source, meaning it can run 24/7, nuclear plants only run about 92% of the time. This is a lot, but the fact that it is not 100% means even nuclear requires a back up. Renewables like solar and wind may run 25-40% of the time but the need for back up is baked into their economic efficiency.

But the real problem with nuclear energy, both the existing fleet and the prospects for new plants, is cost. The fact is, no matter how it is sliced, renewable energy sources cost less to deploy than nuclear. Wind is currently being deployed at $.03-.04 per kWh, while solar is costing $.025-.035 per kWh. Nuclear costs about $.081 per kWh currently, and more than double for new nuclear power. 

For mega projects in very sunny parts of the world, photovoltaics have hit as low as $.024 per kWh in Dubai and $.0199 in Los Angeles and even a bid for $.0217 in Idaho.

The question then is why would any public utility commission (PUC) greenlight a project that would double utility rates unless there were a need for it. And the reasons just don’t exist.

Nuclear can not be deployed quickly. It takes 8-12 years to plan and deploy a nuclear project, versus just 12-18 months for a renewable energy project. The waste issue is also real, both in terms of safety and cost. There is no reliable place to dump nuclear waste, and this has been an issue for more than forty years, without progress. Today, most nuclear waste is stored at the power plant in non-permanent facilities. Without the permanent resolution we can’t know the true cost of nuclear, but we can know it is higher than today’s cost.

Nuclear enthusiasts also sidestep the liability issues. Every company must have insurance for their product. Nuclear energy has gotten off the hook of this with the Price-Anderson Act, which essentially has the government assume liability for a nuclear incident. Why? Because the devastation would be so great. While the risk is very low, insurance companies are not running to Congress hoping to insure power plants against catastrophe. Put another way, without the government propping up the nuclear industry through the Price-Anderson Act, a massive subsidy each and every year, the nuclear industry would collapse.

So it is cost, cost and more cost that is hurting nuclear, not the technology, or liberal this’s or that’s. Keep in mind, all of these numbers for nuclear may be off, way off but not in a good way for the industry. In a rare example of a new nuclear plant being built in the US in a generation, in Georgia, the Vogtle units 3 and 4 are expected to have a combined capacity of 1,780 MW of power. Initially budgeted at a whopping, and uneconomical cost of $14 Billion, the final cost is over $35 Billion, nearly $20 per Watt installed. Wind and solar, by contrast, cost about $1-2 per Watt installed, respectively.  

Power coming from Vogtle is expected to cost $.17-.18 per kWh. Nor did Vogtle hit its deadlines. Started in 2009, Vogtle unit 3 went online in 2023, 14 years later and 7 years behind schedule. Vogtle unit 4 is not online yet. 

Nor are we having significant outages due to a lack of power. Yes, there will be growing pains with intermittent sources but so far there have been a small handful of one-offs. These are not reasons to double or triple one’s energy costs. 

So let’s stop the ‘all of the above’ and renewables don’t work jargon. It’s not about whether nuclear is safe or if there is too much red tape. Nuclear is failing because it costs too much versus it’s clean, carbon free alternatives. When a PUC is seeking its next kWh of electricity for its customers, there is just no justification for adding nuclear to the mix. With renewables and batteries costing less each year, and the newest nuclear plant also its most expensive plant ever, it’s hard to see how nuclear will ever be attractive.