Too cheap to meter! Did they really say that?

Among the most common arguments to emerge from attendees of the climate-change slide show we members of Al Gore's Climate Project hear is "what about nuclear energy?" After all, it doesn't produce any greenhouse gas emissions, at least not while operating, and the technology is already available. Well, there are three reasons why nuclear energy isn't part of a realistic solution to climate change.

One is the time it takes to get a nuke running. First you have to conduct an environmental review of the project and site. Then you apply for federal and local permits. Then you sit through long regulatory hearings. And then you commission construction. That all takes about 15 years. Of course, there's no law of nature that prevents society as a whole from accelerating that process. Just as long as we're all agreed that we don't mind if safety and environmental concerns aren't as important as a carbon-free economy.

Second is the capacity of the industry to build plants is quite limited, on account of the near-moribund state of the nuke-building industry since the late 1970s. Some say there's only enough expertise and materials (including some parts that are only built in one place in the entire world), to build two nuclear power generating plants in the U.S. per year. This argument is also somewhat flawed in that there's no real obstacle to expanding the size and capacity of the industry. It would just require a lot of corporations to believe it was worth the huge investment.

The third reason is much more powerful: it's too expensive. Joe Romm at Climate Progress has collected numerous real-world examples of just how much it really costs to build what engineers once promised would be something that produced electricity that's too cheap to meter. Gotta love that one. Here's a small taste of what utilities are thinking these days on the subject:

In January 2008, MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Co said that prices were so high, it was ending its pursuit of a nuclear power plant in Payette County, Idaho, after spending $13 million researching its economic feasibility. Company President Bill Fehrman said in a letter, "Consumers expect reasonably priced energy, and the company's due diligence process has led to the conclusion that it does not make economic sense to pursue the project at this time."

MidAmerican is a company owned by famed investor Warren Buffet. When Buffet pulls the plug on a potential investment after spending $13 million analyzing the deal, it should give everyone pause.

Typically, utilities are looking at around $7 billion per a gigawatt. That's so much more than competiting technologies, including wind.

Consider this little snippet of news from last year about what T. Bone Pickens wants to do in Texas:

The oil tycoon and Oklahoma native is offering a $6 billion plan to install large wind turbines in parts of four Panhandle counties. Pickens spokesman Mike Boswell today said the Mesa Power project would produce up to four-thousand megawatts of electricity.

You have to take into account that wind power only produces around 30 percent of capacity, due to calm days and maintenance. So you have to build three times as many watts as you want. But even taking that into consideration, Pickens will be spending only about $4.6 billion per usable gigawatt, while Progress, AEP and other big utilities have to spend $7 billion. And that's assuming the nukes run at 100 percent capacity, which they never do. And that we figure out somewhere to put the radioactive waste. (Turns out Yucca Mountain may not be such a good idea after all.)

So when you're assembling your suite of electricity-generating technologies to replace fossil fuels, why on Earth would you consider nuclear just about everything else is cheaper? And safer. And less reliant on mining markets. And ...


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blockquote>T. Bone Pickens

Ah, I guess T-Bone Burnett was named after Pickens, right? :-)

You have to take into account that wind power only produces around 30 percent of capacity, due to calm days and maintenance. So you have to build three times as many watts as you want.

I've seen this argument before, and I've yet to convince myself that it's valid. It seems to me to be yet one more example of the Misuse of Averages.

For wind generators in a given area, production could be close to 100% ... but it could equally be close to zero. The fact that it might average 30% over an extended period of time seems irrelevant, given that power really cannot be warehoused for future use.

Example - in quite a number of areas (including where I live), what are the two conditions most likely to be accompanied by little or no wind over a sizable area? Very hot days in the summer and very cold days in the winter. What two conditions produce the highest demand for power ... well, you see where this is going. And now you're into the debates about the high cost of building and maintaining power transmission facilities over long distances.

I'm not trying to denigrate wind power, but overstatements on behalf of any partial solution do no favours for anyone.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 13 Jun 2008 #permalink

One of the strongest arguments in nuclears favour is the infrastructure one.

Retooling the current electricity delivering infrastructure to deal with primarily, say, wind or solar sources adds an awful lot of initial costs to making that switch. I can't remember the figure, but here in the UK it would be in the billions of pounds to switch to a relatively low percentage of wind energy, simply because the transformers and other infrastructure aren't designed to take such variable loads.

For better or worse, we have an infrastructure centered around slow responding, largely constant output, centralised, high output power stations. Changing to a more distributed and variable setup is possible, but is also hugely costly for the short/middle term.

While nuclear does come with huge costs, it can be used within the existing infrastructure, even as that infrastructure shifts in the future.

One of the other advantages is that nuclear plants tend to have their own backups. Most nuclear plants have a number of reactors, with only a small fraction of their maximum capacity operating at any time (incidentally, unlike many renewables advertised operating capacities, nuclear plants are rated by this operational facility, not the hypothetical maximum they will never reach). This means, short of a massive error (which will admittedly be more common in the current aged infrastructure - if you want to counter this argument you could point the recent incident at Sizewell B, although that one was massively complicated by the nearby coal plant shutting down minutes earlier and was the first unplanned shutdown in three years) you can maintain a solid output without needing additional backups.

Wind and solar can't promise that. As Scott said, having a 30% on average output doesn't help you during the days you only have a 1% output. You would need some other source of energy, a reliable one, acting as a backup. Backing up wind with more wind or solar isn't going to cut it.

The time problem exists, and we really should be building the next generation of plants now rather than having this debate, but the will hasn't been there. We can cut the time down without compromising safety. A lot of the red tape is absolutely meaningless. Not just redundant - I love redundancy when we are talking about safety and nuclear power - but flat out useless as to working out the safety problems. By using a reviewed and streamlined safety process we could have a new generation in time to fill the energy gap that will open in the next couple of decades.

For me it is most important to replace the currently operating coal and oil and gas plants with something that doesn't require fossil fuels. Nuclear fits the bill extremely well in this particular opening.

By Paul Schofield (not verified) on 13 Jun 2008 #permalink

I don't think the infrastructure one will be too difficult or too expensive to solve. There are probably lots of reasonably costing implementations round the corner on this on, including a move away from central structures.

It's not obvious to me that new nuclear power generation can be expected to be economically uncompetitive, particularly as fossil fuels become scarce and governments institute carbon taxes (or variations thereof). For sure, there are a number of examples of cost overruns for particular projects but I'm not sure if this can be generalized to the industry as a whole.

There are a couple interesting documents that effectively discuss the economics of nuclear power: an independent study by MIT (Chapter 5, in particular) and an industry report by the World Nuclear Association.

By Erik D Johnson (not verified) on 13 Jun 2008 #permalink

France, for example, gets much of its electricity from nuclear power. I wonder why nuclear power plants are more affordable there.

Nukes are there almost all the time, which makes them ideal for baseline power. Solar, and wind, as the other commenters have said is a variable resource. They could be made to compliment each other. Reliable baseline will be really valuable during those periods when the weather hasn't cooperated. Wind, and solar, if they meet their potential of being cheaper per Kwhr, will be a very useful addition. But the price of using them will be adaptation to power availability, and long distance power transmission.

Right now, as a UK taxpayer, I'm having to fork out for 73 billion pounds (and rising) to retire the current British reactors. I'm also paying to bribe people to let nuclear waste being dumped in their area, although as yet no site has actually been settled on, even though the UK governement has supposedly been looking for years. And I will also be paying for the decommissioning of any future nuclear build, over and above the (no doubt industry friendly) cap set by the government.

In addition, I have already shelled out for the government to prop up a publicly traded company to the tune of some 600 miliion pounds, as well as for a useless Mox plant and a defunct reprocessing plant…, and of course I'm paying their insurance costs.

The late great Molly Irvins had a dictum about whether you should trust a politician - which was that you should look at at three things - the record, the record, and the record.

A quick look at the nuclear industries record in the UK is one of financial failure, slipped timescales, empty promises and a willingness to cover up uncomfortable facts at every turn. I would be less anti-nuclear if they did not seem to (in the words of Sir Alan Sugar), 'piss my money up against the wall' at every opportunity.

I'm not impressed by the nuclear industries claims while they pick my pockets. On the other hand, if they paid for everything themselves, at market rates (no special deals, no sweetheart loans, no handouts), stumped up for their own insurance and took care of their waste properly, I might be a little more positive. The problem is that if you put those sort of conditions on the industry, nothing seems to get built.

And no complaints about subsidy to renewables, since nuclear has had 50 years or more to be profitable - if they can't get it right now, they probably never will.

Oh, and they lost 60% of their capacity the other week. Reliable? Maybe. Expensive, yes.

Bill, above, asks a good question. What is it about the French system of nuclear energy that seems so much more acceptible?
I've heard that one reason is that they use a lower pressure system designed to be less dangerous and easier to build but somewhat less efficient.
My understanding is that the US system is more efficient but requires a lot more engineering and was more complex and consequently more expensive and dangerous, which in turn also made the regulatory environment more critical and expensive.
I've also heard that Italy and a number of other European Community nations are beginning to see the French model as a way to meet their Kyoto goals for reducing CO2.
Perhaps instead of arguing against starting up the industry the way it was we should consider/embrace new approaches that have been proven to work in contexts other that the US engineering/regulatory paradigm.

Strongly disagree.

We have a _REAL_ nuclear power success story: France. It gets about 99% from nuclear power plants:

Of course, France also reprocesses spent fuel. And after reprocessing you get 10x _LESS_ waste and recover about 80% of initial U-235 content. It's just ultra-stupid to bury all the waste.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 13 Jun 2008 #permalink

Also, nuclear power is a REAL way to cut greenhouse emissions:

"Areva NC claims that, due to their reliance on nuclear power, France's carbon emissions per kWh are less than 1/10 that of Germany and the UK, and 1/13 that of Denmark, which has no nuclear plants. Its emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide have been reduced by 70% over 20 years, even though the total power output has tripled in that time. In the same Ipsos poll, 88 percent of the population believe that reducing the greenhouse effect was a major reason to continue using nuclear power."

There's simply no good alternatives for nuclear power right now.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 13 Jun 2008 #permalink

It seems to me that the way to go is decentralized power and very energy-efficient homes (like underground ones). If the homes are really energy efficient then they're not going to need much energy. They'll be storing what they've collected in a series of batteries in the basement. No need for a grid and an energy corporation that will say anything to make a profit.

How much does electricity cost in France fully accounting for subsidies? Until I see this figure, I'm very dubious of France as an easy 'success story' to follow.

Mid-term, we really need to move to a more decentralized model. One effect which isn't mentioned very often: spurring innovation. The constraints and cost of building big power plants means it that these will be quite conservative. With a decentralized system allowing more variable sources, all sorts of ideas can be tried out with much lower cost.

The baseline power constraint is a real and valid one. However it may be better to flip it around and think of the cumulative effect of lots of more variable sources as the 'normal' supply with on-demand systems providing a backup. Kindof the difference between a hybrid car like a Prius and a plug in hybrid... It isn't a horrible idea to use fossil fuels as a backup so long as we don't need them most of the time.

Of course, large scale storage would make things much easier... Everyone says we can't do it, but what about a hydro plant pumping water uphill when there is excess supply and generating from it flowing downhill when supply fall short. That is just one ancient and obvious way; I'm sure there are many many others.

France uses standardized reactors and a more streamlined regulation to cut costs. As long as each reactor is designed individually and risk being held up for years in litigation nuclear power will be too expensive.

Alex, I'll accept your claim for the sake of argument, but power generation is significantly subsidized in pretty much all industrialized and developing countries. Saying it is about the same price as coal generated power is not terribly informative without knowing more details. For example, I would expect nuclear to be cheaper than coal in Japan since they simply don't have much coal... In Texas, not so much.

I've been a big advocate for 'site specific' energy solutions for a very long time. So I tend to argue against any 'blank is the solution' ideas. Nuclear is one option that should be fairly weighed against many others. Unfortunately, determining which option is actually best is greatly complicated by bad information, regulation differences, and all sorts of implementation details.

Having a standardized nuclear plant option which has a much streamlined regulatory approval process seems like a generally good idea.

The cost effectiveness of nuclear power has been mis-represented for decades, so a lot of folks who aren't actually knee-jerk 'anti-nuclear' are extra dubious for good reason. The knee-jerk anti-nuclear side doesn't help the situation either.

I was comparing it to the price of coal in France. They have to import it, but not across the sea.

You can't really beat a coal-firing plant near a rich coal deposit on price (except maybe with hydro power). However, once you start thinking about greenhouse emissions - it's quite another issue.

We currently don't have _anything_ which can be used to replace fossil fuels, except nuclear power.

Wind power can help a bit, but I have not seen any realistic plans allowing to generate more than 20-25% of electricity for industrial countries such as Germany, USA or France.

And frankly, I prefer to live near a nuclear power plant even though there is a very small chance of it blowing up. And I actually live less than 100km from Chernobyl (in Kiev, Ukraine).

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 14 Jun 2008 #permalink

If opponents of nuclear energy would like to be taken a little more seriously, they might want to stop citing that "too cheap to meter" line. Not because it wasn't said, but because it wasn't said the way they imply it was.

Lewis Strauss's speech was being given to a group of science writers, and he was talking about how science and technology in general offered great hope for the future. The sentence that everyone seems to quote comes from the following section, which they inevitably don't quote except for that one line:

"It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast of an age of peace."

He wasn't talking about nuclear power specifically at all, as the context makes clear, but a general utopian vision provided by advances in all the sciences and technologies.

People who go around quoting that line as "proof" of something are no better than the creationists talking quotes by Gould out of context to attack evolution.

Alex - since EDF and Areva (the two main suppliers of electricity and constructors of nuclear plants in France) are both Soci�t� anonyme companies, with majority shareholdings (80% and 90% respectively) being retained by the French state , it seems unlikely the French state does not subsidise nuclear power in some way.

The fact that EDF and Ariva are both basically state-owned allows them to borrow more cheaply than they could as pure commercial entities, and for commercial pressures inform public policy makes very likely that both overt and covert subsidy occurs.

For instance, EDF's balance sheet has 'a theoretical reserve currently valued at �28 billion' for the retirement of 58 nuclear reactors. Considering the fact that UK reactors are calculated to cost at least 73 billion pounds (and rising) to decommision (for a far smaller number), this notional reserve is obviously insufficient. Will the French state stump up for these rest or allow the decommissioning timetable to be massively extended - almost certainly.

If there is a big hole in the EDF balance sheet due to pension provisions, will the French state help out in some way? Probably. There has already been a mention of the way in which French reactors are speeded through the regulation process - since the French State basically owns the reactors, and is in control of the regulation process, its no surprise that the process will be fast, and in turn money saved.

French nuclear policy still has no answer for the ever increasing amounst of nuclear waste piling up - which is hardly surprising, since its a huge cost no one wants to think about. The phrase I read the other day had it right - the French pay twice for their electricty - one in their bills, and once through their taxes.

It must be nice to live in a world where fossil-fuel use and CO2 emissions are plummeting...

Where even the poorest billion or so have ample affordable power to heat and light their homes and cook their food, so that they don't spend hours a day gathering sticks and dung, or breathing smoke whenever they're indoors.

Because that's the only inference one can draw from this round robin of one-upmanship: "My power source is cleaner, purer, and altogether cuddlier than yours."

I commend to your attention Nathan Lewis' "Powering the Planet"

and the "Energy Challenge" video presentation of the late Nobelist Rick Smalley at

Both make it abundantly clear that we're going to need as much as we can possibly do: conservation/efficiency AND renewables AND nukes AND (inevitably) coal, oil and gas for many years yet... plus, one fervently hopes, some currently unforeseeable breakthroughs.

Do the math, people: there is NO WAY any one source or category of sources can do all we need to do over the next couple of generations. And there is NO WAY the world can afford to take any category off the table so you can feel warm & fuzzy in the (rather small bubble of prosperous G8-nation Internet science-blog folks.

By Monte Davis (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink


"French nuclear policy still has no answer for the ever increasing amounst of nuclear waste piling up - which is hardly surprising, since its a huge cost no one wants to think about. "

French HAS an answer to a problem of waste - they reprocess it. Common nuclear power plants burn just about 12% of U-235 content in fuel. USA currently throws the rest 85% of U-235 as a 'waste'.

However, if you reprocess it then you'll reduce the amount of waste by about 10x and save money on fuel.

"The phrase I read the other day had it right - the French pay twice for their electricty - one in their bills, and once through their taxes."

So do other countries. Where do you think tax breaks for wind power and other alternative fuels come from? And what about CO2 emissions which tax all the Earth?

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink

As i recall, the reason that the US doesn't reprocess nuclear waste is that breeder reactors produce weapons grade materials. The fact that we have the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth anyway doesn't seem to have entered the logic. I mean, not only could we build more bombs, but we have. It never made sense to me.

I worked for a nuke plant for a bit. They actually had a January month where it ran 24x7 without interruption. It was the highest output on record. That is, this is a rare event. Half of all months have 31 days, right? But the argument that nuke plants are clean goes like this: The energy drives the steam turbine, and the waste steam is vented into the atmosphere, where it radiates efficiently into space. No chemicals. End of story. Except for the Yucca mountain bit. And Yucca mountain has to be monitored for a million years. Unless we go back an reprocess. If we continue with nuke plants, the chances of not going back is zero. But Yucca mountain still has to be monitored for a million years, as far as i know.

You do have the problem that uranium is a finite resource (as well as being one of the dirtiest mining operations we have); I have seen mentioned about 200 years worth of mineable supply (given some assumptions on feasible growth of the industry). You have a "peak uranium" just like for oil, so the timeframe within you can use it relatively cheaply is significantly shorter than that. Uranium fission is a stopgap measure, not a long-term solution. And as it is so very expensive, perhaps not the best use of the needed funds.

We have a _REAL_ nuclear power success story: France. It gets about 99% from nuclear power plants:

99%? But your wikipedia source says:

In the same year [2004], 425.8 TWh out of the country's total production of 540.6 TWh was from nuclear power.

425.8 / 540.6 = .7876