The Dim Future of Nuclear Power

It's highly unlikely that you're going to see any new nuclear power plants built any time in the future, given the now worsening situation at Fukushima. But knee-jerk reactions to the accident are not what's really to blame for the inevitable decline in nuclear production.

Even before this month's nuclear disaster in Japan, the economics of nuclear power were bleak. It didn't seem that way on the surface—62% of the public supported nuclear energy according to a Gallup poll from last year, and Obama planned to dedicate $54.2 billion to building new nuclear plants (that plan is now in question). But according to at least one expert, the nuclear industry never had a chance.

Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School's Institute for Energy and the Environment, discussed his findings about the economics of nuclear power in a testimony this week before the Standing Committee on Natural Resources in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada.

According to Cooper, the nuclear industry is at the tail end of a bubble: a "promotional frenzy" from 2001 to 2005, with Bush's establishment of an $18.5 billion loan guarantee program; a surge in interest (measured by applications for loan guarantees and licenses) from 2006 to 2008; the realization that the industry couldn't deliver on promotional cost estimates; and the collapse of the bubble due to economic forces in 2009 and 2010 (pushed along by low natural gas prices, declining demand, and cheaper costs for low-carbon alternatives, ultimately leading to reactor delays and cancellations). The Japan disaster simply stuck a fork in the already cooked industry.

After Fukushima, the costs of building new reactors will skyrocket. Cooper believes that this is because investors will view nuclear facilities as being difficult to finish and less attractive than alternatives (i.e. natural gas, coal, wind, solar). Nuclear will also be viewed as creating a significant risk for utilities.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn't exactly inspiring confidence, either. David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said as much in a briefing this week:

The NRC's reactor oversight process is better than the—well, let me step back, the NRC adopted its reactor oversight process that it currently uses ten years ago, in the year 2000. It's much better than the process that it used before then...So, I think things are better; however, having said that, the new reactor oversight process is not foolproof. In the year 2002, the reactor oversight process gave the Davis-Besse plant the highest marks possible, basically straight As, even though it was then discovered to have come closest to an accident since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. So, any time a system can't distinguish the best from the worst, there's still some work left to be done on it.

This isn't to say that the U.S. will never see a new nuclear plant. But all of the 104 operating plants in the U.S. began construction in 1974 or earlier. Three new plants are in the pipeline, but they have yet to be completed (ground has broken on just one, located in South Carolina).

And with hysteria over radioactive fallout from the Japan disaster reaching a fever pitch, it's unlikely that public support will grow anytime soon. The hysteria is justified, at least in Japan. The UCS believes that radiation dosage rates in the evacuated areas around the plant will soon surpass the threshold considered the international standard for the maximum acceptable amount of radiation in one year (100 millirem yearly). But anxiety in the U.S. is out of control, given our limited exposure. Don't believe us? Take a look at the video above.


The Dim Future of Nuclear PowerRepublished with permission from FastCompany.com. Authored by Ariel Schwartz. Photo via AP.