Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nuclear Power is Not Clean

The Miami Herald recently covered the fact that FP&L's request for its nuclear power facilities to qualify for renewable energy credits, or RECs, was denied by the state of Florida:


I say kudos to the state regulators for seeing through all this hogwash about nuclear power being clean just because it does not emit conventional air pollutants.

Thanks to the highly radioactive waste produced by nuclear fusion, nuclear is one of the dirtiest ways to produce electricity known to mankind. And what's worse, it's one of the costliest.

Ask the average American why they don't power their house with solar panels, and they'll tell you it's too expensive. Ask an expert, and they'll explain that the up-front cost of buying and installing solar panels, amortized over the life of the panels (30 to 50 years), devided by the total amount of electricity the panels will produce, will give you in the range of $.25 to $.35 per killowatt of electricity produced, compared to $.07 to $.12 per killowatt for natural gas and much cheaper for coal. According to many experts, nuclear power is even cheaper than that.

I'm an MBA student, and one thing we learn at McCombs is how to build financial models that incorporate expenses and revenues over time. We usually build these models out 5, maybe 10 years. Anything past 30 years is just too unpredictable. After all, how can you estimate costs that far into the future?

The problem with nuclear is that, in order to incorporate the full costs of producing nuclear power, you have to try to calculate the cost of managing the nuclear waste going out 3000, 4000, or 5000 years into the future. No one can do that, so no one does do that. Looking at this time horizon, it seems obvious that nuclear is outrageously expensive, and that's because it's incredibly dirty.

And if such a dirty source of energy can qualify for renewable energy credits (an eventuality which would fit nicely into Dr. Webber's characterization of current U.S. energy policy), then we find ourselves in a hot, steaming pile of trouble.

Sleep tight.

Cyrus Tashakkori


CDC said...

I can agree on the staggering costs of nuclear energy as compared to more conventional fossil fuel sources. It's also deceptive how nuclear industry sources (such as the NEI) advertises the attractively cheap production cost of nuclear energy (at around 2 cents/kw) which completely neglects the MUCH higher capital expenditures for nuclear power plants.

I am not convinced however that nuclear is the dirtier option. Nuclear waste has a greater threat potential than what comes out of coal and gas fired plants, but (thus far) that waste has been properly stored in the United States; there is no residual atmospheric contaminant. You could argue that uranium mining is dirty, but so is coal mining, and unlike coal, uranium has the potential to be reprocessed (finances of such processes notwithstanding). The fuel energy density is also greater with nuclear, so you get less overall waste matter per kilowatt.

Referenced production costs reported by the NEI for nuclear compared to fossil fuels can be found at:

jason h said...

Just arguing semantics, but the Du Bois article title is definitely misleading. While “clean” and “renewable” are often synonymous in the energy discussion, the decision in Florida had little to do with the cleanliness of nuclear energy; the article focuses on the definition of renewable energy. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection argues that because of limited uranium resources, nuclear power is not renewable. However, many argue that nuclear is renewable because breeder reactors can produce more fuel than they consume. The US is still 10-15 years away from breeding and recycling nuclear fuel, but potentially nuclear could become "renewable".

J.T. Marsh said...

I don't mean to comment on the opinions of this post, just a fact. The original post criticizes nuclear fusion, which I do not believe we have yet been able to implement at a large scale. Our nuclear plants use nuclear fission. Simple facts are often misquoted in published media - we should try to do better.

Ororo Munroe said...

From the comment above:

"production cost of nuclear energy (at around 2 cents/kw)"

This statement illustrates a very common misuse of terms in the energy world. The unit of kW refers to electricity generation capacity. kWh refers to electricity usage (1 kWh is the specific amount of energy produced, transmitted & distributed, and consumed in a period of 1 hour (3,600 seconds)). These two terms are not interchangeable.

Also, the referenced site refers to euro cents/kWh average. This is not USD.

Nick Flores said...

I believe that the perspective that you bring to this discussion is valuable, but I feel that there are a few overlooked points in your post that shed a new light on the subject.

First, as has been mentioned in an earlier comment, we possess the technology now to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and recycle it. Countries in Europe like France already reprocess their fuel, but the United States has a policy of not reprocessing because of proliferation concerns. If we can build and secure reprocessing plants, we can minimize our waster impressively. But of course, there will always be some waste, which brings me to my next point.

Storage locations like Yucca Mountain are viable short term solutions for storing spent nuclear waste. The location for Yucca Mountain was chosen based on its geological properties. Although many presidential candidates have been on the record as against Yucca Mountain, I probably would be too if I had to be worrying about not making anybody mad. However, our energy crisis cannot be tackled state by state; instead, a strong, collective, utilitarian effort can help us to see that Yucca Mountain serves the best interest of the union as a whole. Although Yucca Mountain is not a long-term solution due to its limited storage capacity, there are solutions on the way.

Nuclear fusion power is being researched and developed as an alternative processing technique than fission, and although it seems we are always being told that fusion is 10-20 years away, the reality is with reprocessing of spent fuel combined with storage facilities like Yucca Mountain, we can afford to work toward nuclear fusion power as a long term solution.

Cyrus Tashakkori said...

kudos on the discussion above...and good catch on fusion vs. fission. Amatuer mistake. You would think I'm the President or something!!!