Nuclear's Comeback: Still No Energy Panacea

Proponents tout atomic energy as a clean, carbon-free alternative to coal and oil. But sky-high costs and uncertain financing could sink nukes again

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Samuel Kubani / AFP / Getty

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The rest of the case for nukes relies on the unattractive alternatives. Coal is filthy. Natural gas isn't exactly clean, and its price is volatile. Solar and wind are intermittent. Crist, who has blocked several coal plants for environmental reasons, explains his support for nukes in three words: "We need juice!" Industry officials argue that if you disregard capital costs, nuclear plants are the cheapest source of power.

But you can't disregard capital costs--they're out of control. The world's only steelworks capable of forging containment vessels is in Japan, and it has a three-year waiting list. The specialized workforce required for manufacturing reactors has atrophied in the U.S., along with the industrial base. Steel, cement and other commodity prices have stabilized, but the credit crunch has jacked up the cost of borrowing. FPL's application concedes that new reactors present "unique risks and uncertainties," with every six-month delay adding as much as $500 million in interest costs. Meanwhile, radioactive waste languishes in temporary storage pools and casks at plants around the country. Energy maven Amory Lovins has calculated that, overall, new nuclear wattage would cost more than twice as much as coal or gas and nearly three times as much as wind--and that calculation was made before nuclear-construction costs exploded.

So how should we produce our juice? The answer may sound a bit unsatisfying: more wind, less coal but mostly the same electricity sources we're using, until something better comes along. The key will be reducing demand through energy efficiency and conservation. Most efficiency improvements have been priced at 1¢ to 3¢ per kilowatt-hour, while new nuclear energy is on track to cost 15¢ to 20¢ per kilowatt-hour. And no nuclear plant has ever been completed on budget.

Now that's an unsatisfying answer--especially since we'll be paying the bills.

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