The Real Cost of U.S. Nuclear Power

The U.S. atomic revival had stalled long before the Japanese crisis made new reactors radioactive

  • Paulo Fridman/Corbis; Pallava Bagla/Corbis; AFP/Getty; Getty

    The chaos at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — explosions, fires, ruptures — has not shaken the bipartisan support in partisan Washington for the U.S.'s so-called nuclear renaissance. Republicans have dismissed Japan's crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. President Obama has defended atomic energy as a carbon-free source of power, resisting calls to halt the renaissance and freeze construction of the U.S.'s first new reactors in over three decades.

    But there is no renaissance.

    Even before the earthquake-tsunami one-two punch, the endlessly hyped U.S. nuclear revival was stumbling, pummeled by skyrocketing costs, stagnant demand and skittish investors, not to mention the defeat of restrictions on carbon that could have mitigated nuclear energy's economic insanity. Obama has offered unprecedented aid to an industry that already enjoyed cradle-to-grave subsidies, and the antispending GOP has clamored for even more largesse. But Wall Street hates nukes as much as K Street loves them, which is why there's no new reactor construction to freeze. Once hailed as "too cheap to meter," nuclear fission turns out to be an outlandishly expensive method of generating juice for our Xboxes.

    Since 2008, proposed reactors have been quietly scrapped or suspended in at least nine states — not by safety concerns or hippie sit-ins but by financial realities. Other projects have been delayed as cost estimates have tripled toward $10 billion a reactor, and ratings agencies have downgraded utilities with atomic ambitions. Nuclear Energy Institute vice president Richard Myers notes that the "unrealistic" renaissance hype has come from the industry's friends, not the industry itself. "Even before this happened, short-term market conditions were bleak," he tells TIME.

    Around the world, governments (led by China, with Russia a distant second) are financing 65 new reactors through more explicit nuclear socialism. But private capital still considers atomic energy radioactive, gravitating instead toward natural gas and renewables, whose costs are dropping fast. Nuclear power is expanding only in places where taxpayers and ratepayers can be compelled to foot the bill.

    In fact, the economic and safety problems associated with nuclear energy are not unrelated. Trying to avoid flukes like Fukushima Daiichi is remarkably costly. And trying to avoid those costs can lead to flukes.

    The False Dawn
    In 1972 a federal safety regulator, worried that GE's Mark 1 reactors would fail in an emergency, urged a ban on containment designs that used "pressure suppression." His boss was sympathetic but wrote in a memo that "reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power" and "would generally create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about." Four decades after this bureaucratic pressure suppression, Fukushima Daiichi's Mark 1 reactors seem to have failed as predicted. And while newer reactors don't have those problems, 23 Mark 1 reactors still operate in the U.S., including a Vermont plant that was relicensed for 20 more years the day before the disaster in Japan.

    When Karl Marx, who would have appreciated nuclear economics, wrote that history unfolds first as tragedy, then as farce, he got U.S. nuclear history backward. America's initial experiment was a cartoonish disaster, with construction timelines doubling and costs increasing as much as 1,000% even before the Three Mile Island meltdown. In the 1980s, the industry required bailouts before bailouts were cool. But the U.S. industry has matured and learned from its mistakes. It still runs the world's largest nuclear portfolio, and it hasn't had a serious accident since 1979. Meanwhile, global-warming fears have positioned nuclear power as a proven alternative to fossil fuels that works even when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing, producing 20% of our electricity and 0% of our emissions. No-nukes outrage has burned out, with a recent poll registering 71% support.

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