The Real Cost of Nuclear Power
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|Thu, 03-24-2011 - 2:05pm|
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. (See pictures of an aging nuclear plant.)
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.