If you listen to the rhetoric, nuclear power is back. Smashing atoms will replace burning carbon-based coal, gas and oil. In the face of a disaster movie-like future of runaway climate change–bringing drought, floods, famine and social breakdown–carbon-free nukes are cast as the deus ex machina to save us at the last minute.
Even a few greens support nuclear power–most famously James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory. In the popular press, discussion of nuclear energy is dominated by its boosters, thanks in part to sophisticated industry PR.
In an effort to jump-start a “nuclear renaissance,” the Bush Administration has pushed one package of subsidies after another. For the past two years a program of federal loan guarantees has sat waiting for utilities to build nukes. Last year’s appropriations bill set the total amount on offer at $18.5 billion. And now the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill is gaining momentum and will likely accrue amendments that will offer yet more money.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects up to thirty applications to be filed to build atomic plants; five or six of those proposals are moving through the complicated multi-stage process. But no new atomic power stations have been fully licensed or have broken ground. And two newly proposed projects have just been shelved.
The fact is, nuclear power has not recovered from the crisis that hit it three decades ago with the reactor fire at Browns Ferry, Alabama, in 1975 and the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Then came what seemed to be the coup de grâce: Chernobyl in 1986. The last nuclear power plant ordered by a US utility, the TVA’s Watts Bar 1, began construction in 1973 and took twenty-three years to complete. Nuclear power has been in steady decline worldwide since 1984, with almost as many plants canceled as completed since then.
All of which raises the question: why is the much-storied “nuclear renaissance” so slow to get rolling? Who is holding up the show? In a nutshell, blame Warren Buffett and the banks–they won’t put up the cash.
“Wall street doesn’t like nuclear power,” says Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The fundamental fact is that nuclear power is too expensive and risky to attract the necessary commercial investors. Even with vast government subsidies, it is difficult or almost impossible to get proper financing and insurance. The massive federal subsidies on offer will cover up to 80 percent of construction costs of several nuclear power plants in addition to generous production tax credits, as well as risk insurance. But consider this: the average two-reactor nuclear power plant is estimated to cost $10 billion to $18 billion to build. That’s before cost overruns, and no US nuclear power plant has ever been delivered on time or on budget.
As Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor and leading economic expert on energy markets, has found, there never has been and never will be a nuclear power program totally dependent on the market.
Sixty years ago, the technology was swathed in manic space-age optimism–its electricity was going to be “too cheap to meter.” While that wasn’t true, nuclear power did serve a key role in the cold war: spent nuclear fuel rods are refined for weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium. That fact aside, rarely has so much money, scientific know-how and raw state power been marshaled to achieve so little. By some estimates, an investment of several hundred billion dollars has led to a US nuke industry of 104 operating plants–about a quarter of the global total–that produces a mere 19 percent of our electricity.