My view: Costs of nuclear energy in Utah

By Bernell K. Stone

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In releasing his energy plan, Gov. Gary Herbert called for a debate on nuclear-generated electricity. Sutherland Institute responded with energy forums. The Deseret News' coverage ("Economic benefits, cons of nuclear energy explored," July 19) quoted panelist Edward Kees' claim of nuclear benefits: "The long-term benefit is a power source that lasts 60 years and provides a level of certainty and continuity in the power grid once it's operational."

An assertion of "long-term benefit" can sound good but is meaningless without reference to the alternatives. For Utah the obvious comparison is coal and natural gas. Major comparison variables are cost/price, pollution and risk.

No-nuclear high-coal Utah has low-cost electricity. In 2007, the Utah price averaged 6.41 cents per kilowatt hour, more than 2.40 cents below the U.S. average. The six states with lower prices also relied primarily on coal and have no nuclear, except for Nebraska. In contrast, the eight states using the most nuclear had much higher prices, about 5 cents above average.

One can use the Energy Information Agency state-by-state databases of prices and generation mix to infer a price for stand-alone nuclear electricity in the United States. My analysis shows that nuclear had a national average price of 15-18 cents, nearly triple the Utah price, in each year since 2005, even with the current government subsidies for nuclear fuel, insurance, waste storage, waste processing and financing.

Given rising capital costs, new nuclear will require even higher prices than current nuclear. I estimate at least 22-24 cents per kilowatt-hour before costs for water. Water requirements put Utah at a severe competitive disadvantage for nuclear compared to states with abundant cooling water.

What about comparative pollution, i.e., carbon dioxide versus radioactive waste? The carbon cap bill tabled in the last Congress would add at most 2 cents to coal electricity costs. Carbon capture/sequestration should cost no more than 2 cents.

Nuclear means radioactive waste. A permanent waste storage process and site has been debated for more than 40 years with no resolution in sight. Temporary storage in cooling ponds and barrels costs about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. In addition, there is future decommissioning, which is exceeding 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for the decommissioning now in process.

Incurring highly toxic radioactive waste exposure at costs more than three times the prospective carbon charge and more than three times the likely carbon abatement cost is dumb. Doing this plus a near tripling in electricity prices makes no sense.

Nuclear risks include economic, safety and terrorist risks. The time and cost to build is uncertain. For the 108 plants built in the past, the delivered cost exceeded projected cost at licensing by an average of four times. Nuclear is the most inflexible in terms of startup time, shutdown time and maintenance requirements.

Most extreme is core meltdown risk. Five core meltdowns (Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and now three at Fukashima) of about 400 nuclear plants world-wide suggest a greater than one in 100 chance of a core meltdown, much worse than the 1 in 10,000 risk often claimed by proponents. Finally, nuclear plants and especially cooling ponds are a natural terrorist target.

Mr. Kees' assertion of "long-term benefit" is a question of comparative benefits. Comparative prices; pollution danger and abatement costs; and a range of risks are all negative for nuclear. In terms of debating nuclear for high-coal, high-gas, high-sun, low-water Utah, nuclear is the most-expensive, highest pollution, highest risk generation alternative. The debate conclusion is clear — no nuclear in Utah.

Bernell K. Stone is the Harold F. Silver Professor of Finance in The Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. He has a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and Management from M.I.T.

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