Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Going Nuclear... Or Gone Fission?

Rethinking your opposition to nuclear power? Washington Monthly Editor Mariah Blake suggests you "Rethink again."

Having cheered the courage of scrappy Karen Silkwood, a 1970s-era nuclear power plant worker (immortalized by Meryl Streep's portrayal of her in the 1983 film Silkwood) who fought for her rights after being sickened by repeated radiation exposure, I came to my political senses in an age whose vernacular included Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. I had generally taken for granted that nuclear power and the plants that generated it would never be safe. I'd assumed they would perpetually loom as toxic environmental hazards just waiting to sicken and kill us all and that they would ultimately be deemed lethal, unpredictable and monumentally expensive exercises in futility.

Their terrible, long-term threat to the environment spooked me. I suspected their awesome (if largely fictitious) destructive power (remember The China Syndrome?) and I was challenged and deeply troubled by doubts they could ever - as touted - be safe, clean, fully-contained, cheap and reliable alternatives to traditional electric power plants.

Too, their other-worldly sci-fi mien gave me the willies. Frankly, I was intimidated and chilled to the bone by the prospect of a meltdown or a core mishap mis-happening anywhere near me or near the food I ate or the water I drank.

I didn't trust the technology and I had no confidence in those who regulated and ran it. In short, I thought nuclear power, in current form, was headed for the scrap heap of human technological history; destined merely to asterisk the story of man's quest for power.

Decades later, as Washington Monthly Editor Mariah Blake illustrates in her well-researched and ably-written feature Bad Reactors, the real threat lies not in the awesome, nucleus-smashing atom-bomb technology that so frightened me, the real threat, the paralyzing issue, turns out to be the money. More specifically, the cost and reliability of construction.

Regarding a Finnish reactor currently under construction - and over budget - at Olkiluoto, Blake writes:
To date, more than 2,200 "quality deficiencies" have been detected, according to the Finnish nuclear authority, STUK. Largely as a result, the project, which was supposed to be completed in 2009, is three years behind schedule and is expected to cost $6.2 billion, 50 percent more than the original estimate. And the numbers could keep climbing. "There are still some very challenging phases ahead," says Petteri Tiippana, STUK’s assistant director for projects and operational safety. "Things will have to go extremely well if those responsible for building the project are to hit the new targets."

These complications have already erased the cost savings nuclear power was supposed to deliver compared to other energy sources, such as natural gas. What’s more, the reactor won’t be completed before 2012, when the Kyoto treaty expires. To meet its targets, between now and then Finland will have to buy hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of credits through the European Union’s emissions trading scheme.

Elfi, a consortium of Finnish heavy industries, has calculated that the project delays will create $4 billion in indirect costs for electricity users.

Further along, Blake provides this status report on the current health of the nuclear power industry and specifically the reactor-building business:

In October 2007, Moody’s Investor Services piled on with a report projecting that new reactors would cost $5,000 to $6,000 per kilowatt to build, or up to $12 billion per unit. This figure, which was based on actual bids for new reactors in the United States, caused considerable sticker shock. The trade magazine Nuclear Engineering International ran an article questioning whether utilities would shelve their plans for new reactors amid revelations about "prohibitively high" costs.

In January 2008, Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. scrapped plans to build a new reactor because it found the "economics of building the next generation of nuclear power plants" were "not in our customers’ best interests." But as staggering as their estimates were at the time, those who did the calculations for Keystone and Moody’s have concluded, based on newer data, that they were not high enough. "The numbers have simply gone flying past our highest 2007 estimates," says Jim Hempstead, a senior vice president at Moody’s, which now predicts new nuclear power plants will cost $7,500 per kilowatt to build.

That’s more than double the capital costs for solar power and three and a half times the cost for wind.

At just over 6,000 words, the article is a bit long, but Mariah Blake's "Bad Reactors" is a fast, informative read as well as an excellent resource for anyone interested in an update on where things stand in the nuclear energy production industry and particularly in the prospects and outlook for future new reactor construction.


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