Nuclear Expenses

It's a popular notion that Lewis Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission (which would eventually become the Department of Energy, the regulator we have now) once said that by 1960 or so nuclear power would become too cheap to meter. That is, nuclear power would be so cheap and plentiful that power companies wouldn't have to meter it - and, therefore, charge you.

This is maybe a myth, and almost definitely an exaggeration. According to newspaper articles of the time, Strauss actually said "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter..." before going on to talk about how awesome nuclear power will be. Would be. Would have been?

But as this collection of quotes starts to show, there were plenty of people who got nuclear power's deal right. The best quote I found was from a book written by Gordon Dean, Strauss's predecessor.

...But it is important to remember that, even if coal were mined and distributed free to electric generating plants today, the reduction in your monthly electricity bill would amount to but twenty per cent, so great is the cost of the plant itself and the distribution system.

To express it in the simplest terms: you can save a lot of money on fuel if you have an atomic power plant, but it will cost a great deal more to build than a coal-burning plant.

The simple fact of the matter is that nuclear power is expensive, for two reasons.

First, and least, disposal of nuclear materials. I'll get back to this one.

Second, the plant itself is incredibly expensive. A large share of the cost is in safety systems and permits - because if a nuclear plant goes bad, it can go very bad. But they're also just huge facilities, and complicated machines - they're controlling a nuclear reaction, for god's sake.

A recent cover article for Time Magazine and a paper by one Craig A. Severance, summarized in his typically fiery style by Joseph Romm here, show the real reason nuclear power plants haven't been built in this country for several decades. Nuclear power - even with the massive subsidies and other helping hands given to the industry by congress - is prohibitively expensive, on the order of two to three times as much as fossil fuels and even more expensive than renewables. To quote Severance, "...nuclear power is not economically feasible."

Is that the end of the nuclear story? Has the world moved beyond the atomic phase that helped create the Cold War and into a new era of something-else? Certainly, other nations are still building some reactors - advanced Generation IV reactors, as they're known - that could accomplish some cool things to make nuclear power cleaner and more plentiful.

And certainly, nuclear power has been found to be helpful to long-range sea vessels, like submarines, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers (really! - Russia and Finland operate some). The small size of the reactor and long period of time between refueling makes them ideal for away-from-home operation. And in terms of human suffering, it's probably better to have a nuclear accident at sea than near a city...

Only time will tell. It's unlikely the nuclear reactors we have are going to go anywhere anytime soon - most likely, they'll just be decommissioned as they reach the end of their lives, replaced by whatever society turns to next.

And what might that be?

Why, solar power, of course. As we'll see in the coming weeks.

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