Nuclear Option Revisited
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 8, 2001
By Amory B. Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins
Too expensive and unacceptably risky, nuclear power
was declared dead long ago. So why would we resurrect it?
SNOWMASS, Colo.--Buoyed by a supportive White House,
growing climate concerns, temporarily high gas prices, and California's
electricity mess, the nuclear industry is running an all-out public-relations
campaign to resuscitate its product. This attempt ignores one crucial
fact: Nuclear power already died of an incurable attack of market forces.
Once touted as "too cheap to meter," nuclear power, as The Economist
recently concluded, now looks "too costly to matter."
Overwhelmed by huge construction and repair costs
around the world, nuclear plants ended up achieving less than 10% of
the capacity and 1% of the new orders (all from countries with centrally
planned energy systems) forecast a quarter-century ago. The industry
has suffered the greatest collapse of any enterprise in industrial history.
Beyond the hard economic facts, about which more
later, the nuclear industry is dismissing legitimate public concerns
about the risks of a technology so unforgiving that, as Nobel physicist
Hannes Alfven wrote, "No acts of God can be permitted." Each
nuclear plant, through accident or malice, could release enough radioactivity
to hazard a continent. This is presented by the industry as extremely
unlikely, but many citizens aren't reassured. They have seen too many
highly improbable events, including terrorism. And if nuclear power
plants are so safe, why would the industry build and run them only if
the federal government passed a law limiting operators' liability in
major accidents? Why should the nuclear industry enjoy a liability cap
that reduces its incentive for safety, distorts choices with a vast
subsidy and is unavailable to any other industry? Why can't nuclear
operators self-insure and put their money where their mouths are, or
buy insurance at market prices like everyone else? The liability law's
expiration in 2002 presents an awkward dilemma for advocates of both
nuclear power and free markets.
Scientists still haven't developed reliable ways
to handle nuclear wastes and decommissioned plants, which remain dangerously
radioactive for far longer than societies last or geological foresight
extends. And experts feel nuclear power's gravest risk is that power
plants can provide ingredients and innocent-seeming civilian cover for
the development of nuclear bombs, as was the case in India and elsewhere.
Now the White House proposes to revive nuclear-fuel reprocessing after
decades of proof that it's unprofitable, unnecessary, a complication
to nuclear waste management and a source of vast amounts of bomb material.
Market economics provides an even more basic argument:
"If a thing is not worth doing," said economist John Maynard
Keynes, "it is not worth doing well." Leaving aside bomb-proliferation,
waste, sabotage and uninsurable accidents, nuclear power is simply uncompetitive
and unnecessary. After a trillion-dollar taxpayer investment, it delivers
little more energy in the U.S. than wood. Globally, it produces severalfold
less energy than renewable sources. The market prefers other options.
In the 1990s, global nuclear capacity rose by 1% a year, compared with
17% for solar cells (24% last year) and 24% for wind power--which has
lately added about 5,000 megawatts a year worldwide, as compared with
the 3,100 new megawatts nuclear power averaged annually in the 1990s.
The decentralized generators California added in the 1990s have more
capacity than its two giant nuclear plants--whose debts triggered the
restructuring that created the state's current utility mess.
Enthusiasts claim new-style reactors might deliver
a kilowatt-hour to your meter for 5 cents, compared with 10 to 15 cents
for post-1980 nuclear plants worldwide. (Of that, 10 to 15 cents, nearly
3 cents pays for delivery, about 2 cents for running the plant, and
the rest for its construction and for occasional major repairs.) But
on the same accounting basis, superefficient gas plants or wind farms
cost only 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, cogeneration of heat and power
often 1 to 5 cents, and efficient lights, motors and other electricity-saving
devices under 2 cents, often under 1 cent. Cogeneration and efficiency
are especially cheap because they occur at the site where the energy
is consumed and thus require no delivery.
All these non-nuclear options continue to get cheaper,
as do fuel cells and solar cells. Today, a pound of silicon can produce
more electricity than a pound of nuclear fuel. Already, Sacramento's
municipal utility, which has successfully replaced power from its ailing
nuclear plant (shut down by voters) with a portfolio emphasizing efficiency
and renewables, has brought the heretofore costliest option, solar cells,
down to costs competitive with a new nuclear plant.
The PR spinners trumpet that nuclear power costs
less than power from gas plants. This is true if you are looking only
at the running cost of an average existing nuclear plant, compared with
the running costs of an old, inefficient gas-fired plant. It does not
include delivery to customers, nor the prohibitive construction costs
of a new nuclear plant. Notice, too, the ads don't compare the costs
of a new nuclear plant with the new, doubled-efficiency gas plants that
are beating the pants off nuclear and coal worldwide. Under such realistic
cost comparisons, nuclear power plummets to its actual status as the
worst buy available. You didn't understand that from those slick ads?
You weren't supposed to. The nuclear industry has a well-earned reputation
for breezy mendacity.
Lost in the debate over what kind of new plant to
build is the best option of all: more efficient use of the electricity
we already have. We've been reducing electricity use per dollar of gross
domestic product by 1.6% a year nationwide, and in California between
1997 and 2000, by 4.4% a year. California has held its per-capita electricity
use essentially flat since the mid-1970s, yet far more savings remain
untapped--enough nationally to save four times nuclear power's output,
at one-sixth its operating cost. Our personal household electric bill,
for example, is $5 a month for a 4,000-square-foot house in the Rocky
Mountains. Passive solar design and super-efficient appliances and lighting
yielded a 90% savings on electricity and 99% on fuel. The improvements,
made in 1983, paid for themselves in 10 months. Today's technologies
are far better. An estimated three-fourths of U.S. electricity could
now be saved through efficiency techniques that cost less than generating
that power, even in existing plants.
Nor, finally, do shortages of electricity in California
justify more nuclear plants anywhere. California did not have soaring
electricity demand during the 1990s, did not stop building power plants
and is probably not even short of generating capacity. The system that
had rolling blackouts at a 28-gigawatt load last winter is the same
one that comfortably delivered 53 gigawatts two summers ago. Half its
power plants didn't suddenly evaporate. Rather, there's apparently been
adequate generating capacity--if power plants ran as reliably as they
did before utilities sold them. But in fact, since utility maintenance
contracts expired last fall, many of the sold plants have been calling
in sick--often, some evidence suggests, because their new owners earn
far more profit by selling less electricity at a higher price rather
than more at a lower price.
If California does have a serious supply-demand
imbalance, it should be resolved in the cheapest, fastest, surest and
safest ways. Buying more nuclear plants violates all these criteria.
It would buy less solution per dollar, making the problem worse. That's
also true of nuclear solutions to climate change.
Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of demand-side
solutions need only to look to California, where in the first half of
this year, with limited formal programs, Californians have decreased
their peak demand for electricity by more than 12%, reversing the past
5 to 10 years' growth in demand.
After a half-century of nuclear power, the verdict
of the marketplace is in. Nuclear power has flunked the market test.
Nuclear salesmen scour the world for a single order, while makers of
alternatives enjoy brisk business. Let's profit from their experience.
Taking markets seriously, not propping up failed technologies at public
expense, offers a stable climate, a prosperous economy, and a cleaner
and more peaceful world.
Amory B. and L. Hunter Lovins, Co-ceos of Rocky
Institute, Advise Energy Companies and Governments Worldwide