A guest opinion about the rising cost of nuclear power, by Tami Thatcher, a former nuclear safety analysis at Idaho National Laboratory and a nuclear safety consultant.
From brilliant nuclear scientists there is an endless variety of proposed reactor designs from various small modular reactors, fast neutron reactors, molten salt reactors, to thorium reactors.
But from advanced light-water reactors to fast reactors, the construction prices never seem to come down.
From the Argonne National Laboratory – West, now part of the Idaho National Laboratory, came the sodium-cooled fast EBR-II reactor. Advancement of its design by GE-Hitachi has yet to be built commercially.
Fast reactor economic disappointments range from the We Almost Lost Detroit Fermi I reactor, whose license to construct was denied by the reactor safety committee but overridden by the chairman in 1957 and suffered a partial meltdown before ever reaching full power — to Japan’s costly problem-plagued Monju reactor — to France’s Superphenix, at $9 billion, 6 times the original construction estimate. It generated electricity only an average 6 percent of the time.
NRC licensing processes are costly, but bypassing thorough licensing reviews can also be costly. An existing design was changed during steam generator replacement at San Onofre, and despite modern computer codes and engineering wizardry, the change allowed the tubes to vibrate excessively causing tube cracking and failure very soon after being installed. The utility tried to argue safety was not compromised.
Burning plutonium in fast reactors could shuffle the spent nuclear fuel problem a bit, but according to the Blue Ribbon Commission report from 2012, it doesn’t solve the problem. It does not alleviate the need for long term disposal in a geologic repository.
Plutonium-blended Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel can be burned in conventional reactors, but the Department of Energy’s South Carolina project can’t even give its MOX fuel away. The MOX plant is so over budget that a panel has recommended just burying the excess plutonium at the struggling to re-open Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. But pork keeps rolling to the fizzling MOX project.
Last year the NRC cancelled funding of what would have been the first meaningful epidemiology study of health near US nuclear facilities. They claimed it would cost too much (at $8 million) and take too long.
The US NRC prefers reliance on the 1980s epidemiology study that mixed children and adults and populations near and far from nuclear plants and predictably found no harm. The NRC actively ignores the irrefutable studies from Germany that found increased cancer and leukemia rates of children living near each of the plants.
What are a few children’s lives compared to the health of the nuclear industry anyway?
While accident risks threaten the public’s health and economic future, and seven decades of unsolved and politically untenable nuclear waste issues continue, it is largely construction cost overruns for new US plants as well as internationally that have further dampened enthusiasm for nuclear energy.
Construction costs do not include the decommissioning and waste disposal costs, the cost of repairs, or the cost of early reactor retirement.
French taxpayers on paying billions for state-backed company AREVA’s cost overruns on its fixed price promise to construct a reactor in Finland. Construction costs are three times the original estimate and 9 years behind schedule.
Who pays for construction cost overruns depends on the contract between the builder and the utility.
The NuScale small modular reactor, if built at the INL, may be obsolete before it is finished. And it doesn’t solve spent nuclear fuel disposal issues.
With closed meetings being conducted by Idaho energy planners, will the citizens who are the captive ratepayers and taxpayers and also bear the consequences of an accident be able to discuss lower cost, infinitely safer low carbon alternatives?