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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

True Cost Accounting for Nuclear Power

Air Date: Week of

Amory Lovins in his Snowmass, Colorado office. (Rocky Mountain Institute)

Though many say that nuclear power is necessary to help limit global warming, Amory Lovins, Co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, says that nuclear power is more expensive than alternative energy resources. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Lovins about the true costs of nuclear power.


GELLERMAN: There are "dangerously high" radiation levels in water leaking from Reactor number 3 at Japan's Fukushima plant. At our deadline, operators still struggling to gain control of the facility, fear the core might be breached. Prime minister Kan calls the situation "grave and unpredictable" and officials are urging those within 19 miles of the nuclear plant to leave voluntarily, and avoid eating many kinds of green vegetables.

To say the least, the nuclear disaster in Japan has refocused attention on the future of the atom as a source of energy. But the threat of global climate change has led even some die hard environmentalists to reconsider and embrace nuclear power. But not Amory Lovins.
He’s chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado.
Amory Lovins, welcome to Living on Earth!

LOVINS: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: So is it possible that we can meet our carbon reduction targets without nuclear power?

LOVINS: Of course! Not only that, but we could do so more effectively and more cheaply. It is quite true that if a nuclear plant displaces a coal plant that would replace carbon emissions.

But if you spent the same money on efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power, you would reduce the carbon emissions by about two to ten times more and about 20 to 40 times faster. So nuclear is such a slow and costly climate solution, it actually reduces and retards climate protection, compared with a best buys first approach.

GELLERMAN: When you say it’s slow, isn’t it people like you that are holding up the process with lawsuits, holding up the process of licensing nuclear power plants?

LOVINS: Not in the least! I know the industry likes to blame environmental groups - of which, by the way, we are not one - for holding up licensing for several decades. New nuclear power plants in this country are offered subsidies that now rival or exceed their total construction costs.

And yet, even though that’s been true since 2005, three years before the financial crash, they’ve been unable to raise a penny of private capital, simply because the cost and risks are unfinanceable. Wall Street will not invest in them - it’s an utterly unfinanceable technology, and it’s obvious why - it’s grossly uncompetitive.

GELLERMAN: But can renewables, like wind for example, produce enough energy, enough density to replace nuclear power plants, which are huge and hugely powerful. And, plus, the wind doesn’t blow on calm days.

LOVINS: Yeah, well, that’s two separate points. The first one - I’m afraid the industry got it backwards. Actually, if you properly do the math - and count if you count the whole nuclear fuel cycle, not just the power plant, not just the core of the reactor, but the occlusion zone, the uranium mining and so on, it turns out that wind power uses hundreds or thousands of times less land per kilowatt hour, then nuclear does.

Even solar photovoltaics are equal to or might be better than nuclear in that respect. As for the wind not blowing and the sun not shining all the time, that’s true. Every kind of power plant can fail. They differ, however, how much fails at once, how often, how long and for what reasons and how predictably. You can predict pretty well when wind or solar will not work, but you cannot predict when a nuclear plant will fail.

Amory Lovins in his Snowmass, Colorado office. (Rocky Mountain Institute)

They break without warning about three to five percent of the time - big coal nuclear plants are down about ten or twelve percent of the time - and for that reason, we’ve designed grids for over a century to cope with that intermittence that every power plant suffers from. So you don’t depend on any single plant, you depend on the whole grid.

So it turns out, if you diversify renewables by type so they’re not all affected by weather the same way, you diversify them by location, so they don’t all see the same weather at the same time, and you integrate them with the resources on the grid, both power plants and ways to save or shift electric use, then you can have a largely, or wholly renewable electric supply system at very reasonable cost, with greater reliability and resilience than we have right now.

GELLERMAN: I find it a little bit ironic, you know - I see in these pictures from Japan - and if they had put a little bit - if they had put a wind turbine on top of the nuclear complex there, the plant might have had power and would still be running.

LOVINS: Actually, the wind machines in the vicinity were not affected by the earthquake and tsunami, and the utilities have been calling for them to crank out every bit of juice they can to help keep the grid up. Look, here’s a quick summary of what’s going on with nuclear in the world. At the end of 2010, there were 66 nuclear units, officially listed as “under construction” worldwide.

You look a little closer, you’ll find a dozen of them have been listed as “under construction” for over 20 years, 45 of them have no official start up date, half of them are late. All 66 of them are in centrally planned power systems, not a single one of them is a free-market purchase. And since 2007, nuclear growth has added less electricity to our supply each year, then even the costliest renewable - solar power - and it will probably never catch up.

GELLERMAN: But they’re having rolling blackouts in Japan right now because they don’t have the nuclear power plants online.

LOVINS: Of course if you lose a lot of capacity, you can be short. And they were already a bit short. But I would actually view that as a drawback of nuclear power in two respects. First, to make it cheap, they tried to put a bunch of plants in one place, which was always a bad idea, because if something goes wrong with one plant, you can’t even get in to fix the others and keep them from developing serious problems.

Second, nuclear plants are shut down abruptly, when there’s a loss of grid connection, like in the tsunami. And the trouble with that is, it is then very hard to restart the plant. So in 2003, we had a big black out in the northeastern US, nine plants were running perfectly until the blackout and then they went to zero, and it took two weeks to get them all back up. And so they’re like an anti-peaker, they’re guaranteed unavailable when you most need them. Renewables don’t have that problem.

GELLERMAN: Amory Lovins is the chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. Well, Mr. Lovins, thank you so very much.

LOVINS: You’re welcome.



Rocky Mountain Institute’s website


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