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Nuclear Power Economics Requires Believing In 'Impossible Things'

Dennis Wamsted's picture
Freelance Journalist and Consultant,

A long-time energy and environmental policy junkie, I earned my reporting stripes at The Energy Daily in Washington, D.C. I stepped down as the daily's executive editor in 1998 to spend time with...

  • Member since 2008
  • 47 items added with 46,890 views
  • Nov 6, 2015
Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 6, 2015

Rare photograph of an impossible thing.

Dennis, your article is an encouraging sign, if predictable after the announcement of Watts Bar 2 nuclear coming online next month (the only thing more predictable would have to be the brief shot of adrenaline the solar industry received after the last meltdown).

Be sure you let TVA know about your research – they seem pretty stoked about having 80 years worth of dependable, clean, baseload power. Don’t worry – Tennessee solar enthusiasts, like Tennessee handgun owners, will be permitted to keep their playthings.

The question becomes, “Why would they want to?”

PS – I had to laugh when I saw your photocopied entry of Scott Norwood’s calculations – it’s become the latest life preserver for solar entrepreneurs to cling to as they anxiously anticipate another meltdown. Anyway, It’s already appeared here in a reprint of Ivy Main’s SIerra Club article a few weeks ago, and was quickly debunked by Nathan Wilson.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Nov 6, 2015

I have to say that I am facinatied by this strange but more or less predictable phenomenon whereby  self proclaimed “clean energy”  / “environmental protection” Wonks, or Enthusiasts, or any otherwise Self-Interested purveyors and dealers in “clean” energy,tend to  demonstrate a strange compulsion or perhaps even a compunction (?) to torturously find fault in, and torturously discredit and attempt to prevent the development of any kind of nuclear power,  irrespective of its generational advancement, or its degree of safety and economic advantage when it is fairly compared with other forms of energy.

If I am lucky perhaps some future wise observer of our culture and times might find an adequate label to prepoerly describe this phenomenon.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 8, 2015

A lot of people seem to assume that if something has a multi-billion dollar price tag, it must be unaffordable.  It all depends.

Is $15 billion a lot for a 2.2 GWatt power plant (e.g. the Turkey Point expansion)?  No, it’s just $6.82 per peak Watt, or $7.58 per average Watt.  That’s like getting a solar PV plant for $1.51 per peak Watt, including a 15 hour battery (assuming 100% cloudless days and no winter demand peak and including replacement of batteries & inverters every 10 years and solar panels every 30 years)! A bargain.

How about $665 million for a 20 year life extension at the Monticello nuclear plant? Well, the plant puts out 671 MWatts, so that is  $1/Watt.  Even more of a bargain.

Is it cheating to ignore decomissioning cost?  No, that’s just a round-off error, because of the “time value of money”. If you give a banker a dollar today, he can easily convert it to $18 over the course of 60 years, it just takes an interest rate of 5% annually.

Isn’t wind power always the cheapest energy source?  No, in Florida wind is much more expensive than nuclear, because most of the good sites are off-shore (and the EIA says off-shore wind energy has double the cost of nuclear energy, assuming the wind energy is diluted 25:75 with fossil fuel energy to avoid needing energy storage).

Shouldn’t we take the option with the lower capital cost, the combined-cycle fossil gas plant?  Ignoring the important issues of air pollution, CO2 emissions, and oil wars, fossil gas has a lot of volatility in the fuel cost.  A 2.2 GWatt baseload gas fired plant would use $29.6 billion worth of gas over a 60 year lifetime (assuming 90% capacity factor and 60% efficiency, which is 5690 Btu/kWh, and gas cost of $5 per MMBtu). So it’s worthwhile to avoid over-committing to gas which already supplies a whopping 61% of Florida’s electricity (coal is the next largest, source EIA).


graph source

If you look at what’s happening in the real world, it’s not the rich countries who are building nuclear plants most aggressively, it’s poor countries like China and Russia, and they are mostly doing it to control air pollution and gain energy security.  It’s crucial that we move away from fossil fuels, and nuclear is the cheapest way to do that.  If you want to argue that nuclear is too expensive, you’re basically saying you want to stay addicted to fossil fuels regardless of of the external costs or environmental impacts.

But let’s be honest.  Nuclear’s cost (which is not much different than other energy sources) is not the real reason anti-nukes hate it.  Most nuclear opponents seem to have a hidden reason (an ideology, neurosis, or a phobia) they are putting above the best interest of the environment, human health, and world peace.   It’s really a tragedy, given that nuclear is already credited with saving 1.8 million lives  by displacing dangerous fossil fuel use, and could save millions more, if we just face our fears and follow the science.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Nov 7, 2015

When you try to talk about nuclear enthusiats, they hide from statistical economic evidence and talk about fantasy 4+ generation designs that do not exist yet / have not ever been built yet.

The United States is adding solar PV, wind, and natural gas to it’s grid right now.  Those three are what is currently economically competitive. 

If nuclear was economically competitive, they would build more.  That’s how free market economics work my friend.

Do a simple google search on US installed generation capacity from 2012-2015.  The war is over, nuclear lost.

Either get a new player to get behind or stop talking about it.



Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Nov 7, 2015

People pick the cheapest source of energy.

Nuclear is not the cheapest source of pollution free energy generation.


Get it into your brain.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 9, 2015

Josh, “A = B, B = C, therefore A = C” is a valid logical construct (syllogism). That’s where you were headed, but it came out something like, “A = B, C ≠ D, therefore A = E”. It doesn’t make a lot of logical sense.

I really wish I could get it into my brain, but the argument for renewable energy making a substantial contribution to electricity generation, in the U.S. or the world, doesn’t make a lot of logical sense to me either.

Fortunately, I’m told members of our U.S. Congress – men and women of superior intellect and logic like Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and Lisa Murkowski – are making the important environmental decisions. If I could just get that into my brain, I’d sleep a lot better.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 8, 2015

Josh, it’s fascinating how renewable supporters have become Big Oil’s best friends in recent months, talking up natural gas like it’s fine wine. I never anticipated that – honestly, did you?

Is there a “renewable coal” campaign in the making?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 8, 2015

The cheapest source of pollution free energy depends on the location and local energy mix.  

In a fossil fuel dominated grid, if only a small amount of clean energy is desired, then certainly in the US central plains wind is cheapest.  In the southern US, including the tax incentives which expire at the end of 2016, utility solar is cheaper (distributed solar always has the highest cost to society, but usually most of the cost is shifted to others).

If dispatchable generation (i.e. hydro and fossil gas) is limited to 10 or 20% of the grid, or even more so for a 0% fossil grid, nuclear is cheaper everywhere.  The energy storage technology which could make variable renewables cost competitive in a non-fossil system does not exist today, and there is simply no reason to believe it will ever exist*. 

The belief that “advanced batteries will make EVs commonplace” is plausible.  The further dramatic cost reductions needed to support variable renewables is a fantasy which is only embraced by those who cannot face the possibility that their favorite energy source is helping to lock-in fossil fuel use and destroy the world.

* Reversible ammonia fuel cells (which can synthesize ammonia fuel when there is excess power and make electricity when needed) are one potential solution if they can be developed, but the produced fuel will struggle to compete with the cost of gasoline and diesel, which is to say it will be much more expensive than coal and fossil gas.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Nov 8, 2015

Apparently nuclear power requires believing that division is impossible. 

Either that, or only numerators exist, but not denominators. Otherwise, I’m sure the author would have spent just as much effort telling us how much power a nuclear reactor produces as he did telling us how much a reactor costs.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Nov 8, 2015

Apparently nuclear power requires believing that division is impossible.

Either that, or only numerators exist, but not denominators. Otherwise, I’m sure the author would have spent just as much effort telling us how much power a nuclear reactor produces as he did telling us how much a reactor costs.

But heaven forbid that one might actually have to divide a really big number by an even bigger number — because that would give you a small number, and one certainly cannot put a small number in any article which is designed more for propaganda than enlightenment.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Nov 9, 2015

Had people really wanted innovation, modular (and perhaps, molten salt) reactors would be cheaper than anything else owing to the superior energy <i>density</i> of the fission process. Here’s what the last REAL president had to say…

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Nov 10, 2015

Nathan, that EIA gas electric power price plot (in nominal not real dollars) ends, I believe, in mid 2013.  An update dispels the notion of a near term price increase trend (under $3.3/MMbtu since April 2015).

Dennis Wamsted's picture
Thank Dennis for the Post!
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