Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 5, 2016

How nuclear fits in

First, nuclear power plants can work very well. The USA has about 100 of them, far more than any other country, that have been producing CO2-free energy for several decades. In the process, we have also learned a great deal about how to build better and safer nuclear power plants which, once built, could provide many decades of steady high-power output.  While we are presently building a few new ones – each due to huge levels of financial assistance from our government – our private sector is not building any.  The primary reason for this seems to be that recently summarized on Wikipedia ( as follows:

Experts see continuing challenges that will make it very difficult for the nuclear power industry to expand beyond a small handful of reactor projects that government agencies decide to subsidize by forcing taxpayers to assume the risk for the reactors and mandating that ratepayers pay for construction in advance…….. economic and market conditions, especially low natural gas prices, made the construction of new merchant nuclear power plants in competitive markets uneconomical now and for the foreseeable future. …..some smaller reactors operating in deregulated markets may become uneconomic to operate and maintain, due to competition from generators using low priced natural gas, and may be retired early. The 556 MWe Kewaunee Power Station is being closed 20 years before license expiry for these economic reasons. In February 2014 the Financial Times identified Pilgrim, Indian Point, Clinton and Quad Cities power stations as potentially at risk of premature closure for economic reasons.

So yes, nuclear works and could be much more extensively used. It takes about a decade to build one, however, and very few such projects are presently being started in the USA.  Even after being built, some of our existing nuclear plants are not proving to be cost effective in deregulated markets. The major cause of this is the fact that natural gas is now abundant and cheap. Thus, for the nth time on this website, it appears that the only way of overcoming the financial hurdle to this carbon-free source of energy is to impose a stiff carbon tax on natural gas (as well as on all other fossil fuels).  When we use nuclear power, we are also paying for the cost of nuclear waste disposal.  So why should we not also then be assigned a fee (carbon tax) for the disposal of fossil fuel waste (CO2) into our atmosphere? Unless one is a denier of the upcoming and huge environmental problem associated with our out-of-control levels of atmospheric CO2, there is only one answer to this question: yes, we absolutely should have a carbon tax that enables nuclear and the other sustainable means of energy production to become financially competitive.

It is, in fact, sheer madness for us to continue to use fossil fuels – which were produced very slowly over many millions of years – as our major source of energy for such a short period of geologic time. If Business-as-Usual continues throughout the two centuries after the onset of the Industrial Age in 1850, by 2050 we will have converted essentially all of our known reserves of gas and oil and a significant fraction of our coal into atmospheric CO2. This is an enormous amount of carbon that will more than double the total amount of carbon in the biological world. While some plants might possibly like this change, the atmosphere and the oceans will definitely not.  That is, massive levels of global warming and ocean acidification will follow, resulting in new conditions not seen in millions of years. The real kicker is that these horrific changes will be imposed on us so rapidly that existing forms of civilization will not be able to respond in a timely manner – thereby resulting in government breakdowns, massive migrations of people, increased warfare, massive starvation and world-wide chaos. While this scenario of a BaU future is sure to sound too pessimistic to many, it is the one that emerges from a careful study of our scientific literature – which has provided our best estimates of what Mother Nature does for many centuries. We will be on a different and much better track only after we install a stiff and continuously increasing carbon tax.

[Note that in Oct. 2013 I provided a related post entitled  “The Nuclear Energy Option: Go for it”.  For a persuasive argument against the construction of nuclear power plants see Joe Romm’s recent post at %5D


  1. It is truly wonderful that natural gas is helping to reduce the cost of electricity even though “Old Nukes” produce cheaper power. Here
    in Florida we are building a new gas pipeline to Texas so my electricity bill won’t rise for a while.

    It would make sense to build “New Nukes” as the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is doing at the rate of one per month. However they are building Westinhouse AP-1000s for $2 billion while the same installation costs $5 billion here.

    Even at $5 billion each it would still make sense to build “New Nukes” here but for the regulatory process. Private investors would do it if they believed that nothing like Shoreham could happen:

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