A Free-Market Energy Blog

The Left, Nuclear Power, and Copenhagen: Rejecting the Viable

By Robert Bryce -- December 10, 2009

With thousands of politicians and environmentalists meeting in Copenhagen to discuss ways to achieve major cuts in global carbon dioxide emissions, one might assume that the need for drastic increases in nuclear power capacity would be an obvious solution – a path forward upon which factions on both the Left and the Right could agree.

Alas, that is not happening. Instead, the Green/Left in the US continues its decades-long opposition to nuclear, all the while insisting that the only way forward is through greater use of alternative energy sources like solar and wind.

Los Angeles Times: Now and Way Back Then

Consider the unsigned editorial published by the Los Angeles Times on November 28. The piece, titled “No new nukes – plants, that is,”[1] declares that nuclear energy “is not a reasonable solution because plants take too long to build and cost far too much.” California’s paper of record recommends, predictably, that the US invest more money in “renewable power sources such as solar, wind and geothermal,” as well as “solar thermal storage facilities and plants that generate electricity using biomass.” It concludes that “Nuclear power is a failed experiment of the past, not an answer for the future.”

That piece reminded me of another Los Angeles Times editorial that I found during some recent research at the Library of Congress. While looking for articles about federal price controls on oil and natural gas, I came across another unsigned editorial from the Los Angeles Times, published in May 1975 called “Natural Gas: What to Do.” At that time, the US was facing a shortage of natural gas, a problem that was largely caused by federal price controls on interstate gas sales. The Times declared that a windfall profits tax should be imposed on the gas producers who “failed to plow most of the profits back into the hunt for new supplies.” The paper went on to conclude that “The choice is not between cheap and expensive natural gas, because there is no such thing as a plentiful supply of cheap gas.”

Of course, there’s no way that the Times could have foreseen how the shale gas revolution[2] would overhaul the US natural gas sector. But the paper’s stance on nuclear power is of a piece with the myopia of America’s most influential environmental activists.

Environmental Opposition, including Amory Lovins

Despite their ongoing insistence that the US must start using more low/no carbon forms of energy, the biggest environmental groups in the US remain adamantly opposed to nuclear. In 2005, some 300 environmental groups – including Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and Public Citizen – signed a manifesto which said “we flatly reject the argument that increased investment in nuclear capacity is an acceptable or necessary solution….nuclear power should not be a part of any solution to address global warming.”[3]

And then there’s Amory Lovins, the Colorado-based media darling who has been opposing nuclear power for decades. In 1986, when asked about the future of nuclear power, Lovins declared flatly, “There isn’t one….No more will be built. The only question is whether the plants already operating will continue to operate during their lifetime or whether they will be shut down prematurely.” Since then, Lovins has repeated one of his favorite lines: “Nuclear is dying of an incurable attack of market forces.”

In 2007, when I interviewed Lovins, he declared that “a huge and capable propaganda campaign by the [nuclear] industry and its political allies is spinning an illusion of a renaissance that deceives credulous journalists but not hard-nosed investors.”[4]

How did Lovins do on his prediction back in 1986? According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, about 130 new reactors with nearly 123,000 megawatts of generating capacity have been brought online over the past two decades or so. Those reactors represent nearly one-third of global nuclear capacity, which in late 2009 included 436 reactors with 370,000 megawatts of capacity.[5]

As for his 2007 claim about the “illusion of a renaissance,” the numbers,  again, are proving Lovins wrong. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 53 new reactors now under construction with total capacity of more than 49,000 megawatts.[6] And lots more reactors are on the way. Japan, the third-biggest producer of nuclear power (after the US and France), plans to construct 11 new reactors over the next decade or so. And the country plans to be getting 60% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050 – double the current percentage. But Japan’s efforts will be miniscule when compared to those of China, which plans to build as many as 150 reactors.

Nuclear is Cost Competitive–With Wind and Solar (and Firm too)

The International Energy Agency sees nuclear as an essential part of the effort to stabilize global carbon dioxide levels. In its recently released 2009 World Energy Outlook, the agency expects global investment in nuclear power will total some $1.3 trillion over the next two decades. More importantly, the IEA’s latest report makes it clear that nuclear power is competitive with conventional power plants when it comes to cost. The agency “New nuclear power plants can generate electricity at a cost of between $55 and $80 per MWh [megawatt-hour], which places them in a strong competitive position against coal- or gas-fired power plants, particularly when fossil-fuel plants carry the burden of the carbon cost associated with the cap-and-trade system” that’s in place in Europe, and is proposed for the US.

The reality is that nuclear power is cost competitive with so-called “green” energy sources. The IEA projects that for power plants that begin operations between 2015 and 2020, nuclear will be among the cheapest options, even when compared to wind power and coal-fired power plants that use high-efficiency ultra-supercritical combustion. The agency estimates that nuclear power plants will be able to produce electricity for about $72 per megawatt-hour while onshore wind costs will be about $94 per megawatt-hour.

Furthermore, the construction costs for nuclear plants – even with the much-discussed cost inflation that has occurred in recent years — are still competitive with solar and wind projects.

Estimated Construction Cost of Various Electric Generation Plants

Source Construction cost per kilowatt of capacity
Solar photovoltaic $6,000
Nuclear $4,000 to $6,700
Offshore wind $5,000
Coal $2,300
Natural gas $850

Sources: Wall Street Journal, New Energy Focus, Austin Chronicle, Austin Business Journal.[7]

None of that is downplay the relatively high cost of nuclear power. In October 2009, the San Antonio city council delayed a vote on $400 million in bonds that were to be sold to support the municipal utility’s plan to build two additional reactors at the South Texas Project. The vote was suspended after reports surfaced that the two new reactors, with a total capacity of 2,700 megawatts, were going to cost a total of $13 billion, or about $3 billion more than previously expected.[8] At the $13 billion price, that works out to about $4,800 per kilowatt. But that is still less than the cost of offshore wind power, which is about $5,000 per kilowatt and solar photovoltaic, which costs about $6,000 per kilowatt. In addition, several US companies are now developing modular nuclear reactors with outputs of 125 megawatts or less. If approved for manufacturing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, those reactors should allow nuclear power providers to make significant cuts in the cost of their facilities.

Furthermore, comparing the initial construction costs of a nuclear power plant with those of coal and natural gas-fired plants is misleading because the long-term operating costs for nuclear reactors are lower than those for coal and natural gas. The reason: the fuel for nuclear reactors costs a fraction of what utilities pay to fuel their coal- and gas-fired plants over their lifetimes.

Natural Gas? or Nuclear? for the Carbon Concerned

None of this is to deny the attractiveness of natural gas. Given the recent drop in natural gas prices due to the shale gas revolution, gas-fired power plants are increasingly attractive. And gas-fired power plants emit about half as much carbon dioxide as coal while producing zero solid waste and essentially zero air pollution. But gas-fired power plants alone will not be enough to make the kind of drastic carbon dioxide cuts that we are told must be made to stabilize the Earth’s climate. Therefore, nuclear must be a major part of the energy mix. Despite these facts, advocates like the Sierra Club and Lovins – and of course, the LA Times — continue to claim that wind and solar can provide the scale of energy and power that will be needed to replace hydrocarbons and therefore reduce carbon dioxide levels. 

That. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.

Other than natural gas, nuclear is the only low- or no-carbon source that can make a significant dent in coal use. We may not like it, but we have to pick. In the near-term, meaning the next few decades, the obvious way to reduce the rate of growth in carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector is to increase the use of natural gas. Longer term, barring some miraculous breakthrough in energy storage technology, the only viable choice is nuclear.

[1] http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-nuclear28-2009nov28,0,5919110.story

[2] http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm?aid=2592

[3] http://www.citizen.org/documents/GroupNuclearStmt.pdf

[4] http://www.robertbryce.com/node/161

[5] http://www.iaea.org/cgi-bin/db.page.pl/pris.reaopag.htm

[6] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html

[7] For solar, see: Katherine Gregor, “Cool City: Solar Subtleties,” Austin Chronicle, March 6, 2009. Available: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid:751802; and Christopher Calnan, “City council gives Austin Energy the go-ahead for major solar project,” Austin Business Journal, March 5, 2009. Available: http://austin.bizjournals.com/austin/stories/2009/03/02/daily49.html; for nuclear, see: Rebecca Smith, “The New Nukes,” Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2009, 3. Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204409904574350342705855178.html. Wind figure is for Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm in the UK. Estimated cost is 1 billion British Pounds. In mid-September 2009, that was equal to about $1.7 billion. See: “Onshore construction begins for Sheringham Shoal wind farm,” NewEnergyFocus.com, September 7, 2009. Available: http://www.newenergyfocus.com/do/ecco.py/view_item?listid=1&listcatid=32&listitemid=2978&section=Wind

[8] Jim Forsyth, “San Antonio sees cost for new Tex reactors rising,” Reuters, October 27, 2009. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/rbssConsumerGoodsAndRetailNews/idUSN2726904520091027


Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His next book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, will be published in April.


  1. Tom  

    I think the bigger cost is the risk to human life. They’re still having to destroy Lambs in the United Kingdom for containing radiation, 26 years after Chernobyl. That’s how big the fallout was.

    We can’t afford another one of those,We nearly had a meltdown in Sweden in 2006, this stuff isn’t safe.

    This post had some great information about it:


  2. Jon Boone  

    For those who doubt the safety of nuclear plants, do read two relatively recent books: Bill Tucker’s Terrestrial Energy and Gwyneth Craven’s Power to Save the World. One might also review the safety and performance history of nuclear in France and Sweden. And then note that the nation’s largest grid, the PJM, uses nuclear for around 35-40% of its annual generation–and has done so for decades, without jeopardizing life and property.

    Robert Bryce continues to perform yeoman service in the cause of enlightened energy policy. However, even he should stop using apples to orangoutangs comparisons between the cost of nuclear and other conventional generators and the “cost” of intermittent volatile generators like wind and solar. Since the latter provides zero capacity value (no one can know how much energy they will produce at any future time) and no modern power performance– and they are neither dispatchable nor controllable–there can be nothing but a Faustian exchange between their value and the value of conventional power sources.

    Trading nuclear, or coal, or natural gas, or hydro generation for wind, for example, is akin to trading Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax, or Willy Mays for a third string high school baseball player who made the team because of his father’s contributions to the alumni fund.


  3. Red Craig  

    Tom’s comment about Chernobyl has to be respected. Certainly, another such accident should be avoided, although not at the cost of continuing to burn fossil fuels, which cause hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

    But the Chernobyl reactor was different from the reactors everywhere else in the world. It was a Soviet monstrosity with literally no safety features. In contrast, consider the Three Mile Island accident, a major accident that destroyed the reactor but didn’t cause harm to anyone. Judging nuclear energy by Chernobyl is the same as judging aviation by the Hindenburg disaster.


  4. chris y  

    The capital costs quoted are misleading. As renewables account for a larger share of total generation, the capital cost must be scaled by the capacity factor. Nuclear is around 90%. Wind farms in the best locations achieve 35%. Solar in the best locations reaches 25%. A nuke at $4800/kW is closer to $5400/kW. Wind at $5000/kW is closer to $14,300/kW. Solar at $6000/kW is closer to $24,000/kW. Renewables aren’t in the same ballpark.

    A second hidden cost of fickle renewables is the additional rapid-ramping generation (natural gas) or substantial storage (pumped hydro being the only one suitable at present) needed to back up the renewables when they drop off. Considerable experience in Spain, Germany and Denmark has demonstrated this reality. Texas ERCOT currently rates wind farms at 8.9% of capacity for next day generation forecasting. Nuclear plants are typically 90%.


  5. Jon Boone  

    Capacity factors for wind and solar are essentially a function of external factors like weather; they’re at the mercy of their power sources. Capacity factors for conventional generation are basically the result of operator choice, providing their rated capacities, or a desired portion thereof, on command. Nuclear has a national capacity factor of 92%; certain diesel plants have capacity factors of less than 1%. But they work when desired.

    The national capacity factor for wind is 28%, far better than in Europe. Any capacity credit for wind, a la ERCOT, is merely statistical in nature, for no one can predict at any time ahead interval how much wind energy would be available. Wind energy does not work when most desired.

    All conventional generators have effective capacities of 99.999%; otherwise, they’d be removed from the grid. Wind has zero effective capacity.

    Why continue to compare costs between these ineffectual renewables and sources of power that are highly effective? Is it even rationale to think that people believe that the cost of a proven lemon is in any way comparable in value to the most highly performing, most responsive vehicles?


  6. Bob Peltier  

    The costs must also include transmission. If Senator Reid has his way, the Fed will string new transmission lines from coast to coast with the stated purpose of making renewable energy more transportable. The problem again is with capacity factors. Wind and solar are at best 25% plus or minus means that the cost per MWhr of energy moved on the lines will cost 3.5 times as much as the same lines carrying nuclear energy at a 90% capacity factor.


  7. Tom Tanton  

    Bob, I centainly agree with the monetized costs implications of poor utilization of transmission with wind compared to other technologies. Generally the low utilization facvtor for TL hampers building TL to start with (a capital intesnive faciltiy with <50% cf is always hard to do) , and these polcies make it that much more difficult. That's also largely why TL has THE longest permit/construction timeframe.
    There is also a HUGE cost, typically nonmonetized, from the eminent domain taking of (property) rights of way for those transmission lines and the lower property values of folks at the wind site and along the TL route.


  8. Jon Boone  

    Not to mention, Bob, the increased voltage regulation costs for harmonizing all that desultory wind .


  9. DocForesight  

    What this country needs is a leader who will actually take the time to explain to the citizens the facts: good, bad and ugly – of what our energy needs are and how to best meet them.

    He/she doesn’t need to express any preferences, just let the facts speak for themselves and let the chips fall where they may. Include the back-up power costs associated with any intermittent power source so everything is compared on an equal footing. Since nuclear power has demonstrated the highest, most consistent capacity factor over the past 30 years of nearly 90%, then that should become the benchmark for comparison.

    Leave out carbon credits, feed-in tariffs, subsidies and other schemes to game the real costs of building. And factor in the average length of life span for the plant. I think Barry Brook at http://www.bravenewclimate.com has done much of this in his TCASE series.


  10. Stas Peterson  

    This is conclusive proof that these idiots intend to create a power catastrophe. California is well on leading the way. It depends on importing power from everyWestern state and third world Mexico; and actually generates less power than it did 20 years ago. The California loons assume that that situation can go on forever, but every western state’s reserves are being drawn down. All it takes is one western states’ PUC to order no more sales to California and every other State will have to do so, since none can meet the sudden demand. Freeze and/or Cook in the dark, you California cloacal cavities!

    Meanwhile the 35 odd nuclear plants in the US pipeline to be built, with nary a one in California, will come on line in the next decade.


  11. Charles Higley  

    Of course, in the long run we should work to preserve our carbon sources as we will always need them for pharmaceuticals and plastics production. But, seeking and using alternative energy, particularly in a forced and technologically premature manner, to decrease CO2 emissions is a fool’s mission as CO2 cannot and does not drive the climate. This is a great way to screw the people, but reducing emissions has nothing to do with our climate. If you take an honest look at the temperatures over the last 10,000 years, you will see that our ups and downs are trending down. An incipient ice age is our biggest worry, not a slight warming that does not even approach the 1930s and is a far cry from the Medieval Warm Period. Yes, Buffy, there was a Medieval Warm Period and a Little Ice Age, and we appear to be heading into at least a Dalton Minimum, if not a Maunder Minimum, with the PDO and NAO gone to cooling phases and solar cycle 24 gone missing. The heat storage in the oceans and its gain and losses drives our climate in the decadal range and the sun drives it in the longer range. Yes, that big HOT thing in the sky drives our climate, not out SUVs.

    The new pebble bed nuclear power plant designs are quite exciting and should be pursued avidly. Their relative safety is much higher than our current plants whose track record is admirable.

    Remember, the rad. environmentalists do not want nuclear, or effective wind power, or effective solar power as it would solve our problems and we could keep on keeping on with our lives. Their goal is to disrupt our lives and impose their own Little House on the Prairie vision on everybody. In reality their ideas would lead to a Little Outhouse in the Alley with a long line of miserable people.


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