A Free-Market Energy Blog

‘Free Market’ Joe Romm? (when it comes to nuclear, that is)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- October 11, 2017

“[I]t is both pleasing and strange to see Joe Romm don a free market, pro-consumer, pro-taxpayer hat when it comes to nuclear. His (post-modernistic) dream is that wind power, solar power, and negawatts can usher in a post-fossil-fuel era. In reality, however, fossil fuels will replace nuclear to a large degree.”

Perry Just Made Taxpayers Invest in a $25-billion Nuclear ‘Financial Quagmire.’” So read the headline of a recent post by Joe Romm (Center for American Progress). His subtitle: “Nuclear plants are money losers, but Perry is loaning billions more to the last new one being built.”

It is strange. Nuclear is the only scalable CO2-free electrical generation source known to man. Although it is the most expensive way to boil water (and hopelessly uneconomic compared to natural gas- and even coal-fired power), a stubborn, quasi-religious segment of the Climate Malthusians refuses to bulge. James Hansen, the father of climate alarmism, has, along with a number of other prominent climate activists (see a list here). But not this Joe….

Romm, in fact, has directly rebutted his better on this issue–with his free-market hat on, stating

in the best-case scenario, nuclear power can play a modest, but important, role in avoiding catastrophic global warming if it can solve its various nagging problems — particularly high construction cost — without sacrificing safety.

The irony is that to the extent that Romm et al. have been able to retire existing or block new nuclear capacity, they have  contributed to rising CO2 emissions. Environmental Progress has  documented this in these five talking points:

  • Low-carbon power declined as a percentage of total electricity by 4.2 percent between 1995 and 2016.
  • Percentage of total electricity from nuclear declined 7 percent between 1995 and 2016.
  • The percentage of total electricity coming from solar and wind only increased 5.2 percent between 1985 and 2015.
  • The world could lose up to two times more nuclear than it gains by 2030.
  • Between 2010 and 2016, public support for nuclear declined from 62 percent to 51 percent.

In any case, it is both pleasing and strange to see Joe Romm don a free market, pro-consumer, pro-taxpayer hat when it comes to nuclear (and probably hydro too). His (post-modernistic) dream is that wind power, solar power, and negawatts can usher in a post-fossil-fuel era. In reality, fossil fuels will replace nuclear to a large degree.

Romm’s article follows in its entirety:

On Friday, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry authorized up to $3.7 billion in taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to finish building the last remaining new nuclear plant under construction in this country.

This loan, to the Southern Company’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, is on top of $8.3 billion in previous federal loan guarantees for the troubled $25-billion nuclear plant. That means if — or, rather, when — the project goes belly up, U.S. taxpayers will have to bail out Southern Company and its partners with a record-breaking $12 billion.

“When” might be more likely. Nuclear power has become so uneconomic that half of all existing power plants are “bleeding cash” — and even the profitable ones have the narrowest of positive operating margins, according to a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analysis.

Since so many existing plants are money losers, it’s no shock that new nuclear plants have priced themselves out of the market for new power generation entirely.

New nukes make so little economic sense that the Vogtle project is both “the first new nuclear power plant to be licensed and begin construction in the United States in more than three decades,” as the Department of Energy (DOE) news release explains, and “the last nuclear plant under construction in the U.S.” as Bloomberg reported.

Back in March, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the project “a financial quagmire.” The Westinghouse plants, originally priced at $14 billion, were already $3.6 billion over budget and almost four years behind schedule. Recently, Southern Company released new estimates that put the total project cost at $25 billion.

No wonder that Westinghouse itself filed for bankruptcy back in March.

Globally, the nuclear industry is struggling. As the New York Times reported, another well-known nuclear developer, General Electric “has scaled back its nuclear operations, expressing doubt about their economic viability,” whereas the French builder Areva “is mired in losses.” In August, the Financial Times wrote, “It sometimes seems like U.S. and European nuclear companies are in competition to see which can heap greater embarrassment on their industry.”

Yet in the DOE press release Friday, Perry said, “I believe the future of nuclear energy in the United States is bright.” Seriously.

As the leaked final draft of a grid study Perry ordered this summer pointed out, most of the recent nuclear plant closures were because “the marginal cost of generation for many nuclear plants is higher than the cost of most other generators in the market.” That’s why Perry proposed on Friday a new rule that would make Americans pay more for nuclear-generated electricity than the power market says it’s worth.

The reality is that, in the increasingly likely event the financial quagmire known as the Vogtle project goes belly up, U.S.  taxpayers are on the hook for a $12 billion bailout. That is more than 20 times what the $528 million loan to solar tech company Solyndra cost taxpayers after the company collapsed. Of course, Solyndra failed because other U.S. investments in solar panels helped make them so cheap that Solyndra couldn’t compete. It wasn’t clear which solar technology would triumph when the DOE made its initial loans in Solyndra. (Overall, the clean energ loan guarantee program was wildly successful). Solar was a rapidly advancing industry that out-priced some of its own companies.

Nuclear, on the other hand, is failing because it can’t compete against fracked gas and renewables like solar and wind. And Perry is making this loan after we already know new nuclear power plants are uneconomic.

Note: The last two paragraphs are where Romm strays off the free-market path–and leaves himself wide open to the argument from Environmental Progress that wind and solar are cost-effective, scalable substitutes for baseload nuclear.

Of course, Solyndra failed because other U.S. investments in solar panels helped make them so cheap that Solyndra couldn’t compete. It wasn’t clear which solar technology would triumph when the DOE made its initial loans in Solyndra. (Overall, the clean energ loan guarantee program was wildly successful). Solar was a rapidly advancing industry that out-priced some of its own companies.

Nuclear, on the other hand, is failing because it can’t compete against fracked gas and renewables like solar and wind.

One Comment for “‘Free Market’ Joe Romm? (when it comes to nuclear, that is)”


  1. Stan Jakuba  

    Nuclear is not falling on its own, and renewables do not matter. The perceived falling is due to excessive bureaucracy and the machinationof the renewable a fossil fuel industry. About $3 trillion has been spent on the renewable energy effort since 2004, and the figure has now stabilized at about $300 billion for each one of the last six years. The return on that investment is the 61 GW output from W&S, those two being the only relevant ones. For a comparison, a 1970s nuclear power plant – another source of clean and green electricity, and also heat – cost $4 million, inflation adjusted. Not trillions, not even billions, just millions. Thousands of them could have been producing power for the money spent on renewables, making our country and the world cleaner and richer.

    Reply

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