by Russell Lowes
Senator McCain announced a new prescription for energy for America in a recent speech. He is now calling for 45 nuclear reactors to be completed by 2030 and an additional 55 reactors to be completed thereafter.(1) He had been promoting nuclear energy as a solution to global warming for years. But
now. . .
So much for nukes being the solution for global warming. With McCain's 45/100 nukes, even if we had 100 nukes tomorrow and even IF THEY DID reduce carbon emissions, 100 nukes would not be enough to play a significant role.
However, John McCain probably wants to get his foot in the door and push for many more, eventually. The infamous 2003 MIT study postulated 1000 nukes.(2) Some organizations and individuals since then have postulated many more.
The reason that 100 nukes will amount to about a drop in a bucket is this. The United States generates about 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.(3) Even if that electrical production was used to displace coal, and CO2 production of the twenty steps of the nuclear energy cycle was not counted, then it would save coal plants from putting about 400 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. 400 million is only 7% of 6 billion U.S. CO2 emissions.
However, much of this nuclear capacity would displace solar, energy efficiency technologies, natural gas, etc. These technologies produce far less CO2 than coal, so the displacement would be much lower.
It is important to remember that nuclear energy has twenty steps of CO2 production, from mining to waste management. It produces a huge amount of CO2.
Let's focus on the costs of McCain's 45/100 Rx.
In the early part of this decade, nuclear reactors were projected by the industry to cost $1500 to 2000 per kilowatt of capacity. Then about two years ago, a utility put the cost at $2600. Then estimates started really climbing. Over the last two years, estimates have increased all the way to $10,000 per kilowatt, 5-7-fold what the projection was just a few years ago.
With these new cost estimates flying out of the utilities' planning staffs, the 100 reactors would cost about $9-10 billion each if they averaged 1000 megawatts each. Most reactor designs these days are larger, though, ranging from 1100 to 1600 megawatts. So let's say the average size changes from the current 1000 to the future 1350 MW. At the most recent utility estimate of $10,000 per kilowatt, 100 reactors would total $1.35 trillion.
If these plants were all finished in the same year, to make it simple, and the payback (levelized fixed charge rate) was 15% per year, the annual payback would average $202.5 billion per year. If we shared that expense over 350 million U.S. citizens over 30 years, that would be $579 per person per year for each of those 30 years.
To put this into another perspective, the total energy bill for our country is about $900 billion per year. That is for gas for our cars, electricity, all manufacturing, commercial and residential consumption for heating, cooling, everything. Just for this measly 100 reactors, with a boost from 19% of energy to probably 25% or so (considering we won't have any money left to spend on energy efficiency or renewables, so energy growth will remain high), there will simply not be enough benefit to outweigh the costs.
All this nuclear plant capacity for $579 per citizen of the U.S. for 30 years, and we haven't even put on the costs of fuel, operation and maintenance, waste storage, environmental remediation from terrorist or other environmental breaches!