Sentinel Editorial: In calculating the cost of nuclear power, experts leave things out 7-9-01
Enthusiasm for nuclear power seems to be on the rise, thanks perhaps to the Bush administration's energy plan, which puts in several plugs for it. The subject has been coming up on opinion pages and TV chat shows, gaining favor among lots of politicians and even some environmentalists.
The generally liberal Toronto Globe and Mail editorialized recently that it's time to put aside our "old-fashioned fears and biases" and give nuclear plants another look. They are "relatively cheap to operate," the newspaper said. And, because nuclear-power generation doesn't produce greenhouse gases, new plants could help Canada achieve the significant carbon-dioxide reductions to which it has committed itself under the Kyoto global-warming treaty.
Here in the United States, we don't have to worry about the global-warming treaty, of course. Bad science. Nonetheless, The New York Times business section carried a story the other day outlining the economic benefits of nuclear power: The fuel the plants burn (uranium) is cheap, especially when compared to natural gas at current price levels, and the newly designed nuclear reactors now on the drawing boards are expected to be relatively inexpensive to build. What's more, The Times reports, a new licensing process adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should prevent any long delays caused by protesters and their lawyers. The article speculated that a Georgia utility might build the first new nuclear plant in almost three decades.
There are some problems. Both papers mentioned the disposal of nuclear waste, although the Globe and Mail said "substantial progress has been made over the past 20 years." It didn't say what the progress might be. The Times article noted that the United States has 77,000 tons of nuclear waste waiting to go somewhere. Maybe Nevada. The newspaper noted that the elevation of a Nevada senator to the position of deputy majority leader of the U.S. Senate could complicate those plans.
The Globe and Mail mentioned concerns about safety, cautioning that "governments will have to remain vigilant to ensure that private enterprises maintain the highest safety and quality standards on future facilities." That's probably a wise suggestion, seeing as how a bad accident at a nuclear plant could render permanently uninhabitable a territory as large as the state of Pennsylvania. Maybe Canada has such territories to spare, but it's getting pretty crowded down here.
Anyway, assuming we can persuade governments to "remain" vigilant, as the Globe and Mail proposes, that effort will have a price tag that in all fairness should be added to economic calculations when comparing one energy source to another.
The same for nuclear waste. We've already got 77,000 tons of it, and assuming it can all eventually go to the same place, somebody will have to keep an eye on it for the 100,000 years or so it will be a threat to human survival. Let's assume it goes to Nevada and there are no leaks or natural mishaps that set off a radioactive Old Faithful. What will it cost to store the stuff?
For the sake of simplicity, let's say we hire a guy with a shotgun at $6 an hour to sit on top of it, fending off curiosity seekers, terrorists and assorted nut cases for 100,000 years. Do the math. Six dollars an hour, 24 hours a day, 100,000 years. That comes to one trillion two hundred and forty-eight million dollars. And, as soon as the Nevada site opens, it will be full, so a second disposal site will have to be found. That'll require another guy and another $1.2 trillion. And this doesn't take into account the possibility that after a few thousand years those two guys might ask for raises. You can see how this sort of thing adds up.
Maybe natural gas isn't so expensive after all.