The economics of a US civilian nuclear phase-out via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Amory B. Lovins

[…]An expanding fraction of well-running nuclear plants is now challenged to compete with moderating wholesale power prices, while plants needing major repairs or located in regions rich in wind power increasingly face difficult choices of whether to run or close. Thus, even without events that might accelerate nuclear phase-out, as the Fukushima disaster did in Germany, shifting competitive conditions have begun to drive a gradual US nuclear phase-out. Its economics are illuminated by a detailed energy scenario that needs no nuclear energy, coal, or oil and one-third less natural gas to run a 158 percent bigger US economy in 2050—but cuts carbon emissions by 82 to 86 percent and costs $5 trillion less.
Nuclear power1 in the United States, long considered the durably low-cost generator of electricity, faces intensifying competitive risks: New reactors are far too costly to replace the aging fleet of existing reactors, which in turn face rising pressure from even cheaper-to-operate ways to save or make electricity. For economic or other reasons, the gradual phase-out of unprofitable nuclear power plants, already quietly under way, may accelerate. Transparent empirical data and orthodox analytical techniques can illustrate the economics of this US nuclear energy transition—a complex transition embedded in a context that extends far beyond nuclear power.
The US electricity system is aging, dirty, and insecure, so almost all of it must be replaced by 2050, just to offset retiring generation and grid assets. This will cost approximately $6 trillion in net present value, whether the electricity industry builds more of the same infrastructure, new nuclear power plants and “clean coal” facilities, or centralized or distributed renewable plants (Lovins and RMI, 2011). But these divergent possible futures differ profoundly in risks—related to security, safety, finance, technology, fuel, water, climate, and health—and in how they would affect innovation, entrepreneurship, and customer choice.

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