With the rich history of cost overruns in the nuclear industry, Xcel Energy and Minnesota regulators shouldn’t have been surprised when the retrofit cost for the Monticello nuclear power plant ballooned to more than twice the original estimate. Regulators asked tough questions last year about whether the cost overruns were the responsibility of poor management and the definitive answer came back this week: yes.
This example only reinforces why nuclear power (and other large-scale power generation) isn’t cost-effective or compatible with a clean energy future.
A Poor Fit for a 21st Century Grid
Nuclear power is an expensive energy source, especially because it’s such a poor fit for a 21st century grid system. In a grid centered on distributed renewable energy resources, the best energy supply is one that is flexible (can rapidly change output to match grid demands). As a “baseload” resource, nuclear is the least flexible electricity supply, with nuclear power plants requiring very stable output around the clock. The following ILSR infographic explains:
Nuclear power plants have some flexibility, but only if they’re already operating at 50-60% of capacity. Below that level, they have to be shut down as renewable energy resources grow.
Nuclear energy had its heyday when advocates believed it would be “too cheap to meter,” but the cost and operational parameters of large-scale power plants do not align with the needs of a modern electricity grid. Maybe the future will look more like the miniaturization of nuclear power in Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel Foundation, but until then, using already-available and cost-effective distributed renewable energy makes more sense.