By Noah Smith
NEW YORK – For much of my life, I loved the idea of nuclear power. The science was so cool, futuristic and complicated, the power plants so vast and majestic. I devoured science fiction novels like “Lucifer’s Hammer,” where a plucky nuclear entrepreneur restarts civilization after a comet almost wipes us out. I thought of accidents like Three Mile Island and even Chernobyl as stumbling blocks to a nuclear future.
Then, in 2011, two things happened. First, a tsunami knocked out the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, forcing a mass evacuation and costing Japan vast sums of money. Second, I learned that progress in solar power had been a lot faster and steadier than I had realized. I started taking a closer look at whether nuclear was really the future of energy. Now I’m pretty convinced that my youthful fantasies of a nuclear world won’t come true anytime soon.
The biggest problem with nuclear isn’t safety — it’s cost. The economics of nuclear are almost certain to keep it a marginal part of the energy mix, especially in the United States.
Many energy sources involve relatively small upfront costs. To increase solar power, just build more panels. Fracking also has lower fixed costs than traditional oil drilling. But nuclear’s fixed costs are enormous. A new nuclear plant in the U.S. costs about $9 billion to build — more than 1,000 times as much as a new fracking well, and more than 3,000 times as much as the world’s biggest solar plant.
Raising $9 billion is a daunting obstacle. It’s more money than Apple Inc., America’s most valuable company, borrowed in 2016. The plucky young entrepreneur raising enough money to build his own nuclear plant in “Lucifer’s Hammer” was pure fantasy; in reality, nuclear plants get build by giant corporations such as General Electric Co. and Toshiba Corp., with huge assistance from the government in the form of loan guarantees.
Another source of risk is safety — not the well-known threats of accidents and storage leaks, but the unknown unknowns. If terrorists figure out how to bomb nuclear plants, or hackers find ways to invade their software and cause them to melt down, the destruction could be catastrophic. But no one really knows how likely or remote those threats will be a decade from now. And even if those risks can be prevented, doing so will probably cause large unanticipated costs.
So nuclear power hasn’t become the futuristic dream technology the old science fiction novels envisioned. Instead, it’s a huge, risky government-subsidized corporate boondoggle. Someday we may have fusion power or small, cheap fission reactors, and the old dream of nuclear will be realized. But unless one of those breakthrough technologies comes to fruition, nuclear isn’t the power of tomorrow.
Read more at Dream of cheap, clean nuclear power is over