Headlines out of the UK are pointing out the horrible state of affairs for nuclear generation decommissioning after a committee of Members of Parliament that the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority really doesn’t have a handle on the 17 sites, their costs, or the vendors they selected for cleanup. They are currently projecting $177 billion and 120 years for the full decommissioning, over $1 billion per site. Some of this is due to botched procurement, with two different cleanup vendors stripped of their contracts.
Certainly the UK cleanup is a fustercluck of epic proportions, equivalent in fiscal sense to building Hinkley. That new reactor, billions and years over budget and schedule, required a commitment for 35 years to pay $150/MWh for every MWh they generated, at a time when onshore wind and solar in the UK are at or under $50/MWh and offshore wind is under $100/MWh.
There are about 100 reactors in the United States. Assuming they collect the $320 million per reactor (they won’t, as reactors are closing prematurely), they would have a fund of $32 billion. But they need a fund of closer to $70 billion, and they are short regardless. So the US fleet cleanup is going to cost the taxpayer probably closer to an additional $40 billion, if it all goes according to the estimates.
Note that the UK and Slovakia examples show that it usually doesn’t, just as building new nuclear never seems to come in on time or budget. The reality is going to be closer to the European and Slovakian costs, so let’s assume a billion per reactor as a reasonable number.
The US will have maybe $30 billion. They’ll need $100 billion. Yeah, $70 billion is the more reasonable number.
Of course, this is on top of the $1.6 billion annual tax breaks nuclear plants in the US get, the $10 billion liability insurance cap with the taxpayer holding the bill should a Fukushima-scale disaster occur and the state-level boondoggles like the $1.1 billion Ohio subsidy that came with a side helping of $60 million in bribes.
The first is the magic of net present value. That calculates the value of future dollars today given inflation. Just as a thousand bucks bought a lot more in 1990 than it does today, in 2050 it will buy a lot less than it does today. That means that liabilities that will be incurred decades in the future approach zero cost in today’s cost benefit analysis. Can you say generational inequity?
The second is ideology. When really blatantly obvious economic sense gets thrown out the window, you start looking around for irrationality or graft. A lot of conservatives really hate onshore wind because it spoils the views from their manses (UK) or ranches (US) or country estates (Oz). They also think of wind and solar as inadequate hippy shit. They think nuclear is the answer. These are opinions that they formed in the 1970s or perhaps the 1980s, but conservatives have a stronger tendency to not let empirical reality change their mind. So Hinkley, Vogtle, and Summer are a triumph of ideology over reality.
The third is graft. When we start talking about $10 billion or more to build a plant, billions in subsidies, and another billion to take the thing apart, a lot of people start rubbing their hands together and figuring out who they have to bribe now to get a big payoff later. The entire regulatory structure in the two states that had nuclear plants in construction until recently when one was finally put out of the state’s fiscal misery were both structured so that no matter how much the utility spent, it was guaranteed a set profit. If they built a $15 billion nuclear plant, they made a lot of profit off of the rate payers. If they built $2 billion worth of wind and solar instead, they made a lot less money off of the rate payers. It’s dumb as a box of hammers, but it’s part of the reason a lot of utilities love nuclear, and coal-generation carbon capture schemes to boot. They are licenses to print money.