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Nuclear Energy — The High Cost Of A Dying Industry

Nuclear energy has had a seriously rough year. In an article by OilPrice.com, the author asked a question: “Why is nuclear energy so expensive?”

Nuclear energy has had a seriously rough year. In an article by OilPrice.com, the author asked a question: “Why is nuclear energy so expensive?” One answer, besides the obvious 2020 curse that was activated when Egyptian authorities opened up 30 ancient wooden coffins in 2019, is that other sources have just gotten much cheaper while other options haven’t.

Underlying data by Lazard. Chart by Brad Rouse.

The nuclear sector, OilPrice says, simply can’t compete with the flood of inexpensive natural gas and is struggling to stay alive. However, it’s not just natural gas — renewable energy has been passing up natural gas in terms of new power capacity, and also growing strong in terms of new electricity generation. See:

The article pointed out that the domestic nuclear sector has been “increasingly dependent on government handouts to stay afloat and has saddled the taxpayer with the staggeringly high cost of maintaining radioactive nuclear waste in the form of spent nuclear fuel.”

As we know, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic shut down US energy demand, and this added nuclear energy to a long list of energy industries that are begging for taxpayer money — well, in the case of nuclear, even more taxpayer money. And the Trump administration came through for this dying and expensive industry. Back in June, the Department of Energy announced that it would award more than $65 million in nuclear energy research. This would cross-cut technology development, facility access, and infrastructure awards.

PowerTechnology reported that these awards would be for these departments’ nuclear energy programs:

  • The Nuclear Energy University Programme
  • Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies
  • Nuclear Science User Facilities.

That $65 million will also be poured into 93 advanced nuclear technology projects in 28 states. And the Office of Nuclear Energy, which is part of the US Department of Energy (DOE), has spent more than $800 million on research since 2009. OilPrice noted that the $65 million would probably be “too little, too late for domestic nuclear energy.” CleanTechnica‘s perspective is that nuclear has been long dead and we’re just waiting for the green leaves of the tree (existing power plans) to turn brown (close down). New nuclear is financially hopeless, many times more expensive than renewable energy options even with energy storage costs included.

Global State Of Nuclear Energy

At the end of last month, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR2020) was published and assessed major challenges that nuclear power is facing today. The news isn’t pretty. Mycle Schneider, who coordinated the report, explained that nuclear energy is irrelevant in today’s market. “Nuclear energy has become irrelevant in the electricity generating technology market.”

Antony Froggat, who co-authored the report and is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House in London, said, “At the same time, COVID-19 puts additional stress on the sector. In economic terms, renewables continue to pull away from nuclear power, over the past decade the cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 89 percent, wind by 70 percent, while nuclear increased by 26 percent.”

The report shows just how hard the pandemic impacted nuclear energy and also pointed out that this was the first pandemic of this scale in the history of nuclear power. In the US, operators were granted permission to impose extremely long work hours. Some were working 16 hours a day and 86 hours a week. (That was my old shift at Goodwill last year and typically the shift of many who work minimum wage jobs — often more than one if they hold part-time positions. It’s not fun.)

Also in the US, force-on-force exercises were suspended. These are simulated terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants that use a mock adversary force to replicate design basis threat characteristics during an attack. These are supposed to help assess and improve readiness in case of an actual terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor.

In Russia and Sweden, control room staff were made to isolate in housing that was located onsite. They lived at their jobs. In Russia, one national operation reported weekly on infections among the nuclear staff. In July, there were a total of 4,500 cases.

Technology Costs

The report compared the costs of solar, onshore wind, and nuclear. The report looked at analyses for the US conducted by Lazard at the end of 2019, which advises on financial matters while managing investment portfolios. This is what they found out in a nutshell:

  • Solar PV (crystalline, utility-scale) averaged $40/MWh, compared to $65/MWh in 2015.
  • Onshore wind was $41/MWh, compared to $55/MWh in 2015.
  • Nuclear is $155/MWh, compared to $117/MWh in 2015.

The report points out that over the past 5 years, the annual Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) for nuclear has risen by over 50%. In stark contrast, renewables have become the most inexpensive of any type of power generation. “What is remarkable about these trends is that the costs of renewables continue to fall due to incremental manufacturing and installation improvements, while nuclear, despite over half a century of industrial experience, continue to see costs rising. Nuclear power is now the most expensive form of generation, except for gas peaking plants.”

The report also states that even though Trump’s White House supports nuclear power and coal, both have not thrived at all under his presidency. This is due, the report says, to renewables being cheaper and basic economics. Lazard also assessed that the costs of renewables continue to fall. You can learn more about the nuclear report here.

Whether it’s the curse of 2020 or humans are slowly evolving, we are phasing out of the old and phasing in the new. In the case of energy, it’s renewables, which will benefit not only our planet but the health and well-being of people all across the globe. For now, though, it seems that taxpayers will continue footing nuclear’s expensive high maintenance bills.

 
 
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Written By

Johnna Crider is a Louisiana native who likes crawfish, gems, minerals, EVs, and advocates for sustainability. Johnna is also the host of GettingStoned.online, a jewelry artisan and a $TSLA shareholder.

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