By R. Stephen Berry, September 5, 2007
Amory is correct that the sort of nuclear power last built in the United States is much more
expensive than other major sources of electric power. The construction costs of the most recent
nuclear plants were about $10,000 per kilowatt (kW). But this figure is misleading when considering
the cost of future plants. For example, the Japanese plant at Onagawa (completed in 2002) cost
approximately $2,400/kW, and a Chinese plant built at Yonggwang in 2004-2005 cost $1,800/kW,
according to a May 2006 presentation given at the University of Paris by Paul Joskow. The Keystone
and MIT studies estimate the next plants built in the United States will cost $3,600-$4,000/kW.
These are “first-of-a-kind” reactors, too, meaning they’re sure to be more expensive than later
plants. Much of the cost reduction comes from changes currently being made in the regulatory
structure. These changes will allow reactor licensing of a single design to be done almost in one
step. Previously, each new reactor had to undergo a full licensing procedure–regardless of whether
similar plants had been licensed. Significant improvement in reactor designs is also another
important factor in reducing capital costs, as new reactors are cheaper and easier to build.
This brings us to safety. Of the major forms of electric power generation now used globally (I
don’t include wind power because I haven’t found data on its safety),
the most deadly is hydroelectric power! And this is on the basis of deaths per terawatt of
electricity generated. The Keystone report cites three sources for its data, the most recent from
2001. However, we came to the same conclusion in a 1979 study: People build towns in the
floodplains below dams, and the dams sometimes break. The second most deadly by far is coal–simply
because of accidents, as deaths from emphysema weren’t included. Nuclear power is the safest by a
significant margin. Plus, Chernobyl can be removed from the equation because no one will build that
type of reactor again, making it absolutely clear that nuclear power wins on safety. To my
knowledge, a study of accidents or mortality from micropower has yet to be done.
(Incidentally, the rest of the world, as recognized by Google, thinks of micropower as items
such as power supplies for computers and hand tools. It might be useful if Amory found a different
Returning to costs: When taking into account the value of the large land areas needed for wind
farms, it’s far from clear that wind power is economically competitive with coal, gas, and nuclear
everywhere. Of course, in arid regions with no high-value uses for land, wind power makes great
sense–so long as the windmills don’t spoil the environment. For example, I’d hate to see wind
farms at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, and some in the Northeast have objected to local
offshore wind farms on environmental and aesthetic grounds.
Amory’s argument for generating electric power locally with small-scale sources certainly has a
range of validity. I’d be thrilled if towns in western Colorado generated their own electricity; in
fact, Telluride still does at the Ames hydroelectric plant, the world’s first commercial
alternating current power station. But that power goes into the nationwide net; so does the power
generated with solar panels. The time will come when individuals can afford to install solar panels
that collect enough energy for their domestic power and heating needs, but not for many
As for the Chinese approach to supplying electricity, the Three Gorges Dam project, which is
supposed to supply large amounts of electric power in China, has been one of the biggest
environmental disasters of modern times. This is well recognized by the roughly one million people
displaced from their homes and farms because of the dam
and knowledgeable people with scientific understanding of the dam’s issues. Not to
mention, this project runs concurrent with the program to build an average of 1 gigawatt coal-fired
power plant per week.
The gains from Beijing’s renewables program are miniscule when compared to the impact of its
hydroelectric- and coal-based electric power supplies. If China can replace a significant fraction
of its planned coal-fired plants with nuclear plants, especially at the low cost of about $1,800/kW
cited above, the global impact of China’s electricity needs could be significantly lessened. Safety
might influence that policy, too. Days after the Utah mine collapse, which trapped six miners, a
collapse occurred in a Chinese mine, trapping 180 miners.
I want to end this discussion on a positive note. Amory has been very successful in
communicating his ideas to significant and influential people. But there is one effort he could
expand that would give his efforts a new level of long-term impact. The Rocky Mountain Institute
(RMI) has a
kids’ program, which features
some interesting points. Yet, this is small potatoes compared to what RMI might do. I suggest that
they work with teachers, beginning in the Roaring Fork Valley where RMI is located, to create an
in-school program to educate students about energy and climate issues. It could be done at several
age levels, starting with first and/or second graders. It will take considerable experimentation
and careful evaluation to find what approaches work. After all, the concept of energy is subtle: We
see it as a single natural phenomenon even though it appears in a remarkable variety of forms. An
exciting curricular unit could be built just on what energy is, how we get and use it, and the type
of care we need to exert when working with it.
So, Amory, here’s a challenge for you! If you decide to try such a program and if I can help,
let me know. I’ll be happy to do what I can.