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Nuclear power plants often require subsidies [ClearOnMoney]
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Nuclear power plants often require subsidies

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Commentary

Nuclear power plants often require subsidies

20 Mar 2012 by Jim Fickett.

The one-year anniversary of the Fukushima disaster has brought a new crop of anti-nuclear articles. The 8 Mar issue of Nature Magazine has an interesting one that is worth a look. Although the title sounds innocuous (The Nuclear Landscape), the article is strongly anti-nuclear. The main message is that building nuclear power plants is so expensive that nuclear power can never compete, and the subtext is that governments that subsidize nuclear are using their revenues in an immoral way. Needless to say, I think the argument is overstated and that, as the cost of fossil fuels rises in coming decades, nuclear will have a permanent place in the energy portfolio. In 20 years' time, governments that subsidized nuclear will be viewed as having had valuable foresight.

To give the other side of the argument a fair hearing, here is the author of the article, Peter Bradford, adjunct professor of public policy at Vermont Law School:

Yet the most implacable enemy of nuclear power in the past 30 years has been the risk not to public health, but to investors' wallets. No new nuclear-power project has ever bid successfully in a competitive energy market anywhere in the world. …

Chicago-based firm Exelon, the largest US nuclear operator, predicts that electricity from new nuclear plants will cost 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). In comparison, other low-carbon alternatives — combining natural gas with energy efficiency, expansion of existing nuclear plants and wind — will cost 3–11 cents per kWh. …

This economic impracticality has been felt globally since the early 1990s. Although the number of nuclear plants in operation jumped from a handful in 1960 to 424 in 1989, they then levelled off, peaking at 444 reactors in 2002. After Chernobyl, at least a dozen plants of the same design were taken out of action. Older, smaller plants were decommissioned. But the determining factor was the drop in construction in the United States and western Europe — a result of the cost of building new plants and the refusal of investors to bear the risks of cancellations, cost overruns and the emergence of cheaper alternatives.

At the time of the Fukushima disaster, only four countries (China, Russia, India and South Korea) were building more than two reactors. In these four nations, citizens pay for the new reactors the government chooses to build through direct subsidies or energy price hikes.