The argument that building new nuclear energy plants will represent ruinous expense for anyone to undertake has percolated among nuclear opposition folks without much mainstream notice. Now, however, the Wall Street Journal has taken a crack at it. It's nicely researched and written up to WSJ standards, although you've heard the argument of the piece many times. Here's the lede:
A new generation of nuclear power plants is on the drawing boards in the U.S., but the projected cost is causing some sticker shock: $5 billion to $12 billion a plant, double to quadruple earlier rough estimates.
$5 to $12 million? That seems a pretty big spread. Here's a longer taster, with a soupcon of that "on the one hand, on the other hand" thing journalists use to cover all bases:
Several things could derail new development plans. Excessive cost is one. A second is the development of rival technologies that could again make nuclear plants look like white elephants. A drop in prices for coal and natural gas, now very expensive, also could make nuclear plants less attractive. On the other hand, if Congress decides to tax greenhouse-gas emissions, that could make electricity from nuclear plants more attractive by raising costs for generators that burn fossil fuels. Nuclear plants wouldn't have to pay the charges because they aren't emitters.
Coal and natural gas are not really rival technologies. They are part of the energy mix and will be for a long time. So-called clean coal and carbon emission sequestration may cause their stock to rise in the greenhouse-gas-reduction sweepstakes, but likely not at the expense or even benefit of nuclear energy. Likewise, the rise and fall of prices in those markets would have next to no impact on nuclear energy because nuclear energy solves different problems.
The second point - that Congress will turn a fishy eye on fossil fuels - is widely perceived to be certain, which is what has led in part to the nuclear renaissance and also to the increased interest in solar, wind and tide technologies. (Other non-emitting energy sources are not mentioned at all in the article, an odd omission.)
What the article represents is what newspapers are actually good at, which is pushing back at orthodoxy. That nuclear energy now seems the orthodox way to address climate change is heartening; that the Wall Street Journal would want to push back at nuclear energy and try out the expense argument is inevitable - it gets the issue into the public sphere. Fine: it had to happen sooner or later and it's not that tough an argument.
The article treats nuclear energy as though it were an all-or-nothing proposition; it's not. Coal, gas, wind, solar, nuclear and all the usual suspects will feed the energy grid. Nuclear has a place at the table, but it won't scarf down all the food.
Leave it to our friends at the Heritage Foundation to have a go of their own at the WSJ article:
The simple fact is that energy prices are increasing and if the nation wants to limit CO2 emissions, then nuclear must be part of the answer. So the question for policy makers is two-fold. First, what can be done to reduce energy prices overall and second what can be done to reduce the construction costs of nuclear power plants.
Heritage lists six proscriptive points, some of which reiterate our own, some of which are new:
...Commit to the free trade of commodities. Simply lifting tariffs on the products, like steel and cement mentioned by the WSJ would reduce construction costs. The U.S. would have the added benefit of gaining access to the resources to build the energy plants, of whatever source, to meet its energy demands.
And some of which are conservative boilerplate we could take or leave:
Sixth, minimize regulation. The nuclear energy industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the country. At best, it will take nearly four years before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will give approval to build a new plant. Furthermore, regulatory mandates have drastically increased the amount of construction materials needed to build a plant despite experience showing that such reinforcements were unnecessary.
Minimizing regulation has done this country so much good, hasn't it?
But read the whole thing - and the WSJ article too - and watch the fur fly.