You Decide

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photo montage: red radioactivity symbol, steaming containment towersImage CreditShould the United States build more nuclear power plants?

  • Yes? But have you considered...
  • No? But have you considered...

… nuclear power is the most expensive option we have to reduce carbon emissions?

Proponents of nuclear power are fond of saying that nuclear power produces some of the cheapest electricity on the market. But the nuclear industry is like a dishonest cell phone company: You’re promised the lowest rate per minute, only to discover later that your bill is laden with hidden charges.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that a new nuclear reactor requires 300 miles of electrical wiring—that’s enough to stretch from Boston to Philadelphia—and 66,000 tons of steel. Add to that 400,000 cubic yards of concrete—the same amount used to build the Empire State Building—and the rising expense of some raw materials, and it’s no wonder that it costs between $4 billion and $7 billion to build a single nuclear reactor.

When construction and maintenance costs are factored in, electricity from a new nuclear reactor could reach $0.14 to $.17 per kilowatt-hour. That’s more than the average U.S. electricity rate ($.10 per kilowatt-hour), and it’s up to three times more expensive than wind energy and twice as expensive as geothermal. It’s even more costly than some types of solar electricity.

Worse yet, many of the high cost estimates for nuclear power don’t include what customers will pay for long-term waste disposal and storage—an estimated $96 billion to research, build and operate the proposed Yucca Mountain depository.

It comes as little surprise, then, that of the various options the United States has for displacing carbon emissions, nuclear is the most expensive. According to a study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a green-energy think tank, wind energy and cogeneration (the practice of producing electricity from excess industrial heat) is at least 1.5 times more cost-effective than nuclear energy in terms of displacing carbon emissions. What’s more, energy-efficiency measures—retrofits of lighting and air conditioners and using smart thermostats, for example—are about 10 times more effective per dollar spent at displacing carbon emissions than the nuclear alternative.

The United States should do all it can to reduce carbon emissions, but we don’t have to bankrupt ourselves with nuclear in the process.

… nuclear electricity can be produced relatively cheaply if carbon emissions are taxed?

Other than hydropower, nuclear electricity cost less to produce in 2007 than any other baseload electricity source. At $.0176 per kilowatt-hour, nuclear power, according to the pro-industry Nuclear Energy Institute, was not only more economical to produce than coal, but also more than four times cheaper than natural gas and more than five times cheaper than petroleum.

Sure, nuclear plants may be more expensive to build than their coal or natural gas counterparts, but nuclear reactors will surely become cheaper by comparison as the U.S. government enacts a carbon tax or makes fossil-fuel power plants buy carbon credits.

In fact, anxiety over a future fee on carbon emissions has already prompted several utilities to table their coal power plans and pursue nuclear instead. In March 2008, for example, the utility Progress Energy Florida petitioned Florida regulators for approval to build two nuclear reactors. The price tag was $14 billion, but the company reasoned a coal plant would come with “significant environmental costs.” The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), meanwhile, has forecast that a nuclear plant would be a better financial investment than a coal plant if emitting CO2 costs—either by tax or by fee—at least $20 per ton. The CBO further estimates that if the per-ton cost for CO2 emissions rises to $45, a nuclear reactor would be a better investment than even a natural gas power plant.

Nuclear is also a component in the time-honored strategy of fuel diversity—spreading out the electricity sources we rely on, the same way smart investors don’t pour all their money into the stock market. Every new nuclear power plant means we will be relying less on natural gas, which in turn helps free the United States from the economic shocks associated with fluctuating fossil-fuel prices.

Nuclear power could actually save money and save the planet. How much is that worth?

You’ve seen some of the arguments. Now cast your final vote to see the results of the poll. To see the other perspectives, please go through the activity again, select the opposite answers and see what the opposition has to say.

Should the United States build more nuclear power plants?

Nothing about the issues facing America today is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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