Amy Goodman: Obama’s nuclear power dream is a nightmare

President Barack Obama is going nuclear. He announced the initial $8 billion in loan guarantees for construction of the first new nuclear power plants in the United States in close to three decades.

Obama is making good on a campaign pledge, like his promises to escalate the war in Afghanistan and to unilaterally attack in Pakistan. And like his “Af-Pak” war strategy, Obama’s publicly financed resuscitation of the nuclear power industry in the U.S. is bound to fail, another taxpayer bailout waiting to happen.

Opponents of the plan, which includes a tripling of the existing nuclear plant construction-loan guarantees to $54.5 billion, span the ideological spectrum. On its most basic level, the economics of nuclear power generation simply don’t make sense. The cost to construct these behemoths is so huge, and the risks are so great, that no sensible investor, no banks, no hedge funds will invest in their construction.

No one will loan a power company the money to build a power plant, and the power companies refuse to spend their own money. Obama himself professes a passion for the free market, telling Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “We are fierce advocates for a thriving, dynamic free market.”

Well, the free market long ago abandoned nuclear power. The right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation remarked, “Expansive loan guarantee programs … are wrought with problems. At a minimum, they create taxpayer liabilities, give recipients preferential treatment, and distort capital markets.”

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a longtime critic of the nuclear power industry, told me, “If you buy more nuclear plants, you’re going to get about two to 10 times less climate solution per dollar, and you’ll get it about 20 to 40 times slower, than if you buy instead the cheaper, faster stuff that is walloping nuclear and coal and gas.” In his 2008 report “The Nuclear Illusion,” Lovins writes, “Nuclear power is continuing its decades-long collapse in the global marketplace because it’s grossly uncompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete — so hopelessly uneconomic that one needn’t debate whether it’s clean and safe; it weakens electric reliability and national security; and it worsens climate change compared with devoting the same money and time to more effective options.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget, in the same statement announcing the $54.5 billion for nuclear power, also listed a “credit subsidy funding of $500 million to support $3 (billion) to $5 billion of loan guarantees for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.” Thus, just one-tenth the amount for nuclear is being dedicated to energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

At the same time, the Obama administration plans to cancel funding for the hugely unpopular Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told The Christian Science Monitor: “(The Obama administration) doesn’t have a plan for (storing) radioactive waste from a new generation of nuclear power plants. That is irresponsible.”

The waste from nuclear power plants is not only an ecological nightmare, but also increases the threats of nuclear proliferation. Obama said in his recent State of the Union address: “We’re also confronting perhaps the greatest danger to the American people — the threat of nuclear weapons.” Despite this, plans that accompany what Obama has proposed, his “new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants,” include increased commercial “nuclear fuel reprocessing,” which the Union of Concerned Scientists calls “dangerous, dirty and expensive,” and which they say would increase the global risks of both nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

Both Lovins and the Union of Concerned Scientists debunk the myth that nuclear energy is essential to combat global warming. Lovins writes, “Every dollar invested in nuclear expansion will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar.” Obama said that this first tranche of public funding, which will benefit the energy giant Southern Company, “will create thousands of construction jobs in the next few years, and some 800 permanent jobs.” Yet investment in solar, wind and cogeneration technologies could do the same thing, quickly creating industries here in the U.S. that are thriving in Europe. What’s more, the risks of failure of a windmill or a solar panel are minute when compared with nuclear power plant disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

From economics, to the environment, to the prevention of nuclear threats, Obama’s nuclear loan guarantees fail on all counts.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 800 stations, including WYOU cable access TV and WORT/FM 89.9 radio here. Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.


According to a study by Dr. Mark Cooper, the cost of electricity by new nuclear reactors would be (USD) 12-20 cents per kWh, whereas increased energy efficiency and renewable energy would cost around 6 cents per kWh.

Nuclear reactors are more expensive than a host of alternatives available today like efficiency, cogeneration, geothermal, biomass, landfill, onshore wind energy and natural gas that would also dramatically reduce carbon emissions. In the long-term, other renewable and low carbon alternatives are likely to be less costly than nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors have environmental, safety and security issues of their own that the alternatives do not.

Each 1000 MW of nuclear power that is forced into the supply mix would cost between $16 billion $41 billion more than a mix of efficiency and renewables. If the 100 aging nuclear reactors currently on line in the U.S. are replaced with these high cost nuclear reactors, the excess costs could be well in in the range of $1.6 trillion to $4.1 trillion.

Why does this happen? Endemic Long-term Issues Reactor design is complex, site-specific and non-standardized. Specialized supply chain has trouble ramping up, causing costs to rise. Mega projects where extremely large, complex undertakings are dependent on sequential and complementary activities are prone to delays that cascade into interruptions.

Short and Mid-Term Issues Compound Problems Material costs have been rising Skilled labor is in short supply. Supply train is stretched thin. The one-of-a-kind, specialized products have few suppliers,so interruption or delay in delivery cannot be accommodated and ripple through the implementation of the project.

Within the past year, estimates of the cost of nuclear power from a new generation of reactors have ranged from a low of 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) to a high of 30 cents. This paper tackles the debate over the cost of building new nuclear reactors, with the key findings as follows:

-The initial cost projections put out early in today’s so-called “nuclear renaissance” were about one-third of what one would have expected, based on the nuclear reactors completed in the 1990s.

-The most recent cost projections for new nuclear reactors are, on average, over four times as high as the initial “nuclear renaissance” projections.

-There are numerous options available to meet the need for electricity in a carbon-constrained environment that are superior to building nuclear reactors. Indeed, nuclear reactors are the worst option from the point of view of the consumer and society.

-The low carbon sources that are less costly than nuclear include efficiency, cogeneration, biomass, geothermal, wind power, solar thermal and natural gas. Solar photovoltaics that are presently more costly than nuclear reactors are projected to decline dramatically in price in the next decade. Fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, which are not presently available, are projected to be somewhat more costly than nuclear reactors.

-Numerous studies by Wall Street and independent energy analysts estimate efficiency and renewable costs at an average of 6 cents per kilowatt hour, while the cost of electricity from nuclear reactors is estimated in the range of 12 to 20 cents per kWh.

-The additional cost of building 100 new nuclear reactors, instead of pursuing a least cost efficiency-renewable strategy, would be in the range of $1.9-$4.4 trillion over the life the reactors.

Whether the burden falls on ratepayers (in electricity bills) or taxpayers (in large subsidies), incurring excess costs of that magnitude would be a substantial burden on the national economy and add immensely to the cost of electricity and the cost of reducing carbon emissions.


This paper arrives at these conclusions by viewing the cost of nuclear reactors through four analytic lenses.

-First, in an effort to pin down the likely cost of new nuclear reactors, the paper dissects three dozen recent cost projections.

-Second, it places those projections in the context of the history of the nuclear industry with a database of the costs of 100 reactors built in the U.S. between 1971 and 1996.

-Third, it examines those costs in comparison to the cost of alternatives available today to meet the need for electricity.

-Fourth, it considers a range of qualitative factors including environmental concerns, risks and subsidies that affect decisions about which technologies to utilize in an environment in which public policy requires constraints on carbon emissions.

The stakes for consumers and the nation are huge. While some have called for the construction of 200 to 300 new nuclear reactors over the next 40 years, the much more modest task of building 100 reactors, which has been proposed by some policymakers as a goal, is used to put the stakes in perspective. Over the expected forty-year life of a nuclear reactor, the excess cost compared to least-cost efficiency and renewables would range from $19 billion to $44 billion per plant, with the total for 100 reactors reaching the range of $1.9 trillion to $4.4 trillion over the life the reactors.


From the first fixed price turnkey reactors in the 1960s to the May 2009 cost projection of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the claim that nuclear power is or could be cost competitive with alternative technologies for generating electricity has been based on hope and hype. In the 1960s and 1970s, the hope and hype analyses prepared by reactor vendors and parroted by government officials helped to create what came to be known as the “great bandwagon market.”

In about a decade utilities ordered over 200 nuclear reactors of increasing size. Unfortunately, reality did not deliver on the hope and the hype. Half of the reactors ordered in the 1960s and 1970s were cancelled, with abandoned costs in the tens of billions of dollars. Those reactors that were completed suffered dramatic cost overruns. On average, the final cohort of great bandwagon market reactors cost seven times as much as the cost projection for the first reactor of the great bandwagon market. The great bandwagon market ended in fierce debates in the press and regulatory proceedings throughout the 1980s and 1990s over how such a huge mistake could have been made and who should pay for it.

In an eerie parallel to the great bandwagon market, a series of startlingly low-cost estimates prepared between 2001 and 2004 by vendors and academics and supported by government officials helped to create what has come to be known as the “nuclear renaissance.” However, reflecting the poor track record of the nuclear industry in the U.S., the debate over the economics of the nuclear renaissance is being carried out before substantial sums of money are spent. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, when the utility industry, reactor vendors and government officials monopolized the preparation of cost analyses, today Wall Street and independent energy analysts have come forward with much higher estimates of the cost of nuclear reactors.

The most recent cost projections are, on average, over four times as high as the initial nuclear renaissance projections. Even though the early estimates have been subsequently revised upward in the past year and utilities offered some estimates in regulatory proceedings that were twice as high as the initial projections, these estimates remain well below the projections from Wall Street and independent analysts. Moreover, in an ominous repeat of history, utilities are insisting on cost-plus treatment of their reactor projects and have steadfastly refused to shoulder the responsibility for cost overruns.

One thing that utilities and Wall Street analysts agree on is that nuclear reactors will not be built without massive direct subsidies either from the federal government or ratepayers, or from both. In this sense, nuclear reactors remain as uneconomic today as they were in the 1980s when so many were cancelled or abandoned.


There is a second major difference between the debate today and the debate in the 1970s and 1980s. In the earlier debate, the competition was almost entirely between coal and nuclear power generation. Today, because the debate is being carried out in the context of policies to address climate change, a much wider array of alternatives is on the table. While future fossil fuel (coal and natural gas) plants with additional carbon capture and storage technologies that are not yet available are projected to be somewhat more costly than nuclear reactors, efficiency and renewables are also primary competitors and their costs are projected to be much lower than nuclear reactors.

One of the central concerns about reliance on efficiency and renewables to meet future electricity needs is that they may not be available in sufficient supply. However, analysis of the technical potential to deliver economically practicable options for low-cost, low-carbon approaches indicates that the supply is ample to meet both electricity needs and carbon reduction targets for three decades or more based on efficiency, renewables and natural gas.

Based on analyses by the Rand Corporation, McKinsey and Company, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Clearly, there is huge potential for low carbon approaches to meet electricity needs.

To put this potential into perspective, long-term targets call for emissions reductions below 2005 levels of slightly more than 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Even assuming that all existing low carbon sources (about 30 percent of the current mix) have to be replaced by 2030, there is more than ample potential in the efficiency and renewables.

With continuing demand growth, it would still not be until 2040 that costly or as yet nonexistent technologies would be needed. Thus, pursuing these low cost options first meets the need for electricity and emissions reductions, while allowing time for technologies to be developed, such as electricity storage or carbon capture, that could meet electricity needs after 2040. The contending technologies that would have to be included in the long term are all shown with equal costs, above the technologies that have lower costs because it is difficult to project costs that far out in future and there will likely be a great deal of technological change before those technologies must be tapped to add substantial incremental supplies.


In addition to their cost, nuclear reactors possess two other characteristics that make them an inferior choice among the options available.

-The high capital costs and long construction lead times associated with nuclear reactors make them a risky source of electricity, vulnerable to market, financial, and technological change that strengthen the economic case against them.

-While nuclear power is a low carbon source of electricity, it is not an environmentally benign source. The uranium fuel cycle has significant safety, security, and waste issues that are far more damaging than the environmental impact of efficiency and renewables.

If the uranium production cycle – mining, processing, use and waste disposal – were deemed to have a major societal impact, nuclear reactors would be moved much higher on the societal impact dimension. If one believes that nuclear reactors have a minor impact, reactors would be moved down on the societal impact dimension. In either case, there are numerous options that should be pursued first. Thus, viewed from a multidimensional perspective, including economic, environmental, and risk factors, there are numerous preferable alternatives.


As noted, nuclear reactors are very unlikely to be built without ratepayer and taxpayer subsidies. Many of the hope and hype analyses advance scenarios in which carbon is priced and nuclear reactors are the beneficiaries of large subsidies. Under those sets of extreme assumptions, nuclear reactors become less costly than fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage costs. However, they do not become less costly than efficiency and renewables. High carbon costs make efficiency and renewables more attractive.

Moreover, public policy has not tended to be quite so biased, although the supporters of nuclear power would like it to be. Imposing a price on carbon makes all low carbon options, including efficiency and renewables, more attractive as options. Subsidy programs tend to be applied to all low carbon technologies. As a result, although the carbon pricing and subsidy programs implemented and contemplated in recent years tend to impose cost on consumers or shift them from ratepayers to taxpayers; they do not change the order in which options enter the mix. In other words, given pricing and subsidies that simply values carbon emission or its abatement, the economic costs as estimated above dictate the order in which options are implemented. Nuclear reactors remain the worst option. It is possible to bias policies so severely that the order of priority changes, but that simply imposes unnecessary costs on consumers, taxpayers, and society.


The highly touted renaissance of nuclear power is based on fiction, not fact. It got a significant part of its momentum in the early 2000s with a series of cost projections that vastly understated the direct costs of nuclear reactors. As those early cost estimates fell by the wayside and the extremely high direct costs of nuclear reactors became apparent, advocates for nuclear power turned to climate change as the rationale to offset the high cost. But introducing environmental externalities does not resuscitate the nuclear option for two reasons.

First, consideration of externalities improves the prospects of non-fossil, non-nuclear options to respond to climate change.

Second, introducing externalities so prominently into the analysis highlights nuclear power’s own environmental problems. Even with climate change policy looming, nuclear power cannot stand on its own two feet in the marketplace, so its advocates are forced to seek to prop it up by shifting costs and risks to ratepayers and taxpayers.

The aspiration of the nuclear enthusiasts, embodied in early reports from academic institutions, like MIT, has become desperation, in the updated MIT report, precisely because their reactor cost numbers do not comport with reality. Notwithstanding their hope and hype, nuclear reactors are not economically competitive and would require massive subsidies to force them into the supply mix. It was only by ignoring the full range of alternatives — above all efficiency and renewables — that the MIT studies could pretend to see an economic future for nuclear reactors, but the analytic environment has changed from the early days of the great bandwagon market, so that it is much more difficult to get away with passing off hope and hype as reality.

The massive shift of costs necessary to render nuclear barely competitive with the most expensive alternatives and the huge amount of leverage (figurative and literal) that is necessary to make nuclear power palatable to Wall Street and less onerous on ratepayers is simply not worth it because the burden falls on taxpayers.

Policymakers, regulators, and the public should turn their attention to and put their resources behind the lower-cost, more environmentally benign alternatives that are available. If nuclear power’s time ever comes, it will be far in the future, after the potential
of the superior alternatives available today has been exhausted.