The cost of nuclear – incalculable

The Guardian has an good opinion piece which cites the surprising support from environmentalists like George Monbiot and Stewart Brand for nuclear power even after Fukushima.They contend that nuclear is better than coal, and that makes it imperative to the future. But the Guardian points out, nuclear will not go anywhere without large government support because of the uncertainties:

Monbiot, Brand and others rightly point to the heavy health and environmental costs of coal power. Researchers from Harvard recently published a study titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal” (pdf) that calculates the full health and environmental costs of coal power in the US to be $175bn to $523bn annually. The costs in China, with its lax or nonexistent health and environmental protections, may well be much higher. Reducing the use of coal is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to reduce air pollution and protect our climate.

The total costs of coal may be high, but the total costs of nuclear power are, in any meaningful sense, incalculable. Investors face cost overruns that could burn through even the deepest pockets. The true cost of waste disposal still is not known. The cost of decommissioning, even decades away, is also a big unknown. And the cost of catastrophic failure is more than a company as large as GE is willing to face. How can any investor calculate the return on investment with such large uncertainties?

Nuclear power can only be used with large scale government subsidy and support. On the other hand it looks like solar and wind will become more and more economically viable – but governments probably won’t support them as much since the market will find them attractive enough on their own. However, Germany’s support of photovoltaic power over the past few years is looking good. I am big fan of promoting decentralized rooftop photovoltaic in the USA, but utility policies are not all that friendly… yet.

Bloomberg in another article says that it will take up to 30 years and $12 billion to scrap the Fukushima reactors. Repeating what I had surmised in my earlier post.

Damaged reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant may take three decades to decommission and cost operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. more than 1 trillion yen ($12 billion), engineers and analysts said.

Four of the plant’s six reactors became useless when sea water was used to cool them after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out generators running its cooling systems. The reactors need to be decommissioned, Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said today. He couldn’t give a timeframe.

All the reactors, including Units 5 and 6, will be shut down, and the government hasn’t ruled out sealing the plant in concrete, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters today in Tokyo.

The damaged reactors need to be demolished after they have cooled and radioactive materials are removed and stored, said Tomoko Murakami, a nuclear researcher at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. The process will take longer than the 12 years needed to decommission the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania following a partial meltdown, said Hironobu Unesaki, a nuclear engineering professor at Kyoto University.

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