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The Future Of Nuclear, Revised

Via the Wall Street Journal's Keith Johnson, MIT has just updated its big 2003 study on "The Future of Nuclear Power." I do believe the party line around these parts is that nuclear power's safe and certainly worth considering as a source of carbon-free power, but that cost and financing are two big question marks. One issue the MIT study explores is whether a cap or price on carbon-dioxide emissions will automatically lead to a boom in new reactor construction here in the United States. And the short answer is… not necessarily.

Again, cost is the key issue. Right now, the study notes, nuclear power is still quite a bit more expensive to produce than power from coal or gas plants: It costs about 8.4 cents per kilowatt-hour to generate electricity from a reactor, compared with 6.2 cents for coal and 6.5 cents for gas. (Some recent estimates have suggested the cost for new nuclear might even be much higher than that—one Keystone Center analyst pegged the cost of new nuclear at 12 or 17 cents per kilowatt hour).

Now, a carbon price of around $25 per ton (higher than the initial $15 per ton price under the Waxman-Markey bill in the House) would make nuclear competitive with coal power—though natural gas would still be cheaper. But that's not the only consideration: Under a carbon cap, nuclear would also still have to compete with other, potentially cheaper carbon-free alternatives like concentrated solar thermal. Solar thermal plants, after all, are sprouting up right now and, with their storage capabilities, can provide baseload power, just like nuclear. The solar-thermal industry will no doubt keep chugging once a nationwide cap-and-trade program gets phased in and federal renewable-electricity mandates get up and running. (Lawmakers have traditionally excluded nuclear from these mandates.)

Not only that, but as Johnson notes, "lenders typically charge more to finance a nuclear plant than, say, a combined-cycle gas-fired power plant. That’s because nuclear plants have a history of running behind schedule and facing cost overruns." Case in point: The problems plaguing the EPR reactor being built in Finland. Or, closer to home, in Florida, Progress Energy just delayed its planned reactors by another 20 months, partly because the regulatory review was taking longer than expected. (The utility is also facing a backlash from customers who are facing rate hikes to pay for the new plants.) This, more than anything, seems to be the main obstacle to a big nuke rebirth. Essentially, the industry has to demonstrate that, in this day and age, it can build actual, real-life plants in the United States on time and under budget. Only then will the money rush in.

There's also, naturally, the waste angle—especially since Yucca Mountain looks to be on hold indefinitely, and there's no clear long-term plan for nuclear waste in this country. Over at ClimateWire today, Kate Ling examines France's experience with reprocessing its spent fuel rods, a method that shrinks the total volume of waste (and saves on uranium costs) but also raises some proliferation concerns. Her piece sorts through the pros and cons nicely. Here in the United States, Areva and General Electric have been asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop a licensing process for waste recycling, though even in the best case, an actual plant wouldn't get built until 2020-2025 at the earliest. In the meantime, there's still a fair bit of treading water.

--Bradford Plumer