Nuclear Power: Why Opponents Are Wrong

In my advocacy of nuclear energy, I focus on traditional nuclear energy because it is already better than non-nuclear energy generation methods in most ways. Nuclear power plants we built in the 80s and have modestly updated since are already superior. If a person cannot be convinced of this fact, I doubt they care about facts enough to be persuaded by mentions of molten salt reactors, fast breeder reactors, thorium, or small modular reactors. We need to debunk existing myths about existing nuclear power. If a person proves amenable to that, then we can tell them about new breakthroughs that make an already superior way to generate energy even better.

Don’t interpret my assertion of the superiority of nuclear as me saying there is no place for wind and solar, there is. Wind and solar should absolutely be used where feasible. But wind and solar are variable renewable energy (VRE) sources and cannot feasibly overtake dispatchable energy sources like nuclear in a power grid (e.g., Capellán-Pérez et al., 2019; Emblemsvåg, 2020; Joskow, 2011; Reichenberg et al., 2018). Thus, we will continue to need dispatchable energy. Nuclear is our only hope to wipe out the need for coal and natural gas.

But what about batteries? Can’t they turn solar and wind into viable options? No, not on the large scale at least. Battery use at utility-scale would be of colossal financial cost, and create extremely environmentally unfriendly issues with mining and disposal. Again, this isn’t to say it can’t work on the small scale in specific situations like for rural people. But at scale, it is absurdly impracticable.

But isn’t nuclear also too expensive? No. It is true that building a traditional nuclear facility has a fairly large upfront cost, and it takes a decent amount of time to build. The largest nuclear plant in the US, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, took 12 years to build and bring all units online, and it cost $11.9 billion in 2019 dollars. That sounds expensive at first. But then consider that Palo Verde’s positive economic benefit is about $2 billion per year, and it has been in service for 33 years. Based on these numbers, it means it took about 6 years to break even, and it is $54 billion dollars in the green. Of course, this exaggerates the pure profit because it doesn’t take into account things like maintenance and fuel cost. But considering that upfront costs of nuclear represent 69% of its overall cost, its net profit is still quite overwhelming (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2020).

As far as the time it takes to build a major nuclear power plant, Palo Verde is at the top of the typical range. Worldwide, plant construction takes 5–12 years (Thurner et al., 2014). Considerable factors for why nuclear plants in the US take so long include unnecessary delays caused by anti-nuclear advocacy groups, NIMBYism, and overregulation.

Publics in general seem to often grossly miscalculate during risk assessment. Cognitive errors from heuristics lead people to not only assume a negative outcome is way more likely to happen than it really is, but they also believe the consequences of something will be much more disastrous than they really would be. Some heuristics include the affect heuristic (things that are emotionally charged are more easily recalled and relied on), and the availability heuristic (recent memories are more easily recalled and are more heavily relied on when making conclusions).

Contrary to what cognitive errors may lead one to believe, there were no radiation-related deaths or injuries from Fukushima in Japan or from the Three Mile Island incident in the US. There were also no meaningful lasting environmental effects. Yet the public is convinced by these incidents that nuclear power will pollute the environment and cause people to grow extra arms. The worst disaster, Chernobyl, killed just under 40 people, and caused a few thousand cases of highly treatable cancer. And yet coal, which kills 615 times more people, is much more accepted. To put this into perspective, nuclear caused .01–.074 deaths per terawatt hour. Solar is .019, wind is .035, gas is 2.8, oil is 18.3, and coal is 24.6 (Ritchie, 2020). In fact, an estimated 1.87 million lives were saved between 1971 and 2009 due to the use of nuclear energy (Kharecha & Hansen, 2013).

And yet following Fukushima, Germany and Austria scrapped their nuclear power plants, and “green” anti-nuclear groups around the world, including in the US, cried bloody murder and have ever since been demanding an end to nuclear power across the board. That is no more of a reasonable response than when right-wingers use a handful of rare Islamic terror attacks to justify rejecting Muslim immigration or use a handful of actual cases of voter fraud to reject an entire election. It is no more reasonable than when anti-vaxxers use a handful of allergic reactions to the corona virus vaccine to reject it.

The failure of people to sanely weigh the cost and benefits of nuclear and their seeming inability to draw reasonable and accurate risk-analysis conclusions is a major reason why nuclear is failing, not because of something innately flawed with nuclear power. The people are ignorant and impulsive and reject nuclear because they don’t understand it, they vote for people who reflect this ignorance, and those elected officials overregulate and attack nuclear power.

Then there’s the supposed economic problems with nuclear. The economic problems of nuclear are not problems with nuclear so much as problems with us not being able to deny ourselves instant gratification. It is easier to spend three years building a cheap natural gas plant that will give us dirty electricity now rather than spend more time and money up front building something that over the long haul will be even more profitable and green than natural gas. Nuclear only lacks economic feasibility if, like the children who eat the one marshmallow now rather than getting two marshmallows for waiting, we are narrowly focused on the short-term.

The government could fix this problem by beginning payments to nuclear projects at the point in time time that a typical natural gas plant is completed, which the owners of the nuclear project could then pay back over a time period following the completion of the nuclear plant. Everybody wins and is properly incentivized.

References

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