A powerful way to convince people of a policy, is to get them to believe they understand the policy’s disadvantages. People believe they understand the disadvantages of nuclear power: radioactive waste, and the possibility of catastrophe. Skeptical/sciencey people tend to think these disadvantages are small, because they know people often give too much weight to highly unlikely outcomes. But in fact, the main thing holding back nuclear power, is that it’s not economically competitive.
Public understanding of nuclear power is based on decades of political debate, with one side arguing that nuclear power is much cleaner than the alternatives, and the other side pointing to catastrophes like Chernobyl or Fukushima. I recall being taught these advantages and disadvantages in grade school science classes. They were also encoded into Sim City. But in the real world, the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources are not timeless. They depend on the details of the technology. It is not possible to understand a complex and ever-changing issue based on what you were taught in grade school.
If you take nothing else away, I would like to at least persuade you of this: a) you don’t understand the disadvantages of nuclear power as well as you thought, and b) your position of “more nuclear power” should be updated to “nuclear power is an option that experts should consider”. If you’d like to learn more, read on.
There are three main ways to invest in nuclear power. First, we can use existing nuclear power plants. Second, we can build new power plants. Third, we can invest in R&D to make better power plants. According to the paper, “US nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge“, existing nuclear power plants are slowly closing due to a failure to keep up with the market. New large nuclear power plants are unviable, and R&D is unlikely to change that in the near future. New small power plants are the most viable option, but the authors reluctantly conclude that they are not viable either. You can read all this in the abstract.
I found that paper via an article by the Environmental Working Group, “The Economic Viability of Nuclear Power Is Only Going Down“. The article also notes that renewable energy sources are now economically competitive, and even surpass nuclear power:
But unlike nuclear power, the costs of wind and solar have dropped dramatically, to the point where the cost of new, unsubsidized utility-scale wind and solar power investment can now compete with that of existing coal and nuclear power plants.
Here’s another source, a 2008 Time magazine article, “Is Nuclear Power Viable?” They cite Amory Lovins, a chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Lovins notes that the U.S. nuclear industry has received $100 billion in government subsidies over the past half-century, and that federal subsidies now worth up to $13 billion a plant — roughly how much it now costs to build one — still haven’t encouraged private industry to back the atomic revival. At the same time, the price of building a plant — all that concrete and steel — has risen dramatically in recent years, while the nuclear workforce has aged and shrunk. Nuclear supporters like Moore who argue that atomic plants are much cheaper than renewables tend to forget the sky-high capital costs, not to mention the huge liability risk of an accident — the insurance industry won’t cover a nuclear plant, so it’s up to government to do so.
You can read more of Lovins’ argument in his report, “The Nuclear Illusion“. It contains many technical details but the introduction at least is highly readable. Lovins says that the most favorable estimates for nuclear power are based on ignoring the capital costs of nuclear power, while including it in the cost estimate for alternatives.
The “capital cost” refers to the cost of building the power plants in the first place. A high capital cost implies a certain running cost, just based on interest rates (despite interest rates currently being at historic lows). And I’ll just say for all the socialists out there, capital costs are real, and not contingent on capitalism–labor used to build nuclear power plants is labor that could have been used to build or develop renewable energy sources.
I anticipate that readers will question my sources, which is fair–I’m not confident in my ability to vet energy researchers. But even in the worst case where you don’t believe a word of these sources, I hope you at least see that the main arguments are based on economic viability. It’s just out of date to think the argument is all about nuclear catastrophes.