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Nuclear Power's Prospects in the Power Markets of the 21st Century

Presented at NPEC's Conference "Is Nuclear Proliferation Inevitable?" held in Paris, France November 2004.

Jan 31, 2005
AUTHOR: Peter Bradford
Nuclear Powers Prospects in the Power Markets of the 21st Century (PDF) 223.42 KB

Nuclear Power's Prospects in the Power Markets of the 21st Century

Mr. Yu likened nuclear power plants to "a machine to print money"[1]

Congress has tacked on $35 million here, $29 million there to its annual spending bill to help the nuclear industry conduct site and permit work. When a marked-up energy bill makes the rounds early this year, it will likely suggest further study of options for fuel recycling and earmark $1.8 billion to get new reactors built pronto. The bill does not yet give NuStart what it wants most of all: government guarantees of construction loans for new, untested reactor designs…..The utilities also want two fat tax credits--one allowing them to deduct 20% of their spending on new reactors and a second to lop off 1.8 cents for every kilowatt-hour of power produced by the new plants…..

"Whatever the government needs to spend," counters Gary Taylor, head of nuclear operations at Entergy, "it's a small price to pay for weaning America off its addiction to foreign oil, reducing greenhouse gases and protecting our economy."[2]

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.[3]

I. Introduction

For the last 20 years, forecasts of an imminent revival of nuclear power plant orders have exceeded in frequency and equaled in accuracy forecasts of the second coming of the Messiah.[4] Today, with the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol, with the operating costs of the existing nuclear plants at all time lows, with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island receding in public memory, with advanced (though unproven) reactor designs of improved safety and performance under licensing review, with political support for new nuclear units in the U.S. at a two decade high – how likely is it that the stars have finally aligned themselves in a manner conducive to that elusive revival in nuclear orders, especially orders that will spread nuclear power rapidly to countries that do not use it today?

Not very. This paper will show that nuclear power's Achilles heel – that it is too expensive – has not changed in any fundamental way. Furthermore, the spread of competitive power supply markets, of privatized electric sectors and of transparent governmental decisionmaking tends to undermine the closed selection processes in which nuclear power has historically prevailed over various combinations of alternatives.

Some countries will build nuclear plants for reasons ranging from fuel diversity to national security to national prestige. An occasional country will use nuclear power programs that make little economic sense to mask and to assist programs to develop nuclear weapons. But such decisions are not a sufficient basis for a healthy future nuclear industry and are not likely to lead to the spread of nuclear power plants to many countries that do not already have them. A real revival can only come when privately financed nuclear power plants are being ordered on a regular basis in countries that use transparent and competitive processes to choose their power supply by building the least expensive plants. Of course, these markets should reflect the environmental impacts of the various alternatives, so nuclear power's best hope lies in a world in which the avoidance of greenhouse gases becomes a priority.

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Endnotes

1. Yu Jiechun, senior engineer at the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Company, quoted in "China Promotes Another Boom: Nuclear Power", New York Times, January 15, 2005, p.1.

2. Christopher Helman, Chana R. Schoenberger, Rob Wherry, "The Silence of the Nuke Protester" Forbes January 31, 2005. http://www.forbes.com/home/free_forbes/2005/0131/084_3.html

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, (xxxx), p.

4, Searching the combination of "nuclear power" and "revival" in Google on January 22, 2005, produced 41,600 items.

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founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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