Synthesis/Regeneration 11   (Fall 1996)

True Costs of Nuclear Power

by Susan Lee, Austin Greens, Earth and Sky Women's Peace Caravan for a Compassionate Society

In 1993 a very useful report to energy activists and consumer advocates was published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, authored by Michael C. Brower, Michael W. Tennis, Eric W. Denzler, and Mark M. Kaplan—Powering the Midwest: Renewable Electricity for the Economy and the Environment.

According to the authors, when the study was written, the U.S. Midwest used coal plants to produce 74% of its electricity, compared to a national average of 53%. Those coal plants released 7.4 million tons of sulfur dioxide which the Pace University School of Legal Studies (leaders in the field of estimating the environmental, health and other "external" costs of producing power) estimated caused $3,000 in health costs per ton, or $25 billion annually. Brower and colleagues remind us that, per unit of energy, coal produces 10 times more carbon dioxide (CO2) than other fuel sources.

Nuclear proponents use this fact to argue for replacing coal with "clean" nuclear power, a claim that leaves some of us breathless (or breastless, prostateless, colonless or lifeless, depending on how near we live to a reactor or its waste stream!). Dr. Bill Keepin, a consultant to the Energy Foundation of San Francisco, has estimated it would take 1,000 large new reactors in the U.S. and 5,000 worldwide (about 10 times the existing numbers) to replace coal generation at a minimum cost of $5 trillion, leaving five sixths of the greenhouse gas emissions untouched, as electrical generation only accounts for one sixth of the problem.

Citing studies by the Electric Power Research Institute, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (1991), and even the Department of Energy (1990), the authors of this report provide evidence that Midwesterners can cut energy use with conservation and efficiency measures by 35-50% and supply the same proportion of the remaining need with renewables in the next several decades, in the bargain reducing CO2 by 70% and, as icing on the cake, save $2.3 trillion in fuel costs.

The "commonly estimated" cost for energy efficiency ranges from ½ cent to 4 cents per kWh (compared to nukes at 13-18 cents per kWh), job creation varying from 2 to 10 times per dollar more than nuke construction and operation.

The report ranks the top renewable energy sources for the next 20 years as (1) utility scale wind; (2) biomass including energy crops such as corn and switchgrass, forestry, agricultural and municipal solid wastes and associated power plant technologies; and (3) distributed small-scale sources such as small wind and photovoltaic systems. The authors point to a need for improvements in biomass conversion technologies to lower costs and increase efficiency, believing that if this happens, this source could replace 70% of the region's fossil and nuke power (without conversion improvements biomass could replace 50% in their model). Discussions of the pros and cons of each source from environmental and economic perspectives help energy activists to see the broader picture on alternative fuels.

The authors claim that a benefit of burning landfill waste is the elimination of methane produced by these dumps, a greenhouse gas much worse than sulfur dioxide. However, this raises a huge red flag: one must wonder what dioxins and other undesirables lurk in landfills to be liberated as by-products of energy production if this idea holds sway. Read the report and hold it up to scrutiny in the light of your experience and expertise. For me, it was a provocative, encouraging summary of research and pilot projects which applied conversion theory to a specific region and provided new ammunition for the war of ideas about energy sources.

A companion read for piecing together the big picture on energy economics is the well-prepared December 1992 booklet Komanoff Energy Associates produced for Greenpeace—Fiscal Fission: The Economic Failure of Nuclear Power, A Report on the Historical Costs of Nuclear Power in the United States. (See pp. 15-18 of this S/R issue for a nuclear economic history by Komanoff.) It includes a valuable section on federal subsidies for U.S. nuclear power that have amounted to 96 billion dollars in the last 40 years, conservatively, not counting in uranium fuel production, subsidies for foreign reactor purchases, health or environmental costs or the value to industry of the Price-Anderson liability insurance provisions against assuming full responsibility for a catastrophic accident.

A section on construction/capital costs informs us that nukes completed in the mid to late eighties cost 20 times more than reactors built in the seventies. That increase translates into first year capital charges around 13 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh) for a reactor operating at 65% capacity, over twice the national retail average price. With the price of uranium rising again, due to the success of U.S. and Canadian and other nuke hawkers in Asia, who knows how pricey a new generation of reactors would be to build, operate and maintain, or how much it would cost to run existing reactors on the mixed oxide fuel promoted by plutonium-conversion advocate Dale Klein of the University of Texas? (Ron Brown's well-publicized death flight included a Bechtel CEO and a report circulated on the Internet that one of the purposes of the ill-fated tour was to sell nukes overseas.)

By contrast, Powering the Midwest cites estimates of wind-supplied power at costs between 4 and 6 cents per kWh and average operating times for mature systems of 95-98%, and quotes the Electric Power Research Institute of the private utility industry on the advantages in savings and job creation of investments in efficiencies in lighting, air conditioning, and motors over investments in new power sources. In the Foreword to Fiscal Fission, Greenpeace consultants Peter Grinspoon and Harvey Wasserman remind us of a Harvard Business School study (Energy Future) cited by Bill Clinton in 1980 pushing conservation and solar as the solution to foreign oil dependence, and of a DOE-commissioned finding that windpower in just 12 central states could supply 25% of current national electrical use. They also inform us that the "commonly estimated" cost for energy efficiency ranges from ½ cent to 4 cents per kWh, with "ancillary environmental 'costs' all on the plus side" and job creation varying from 2 to 10 times per dollar more than nuke construction and operation, according to Worldwatch. Speaking of jobs, Worldwatch also analyzed jobs per output of the varying sources of power as in Table 1:

Table 1. Jobs Involved in Producing 1000 Gigawatt-hours of Electricity Per Year
Number of jobs:100116248542
Energy source:Nuclear fissionCoalSolar thermalWind

Komanoff and friends estimate that the nation has wasted over $250 billion producing electricity from the nuclear fission process compared to the cost of producing same from fossil fuels-and we have the waste to prove it-and presumably to extend infinitely the economic burden on the public. And, even worse," the industry has imposed a one-dimensional energy policy that blocked a sustainable, least-cost path emphasizing a transition to renewables-the one energy option compatible with a healthy biosphere and atmosphere."

In 1990, Pace University published the study Environmental Costs of Electricity, which evaluated the "external costs of nuclear power. . .by division into the following categories: (1) the health, property value and wildlife costs caused by routine emissions; (2) the costs caused by non-routine emissions (for which no studies were found); (3) the health and property damage costs associated with accidental emissions; and (4) decommissioning costs that are not internalized.

"The 'starting point' environmental costs from nuclear operations are estimated to be 2.91 cents/kWh, which is the sum of (1) 0.11 cents/kWh for routine operations; (2) 2.3 cents/kWh for accidents; and (3) 0.5 cents /kWh for decommissioning costs. This analysis omits all front-end costs from extraction and transportation of uranium." (I have not read the full study, so don't know if I would agree with their method of estimating these costs, but it's a starting point.)

Table 2 is used by Texas citizen-advocates lobbying for "least-cost planning," It includes environmental, health and social costs (in cents) of power generation in order to rank power sources.

Table 2. Estimated True Costs of Electrical Power
Type of PlantCost per kWh
(in cents)
mental cost
Total costs (in cents)
Energy efficiency0.05-

Estimates based on Ottinger, et al. (1990). Environmental Costs of Electricity. Pace University Oceania Press: NY.

*The May/June 1996 issue of In Business cites an estimate by the CEO of Inergy Conversion Devices of Troy, Mich., that within three years U.S. manufacturers will be able to produce solar cells at one quarter of their current cost.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has long labored to convince officials that conservation is the key to reversing the environmental destruction engendered by current energy production and consumption modes. When RMI's founder Amory Lovins was presented with the Conservation Law Foundation's Founder's Award "in recognition of his visionary contributions to the field of environmental protection" his acceptance speech summed up the importance of the quest to know the "true costs" of electricity production: "Our present economics counts only some costs, and it excludes a lot that's priceless. I don't think markets can be consistent with ethics until we stop treating capital depletion as income, soil like dirt, living things as dead, people as machines, the sacred as secular and the long term as worthless—at a 10% annual discount rate."


Lovins' newsletter and list of publications can be found at Rocky Mountain Institute, 1739 Snowmass Creek Road, Snowmass CO. 81654-9199. Another resource for Internet-linked energy activists is Public Citizen's Electronic Energy Activist Network. Subscribe by e-mailing to and leaving this message: SUBSCRIBE CMEP-LIST (your name—organization; if none, write "individual"—home state). For further info contact or call Matthew Freedman at (202) 546-4996.

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