The epic tragedy unfolding in Japan is heating up the debate on nuclear power. What will this mean for the future of nuclear worldwide and in the US? There are significant risks, costs, and benefits.
Does 1 in 74,176 sound like good odds? I’m really not sure.
Bill Dedman, of msnbc.com, writes that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has calculated the odds of an earthquake causing catastrophic failure to a nuclear plant and at the typical nuclear reactor in the U.S., “there’s a 1 in 74,176 chance that the core could be damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation. That’s 10 times more likely than you winning $10,000 by buying a ticket in the Powerball multistate lottery, where the chance is 1 in 723,145.”
What does nuclear power cost? Does $100+ per MWh cover the costs?
Federal supports to foster the industry are costly; tax credits, R&D funding ($853 million requested for 2012), loan guarantees (currently at $18.5 billion, and up to $36 billion in 2012), as well as limits on legal liability in case of accidents (messy little externalities). And those externalities are enormous. According to Wikipedia, if we count up the nuclear power plant accidents with more than US$300 million in property damage through 2009, the total is $14.868 billion). John Rowe, CEO of Exelon Corp, estimates that if congress wanted to double or triple the size of the existing nuclear capacity, “the government would have to spend $300-600 billion to get these plants built.” What is the true price when all subsidies and externalities are included?
We want cheap (clean) energy and green jobs.
At 1.87 ¢/kWh (2008), nuclear is 68% the cost of electricity from coal and a quarter of that from gas, according to the World Nuclear Association. Contrast that however with new gas plants cost .69 ¢/kWh and coal to gas switching cost 82¢/kWh, according to John Rowe.
The U.S. has 104 nuclear plants, which generate 20.2% of our annual electrical power (as of 2009 EIA data) [Coal represents 44.5%, natural gas 23.3%, conventional hydroelectric 6.9 %, and other renewables 3.6% (of which wind is 1.9%, solar thermal and photovoltaic is 0.023%).] There is one plant under construction by the Tennessee Valley Authority, 9 planned units, and 23 more proposed in the U.S.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear industry comprises workers at electric power companies, power plant design firms and suppliers, employing approximately 120,000 people in 2009. They estimate that almost 38% of the nuclear industry work force will be eligible to retire within the next five years and that to maintain the current work force, the industry will need to hire approximately 25,000 more workers by 2015. (NEI’s 2010 Work Force Report)
According to the NEI’s website: Each new nuclear plant represents an average of 1,400 to 1,800 jobs during construction, with as many as 2,400 during peak construction. Approximately 400 to 700 permanent jobs will be needed once the nuclear plant is operational. Nuclear plants pay their workers approximately 36 percent more than average salaries in the local area. For example, the median salary for an electrical technician at a nuclear plant is $67,571; for a mechanical technician, $66,581; and for a reactor operator, $77,782.
Obviously there’s a lot at stake here. An analytical, measured debate needs to be undertaken.
And let us all reflect on the travails and the heroism of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station workers, some of whom have lost their homes and loved ones in the tsunami, who are risking their health and lives to secure the plant and prevent a larger disaster.
Those who want to help can go to www.redcross.org and donate to Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami. People can also text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific.
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