Calculating The Cost of Nuclear Power
The fuel used to make nuclear energy is inexpensive. Uranium is available in almost all parts of the world and in various natural substances such as rock and granite.
When mined, uranium is safe to transport. A worker can hold a U-235 filled fuel rod in gloved hands safety when it is new. After the nuclear reaction has been initiated in the fuel rod, removing it from the nuclear reactor is an operation that requires robotic arms operated by workers who are safety shielded some distance away from the core.
Waste disposal is a critical part of any nuclear plant. Once begun, the chain reaction of uranium atoms cannot be simply turned off.
For as long as a thousand years after a spent fuel rod has been replaced in a nuclear reactor, the fuel rod will continue to release dangerous levels of radiation.
Safe storage of spent fuel rods is a high cost both in the danger of improper storage and in the cost fo build storage facilities that will last for hundreds of years.
The solution to storing spent fuel rods in the U.S. has been to use man-made caves dug deep into mountains of lightly populated areas. There are multiple safety considerations that must be addressed when planning the nuclear waste storage.
Nuclear reactors produce plutonium in the reaction. Plutonium is especially dangers as it can be used to create weapons in the form of bombs. Thus, spent fuel rods must be kept secure at all times.
There are new studies that promise to find technical solutions for both storing and recycling nuclear waste in the future. The problem in the U.S. is political aspect of nuclear energy.
It was the political wrangling that held up completion of a large waste storage facility in Nevada for years though eventually the storage area was completed.
To date permission has not been given to use that facility. Now the big problem is how to safety transport spent fuel rods from the various power plants where they are currently stored in massive pools of water to the storage facility inside a Nevada mountain.
No new power plants have been approved or built since the 1990's in the U.S. There is no way to accurately estimate the cost of plants as they are so dependent on political interference and can be stalled by the red tape of multiple government agencies.
With a proper blueprint and checklists that cover every requirement that might arise, it would be possible to build new nuclear plants with a good idea of when they would begin producing electricity.
Investors will not take the risk of buying into a nuclear reactor as there is no way to know when or if the plant will be completed and go live on the power grid.
The current mishmash of legislation and regulation makes the cost from a new power plant higher than customers could bear. Once a nuclear plant is completed, operating costs are not staggering and can compare favorably with use of fossil fuels.
The Fear Factor
While it's true there is a risk of radiation leaking from a nuclear power plant, the concept of a meltdown of the core that would lead to widespread destruction is minute.
Technology has improved and the containment system surrounding nuclear core of a reactor has multiple backup systems, automated shut-off systems, many sensors through the structure to measure the smallest change in temperature, pressure or humidity that might indicate a developing problem.
There is a fear of nuclear energy in the U.S. that is fanned by some environmental groups and is a result of leading news stories such as the recent nuclear meltdown in Japan.
The Japanese nuclear incident was in plants that had been built with the latest safety features. It was an example of how everything can go wrong at once. The problem was that power to the plant from the commercial grid of the area was disrupted by an earthquake and tsunami.
The pant safety system operated as designed and quickly began to shut down the reactor. At that point generators should have been able to pump water over the fuel rods to maintain temperature until power was restored.
However, those generators were damaged by the earthquake and were not operational. It was proof that no matter how many safety systems are in place, failure is still an option.
After this incident, columnists proclaimed the cost was too high when the danger of radiation was considered. Yet, only Chernobyl in Russia had a meltdown so severe that many lives were lost and an area was rendered unlivable.
The politicization of nuclear power, the fear of the unknown in the public and pressure to avoid nuclear reactors by environmental groups has stopped the move to build additional reactors in the U.S.
At the same time, older nuclear plants have had their 30 year licenses extended to 60 years by government regulators and these plants are operating safely and producing electrical power for their region of the country every day as they have for many years.