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By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall
One week we learn the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant has contaminated the entire North Pacific with via the daily discharge of 300 tons of radioactive water into the ocean. The following week we learn that Britain has approved the first new, “totally safe” nuclear power plant in 35 years, at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The snow job being perpetrated on the British and American public is that nuclear energy creates electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and that it’s cheaper than renewable energy. Neither is true.
A Little Problem of Nuclear Waste
Nuclear energy only looks cheap and carbon neutral if you take plant construction and nuclear waste disposal out of the equation. The US, British, French, Chinese and other governments driving the current nuclear renaissance don’t want you to think about nuclear waste disposal. This is because the technology required to safely neutralize and store spent plutonium that remains radioactive for 10,000 years has yet to be invented. Finland has come the closest, with the launch of a $3 billion excavation of an underground depository at Onkalo. Since the US site at Yucca Mountain was defunded in 2010, most countries have been leaving their spent fuel rods lying around in containment pools. At Fukushima, the spent rods were on the roof of the stricken reactors – before they melted down and spewed immeasurable amounts of radiation into the air and groundwater. In Britain, most nuclear “decommissioning” happens at a former nuclear weapons site called Sellafield. Despite a government allocation of more than ₤67 billion to the facility, the spent rods are still lying around in open pools. No one can figure out what to do with them.
Nuclear Affordability Depends on Massive Subsidies
Aside from the unsolvable nuclear waste dilemma, nuclear power plants are also incredibly expensive to build, owing to extensive safety/containment requirements. None have been built anywhere without major government subsidies. Prime Minister David Cameron boasts that Hinkley Point will be the very first to be constructed without government support. Instead of committing taxpayer funds to its construction, Cameron is guaranteeing that British consumers will pay a price for Hinkley Point power that is double what they currently pay.
At present the British public pay an average of ₤0.05 (7 ½ US cents) per kilowatt hour (kwh) for electricity produced by existing coal and gas powered plants. In sealing the deal with the French-Chinese consortium building Hinkley Point, Cameron has locked British consumers into paying twice that – ₤0.092 or 14 cents per kwh – when Hinkley Point comes on line in 2023.
Deceptive Claims About Renewable Energy
Cameron’s claims that the above price will be competitive with renewable energy are also extremely deceptive. Fossil-fuel based electricity continuously increases in price over time. This is due to growing oil and gas scarcity and the prohibitive cost of clean coal technology. In contrast, renewable energy costs keep coming down, as cheaper technologies come to market and increased volume slashes per-unit production costs.
Already the price the British government (and the BBC) cites for solar energy is out of date. They incorrectly list the current cost of British-produced solar electricity at ₤0.125 (19 cents) per kwh. However, thanks to the recent availability of cheap Chinese photovoltaic cells (PVCs), a British solar unit installed in 2013 produces electricity for 11 cents per kwh. This rate is expected to drop as low as 3 cents per kwh in coming years – and even lower as cheaper alternatives to silicon come on board. In Seattle, the cost of solar-based electricity is already down to 7 cents per kwh.
Ignoring the Cheapest Renewable Sources
For some reason, nuclear proponents always fail to mention the two cheapest forms of renewable energy: mini-hydrogeneration* and geothermal. As with the production of solar energy, there are minimal operational costs with either one. The per unit price of power production is almost entirely based on upfront construction and installation costs. With mini-hydrogeneration, the average per unit price tends to be half that of wind energy, which in Britain is ₤0.10 (7 ½ cents) per kwh
The cost of geothermal energy depends on the type of plant and where it’s located. There are two main forms of geothermal energy. The first is the surface geothermal energy captured in volcanic regions, where boiling water bubbles to the surface owing to cracks between the earth’s tectonic plates. The second is deep geothermal in non-volcanic areas, where deep bore holes are drilled into subterranean hot water reservoirs. Owing to the expense of drilling, deep geothermal technology is more suitable for providing direct heat rather than conversion to electricity.
At present the US is the world’s largest surface geothermal electricity producer at an average cost of 5 cents per kwh. In Iceland the average cost is 4.3 cents per kwh and in NZ 7-9 cents per kwh.
In non-volcanic areas of Europe, it’s more practicable to use deep geothermal technology to provide heat for homes than to produce electricity. The average cost of geothermal heat across most of Europe is 8 cents per kwh.
Five days after Cameron made his announcement about Hinkley Point, the city of Manchester announced the approval of a geothermal project by the Irish Company GT energy to deliver affordable, renewable heat to local homes and businesses.
Obama’s Nuclear Obsession
Obama, of course, is even more pro-nuclear than his British counterpart. According to Zero Hedge, his 2013 energy policy includes $14-16 billion dollars in loan guarantees for 8,400 Megawatts of new nuclear power. In other words, six or seven new nuclear plants. This is despite warnings by Congressional Budget office of a 50 percent risk contractors will default on their loans. According to the CBO:
“The key factor accounting for the risk is that we expect that the plant would be uneconomic to operate because of its high construction costs, relative to other electricity generation sources.”
As usual, Obama is less concerned about taxpayers than his friends in the nuclear industry who helped finance his political career.
*Unlike dam-based hydropower, mini-hydrogenerators are designed to operate in streams with a steep downhill gradient.
photo credit: Abode of Chaos via photopin cc
Originally published in Dissident Voice
Dr. Bramhall is a retired American child and adolescent psychiatrist, activist and political refugee in New Zealand.
Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. She has also published two young adult novels about political activism: The Battle for Tomorrow: A Fable
She is involved in the national leadership of the New Zealand Green Party and has a political blog at StuartJeanneBramhall.com