New reactor at Calvert Cliffs makes economic sense

March 16, 2011

Ellen Vancko, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) spokesperson, made criticisms of the economics of modern nuclear energy ("Calvert Cliffs 3 makes no economic sense," March 9) which are unsubstantiated. The UCS is mired in the conditions of the 1970s and unwilling to acknowledge the changes in global nuclear energy development in the 21st century. The UCS is lukewarmly pro-nuclear, exaggerating the hazards of the technology while claiming to support it.

By focusing on subsides to the nuclear power industry, some from 50 years ago, Ms. Vancko failed to mention that the renewables are receiving generous subsidies today. The Energy Information Agency, which is charged with developing all sources of electricity, reports that nuclear power receives $1.59 per megawatt hour (MWh) in federal subsidy and support while wind receives $23.37 and solar $24.35 per MWh.

The cost of electricity to the residential ratepayer is the most important factor, and the best way to estimate it is known as a Levelized Cost of Electricity Analysis. Such an analysis includes all the costs of producing electricity: construction and financing of plants, operation and maintenance costs, fuel cost and decommissioning costs. Notably, it excludes all governmental support. The EIA states that, in 2016, the levelized cost of electricity from new nuclear reactors will be about 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) while for onshore and offshore wind the cost will be about 15 cents and 19 cents per kWh respectively, and concentrating solar and solar photovoltaic, will be about 26 cents and 40 and per kWh respectively.

The American Physical Society, one of the world's largest scientific societies, has published a report which gives levelized estimates of the cost of displacing a ton of carbon dioxide emissions. The report states that new nuclear reactors will displace carbon dioxide emission for about one-half the cost of wind $9 vs. $20) and about one-third the cost of solar ($9 vs. $29). The chair of the committee that wrote the report is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

The UCS must dig back 40 years to dredge up reasons for the financial problems of the industry in the last century. One of the most serious at the time was that almost every reactor was of a unique design. As a result there were no economies of scale in their construction, and plant operators could not transfer from one plant to another without time consuming and expensive re-education. Currently there will be only a small number of reactor designs certified as safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and economies of scale should be realized in the future.

One reason that bankers are reluctant to finance new reactors is the concern that unreasoned fears nurtured by groups like UCS will lead to capricious closure of a construction project. A concrete example is the Shoreham reactor on Long Island, which cost $6 billion and was shut down after operating for only a single day because of public fear of an accident. Such an event raises concerns about the stability of an investment that have nothing to do with the merits of the project.

I do agree with the UCS about the threat from global warming and the need for low-carbon technologies. Even though the 104 reactors in the U.S. were built less efficaciously than they will be today, they have been producing electricity at 90 percent of their nameplate capacity, 365 days a year for the past 10 or more years, without producing carbon dioxide. They comprise only 10 percent of our generating capacity yet they make 20 percent of our electricity and 70 percent of our carbon dioxide-free electricity. New reactors will produce carbon dioxide-free electricity more effectively and reliably than the renewables that the UCS supports so vigorously.

Rather than being criticized for promoting the new reactor, Gov. Martin O'Malley should be praised for being technologically more savvy than the UCS.

Norman D. Meadow, Baltimore

The writer is first vice president of the Maryland Conservation Council.

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