When It Comes to Nuclear Power, Companies Should Think Small

A few months ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted permission for initial site work to begin on new nuclear reactors in the United States for the first time since the 1970s. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the gigantic Southern Company, plans to build the two new reactors at its Vogtle nuclear plant, near Augusta.

At first glance, I was all in favor of new nuclear construction. Among other reasons, it’s high time we stopped determining energy policy on the basis of a bad Jane Fonda movie. But as a Georgia Power customer -- who’s already on the hook for part of the bill for the new facilities -- I’m scratching my head a bit over both that price tag, and over the rationale for going back to the old model of massive, complex, and hugely expensive power plants.

The planned Votgle upgrade is estimated to cost around $14 billion, and each reactor will produce around 1250 megawatts of electricity (MWe). The new reactors will be added to two existing units which were completed during the 1980s.

The cost of those two original units, estimated at the time to be around $660 million, skyrocketed to nearly $9 billion in the wake of the post-Three Mile Island regulatory blizzard. That jump in costs, which was typical for the industry, effectively ended new nuclear plant construction for a generation.

As time passed and 70’s anti-nuclear hysteria ebbed, power companies around the country have petitioned the NRC for permission to build new reactors. Some 16 applications have been filed since 2007, with more anticipated.

All the current NRC applications have one thing in common: they’re for large-scale power plants, technically improved but functionally not dissimilar from the reactors of the 1970s. Today, Jane Fonda is a punchline, Real People is long since off the air, and disco is blessedly still dead, but the big electric companies remain stuck in the ‘70s as far as their strategic planning is concerned.

While political conservatives generally look favorably upon nuclear energy, the economics remain daunting. In a now-famous paper for Reason, Jerry Taylor of Cato said nuclear power “is to the Right what solar is to the Left: Religious devotion in practice, a wonderful technology in theory, but an economic white elephant in fact.” Taylor referenced industry studies showing nuclear electricity costing four to five times as much per kilowatt hour than coal or gas plants, and noted the massive subsidies and loan guarantees handed out to power companies as undermining the cost rationale for nuclear power.

All of which makes me wonder, again: this is the 21st century -- why are we looking at huge, multibillion-dollar facilities in the first place? It’s not like other options don’t exist.