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Nuclear Energy: Mark Bittman's Renewables Delusions

Nuclear and Renewables

Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman’s column. 

New nuclear plants are being built around the world including in the United States. Bittman incorrectly suggests that nuclear energy is going away. In fact, there are 69 nuclear power plants under construction around the world right now, dozens of which will come online in the next year. China has 28 plants under construction, Russia has 11, and there’s even a small handful in Europe. Japan is not only restarting some of their idled reactors, but also approving construction of new nuclear plants.

In the wake of Fukushima, no countries announced plans to cancel new nuclear reactors, and several countries (UAE, Turkey, Jordan) announced plans to begin construction on their very first nuclear power plants. The United States is indeed closing a few old plants — Vermont Yankee operated for four decades — but we also have four new larger nuclear reactors under construction.

Renewables require a massive expansion of the grid, not its demise. Bittman imagines that renewables are like personal computers displacing mainframes, essentially freeing us from the grid, but this is the opposite of what the NREL study he cites actually claims. NREL’s study relies on a huge expansion and upgrade of the electrical grid, not its dismantling. Renewable energy like wind and solar, by their intermittent nature, require more grid infrastructure not less.

In Germany, for instance, the government is currently spending $25 billion on 2300 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines, and when the sun doesn’t shine (which is often the case in Germany) the country relies on the interconnected European grid to import electricity from other countries (like nuclear-powered France).

Renewables, on the other hand, are far from ready to replace fossil fuels in any country. Germany, in fact, is building new coal plants.

Nuclear receives far less subsidies than renewables. Bittman attacks nuclear subsidies, but they are far smaller than renewables subsidies. Since 1950, nuclear power has received $3.60 in federal subsidies for every megawatt-hour of electricity it has produced, compared to $1.50 for coal, $5.70 for gas, $6 for hydro, and over $100 for solar and wind. Germany has committed over $130 billion to solar subsidies since 2000, yet only receives 5 percent of its annual electricity from solar.

Renewables are far more dependent on subsidies than nuclear. Meanwhile, renewables are completely dependent on federal and state subsidies. When the federal PTC for wind expires, new wind projects plummet. And these are not loans; these are direct payments, tax credits and grants ($10 billion from 2009-2014). Wind and solar may be competitive with coal in some areas, but that’s including these massive subsidies. Renewables also receive many implicit subsidies like renewable portfolio standards, priority access to the grid, net metering, etc.

Utilities pay billions to insure their nuclear plants. What about insurance? Utilities are required to buy the maximum amount of insurance available and pay into an additional fund of $12.6 billion in the event of an accident. And while federal loans for nuclear power plants are quite new (only one has been accepted), new nuclear power projects are under construction in South Carolina sans federal loans.

Nuclear scales seven times faster than renewables. Bittman claims renewables can scale quickly while nuclear is slow — the opposite is the case: nuclear can be scaled seven times faster than renewables. One recent analysis examined how quickly countries could add energy from various sources over an 11-year period in terms of how much additional energy was added per person (MWh/person/yr). Sweden, France, and Belgium’s nuclear build-out were the fastest, adding 5-7 MWh/person/yr. What of Germany’s push into renewables over the last decade? It added just 1 MWh/person/yr of wind and solar over the same amount of time.

The only country that has decarbonized at a fast enough rate to meet climate targets was France during its massive nuclear build-out. It went from zero percent nuclear to 80 percent in 30 years.

Sweden voted in 1980 to phase-out nuclear power by 2010, but this plan was cancelled over concerns of climate change and the realization that renewables were not a feasible option. And while coal use is shrinking in the United States, it is because of cheap natural gas, not a valuation of externalities. 

No energy technology is perfectly clean, and solar panel production creates toxic waste. Bittman imagines solar is clean but the mining of materials used in solar panels is extremely toxic, and the production of PV solar panels produces more SO2 than when coal is burned (per unit of energy created). About 80 percent of European solar panels are manufactured in China, whose environmental and occupational protections may not be up to Bittman’s standards. In 2011, massive protests erupted in China after an accident at a solar panel factory resulted in a toxic waste spill.

Advanced nuclear reactors are being developed around the world. There have been a variety of designs built and tested over the decades, from salt-cooled to gas-cooled, pebble-bed to liquid fueled. In 1986, the US EBR-II plant performed a demonstration of its advanced passive safety features, where power was shut off, cooling ceased, and the reactor was able to shut-down and cool itself without any human or mechanical intervention. A similar test was performed with a gas-cooled reactor in China in 2004. The Superphénix plant in France – another sodium-cooled fast reactor that operated from 1986-97 – was 1200 MW, larger than most commercial nuclear power plants today. None of the examples above are “coulds.”

Since they use fuel much more efficiently, advanced reactors would lessen the need for uranium mining. Some new reactors can use nuclear waste as fuel or decommissioned weapons material, meaning there is much less need for new uranium to be mined. And while uranium mining can indeed be dangerous, it’s not nearly as dangerous or environmentally harmful as coal mining.

Antinuclear activists are one of the greatest threats to action on the climate. Bittman likely has no sense of the scale that’s required to deal with climate change. Consider that if a single 500 MW nuclear reactor is taken off the grid, over 100,000 solar home installations and 750 wind turbines would need to be installed in order to generate enough power to fill the void. Bittman fears the new nuclear craze, but what’s crazy, and scary, is his insistence that we shut down the development of new, advanced nuclear plants that have proven to be able to displace coal. As former NASA climate scientist James Hansen said, “The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed.”

Photo Credit: Renewables Delusions/shutterstock

Jessica Lovering's picture

Thank Jessica for the Post!

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Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on September 2, 2013

Wait, we’re concerned with what a food columnist writes about energy?  Would he care what Vaclav Smil wrote about pizza toppings?

J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on September 2, 2013

In all fairness to Mr. Bittman, he is apparently a distinguished journalist with reportedly 13 years experience writing ‘food and all things related’ articles for the New York Times and The Times Magazine.  He also authored a bestseller “How to Cook Everything” and is a published columnist for The Times online (the) ‘Opinionator’.   He’s been urging the Public to change their food diets for years and now has apparently expanded his opinions into urging folks to charge their energy diets also.  Who could be more qualified to write such an article for the Times?

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on September 2, 2013


I would care what Vaclav Smil has to say about pizza toppings. He has actually written extensively on food….

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on September 2, 2013

66 Gigawatts of solar PV have been connected to the grid in the last 2.5 years worldwide, that’s almost the equivalent to ALL of those nuclear plants that probably won’t be online for another decade.

Nuclear power is ALREADY dead.  Two of the biggest nuclear powered countries called it completely quits.


Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on September 2, 2013

But two days ago when Joseph Koblich of the ANS pointed out that Bill Gates said “I love nuclear”, were we all to listen carefully?

Nuclear advocacy might be well served by toning down the “I’m a doctor, I know what’s best for you” attitude

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 2, 2013

Josh, new nuclear has almost the equivalent in recent solar construction? Multiply solar by .16 capacity factor = 9.9GW; at .9  CF, the contribution of new nuclear will be 60.5GW, or over 6 times as much carbon-free energy which actually makes it to the grid.

In China nuclear comes online in 3-4 years; in America a draconian regulatory protocol results in extensive delays. After clearing regulatory hurdles, Vogtle 3 & 4 in Georgia will take 3-1/2 years from breaking ground to coming online.

I hope you’re not considering Japan and Germany as two countries which have called nuclear “completely quits”. Japan hopes to have 18 plants online in two years, and Germany’s antinuclear stance is mostly talk. 9 nuclear plants with a total output of 12.6GW are still online and helping to reduce the costs of disappointing generation from solar and wind.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 2, 2013

As of today, the cheapest way to power a nation is using fossil fuel (see EIA).  Tied for second place is nuclear, and an 80/20 mix of fossil fuel and wind.  Replacing wind with solar makes the cost go up even more.  And by far, the most expensive way to make electricity is renewables with energy storage.  A close reading of all of the announcements of planned nuclear phase-outs shows that no nation has committed to the extremely high price of energy storage.  So what they are really saying is they’ll move to 80% fossil fuel until one or more breakthroughs eliminate the need for fossil fuel backup.

Yes, a breakthrough in energy storage could happen at any time, but that is a huge gamble.  Nuclear is the only proven solution.  Only three developed nations on the entire planet have ever eliminated fossil fuel from their electric generation: France, Sweden, and Switzerland, and they all succeeded using a combination of nuclear and big hydro.  



Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 2, 2013

The cost study cited does not include the cost to the taxpayer the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act as well as the private insuance costs that the nuclear industry avoids with this act. 

As for renewables leading to an expanding the grid, only partially right. The great thing about renewables is that you can produce them on site. Budweiser has a 3.5MW windmill at their Fairfield, CA site( That energy is used on site and along with other alt technology. So that’s up to 3.5 MW that is not needed on the grid. Not always, but enough to make it profitable to have.  Or, as in the case of Gill Onions in Southern California, you can use a 3.5MWH vanadium redox flow battery and collect cheap electricity from the grid and/or their biofuel plant, at 5 cents/kwh to use during peak when its 4 times that price. That also reduces the amount of energy needed for the grid at peak times. Renewables are very distributable so you can run microgrids to take care of local variations in load.

The cost analysis is also incomplete as it excludes conservation. Why generate when you can save? It’s much cheaper to save than to generate any new power source. Energy conservation reduces grid load, cuts pollution, increases availability of existing resources in times of high demand. The jobs associated with it would also be distributed around the country in terms of analysis, design, construction and other industries.   Energy conservation has been proven to be very cost effective in California in terms of usage ($74 Billion saved by business and consumers since the program’s onset in the late 70’s) and has prevented the need for the construction of 13 full scale power plants. It also increases local energy security as the study by the Silicon Valley Manufacturer’s Group and the NRDC from 7 years ago shows.
“Energy Efficiency Leadership in California”

It is relatively fast to implement and large savings can be made very easily as proven in California, where the per capita usage of electricity is half that of the nation. (see study comparing per capita use in CA vs. the US

“(In 2005) Total consumption per capita in California was 5,312 kWh/person or 43% less than that on a sector-by-sector basis, industrial and residential differences each account for about 40% of the difference while commercial consumption makes up the other 20%.”

In fact is you look at Cal-ISO history, you;ll find an interesting fact. Electicity demand is down while the econoomy has grown. The record maximum was 50,270 MW on July 24, 2006. Since then it has dropped. 2012 had a max demand of 46,846 MW, a drop of  3,424MW. That’s more than 2 nuclear plants and at a much lower cost while the amount of GDP/BTU in California continues to rise. So why build any more plants when there is so much inexpensive low hanging fruit around the rest of the country?

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 2, 2013

Guys, you are behind the times. Vanadium and bromine based flow batteries are already in commercial use. There’s a 3.5MWH plant in California and Sumitomo  is building out a 60MWH plant in Japan.  Pumped air storage has been proven cost effective as has the flywheel plant in New York. Storage is here. Now it’s mass market time. The initial costs while high now, will drop consderably as storage capacity is added over the next 20 years.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 3, 2013

Marcus, a little proportion is in order here.

I’m looking at the California Independent System Operator demand for today, and noting that around 2:30 PM Californians were using 38 gigawatts of power. At that rate the charge in a 3.5 megawatt-hour vanadium flow battery would last just over 1/3 second. Each of these facilities cost approx. $1.4 million, so one hour of peak storage for California alone would cost something in the neighborhood of $15 billion.

This is ignoring the substantial infrastructure which would be required for input/output and load balancing. Thus far, prototypes have shown that with efficiency losses or expense considerations pumped air or flywheel systems would be even less viable.

This technology has been around for twenty years or longer. The “it’s mass market time” and “costs will drop considerably” mantras were first uttered two decades ago, and they’re no more true now than they were then.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 3, 2013

Your extrapolation, quite unrealistic exaggeration to begin with, was not the intent of my comment. It was to merely show that energy storage is now at the cusp of commercialization as prototypes have generated success and commercial units are starting to show up in the market. Your point about load balancing is way off. That is the strength of storage systems as output can be varied considerably. Example below.

The Vanadium flow redox battery is in use at Gill Onions in SoCal. It’s not for the grid. It’s for the company itself. They buy up baseload at 5 cents/KWH to use during the day when it is as high as 20 cents/hour.  In fact that is probably where you are going to see these batteries being used before they even hit the grid.  The advantage is that on site use reduces peak load on the grid. This is not a prototype. This is a working intallation in a commercial environment. Efficiency is 85-90%. Sumitomo is under contract in Japan to build a 60MWH plant for a Japanese utility.

Pumped water storage, which California has and is in the process of building more is similarly efficient.

Flywheel storage at Beacon Power’s Stephentown facility started up in 2011, and is apparently very efficient at load balancing with immediate power delivery available. Presentation here shows typical use. With 80% efficiency it is not perfect but again when you are using it to store cheap baseload it’s good enough.

They are building a 2nd 20MW facility in Pennsylvania.

Note that many of these storage methods were waiting for technology to catch up. Prices will come down just liek prices for solar and wind have come down. To believe otherwise is to ignore 2 centuries of the Industrial Revilution.

As far as mantras go  I remember 50 years ago when nuclear power was going to be so cheap that it wouldn’t even need to be metered. BTW, your time table is beyond way off. CAES, Flywheel and other technologies have been written about for at least 40 years. Those were some of the first papers I studied and I think I still have them somewhere.

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on September 3, 2013

From a quick Google:

Wind energy (/kwh) looks less expensive than advanced nuclear.  See

Waste disposal/disaster risk is pretty non-existant with wind, whereas both have been significant for nuclear.  What does France do with its radioactive waste?

Coal costs studies rarely look at the impact of its production.  A Harvard Medical School study estimates 300-500 billion dollars/year of over 70 negative impacts.  Even if that was off by a factor of two:  That would buy a lot of wind/solar and avoid the 24,000 premature deaths/year (American Lung Assoc.) and other health related tragedies.



Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 3, 2013

That depends on the goal of the storage.  If the purpose is to make market share for energy storage companies, then yes, 15-60 minutes is plenty.  This provides time for fossil fuel backup to ramp up and down, hence allowing around 30% renewable penetration; also it allows that backup to be a higher percentage of slow ramping coal boilers and a lower percentage of fast ramping fossil gas turbines.

If the purpose is to allow variable renewables to supply 50, 70, or 90% of the electricity demand, then we’re back to needing storage to supply like 60-90% of demand for 10-30 hours, depending on the quality of the renewable resources in question.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 3, 2013

It is far too early to judge the success of Germany’s renewable energy transition.  Thus far, they have only harvested the renewable low hanging fruit.

The reason is that they have yet to successfully address the variability problem at high penetration.  Variable renewables (sun and wind) start becoming hard when the penetration (percentage of annual energy demand supplied by a source) exceeds the capacity factor of that source.

For German PV with a capacity factor of around 11%, we don’t expect it be hard yet.  Similarly, their wind capacity factor is around 20%.  Further, since their wind and solar variations are somewhat complementary, we don’t expect it the combination of wind and solar to be hard until the combined solar and wind total is something like 30%.  

Another factor that makes it easy is that their neighbors with big Hydro installation are using it to smooth Germany renewable fluctuation, not their own.  It will get more difficult with more European renewables.

In contrast, nuclear does not get difficult until the penetration reaches 70% (depending on the demand peaking), and France has shown that 80% is still affordable.

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on September 3, 2013

If you include the “externalities” of coal, up to $.18/kwh, coal is far from the cheapest.  That is why it is called a free market failure.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on September 3, 2013

How is Bill Gates opinion about global energy not relevant? The man is reasonably intelligent and is in the unique position to have the world’s most knowledgeable energy experts and investment advisors at his fingertips. He is also able to devote all of his time to researching issues related to his philanthropic efforts such as energy. His endorsement of next gen nuclear power as the most likely solution to poverty means quite a lot actually. If gates doesn’t impress you perhaps James Hansen, Valclav Smil, or George Monbiot might. 

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on September 3, 2013

How is Bill Gates opinion about global energy not relevant? The man is reasonably intelligent and is sin a unique position to have the world’s most knowledgeable energy experts and investment I advisors at his fingertips. He is also able to devote all of his time to researching issues related to his philanthropic efforts such as energy. His endorsement of next gen nuclear power as the most likely solution to poverty means quite a lot actually. 

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on September 3, 2013

It may be slightly less expensive, at the best locations, and before the effects/costs of huge grid upgrades that will be required and fossil back up capacity are factored in.  More to the point, intermittent sources like wind will only be able to make up ~20% of overall generation, as a practical let alone economic matter.  There are whole regions of the country (e.g., the Southeast) where there is no significant wind resource.  Costs exponentiate as one tries to provide higher fractions of overall generation with intermittent sources.

To truly kill off coal (which we both agree is horrible) will require significant amounts of nuclear, especially if gas is not infinitely abundant and does not remain cheap forever.

External costs associated with nuclear power or waste “disasters” are very small, on the order of a fraction of a cent per kW-hr.  External cost studies calculate similar overall external costs for nuclear and renewables (  Nobody has ever been harmed by nuclear waste and even Fukushima’s impact is less than that inflicted every single day by coal.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on September 3, 2013

Germany and Denmark have the highest power costs in Europe, while France’s are among the lowest.  And Frances CO2 and air pollution emissions are also lower.

Germany’s silly policies enormously subsidize renewables while not making any distinctions between any other energy sources (i.e., the provide no incentive to use any non-renewable source over another, no matter how great the difference in environmental impact between those sources).  Seems that increasing renewables is their sole objective, as opposed to decreasing health impacts, global warming or energy imports.  Thus, there is no incentive at all to use gas (or nuclear) in lieu of coal.  As a result, coal is actually displacing gas in Germany, because it is slightly cheaper.  This despite the fact that the environmental benefit of using gas vs. coal is much larger than the benefit of using renewables vs. gas.  And the cost (of using gas vs. coal) is also more than an order of magnitude cheaper than building/using renewables.  The result of these policies is a combination of renewables and coal that features very high costs combined with relatively poor environmental performance.

Finally, there is the fact that Germany’s intermittent renewables are wreaking havoc with the power grids of other countries (let alone their own); something that neigboring countries will not put up with for long.  Many of those countries are also building nuclear plants for future exports to Germany.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on September 3, 2013

Price Anderson has cost the government nothing.  Estimates of any subsidy provided by the liability limit are only on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr.  (Not that liability limits are unique to nuclear.)  Fossil fuels’ privelege of polluting the environment for free represents a subsidy that is orders of magnitude larger.  Direct renewables subsidies are also orders of magnitude larger.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on September 3, 2013

As for nuclear’s decline, way to cherry pick the data!  The recent decline is a temporary situation mainly due to the shutdown of Japan’s plants which occurred just before a large number of plants under construction come on line.  As for the long term, the US Energy Information Administration (generally known for fossil fuel, not nuclear, cheerleading) predicts that nuclear will be second only to renewables in terms of long-term percentage growth rates:

The notion that renewables (especially wind) are (still!) in their infancy, while nuclear is a mature technology that shouldn’t be supported, is flawed in many ways.  We’ve been working on, and providing very significant support, for renewables for ~40 years now (vs. ~50 for nuclear).  The wind industry is now mature, under any rational definition.

Despite these facts, renewables continue to receive market interventions that go far beyond anything nuclear has ever even dreamed of receiving (renewable portfolio standards that demand significant use of renewables regardless of cost or practicality being the best example – try to imagine a nuclear portfolio standard!).

Also, I’ve always believed that the main reason for directly subsidising any given source (as opposed to providing R&D funding) is to offset unaccounted external costs of competing sources (mainly fossil fuels).  By this standard, nuclear is almost equally deserving of subsidy as renewable sources, as its external costs are negligible compared to fossil fuels and similar to renewables, according to most external costs studies (e.g.,  Again, while some subsidy could be justified to get a truly fledgeling industry off the ground, the wind and solar industries clearly would not qualify as such; not anymore.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on September 3, 2013

George, you know as well as I that neither of us are truly in a position to judge the knowledge level of either of these men beyond what we’ve read or heard them say.  I think that the validity of Gate’s opinion is primarily contained in his ability to pour his vast wealth into the research he sponsors. I hope he succeeds, but given the rapid advancement of new energy technologies, I consider his investment a long shot

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 4, 2013

So why does the nuclear industry need the Price Anderson Act?  It’s a mature technology. Yet without it no one would operate a plant within the US.  Not being anti nuke here, just saying that it’s rather unfair to pick on solar and wind credits when every single other energy industry gets government help via direct credits, tax write offs, indemnity avoidance, insufficient monetizing of externalities etc. etc.

As for nuke I think the best way to go is to start looking at the kind of reactors used by the US Navy such as the A4W used in nimitz class carriers. They run 504MWth so that’s about 160MWe per unit. As proven designs they could be mass produced more cheaply and sighted in areas where there is less water available for cooling than a conventional fossil or nuclear plant. 

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 4, 2013

Not yet. Like the Monkey’s paw there’s a catch. The limit of liability for the nuclear industry is 12.8 Billion. Any other damages would be either paid for by increasing the annual fund contribution or by the taxpayer. 


“A private think tank says the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could cost Japan up to 250 billion dollars over the next 10 years. The estimate is part of the Nuclear Safety Commission’s ongoing survey of opinions on the disaster from nuclear and other experts. Kazumasa Iwata, president of the Japan Center for Economic Research, gave the estimate on Tuesday. He said the costs of the accident could range from nearly 71 to 250 billion dollars. The figure includes 54 billion to buy up all land within 20 kilometers of the plant, 8 billion for compensation payments to local residents, and 9 to 188 billion to scrap the plant’s reactors.”

You think private industy in the US could cough up 50 billion let alone 250 billion?  Not likely.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 4, 2013

No you don’t need gas backup or storage if you already have that infrastructure in place as California does. Wind is a replacement for existing generation in California. With windpower integrated into an existing grid – see Cal-ISO website, it replaces gas/fossil/hydro (yes hydro – we have a bit of a drought) power during most or part of the day.Yesterday wind contributed 27,426 MWH to California’s grid,

Some sites are not even hooked up to the grid, as generation goes straight into company operations. The Budweiser plant in Fairfax gets 3.5GWH/year from its windmill at the cost of $4 million. At today’s rates that’s half a million each year.  Payoff in 8 years except this is a 20 year lease arrangement with Foundation Windpower which sells the electicity to the lessee and then probably starts pocketing profits in about 12 or so years, AND the tax credits which makes it more profitable at the onset. Get this too. 20 years of production would create about 70 million KWH. 6 cents per kwh.  Yes not counting maintenance, but also not counting the inevitable price increases for electicity,.  40 cents? get real.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 4, 2013

Correction: The Budweiser facility has a 1.5MW turbine. It outputs 3.5GWH/year.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on September 4, 2013

Does the author mean this South Carolina nuclear plant, with 2010 DOE federal loan guarentees?

V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 in South Carolina, SCE&G and Santee Cooper Joint Project
SCE&G, a subsidiary of SCANA Energy, has applied to build two reactors at the V.C. Summer site near Jenkinsville, South Carolina. One reactor is currently operating at the site. SCE&G, along with the state-owned utility Santee Cooper, plan to build two 1,117 MW Westinghouse AP1000 reactors. According to SCE&G, the first reactor would come online in 2016 and the second in 2019. Earlier estimates put the cost at around $9.8 billion to build these two reactors. However, in May 2009 SCE&G reported that there could be a cost increase of more than $500 million. This could put SCE&G’s portion of the costs at over $6.8 billion, potentially bringing the price of building the reactors up to nearly $11 billion. Costs are likely to continue increasing with the NRC’s recent rejection of the amended AP1000 design. The NRC has not issued a final review schedule for completing the design while Toshiba-Westinghouse addresses these serious issues.


Or does she mean the MOX plant (with DOE support from Savana River) – via Washington Post:

“Are the French earning billions off of Lindsey Graham’s nuclear plant?”

The plant is being designed and constructed by a company called Shaw AREVA MOX Services LLC. That company is in turn 30 percent owned by AREVA Federal Services, which is indeed a subsidiary of a French company, though based in Maryland with a substantial U.S. presence (about 5,000 employees). The design of the South Carolina facility is based on AREVA’s MOX plants in France.


The other 70 percent — the “Shaw” part — is owned by an energy infrastructure company called Chicago Bridge & Iron N.V., which famously now has little to do with Chicago, bridges or iron. CBI completed a deal to buy the Baton Rouge-based Shaw Group for about $3 billion  this year. To make things even more complicated, CBI’s administrative offices are in The Woodlands, Tex., near Houston, but it is actually a Dutch company, though a U.S. subsidiary was created for this project because of restrictions on foreign control.


Initial capital for engineering, procurement and construction (EPC), which usually comes from investors and builders, can be recouped in the event of cost overruns via tax and/or rate payers. So all the risk is spread out on the many and the reward focused on the few.

Jessica Lovering's picture
Jessica Lovering on September 4, 2013

Dear Michael,

I was referring only to loans for power plants, as this article was mainly about nuclear power not nuclear weapons. The MOX plant is primarily to dispose of weapons material as part of a treaty with Russia. If you have a cheaper way to reduce our stockpile of weapons grade materials and meet our treaty obligations, please share.

I’m not sure what you mean by “How else would there be a Breakthrough Institute”, as we receive no industry funding. We are a non-profit, see our funding sources here. While a loan guarantee does burden taxpayers with some risk, it is much less costly than the direct payments (and tax credits) given to build renewables projects, an order of magnitude more per unti of energy production, see our Nuclear FAQs. Note, thos tax credits can only be redeemed by companies with large tax burdens, not small independent power producers.


Thank You,

Jessica Lovering

Policy Analyst | The Breakthrough Institute

Energy and Climate Program

Office: (510) 550-8800 ext. 300


Twitter: @J_Lovering


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 4, 2013


1) SCE&G hasn’t used one dime of taxpayer-financed loan guarantees, which would only come into play if the company defaulted. There is no evidence whatsoever that that will happen. Everyone (well almost everyone, anyway) understands that unlike other energy sources, nuclear requires 2/3 of its funding up front. It then provides carbon-free, baseload power, at 90% capacity factor, for 60+ years at rates at a fraction of what renewables can deliver.

2) Your NRC link is from 2010, and Areva’s design was approved in February 2012.

3) You seem surprised that U.S. energy companies are turning to Europe for technology. There is little other choice when “environmentalists” have fought upgrades to U.S. plants tooth-and-nail, creating zero incentive for U.S. manufacturers to invest in newer designs. Because of this trend the U.S. has been placed at an extreme disadvantage to Chinese and Indian companies, which are moving ahead with safe, new Generation IV nuclear technology and being well supported by their governments. U.S. energy companies will pay dearly for the licenses to these technologies when renewables don’t pan out as some expect. Not an extremely forward-looking plan, in my opinion.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 4, 2013

Jeffery, that article by Mark Jacobson has become the Bible of the renewables movement because of its grandiose and soaring aspirations. Unfortunately its central premise has been completely debunked.

To whit: Mr. Jacobson includes carbon generated by burning cities in nuclear’s carbon assessment. Burning cities? Yes – the result of nuclear armageddon brought on by proliferation.

By any standard, that kind of nonsense belongs nowhere in policy considerations.

Pierre Guimond's picture
Pierre Guimond on September 4, 2013



Excellent article.  I agree completely.  BTW German heavy industry is so dismayed by EU directives and Germany’s policies on renewables and penalties on nuclear that heavy industry is passing the message that they are moving from a “not investing in Europe” policy phase to “we are beginning to disinvest”.  

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on September 4, 2013

His particular venture may be a longshot, but nuclear fission in general is by now pretty well established as an essential technology in order for global reduction in emissions to occur:


Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on September 4, 2013


Nothing is stopping nuclear power deployment except the market. The whole “mean environmentalists are hurting energy solution x” is disgusting. It’s a typical whine one gives when the solution to the problem is beyond the scope and understanding of the one assigned to define the problem. Pretty much all incidental costs from research and development, waste management and facility abandonment are covered by tax payers.

Foreign companies investing in nuclear power is like foreign companies investing in Publically Owned Treatment Works (POTW) wastewater treatment and sludge processing and disposal or hydraulic fracturing of shale for oil and gas production. They can get around pesky environmental laws much easier and walk away with less liability if something doesn’t go well.

I don’t think I indicated or insinuated anything in my comment other than to understand what nuclear plant in South Carolina is the post author talking about. 

On the other hand, here’s an article that paints a pretty strong case on governmental involvement with the South Carolina VC Summer Plant:


Copied below a portion of the article linked below.

What happened? Why are the two South Carolina reactors likely to be among the only new ones built?

The answers are advanced cost recovery and fracking.

Advanced cost recovery is a financing method SCE&G helped perfect and turn into a South Carolina law known as the “Base Load Review Act.” The law allows SCE&G or any investor-owned utility in the state to avoid the financial risk and huge costs of building a nuclear power plant.

It does so by making ratepayers foot the bill of construction financing through increased yearly rates paid as the plant is being built, years before customers get any benefit from the electricity the plants are to produce. It’s kind of like starting loan payments to buy a new car that won’t leave the assembly line for a few years.

Without advanced cost recovery, SCE&G and its stockholders would have had to pay for construction financing for the nuclear plant, one of the most expensive current construction projects in the country. The company would not be able to bill ratepayers until the reactors generate electricity, which is projected to be in late 2017 or early 2018.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 4, 2013

Pierre, maybe you’ve seen this from a couple of weeks ago:

German Utility Revolts Against Renewable Energy, Threatens to Relocate in Turkey

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on September 4, 2013

Yes, all sources receive some kind of support, but it’s a question of extent (i.e., it’s quantitative, not qualitative).  Estimates of the Price Anderson subsidy are on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr, while fossil fuels (unaccounted for) externalities are serveral cents/kW-hr.  They would continue to operate reactors without it.  Why should the nuclear industry give up even small indirect subsidies while fossil fuels continue to get (effective, free pollution) subsidies that are almost 100 times larger?  Renewables subsides are also vastly larger than PA, or any other aid or subsidy given to the nuclear industry.  Whether or not continuing those renewables subsidies is worthwhile, or fair, is a legitimate qestion.

Another reason for PA is that the govt. actually wants it there, to ensure speedy and adequate compensation in the event of an accident.  In its absence, there would be a lot more argument and delay over what compensation and actions should be taken.  Any claims of health impacts would be impossible to prove in court (based on existing case law precedent, and the fact that Fukushima showed that even a worst case accident has no measurable health impacts).  And again, many industries (e.g., offshore oil drilling) also have liability limits, that are generally far lower.

Finally, there is the fact that nuclear suffers under excessive regulation, whose costs are orders of magnitude larger than any conceivable benefits.  Nuclear is required to spend orders of magnitude more dollars, per life saved, than competing (fossil) industries.  This regulation should be counted as a very large, negative externality.  Nuclear would (should) be willing to give up Price Anderson when the fossil fuel industry gives up its free pollution subsidy (i.e., to pay heavy taxes for all emissions, or to fully sequester all emissions).

Alternatively, the industry could offer to accept full liability *in lieu of* excessive NRC requirements and micromanagement.  Those requirements seem to be based on the notion that (unlike other generation sources) any release of nuclear pollution is absolutely unacceptable and must be prevented at all costs.  The justification for this is “protection of public health and safety”.  Well, Fukushima showed that even the full meltdown of several large reactors cases no deaths or measurable health impacts (i.e., pretty much does not represent a significant threat to public health and safety).

At a minimum, one could argue that SMRs (Small Modular Reactors), whose maximum potential release is only a few percent of Fukushima’s, do not represent any significant threat to “public health and safety”.  A meltdown of an SMR would have significant economic consequences though (justified or not).  Thus, it could be argued that heavy govt. regulation is not justified for SMRs.  Instead, the operator and their insurers would make decisions about how much to spend on reducing the probability of release, based on the economic risk, and the understanding that all public costs and impacts would be fully covered by the operator.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on September 4, 2013

All right you put me up to a task to see who supports Breakthrough Institute. Here’s some of its supporters followed by my understanding of foundations’ founders former or current interests:

Comer: clothing – sold Lands End to Sears

Cummings: diesel engines

Budinger: electronics

Lotus: Pritzker – hotels and industrial companies

Bellweather: William Herdon Smith a painter or something

Steve Kirsch – software

Alex C. Walker: railroad cars and such

Most of the funders seem to have industrial origins. Some of these foundations seem to have an interest in environmental protection through capitalism. Which seems intersting. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 4, 2013

Michael, what anti-nuclear activists decry is a $4 billion windfall for customers – they pay no interest on construction loans. There is no cost of “construction financing”, only construction. This all addresses the 2/3 upfront expense of nuclear. It’s not at all like buying a new car, and it requires some forethought and commitment. In our buy now/pay later culture this seems abhorrent, but it used to be called “responsibility”.

Any reputable analyst will agree that activist intervention and regulatory hurdles are impediments to the nuclear industry. Competition from gas is currently the biggest challenge, and on cash price alone nuclear cannot compete. Forethought and commitment – recurring themes, in this context to the environment – demand that we factor in longer-range costs of fouled groundwater from fracking, and a global ecosystem trashed by global warming. Taking into account these costs, nuclear is a slam dunk.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on September 4, 2013

Buying up all the land within 20 km shouldn’t be necessary, since much of that land has radiation levels already within the range of natural background.  Cleanup is also an option, if cheaper than buying the land.  But the main questionable figure you quote is the $188 billion to decommission the reactors (that figure being the majority of the quoted $250 billion).  Seriously?  Decommissioning of a normal multi-unit plant site costs about one billion (I know, I work in the field).  I can see a factor of 10 increase in the cost, but a factor of almost 200?  I think a good estimate of the total cost is on the order of $100 billion.

Non-Soviet nuclear power has generated almost 100 trillion kW-hrs over the last several decades.  Fukushima is the only significant release in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire operating history.  Conservatively assuming one Fukushima event every several decades and dividing through by the nuclear generation yields an “accident cost” on the order of only ~0.1 cents/kW-hr.  As I’ve said elsewhere, this is orders of magnitude smaller than the free pollution susbidy for fossil fuels (which cause several hundred thousand annual deaths and hundreds of billions annually in economic damage, in addition to global warming).

“Industry” (and their insurers) could easily come up with ~$100 billion, especially given that the cost will be spread out over decades.  Typical natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Sandy) have costed nearly that much.  Also, BP will pay out almost $40 billion for the Gulf Oil Spill.

Estimates for the subsidy associated with the $12 billion liability cap are on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 4, 2013

Michael, ignoring capitalism as a prime driver in environmental solutions is frankly naive. One of the aims of Breakthrough is to address solutions which are realistic and not pie-in-the-sky fantasy. They do a remarkably good job.

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on September 4, 2013

How does this compare with Germany?  They looked at risks of nuclear waste/terrorism/accidents and are more than 20% wind/solar now.  Far less sun there, too.

  The southwest has abundant solar resources and the midwest has tons of wind.  Southeast has offshore.  These are growing by leaps and bounds and could bring us to 80% fewer emissions by 2050, no?.

Sure, the intermittency problema/grid problems need to be solved.  Wright Bros. didn’t stop at obstacles, and we solved them.  Same with renewables.

No one is in a rush to build Thorium reactors.  Why is that?



Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 4, 2013

Why in the heck would anyone want to transmit large amounts of windpower to the East Coast when there’s abundant wind power out there? 2010 Univ. of Delaware study estimated that shallow waters (100′ or less) off of Maryland can host 14,600 MW of wind generating capacity, supplying 43,600GWH/yr or 2/3’s of Maryland’s annual electrical consumption.Given your worst case price scenario, $60K/MW or $876 million to construct and maintain a full buildout.( BTW per unit costs would drop as infrastructure is brought in.) Nevertheless BOTE calc tells me that1GWH -a million KWH, we get 43,600,000,000 KWH in the first full year with the cost at $876,000,000 or 2 cents/KWH.  Okay maybe I made a mistake somewhere ……that seems too cheap. Quadruple the cost, halve the output it’s still a bargain. Especially if you draw it out over 20 years. Then it’s obscene. I wonder where I made the mistake?

And why assume that wind is the only source of renewable energy?  In California, aside from biomass, small hydro etc. it is often the case that the wind and solar are complimentary unless there’s a tropical storm down south and then it gets wierd, like today. You have other assumptions, such as no offline storage for wind power in times of low demand. That is changing already as a few companies have already bought MWH scale storage to buy up cheap overnight baseload to use during the more expensive peak hours.  Inre EV’s,  most EV charging will be done at night when demand is lowest and can be varied depending on grid conditions. 

Just a side note, there is a lot of recent discussion about the availability of domestic fresh water. Drought-stricken Texas is hurrying up with wind and solar power because it uses no water during operation. A major advantage and cost savings not only to the power producer but increased availability of water cuts costs to other water users.   In 2008, in the US, power plants withdrew 84 percent of their cooling water from rivers and lakes with the balance coming out of ocean, groundwater and wastewater. That’s somewwhere in the vicinity of 100+ Billion gallons of water each day.  Much of it is once through, consuming 20K to 60K gallons /MWH.  Ricirculating water cooling for coal and nuclear plants consumes about 700 gal/MWH. combined cycle gas turbine about 200 or so gal/MWH.  


Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on September 4, 2013

Decommissioning a working N-plant is relatively cheap. Rancho Seco is an example. It’s the decommissioning and clean up of a broken one That’s not so cheap.  100 billion you mention is your estimate given the damage to the area. This is America does the word “lawyer” ring a bell?

Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 5, 2013

1) Germany is trading it’s unusable intermittent Wind energy with Neighboring Countries with Hydro storage (at a high cost to Germany)

2) Germany is building more coal plants.

3) Germany is Burning Wood Pellets (Yes they have other biomas and biogas too, I’m not disputing that ), I’m not sure that is ultimately sustainable.

4) Germany did not look at the risks of Nuclear Power, the anti-nukes were already linking nuclear power to nuclear weapons decades before. Being anti-nuclear is a state of mind rather than a state of technology, safety, or energy production.

The outcome of the German experiment still remains to be seen, but factor out them selling power to neighboring countries and recieving baseload Hydro Power from those countries and……what do we have?

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on September 4, 2013

Clearly this comment group is pretty knowledgeable, if not in agreement about the role of nuke vs. renewables, the costs, the feasability, the safety issues, etc.  But, you all are pretty sharp, with a noted lack of nut cases.

So, would you help with a little “thought experiment”?

Let us assume that there is a real urgency to solve the AGW dilemma due to our fossil fuel addiciton.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument,  that we  have only ten years to reduce our emissions by 50 % (I do not know actually how long we have, this is for sake of argument). 

Let us assume, again for argument’s sake, that if we don’t hit the target, our entire civilization would unravel and costs are more than $400 trillion in damage, with deaths in the billions. The planet becomes basically unliveable except for a very lucky few, and these few don’t eat so well as they used to.

In other words, let’s assume the situaltion is truly dire and urgent, that discussions about relative costs are moot that we could “pony up” if we had to (after all, we blew $2-$3 Trillion on Iraq ).   z

In this case academic quibbles would be sort of like the lady on the Titanic asking “does this life vest make me look fat?”


MY QUESTION: If we,as a world community, determined to reach that target- at any price (to stay alive) – which technologies could be ramped up fast enough to hit that target of a 50% cut in ten years?

BTW: I don’t know about 10 years, but yes, I believe it is that dire and that urgent and do not want to dither while the only planet known to support life is at significant risk. 

  I could supply links to support all this, but I want to know what happens when you include “urgency” into your calculations. 

( Here is an analogy: An ambulance doesn’t get good gas mileage; it’s purpose is to get the patient into care ASAP.)




Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 5, 2013

Jan, though that’s an entirely valid experiment, of course there’s not definitive answer because we don’t know. Our situation is one without precedent, and it not only involves technological considerations but economic and societal ones as well.

There was a fascinating debate between physicist Peter Hodgson and economist Dennis Anderson in the UK journal Physics Today over a decade ago which cuts to the heart of your question, and it remains as relevant today as it was then. Hodgson describes our predicament with clarity:

“If we are to stabilize the emission of carbon dioxide by the middle of the 21st century, we need to replace 2000 fossil-fuel power stations in the next 40 years, equivalent to a rate of one per week. Can we find 500 km2 each week to install 4000 windmills? Or perhaps we could cover 10 km2 of desert each week with solar panels and keep them clean? Tidal power can produce large amounts of energy, but can we find a new Severn estuary and build a barrage costing £9bn every five weeks?

Nuclear power, however, is a well tried and reliable source, whereas the alternatives listed by Anderson (solar, wind) are mainly hope for the future and have yet to prove themselves. At the height of new nuclear construction in the 1980s, an average of 23 new nuclear reactors were being built each year, with a peak of 43 in 1983. A construction rate of one per week is therefore practicable.”

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on September 5, 2013

Not really. The last time environmental protection and remediation had much influence was around 1990. Since then environmental standards to protect air, water and soil have moved from prescribed to risk. Environmental remediation objectives have as well. Liability is being passed from industry to states to tax payers. For instance, the superfund trust established by CERCLA has not been funded since the late 1990s/early 2000s, with the exception from some money allocated during the 2009 stimulus. The US EPA is all but toothless and state environmental agents are underfunded to the point of pointless. So this whole sales push of “we’re here to protect you citizen from the environmental protection agency” is simply weird. The federal and state environmental protection agents have bent over backwards to work with and attract new industry. 

Breakthrough, Heartland Institute and other think tanks who have entered the environmental policy making sphere are not in the business of common good environmental protection and remediation. Middle ground common sense approach may have been appropriate 25 years ago. Now it comes off as pure image consulting, public relations and diversion in 2013.

I simply don’t trust many of the entities involved in influencing environmental policy, since they aren’t accountable for their ideas. 

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on September 5, 2013

The issue of urgency includes the issue of time.  In the years needed to build.a nuke.many tons.of.carbon is.burned.  Whereas, wind is installed.much faster so it.replaces.that carbon that  would have been burned, no?

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on September 5, 2013

Historically speaking energy transitions that have occurred which incorporated natural gas or nuclear have happened several times faster than the current renewable energy transition occurring in Germany:

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on September 5, 2013

conservation has a role, but the reality is that even with implementation of the greatest conservation practices the energy demand of our capitalistic and developing global economy will still grow rapidly.


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