Monday, August 2, 2010

Radioactive Fallout, and Nuclear vs. Solar

You have to watch a nuclear power station every minute of every day and night, while it’s operating and while it’s shut down. A solar installation, by contrast, can safely generate electricity without anyone watching it. This, in the long run, may be the best argument for a greater reliance on solar power than nuclear. The result of something going wrong at a nuclear power station can become catastrophic in a matter of minutes, as the world saw at Chernobyl in 1986. The Chernobyl meltdown took weeks to occur, but it passed the point of no return before anyone inside the plant understood what was happening.

How long will it take for the contaminated land around Chernobyl, the site of the planet’s worst radiation release, to return to normal? Probably about another century, according to the latest estimates. A small number of people, believed to be less than 200, are already unofficially squatting on the radioactive land surrounding Chernobyl, and the government is considering a program to start repopulating the area officially. The people who volunteer to move into the area will face lifestyle restrictions and lives shortened by the radioactive minerals in the area. This is a point emphasized by a new wildlife census that shows that animal populations in the area are continuing to decline, presumably from radiation-related illnesses including cancer. Meanwhile, a significant fraction of wild boars in southern Germany are still too radioactive for people to eat, the result of boars eating mushrooms, which concentrate radioactive minerals left behind by the Chernobyl incident. Extrapolating trends since then, boars will continue to be radioactive “for at least the next 50 years,” a German hunting expert told Der Spiegel.

Meanwhile in the United States, electric utilities are seeking new subsidies to build nuclear power stations, on top of the enormous subsidies that the nuclear industry already receives. That would be a poor investment, according to a new North Carolina study, “Solar and Nuclear Costs — The Historic Crossover,” by John O. Blackburn and Sam Cunningham. The study focuses specifically on North Carolina and finds that photovoltaic power generation installed this year in that state costs less, on average, than new nuclear power. The cost for new solar installations in North Carolina are 12–19 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 14–18 cents per kilowatt-hour for new nuclear plants being proposed in that state.

The costs for the nuclear plants have to be considered in the light of the history of nuclear power construction in the United States, with most plants running more than double their initial budgets before they go online. Thus, less optimistic estimates say that if the United States builds a new generation of nuclear power stations, consumers can expect to pay about 40 cents per kilowatt-hour for grid electricity, more than double what they will pay if the nuclear plants are not built.

By contrast, consumers and businesses do not pay the utility companies for solar or other renewable electricity they generate for their own use. The cost for this electricity will not include a surcharge to pay for a failed or ill-conceived nuclear experiment. The key point to consider, though, according to the North Carolina study, is the way the cost trends compare. Solar costs have crept down by 5 percent per year, with nuclear generating costs rising at a similar rate, neither trend adjusted for inflation. Of the two, nuclear is necessarily more labor-intensive, so its costs can only continue to rise as long as the trend toward higher wages continues. The labor costs of a solar installation, however, decline as solar panels become more efficient and lighter.

I have already argued that no new nuclear plants should be started anywhere in the world for the simple reason that the nuclear plants already in operation are enough to use up all the nuclear materials we can reasonably hope to find on our planet.

A single new U.S. nuclear power station could easily cost $45 billion — indeed, Washington has already set aside more money than that with the idea of building one new nuclear plant. The same investment in residential solar power could put a rooftop system on every residential building in the country, providing between 5 and 10 percent of residential electricity. Indeed, the cost comparisons argue for keeping the current power plants running for now, while providing essentially all new generating capacity through solar power, mostly from on-building installations. As the price of solar power drops, perhaps as soon as 2020, it will become necessary to start idling and decommissioning the least efficient power plants. This is a scenario the country has never had to consider before — and it is the main reason that Wall Street investors are reluctant to finance any of the proposed power plants that might not come online until late in the 2020s.