Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Free Uranium Party

A few readers expressed surprise at the nuclear power plants shutting down. Fair enough — when nuclear power was introduced, the promise was of an electric supply that would be “too cheap to meter!” In practice, nuclear, like coal, is one of the more expensive sources of electricity and gets by only because it is indirectly subsidized from beginning to end. A nuclear power plant can operate at minimal expense, but only until the fuel runs out. That’s why the nuclear plants aren’t closing next week or next month. They’ll shut down when they have to, after the fuel in place isn’t generating enough electricity to bother with. Uranium prices have been going up in proportion to the doubts about the global supply. For years, U.S. nuclear power plants got uranium that was indirectly subsidized by the nuclear weapons program. Since the late 1980s, cheap uranium from decommissioned nuclear weapons has kept the industry going. But obviously the number of weapons that can be taken out of service is limited. At some point that party has to end. It now seems the price of post-warhead uranium is going up in recognition of the limited supply. Some nuclear power plants are more efficient and will be able to keep operating. For the most risky and least efficient plants, market forces won’t let them keep going. As long as uranium is in short supply, it is obviously better to supply it to the plants that are more efficient and less risky. That’s how we’ll get the most electricity from the uranium that is left. Based on that, things work out better if nuclear fuel isn’t subsidized. The bigger subsidies are, the more the resource gets put to wasteful use.