Intelligent Energy

Scientists: Nuclear power isn't viable without corporate welfare

Posting in Energy

A non-profit science based public advocacy group has published a report concluding that the nuclear power industry would never have been viable without a plethora of taxpayer financed subsidies.

“Many of the 104 reactors currently operating would never have been built, and the utilities that built reactors would have been forced to charge ratepayers even higher rates," said report author Doug Koplow. 

Nuclear power was supposed to be too cheap to meter, but a science-based nonprofit that advocates for environmental and public health issues has published a new report that casts doubt that it was ever really economically viable.

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which views nuclear power subsidies as a risky investment, published its latest report on nuclear power, “Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subsidies,” today.

The UCS said in a press release that the U.S. nuclear power industry has been “propped up” for over 50 years by a “generous array of government subsidies that have supported its development and operations.”

The report finds that taxpayers have subsidized the nuclear fuel cycle through every stage from mining to long-term storage of radioactive waste. It identified a total of 30 different subsidies that when combined have repeatedly exceeded the average market price of any power produced.

It estimates that energy subsidies introduced by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 can be worth up to 200 percent of the projected price of electricity when plants are built. Past subsidies have exceeded 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (¢/kWh), according to the report.

UCS explained that the subsidies are not cash payouts; instead they were devised to shift the risk of building and operating nuclear power plants from the plant owners onto ratepayers and taxpayers.

Notably, taxpayers will be on the hook for the cost of any nuclear accident via a 1950’s era law called the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act and other mechanisms, according to the report.

“These hidden subsidies distort market choices that would otherwise favor less risky investments,” UCS said.

Recently, nuclear power has experienced a resurgence in popularity among key Congressional leaders and the Obama administration. President Obama’s FY2011 budget proposal allocates an additional $36 billion in federal loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear reactors.

Industry advocates including the Nuclear Energy Institute -- and even some university studies -- have stated that nuclear energy is a competitive technology once the initial engineering costs are absorbed. The debate over the case for subsidies is well established.

UCS is cautioning that taxpayers will be footing the bill if the nuclear industry ever defaults on its loans. The total amount of loan guarantees paid by the federal government will be $58.5 billion if Congress consents to the President’s proposal.

Carbon is the key

Instead, UCS is urging Congress to take devise a more holistic clean energy policy by placing a tax on carbon.

“All low-carbon energy technologies would be able to compete on their merits if the government established an energy-neutral playing field and put a price on carbon,” said Ellen Vancko, manager of UCS’s Nuclear Energy and Climate Change Project.

“Investing in nuclear power carries the unique risks of radioactive waste storage, accidents, and nuclear weapons proliferation that must be fully reflected in the technology’s costs, which is not the case today,” Vancko added.

In 2009, UCS derided proposed nuclear loan guarantees as a potential “Taxpayer bailout ahead.”

UCS was founded in in 1969 by a group of scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to promote the use of science for public interest. It is strongly opposed to any political interference in scientific research.

Dr. James McCarthy, a biological oceanography professor at Harvard University, is current chairperson of UCS. The group has supported a moratorium on new coal power plants, and advocates for the development of new technologies to combat climate change.

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David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure