OXFORD – Japan’s nuclear crisis, and the approaching 25th anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, have incited heated new discussions about the desirability of nuclear power. By awakening dormant fears, this debate threatens to halt what to many had seemed like a budding nuclear renaissance.
The stealth-like nature of radiation taps into deep-seated human anxieties. But, however well founded those fears might be, they are probably the wrong reason to oppose nuclear energy. There is an even stronger argument than safety alone for why a nuclear renaissance is neither likely nor necessary: cost.
The price of nuclear power has been escalating steadily for decades. Since 1970, the cost in constant dollars of new nuclear generating capacity has increased nine-fold, as additional safety features make plant designs more expensive. New innovations, such as pebble-bed reactors, promise to increase safety further, but will be vastly more costly to adopt.
In addition, we have lost economies of scale because we build so few nuclear power plants. As with fighter jets, adding features and building small quantities causes costs to skyrocket. Globally, the median age of nuclear plants is now 27 years, so much of the learning from building the early plants has gone.