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Pursuing Nuclear Power

July 11, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 28

In the editorial “Nuclear Power,” Rudy Baum comments on two of the six letters in that issue that C&EN had received in response to his earlier editorial on the subject (C&EN, May 9, page 5, and March 21, page 6). He acknowledges the need to resolve problems of spent-fuel disposal, but notes that nuclear power will have to be an essential part of our energy supply for some time if we want to avoid climate disruption.

I fully agree with all of Baum’s points and would like to add my own comments on one of the other letters, where Lisa Parsons argues that nuclear power is not safe. She notes there are alternatives and offers an example: “Let’s say a reactor costs $10 billion to build. For that amount, 1 million houses could be equipped with $10,000 worth of solar cells each. … I think every new commercial or private building with adequate sunlight should be required to be equipped with enough solar cells to minimally power the building. We need to get the ball rolling.” Her breezy optimism was appealing, and so I decided to follow Lord Kelvin’s admonition that “when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it,” and do some calculations.

Fortunately, the Energy Information Administration recently issued a report on “Updated Capital Cost Estimates for Electricity Generation Plants,” which includes data for a $12 billion nuclear power plant, solar photovoltaic installations, and other types of electricity-generating facilities ( Calculations based on data from this and other reports on the EIA website, on published information from solar PV system suppliers, and on cost estimates for our house from two local installers led me to the unsurprising conclusion that, from an economic standpoint, nuclear power is a better investment.

Summing up: A $12 billion nuclear power plant with a 2.236-gigawatt capacity will provide all the needed electrical power for 1.7 million households, which on the average consume 10,896 kWh per year per household. Using Parsons’ distribution ratio, a grid-connected solar PV system, installed for $10,000 each in 1.2 million homes, will have a capacity of 1,430 kW before any government subsidies. With an operating capacity factor of 21% (a reasonable figure used by EIA), its power output will be 2,630 kWh/year. That is 24% of the average annual residential consumption in the U.S. Including a 30% federal tax credit, that solar power contribution will rise to 34%, and more if there are state subsidies.

I personally would not want my taxes used in this way merely to assuage someone’s aversion to nuclear power. I believe the answer is to accelerate the Department of Energy’s development of fast-neutron and other reactor technologies that offer a significant margin of safety, and to adopt a standardized design for nuclear power plants that will allow us to meet most of our electricity needs with virtually no carbon dioxide emissions. This will help, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu put it in a Facebook article last year, to “put the world on a sustainable energy path.”

By Igor Sobolev
Orinda, Calif.


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