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Nuclear power has been a hot political issue for a few decades now. The energy source is relatively abundant and clean burning, something most consumers should love at a time when emissions and energy scarcity are so important.
But after the Fuskushima disaster in Japan two years ago the industry's momentum has been slowed to say the least. Earlier this week, fellow Fool Maxx Chatsko posted an article with facts meant to demystify nuclear energy. Some of the items were interesting, like the density of nuclear energy, but it glossed over five items that will doom nuclear power in the long term.
Nuclear power isn't cost effective
There's a reason natural gas, wind, and solar power are now the most popular new power generation assets in the U.S. -- they're cost effective. One thing that nuclear advocates never fully discuss is the cost of a nuclear plant or how much the power coming out of it will cost.
Let's take a look at one plant going through the approval process in Florida -- Progress Energy's (NASDAQOTH: PGNPQ ) 1.1 GW Levy County nuclear project.
The Levy County project was originally supposed to cost $5 billion to build and be operational by 2016. Today, estimates by the company itself put project costs at $19 billion-$24 billion and operation by 2024 at best. What does that mean to ratepayers (before added costs that I'll get to in a minute)?
At a nuclear plant there is a large capital expense and then ongoing costs for fuel, maintenance, etc. Let's just look at the capital expense of $24 billion (these projects are never under budget).
If the nuclear plant were to be finished, the depreciation alone over 30 years would be $0.083 per kW-hr. That's assuming the plant would never shut down and doesn't include maintenance cost, profit, no interest cost, or fuel. Adding these costs would bring it closer to $0.20 per kW-hr, which brings me to...
The California Energy Commission did a study in 2011 that determined nuclear power would cost between $0.17 and $0.34 per kW-hr. That's nowhere near competitive with natural gas, wind, or solar.
By comparison, First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR ) is building a plant in New Mexico that will be open 2014 and will cost ratepayers $0.0579 per kW-hr. Nuclear power is simply too expensive.
Government subsidies save nuclear power from extinction
If you think government subsidies are bad in wind or solar you haven't seen anything yet. The government explicitly limits the liability nuclear power plant owners have, which is the only way any nuclear plant is ever built. Without limited liability insurers wouldn't touch solar and investors wouldn't give the funding companies need.
Then there's the completely abhorrent act of using Construction Work in Progress, or CWIP, to build plants. This allows utilities to charge customers for a plant as it's being built. If the project stalls or costs go up it isn't the utility that is on the hook, it's ratepayers. In Georgia, Southern (NYSE: SO ) subsidiary Georgia Power used CWIP to begin construction on its new Vogtle nuclear plant expansion, a plant that has become so expensive it should be dead in its tracks. Ratepayers are already paying $44 per year for the project that needed an $8.3 billion government guarantee and by 2018 that will balloon to $164 per year.
In Florida, the same Levy County project I mentioned above wants to charge customers a half-cent per kW-hr fee starting this year for a plant that wouldn't be completed until 2024 at best. That's nearly a 5% increase in everyone's electricity bill for something companies should be paying for in the first place.
Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) subsidiary MidAmerican Energy has even tried to use CWIP for its nuclear plants. Like Buffett needs the financing help.
Nuclear isn't cost effective even with government support, especially considering companies need ratepayers to foot the bill ahead of time.
Bill Gates won't save nuclear
TerraPower has given some nuclear buffs reason to hope for its future, but this is like betting on winning the lottery. The company hopes to begin building a demonstration plant in 2016 and start it up in 2020. That's seven years before TerraPower proves its concept, assuming all goes well.
Let me give a hint here; these new technology launches never go as planned. TerraPower is trying to build an entirely new kind of reactor that will come will unknown challenges. If we see something running in a decade I would be shocked.
Which brings me back to the cost argument. With the cost of clean technology costs falling wouldn't it be better to focus on something we'll really need in a decade; something like energy storage.
Not in my backyard
The next reason nuclear power isn't worth betting on is that no one wants it built or stored in their backyard. Residents of Nevada have been fighting the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository for more than a decade, not wanting nuclear waste in their backyards. The same thing is going on in Utah where the Skull Valley site has come up against major opposition. Where do we put all of this spent fuel from this "clean" energy source?
People aren't exactly happy about a nuclear plant in their backyards either. Residents strongly opposed the relicensing of the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts owned by Entergy (NYSE: ETR ) . Germany will shut down all nuclear plants in the country by 2022 and Japan has certainly changed its tune in relation to nuclear power.
The public sentiment simply isn't in the industry's favor.
Unsafe for those not taking risks
In his article earlier this week, Chatsko cited a number of safety statistics relating to nuclear power. He says: "For every terawatt hour of electricity generation, there were 161 coal-related deaths, four natural gas-related deaths, 0.15 wind-related deaths, and 0.04 nuclear-related deaths."
The difference is in the risks people take in relation to these energy sources. Coal miners take enormous risk and we tragically lose many of them every year. There are tower climbers on wind towers who also take risks, risks you know about before you climb a giant wind tower.
But the people near Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima never thought their homes or their health were in danger simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's what scares people about nuclear power, not the total death toll but who these risks affect.
Foolish bottom line
Debunk all of the myths you want about nuclear power but it isn't worth investing in. New plants aren't the answer to cheaper energy, cleaner energy, or safer energy. The U.S., Europe, and Japan are rethinking nuclear altogether and countries like China are putting their full weight behind solar and wind, not nuclear power.
I don't think nuclear power will die tomorrow and as efficiency increases uranium suppliers might enjoy some nice growth in coming years. But overall this isn't a sector to be bullish about. There are simply too many things working against it -- first and foremost economics.
How to play energy now
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