Nuclear power: An uncertain contribution to climate change solution
A bill to lift a moratorium on construction of new nuclear power plants in Illinois is moving through the state legislature. But an environmental science expert said that doesn't mean there will be a rush to put up new reactors for the first time in decades.
"They are exorbitantly expensive. That's one of the reasons there hasn't been a lot more because they are so expensive to build. And that hasn't changed," said Anne Nadakavukaren, a retired environmental sciences professor at Illinois State University who once served on the state low-level radioactive waste disposal task force.
It can cost an estimated $9 billion to $12 billion to build a nuclear power plant, making new nuclear technologies more expensive than virtually any other power generation option, according to the latest edition of the book, “Our Global Environment: a Health Perspective,” authored by Nadakavukaren and Jack Caravanos.
Advocates for nuclear power say reactors could provide more of the base load for the electrical system as fossil fuel power plants phase out.
"Nuclear power plants are relatively safe, but there are risks, too," said Nadakavukaren, adding nuclear power is cleaner than coal, but the nation has not figured out what to do with spent nuclear fuel rods.
"I think a fuel rod only lasts a little more than a year, so they are regularly having to change these, but the radioactivity lasts for hundreds of thousands of years," she said.
A planned national repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was scuttled during the Obama administration, and Nadakavukaren said no state wants to be the one to host it.
"The problem of long-term storage is one that society hasn't seemed to accept," she said.
Nadakavukaren also questions whether building new plants would add significantly to the energy portfolio.
"So many of the old plants have closed down, the overall share of power coming from nuclear facilities is probably not going to change much," she said.
And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency has claimed an average of 12 new reactors would have to come on line around the world every year from 2020-2030 to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
And for advocates of energy independence, atomic reactors are not the answer. Nuclear fuel is not always domestically produced.
“The U.S. purchased nuclear fuel from old recycled Soviet bomb cores in a program called ‘Megatons to Megawatts’ for 20 years," wrote Nadakavukaren and Caravanos.
In 2019, 75% of the oxide used to make nuclear fuel came from Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Russia, said the two authors.