Cooper: NRC can no longer ignore nuclear waste disposal cost

Source:Institute for Energy and the Environment

Cooper: NRC can no longer ignore nuclear waste disposal cost The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must start taking into account the full cost of nuclear waste disposal and storage, which would add up to a third of a trillion dollars to the price tag of nuclear power, according to a declaration filed today with the NRC by economist Mark Cooper of the Vermont Law School. Cooper details how acknowledging the full cost of nuclear power would both dramatically undercut the rationale for relicensing of existing reactors and the licensing of proposed reactors and also make nuclear power far less attractive in comparison to wind, solar, and expanded reliance on energy efficiency.

Cooper presents his latest calculations about the cost of nuclear power in a declaration filed with the NRC as part of the court-ordered Draft Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement process. Cooper is a senior fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment of the Vermont Law School. In addition to detailing the three dozen most at-risk reactors in the United States in "Renaissance in Reverse: Competition Pushes Aging U.S. Nuclear Reactors to the Brink of Economic Abandonment" (2013), Cooper is also the author of "Policy Challenges of Nuclear Reactor Construction, Cost Escalation and Crowding Out Alternatives" (2009).

In the NRC filing, Cooper states: "Are the economic costs of at-reactor nuclear waste storage and disposal in a permanent repository large enough to affect the economics of nuclear power and, therefore, should the Nuclear Regulatory Commission consider those costs in its nuclear licensing decisions? The answer is simple and clear – these costs are so large they must be considered. Conservatively estimating these costs, I put the total cost in the range of $210 to $350 billion, in real, undiscounted dollars. That is a figure that is certainly large enough to demand consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

Commenting on his analysis, Cooper said: "The economic numbers are crystal clear. Nuclear waste management costs are staggering and should be included in any proper analysis of the economics of nuclear reactors for purposes of issue new licenses of renewing old ones. Given the substantial scale of these costs, any cost-benefit analysis that 'hides' such numbers is simply not credible. The fact that some of these costs have been socialized and taken off the shoulders of the industry does not make them any less expensive, burdensome, or relevant in determining the full and true cost of nuclear power."

The Cooper declaration looks at a range of scenarios including heavy reliance on on-site reactor storage of nuclear waste in casks (which must be fully replaced at a cost of $100 billion or more every 100 years) and the use of one or more Yucca Mountain-style repositories. The economist notes that the estimates of nuclear waste storage and disposal are subject to the same kind of runaway cost increases that the industry sees when it comes to projections for construction of new reactors.

In the declaration, Cooper concludes the extra cost per unit of nuclear reactor output with nuclear waste storage and disposal would be "in the range of $10 to $20 per megawatt hour ($0.01 to $0.02/ kWh) of electricity generated by the rectors that produce the waste. This is equal to 10 to 20 percent of the cost of nuclear power from newly constructed reactors as calculated by the Energy Information Administration. Compared to the cost of the other resources included in the Energy Information Administration analysis, the cost of waste management would make nuclear power much less attractive as a resource."

Cooper explains that factoring in the extra cost due to waste storage and disposal could be the tipping point for existing older reactors. "… the cost of nuclear waste management is even larger compared to the operating costs and margins of existing reactors. Several operating reactors have recently been abandoned because their operating margins of $9 per MWh are insufficient to cover their costs and meet the revenue requirements that their owners demand and others may face a similar fate. Waste management costs of $10 to $20 per MWh must be considered very significant in evaluating the economics of aging reactors. The majority of the license renewals that are pending at the Commission, or expected to come before the Commission in the next few years, involve reactors whose operating costs and margins are no better than the margins for reactors that were recently retired before their licenses expired."

The declaration also points out the cost of storing "stranded" nuclear waste – stored at reactors that have been shut down – can be up to five times the cost of maintaining waste at an operating reactor. Given the likelihood of further shutdowns of currently operating reactors, this is a cost-multiplier issue that cannot be ignored, according to Cooper.

Cooper pointed out that his estimate of the cost of nuclear waste storage and disposal would have been even higher if he had included the risk of nuclear reactor accidents and the cost of decommissioning outdated reactors.

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