Commentary: The Real Costs of America's Nuclear Power Program and the Impact on Global Climate Change

By Beth Wellington, Published on February 12, 2007
As was in the case in 2006, President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union Address included a reference to oil independence, with references to global climate change.

"Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America's economy running and America's environment clean. For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists…

It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply -- the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power... We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol -- using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes...

“America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change."

Bush’s weekly radio address for February 10, 2007 focused on energy and the White House’s website version included a link to a reference page, "Energy Security for the 21st Century."

Given the rhetoric of the nuclear energy industry and its astroturf group, Citizens for Clean and Safe Energy, (see my May 20, 2006 commentary),  I was not surprised by Bush's new embrace of global warming.  Now his FY 2008 budget bears out the connection between an acceptance of the deleterious effects of carbon emissions to the advancement of the interests of the nuclear industry.

In a news release following up on Bush's State of the Union Address, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman requested $24.3 billion in discretionary funding for fiscal year 2008 (FY 2008), a 3.0 percent increase from the amount requested in FY07. The DOE's semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) wants $9.38 billion in FY 2008, a 0.8 percent increase from the previous year. The DOE’s Complex 2030 program has increased funding for weapons and stockpiles the last two years due to, while NNSA’s requested funding for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation activities will be 3.1 percent below FY 2007 levels.


In 1974, India used the first plutonium it extracted as part of a U.S.-supported reprocessing program to make a nuclear explosion.  President Ford, in his "Statement on Nuclear Policy," 28 October 1976 said,

“I have concluded that the reprocessing and recycling of plutonium should not proceed unless there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation.”

The disposal repository for spent power reactor fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was originally expected open for business in 1998. Project management problems and opposition by the State of Nevada is expected to push this date back to 2017 at the earliest, according to House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) in his statement at a February 8, 2007 hearing on the Department of Energy’s Budget for FY 2008,

In Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing (International Panel on Fissile Materials in January 2007) Frank von Hippel, Professor of Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, writes that U.S. nuclear utilities have been:

"pressing the DOE to establish one or more centralized interim storage facilities for their accumulating spent fuel. They insist that a "nuclear renaissance," i.e., investments in new nuclear power plants, will not take place in the U.S. until the federal government demonstrates that it is able to remove the spent fuel from the reactor sites. U.S. state governments resist hosting interim spent fuel storage, however, out of concern that the Yucca Mountain repository may never be licensed, and that interim storage could become permanent.'"

The DOE proposes that the federal government subsidize the construction of tens of sodium-cooled fast-neutron “burner” reactors so that more spent fuel could be stored in the Yucca Mountain repository before a second repository would be required. Von Hipple finds:

"The extra cost to deal with just the spent fuel that has already accumulated in the United States was estimated in 1996 by a U.S. National Academy of Sciences study as “"ikely to be no less than $50 billion and easily could be over $100 billion.”"


If you thought there was no link between nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons, you might assume that weapons were the province of the Department of Defense. And yet, the Department of Defense’s share of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program (February 8, 2007 Congressional Research Service Report, December 16, 2006 report, both via FAS) is $30 million for the for FY 2008, while according  to "Overview of Fiscal Year 2008 Department of Energy Budget Request,"  February 8, 2007 the Center for Defense Information of the World Security Institute), DOE's share is "$89 million request, a 220 percent increase from FY 07, reflecting NNSA’s expectation that Congress will approve the transition from phase 2A (design definition and cost study) into phase 3 (implementation)."

Ellison writes about other DOE weapons activities.  The - 

“FY 08 Weapons Activities budget request is $6.51 billion, an increase of $103.4 million from FY 07. While the entire NNSA budget went up by 0.8 percent, the request for weapons went up 1.6 percent. The total FY 08 request for Directed Stockpile Work is $1.45 billion and is a 2.8 percent increase from FY 07.

“The W80 Life Extension Program (LEP) has been terminated and thus funding was not requested here. Under the Stockpile Services program, $36.9 has been requested, which will help support the W76 and B61 LEPs....

“The budget request for campaigns is $1.87 billion, a 3.5 percent decrease from FY 07. This includes allocation for several individual programs aimed at developing the advanced scientific and technological capabilities needed to maintain the moratorium on underground testing. These programs include the Science and Engineering Campaigns, the Inertial Confinement Ignition and High Yield Campaign, the Advanced Simulation and Computing Campaign (ASC), the Pit Manufacturing and Certification Campaign and the Readiness Campaigns....

“The Science Campaign, which performs much of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, is requesting a funding increase of $9.3 million or 3.5 percent. The Pit Manufacturing Campaign is requesting an increase of $43.6 million, or 18 percent, including $24.9 million requested for work on the Consolidated Plutonium Center, this is the first year that funds have been requested for this purpose. The Nuclear Weapons Incident Response (NWIR) received a $161.7 million request, a 19.4 percent increase from FY 05, reflecting increasing responsibilities in areas such as nuclear terrorism response (in support of the Department of Homeland Security) and nuclear forensics. Finally, the Safeguards and Security request was increased by 17.4 percent to $847.1 million, reflecting steady growth in security costs at nuclear sites since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The overall budget request for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation was $1.67 billion and reflected a 3.1 percent and $53.6 million decrease from the FY 07 request. NNSA requested $265.3 million for Nonproliferation and Verification R&D, 1.3 percent less than in FY 07. Nonproliferation and International Security received a 2.0 percent decreased request at $124.9 million. The International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation request was $371.8 million, a 10.0 percent decrease. As in FY 07, no budget allocation was requested for either the Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Transparency Implementation programs. The budget request for the Elimination of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Production program was decreased by 12.1 percent, from $206.6 million in FY 07 to $181.6 in FY 08. A decrease of $28.4 million to Fissile Material Disposition is attributed to the “use of prior year’s balances to continue planned activities.”[i] Most of this is due to carry-over funds from the Russian Plutonium Disposition Program.

“The only increase in the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation budget request was a 12 percent increase for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), from $106.8 million in FY 07 to $119.6 in FY 08.

“The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) program no longer appears in NNSA’s unclassified budget. Upgrades continue to the B61-11, the earth-penetrating weapon, or “bunker buster,” already a part of the current U.S. stockpile.

“No request was made to support the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), in keeping with the Bush administration’s ongoing policy of not seeking ratification or entry into force of the treaty. While funding for Test Readiness has been in the range of $15 million to $20 million in recent years, no money is requested in FY 08, reflecting the fact that NNSA has completed the transition to a 24-month readiness posture, after several years of resisting Congressional pressure. After 2008, however, projected outyear requests are constant at $11.1 million. It is appears that efforts within this regard have been redirected to nonproliferation programs aimed at simulation and ignition research and kept in compliance with the moratorium on underground testing still in effect.”

On February 5, Michele Boyd, Legislative Director, Public Citizen’s Energy Program outlined the evidence in  "Bush Administration Budget Proposes to Squander More Than a Billion Dollars on Unsafe and Polluting Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste Programs in FY 2008."

“Just how much taxpayer money does the federal government have to squander before it realizes that it is chasing a nuclear power mirage? Apparently, more than a billion dollars in Fiscal Year 2008 alone. The Bush administration’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) proposes to waste another $1.3 billion for nuclear power programs in pursuit of dangerous policies to revive the nuclear industry, restart nuclear waste reprocessing in the United States, and resuscitate the failing Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project...

“In comparison to lavish funding for the mature nuclear industry, the administration proposes to keep solar funding flat, to cut wind and weatherization budgets and to eliminate geothermal funding. As with past Bush administration budgets, the real solutions for combating climate change and meeting energy needs – renewables and efficiency – get the very, very short end of the budget stick.”

Boyd lays out the following itemization of nuclear subsidies:

·         “$4 billion in proposed loan guarantees for nuclear and coal plants in FY 2008, compared to a $5 billion cap for biofuels, electricity transmission and the vast array of renewable energies. The DOE set these amounts, but according to the budget request, has yet to evaluate the financial risks for U.S. taxpayers. A 2003 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office concluded the risk of loan default for a new nuclear plant would be ‘well above 50 percent.’

·         “$802 million for nuclear power research and development, a 38 percent increase from the FY 2007 request (the pending FY 2007 Continuing Resolution does not provide full funding). More than $1.4 billion has been spent on nuclear power research and development since FY 2001. Yet it is unlikely that we will see any new reactors before 2017 – if ever. Meanwhile, significant efficiency measures and renewable energies could be implemented in the next few years if federal policies supported them.

·         “$114 million for the Nuclear Power 2010 program, which pays the wealthy nuclear industry for half the cost of applying for new reactors and licensing new designs. More than $251 million has been appropriated for this program since FY 2001. The DOE has granted $260 million to a consortium of utilities and manufacturing companies, called NuStart, for only one construction and operation license application.

·         “$36.1 million for developing designs for the “next generation” of nuclear reactors. More than $200 million has been spent on the program since FY 2001. According to the DOE, these designs will cost between $610 million and $1 billion. None of these designs is part of any of the new reactor proposals.”  Boyd also criticizes the lack of a solution for increased radioactive waste for new reactors.

·         “$405 million in FY 2008 for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a program to promote reprocessing that the Bush administration first announced last year. This represents a $285 million increase from the pending FY 2007 Continuing Resolution for the ill-defined program. Reprocessing is expensive and the most polluting part of the nuclear cycle. It also would threaten U.S. national security by producing highly radioactive plutonium that is vulnerable to theft. More than $586 million has been appropriated for reprocessing research since FY 2001. But according to the National Academy of Sciences, a full-scale reprocessing and plutonium fuel program for the waste that we have today would cost at least $100 billion (1997 dollars). There is significant skepticism in Congress about the partnership. The report of the House FY 2007 Energy and Water Appropriations bill found that “the Department of Energy has failed to provide sufficient detailed information to enable Congress to understand fully all aspects of this initiative, including cost, schedule, technology development plan, and waste streams from GNEP.”

·         “$494.5 million for the proposed high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a $49 million increase for the program. Despite claims by the DOE that its priority is to submit a “high quality” license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2008, the DOE is in the conceptual stage of redesigning the site facilities and operations once again. The Government Accountability Office released a report last week concluding that more than $25 million will be spent to find falsified data and replace key modeling programs for the site. Approximately $9 billion has been wasted on this program already. Retiring Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Edward McGaffigan recently stated that the project “has been beset by bad law, bad regulatory policy, bad science policy, bad personnel policy, bad budget policy throughout its history.”


And there are other problems, like groundwater contamination. On January 16, 2007, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) wrote the Environmental Protection Agency about the lack of current standards for plutonium and other alpha-emitting radionuclides in a timely way:

“the EPA has exceeded the statutory time limit for revision of primary drinking water standards for radionuclides. The radionuclide standards, which EPA issued on December 7, 2000, should have been reviewed and revised by December 7, 2006. If you do not correct this violation within 60 days, we intend to file suit...”

In his editorial, "The return of the nuclear messiahs," (Science for Democratic Action, Vol 14, No. 2, (August 2006), p. 3-4) Dr. Arun Makhijani President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, outlines the problems with nuclear energy as a cure for global warming.

“1. How much will nuclear energy cost relative to other means of getting rid of carbon dioxide emissions?

2. What kinds of subsides will be required, given that Wall Street is skittish about nuclear power?

3. What will be the risks of catastrophic accidents if we build reactors at the rate of one a week or more, cookie-cutter style, around the world?

4. What will happen to the security of power supply in case of terrorist attacks or disastrous accidents on the scale of Chernobyl?

5. What about all the plutonium in the waste?”

In the same issue (pages 1-2, 5-9) Brice Smith summarizes his August 2006 book of the same name in the article, "Insurmountable Risks: Can Nuclear Power Solve the Global Warming Problem?"

“The most important practical consideration, rarely addressed in the debate, is this: how many nuclear power plants will it take to significantly impact future carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants?

He looks at a 2003 MIT study, "The Future of Nuclear Power" and finds that it would require “one new reactor to come online somewhere in the world every 15 days on average between 2010 and 2050.

“Despite the increase in nuclear power envisioned under the global growth scenario, the proportion of electricity supplied by nuclear power plants would increase only slightly, from about 16 percent to about 20 percent. As a result, fossil fuel-fired generation would also grow and the emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, from the electricity sector would continue to increase.”

Smith then uses the same electricity demand growth assumed by MIT to calculated the number of nuclear reactors required to simply maintain global carbon dioxide emissions at their year 2000 levels.

This scenario is roughly equivalent to assuming that nuclear plays about the same role in the global electricity sector in the year 2050 as coal does today in the United States. In order to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear power plant construction would have to be more rapid than one a week.”

He concludes,

“It is time to move on from considering the nuclear option and to begin focusing on developing more rapid, robust and sustainable options.”

He explains,

“Just as the claim by Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss that nuclear power would one day be “too cheap to meter” was known to be a myth well before ground was broken on the first civilian reactor in the United States, and just as the link between the nuclear fuel cycle and the potential to manufacture nuclear weapons was widely acknowledged before President Eisenhower first voiced his vision for the “Atoms-for-Peace” program, a careful examination today reveals that the expense and vulnerabilities associated with nuclear power would make it a risky and unsustainable option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions...

“The potential impact on the public from safety or waste management failure and the link to nuclear explosives technology are unique to nuclear energy among energy supply options. These characteristics and the fact that nuclear is more costly, make it impossible today to make a credible case for the immediate expanded use of nuclear power.

“Nuclear power is a uniquely dangerous source of electricity that would create a number of serious risks if employed on a large scale. It is very unlikely that the problems with nuclear power could be successfully overcome given the large number of reactors required for even modestly affecting carbon dioxide emissions.”

In a  January 17 statement, the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists justifies the advancement of its famed Doomsday Clock another two minutes, so that it now stands at five minutes before midnight (the figurative time when humankind could obliterate itself).  The  increased peril came not only from nuclear proliferation by Korea and Iran, but the "[m]ore than 1,400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and approximately 500 tons of plutonium...distributed worldwide at some 140 sites, in unguarded civilian power plants and university research reactors, as well as in military facilities. The first report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials in September 2006 focused on the ease with which unauthorized groups, including terrorist groups, could obtain sufficient highly enriched uranium to make nuclear or radiological bombs.

“The prospect of civilian nuclear power development in countries around the world raises further concerns about the availability of nuclear materials. Growth in nuclear power is anticipated to be especially high in Asia, where Japan is planning to bring on line five new plants by 2010, and China intends to build 30 nuclear reactors by 2020. Over the next five years, some two-dozen nuclear power plants are scheduled to be refurbished or rebuilt worldwide, and countries as diverse as Nigeria, Poland, and Vietnam have expressed interest in nuclear energy. In November 2006, the IAEA announced that four Mideast nations--Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia--had declared their intentions to embark on nuclear energy programs.

“Several factors are driving the turn to nuclear power--aging nuclear reactors, rising energy demands, a desire to diversify energy portfolios and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and the need to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change. Yet expansion of nuclear power increases the risks of nuclear proliferation. Enrichment facilities that produce low-enriched uranium for reactor fuel can be easily modified to produce weapons-usable, highly enriched uranium. Moreover, spent plutonium fuel from reactors is weapons-usable after reprocessing. It does not require much nuclear material to construct a fissile weapon: 1 to 3 kilograms of plutonium or 5 to 10 kilograms of highly enriched uranium is all that is needed for a single bomb.

“The international community faces a dilemma: How to mitigate climate change without increasing the dangers of nuclear materials proliferation.”

It seems to me the answer to this dilemma can be found in Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.: Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 2030, edited by Charles F. Kutscher and released January 31, 2007 by the American Solar Energy Society.  The report estimated that a reduction of 1.2 billion tons of carbon emissions annually in the U.S. could be accomplished by:

• Energy efficiency .688
• Concentrating solar power .063
• Photovoltaics .063
• Wind .181
• Biofuels .058
• Biomass .075
• Geothermal .083

·     Notice that, unlike the spin by the nuclear industry, reductions estimated by the solar folks  place solar behind every source save biofuels, instead suggesting that the bulk of reductions will come from energy efficiency. Without any use of nuclear energy,

“[t]he results of these studies show that renewable energy has the potential to provide approximately 40% of the U.S. electric energy need projected for 2030 by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). After we reduce the EIA electricity projection by taking advantage of energy efficiency measures, renewables could provide about 50% of the remaining 2030 U.S. electric need.”

Nuclear energy only accounts for 20% of the current power generation and comes with the problems of nuclear waste disposal and possible nuclear proliferation.

And yet in January Joe Lieberman (I-CT)  reintroduced giant subsidies for the nuclear industry, all in the name of reducing global warming, in his third try at passage of the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act (for the co-sponsors and history of submission see here.) The 2007 version is 

S. 280 (Congressional Record, starting on page S511, referred that date to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In an analysis released in January 2007, Emily Figdor at U.S. PIRG and Michele Boyd at Public Citizen said the bill would authorize:

“more than $3.7 billion in federal subsidies for new nuclear power plants. The bill provides a wide range of subsidies, including subsidies for engineering and design costs, loans and loan guarantees for building three new plants, and direct financial awards for new projects. Many of these same provisions were passed into law in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which provides more than $13 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to the nuclear industry.”

Figdor and Boyd's breakdown of S. 280's financing for the nuclear industry is as follows:

·     Design and Engineering Subsidies [Sec. 351(c)(3)] $600 million. The federal government has already spent billions of dollars subsidizing the nuclear industry’s research and development costs. The current bill

“includes up to $600 million for three new nuclear reactor designs. Specifically, Sec. 351(c)(3) authorizes $200 million each for three new reactor designs. Without federal subsidies, the nuclear industry has already recently certified the AP-1000, AP-600, and Advanced Boiling Water Reactor designs with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In addition, General Electric (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor) and Mitsubishi (Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor) are in the process of certifying new designs. Clearly, federal subsidies are not necessary for the development of the next generation of reactor designs. “

·     Licensing Subsidies and Incentives [Sec. 351(d)] Cost not specified

As part of the Energy Department’s Nuclear Power 2010 program, a government-industry cost-share program underway since FY 2001, DOE has awarded a consortium of nuclear companies $260 million to assist them with licensing at one site in Mississippi and has agreed to fund another license application in Virginia, the amount to be determined. Despite this, the Lieberman-McCain bill provides an unlimited amount of additional federal subsidies for licensing new reactors. Under Sec. 351(d), the licensing costs are supposed to be shared between the federal government and industry, but it leaves it up to the DOE to determine what portion of the licensing costs will be paid for by the federal government, potentially saddling taxpayers with the entire cost of licensing new reactors.

“S.280 also requires that DOE establish a demonstration program to reduce the regulatory costs of the NRC’s licensing process. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 made sweeping changes to the NRC’s licensing process for new reactors. The industry is currently testing the new process with four pending Early Site Permit applications. No utility has submitted a Combined Construction and Operation license as of yet. It makes no sense to further curtail the NRC licensing process when the existing process has not yet been fully tested.”

·     Secured Loans and Loan Guarantees [Sec. 251-255] $3 billion. The bill's secured loans and loan guarantees that would “cover up to 80 percent of the cost of building the first of three new nuclear power plants with different designs. The bill leaves it to the discretion of the Secretary of Energy to determine the type of financial assistance that will be provided.

“Loan guarantees for various energy sources, including new nuclear power plants, were already authorized in EPACT 2005. DOE is currently in the process of establishing an Office of Loan Guarantees, reviewing pre-applications for loan guarantees, and drafting regulations for the implementation of the necessary regulations.

“If Congress were to guarantee loans covering three additional nuclear reactors, this subsidy could potentially cost taxpayers approximately $3 billion. This assumes a 50% default rate and construction cost per plant of $2.5 billion, as the Congressional Budget Office has estimated. International experience, however, has shown that actual construction costs are much higher. For example, a 1,300 MW Advanced Boiling Water Reactor built in Japan in the mid-1990s cost $3.7 billion (1997 dollars), despite the claim by General Electric that it would cost $2 billion.1 The French government-owned company Areva is currently building a 1,600 MW reactor in Finland, the same reactor design that the U.S. utility Constellation is considering building in Maryland. Plant construction, which was started in April 2005, is already 18 months behind schedule. Areva lost $922 million in income in 2006 due to the construction problems.”

·     Awards [Sec. 323] $100 million per project—unlimited amount

Projects within different technology categories, including nuclear power will be able to to bid for an additional federal grant “of as much as $100 million – or more if approved by the Secretary of Energy. Until 2012, each of the grants will be financed through proceeds from the auction of tradable allowances, after which point they will be paid for through the Climate Change Credit Corporation, which is created under the Act purportedly to reduce consumer costs that result from the requirements of this Act. There is nothing to prevent projects that are financed under other provisions in this bill to also be awarded an additional grant under this Section.”

S.280 also includes extensive subsidies for new coal plants, which are not included in this analysis.


Here are some links to other groups working on energy and climate change:

·         Sierra Club – Smart Energy Solutions

·         Pew Center on Global Climate Change

·         New Scientist Environment

·         Global Climate Change Research Explorer

·         World Wildlife Federation – Climate Change

·         United Nations Environmental Program

·         Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute – Ocean and Climate Change Institute

·         Global Warming: Early Warning Signs

·         Greenpeace

·         World Resources Institute

·         Conservation International

·         Energy Justice Network

·         Congressional Reference Service

·         Natural Resource Defense Fund

·         Union of Concerned Scientists