Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two grave nuclear-related difficulties governments cannot resolve, but nuclear moratorium can

There are two grave difficulties that governments cannot resolve with science and technology, but can totally avoid by declaring nuclear moratorium.

The first difficulty of governments is persuading people to accept financial uncertainties in nuclear power plant proposals.
Above all, people never know the full costs of the proposed nuclear power plant. Let alone non-monetary externalities, there are direct and indirect subsidies hidden in its capital and O&M cost estimation.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has published an interesting (and helpful) report (written by Doug Koplow) on economics of nuclear power. Its title (Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subsidies) tells it all. Currently, the subsidies for nuclear power sum up to 11.42 cents per kilowatt-hour, while EIA's average electricity price estimation spans between 5.4~5.9 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Notable subsidies are:
  • Nuclear power purchase mandates ("clean energy" portfolio standards)
  • Nuclear production tax credit
  • Reactor loan guarantees or direct loans (domestic and foreign)
  • Accelerated depreciation
  • Recovery of construction/work-in-progress (regulated utilities only)
  • Government research and development
  • Tax-exempt public reactors; no required rate of return
  • Subsidized site approval and licensing costs
  • Transfer of stranded asset liabilities
  • Traditional rate regulation (return on “prudently incurred” investments even if not used or economically competitive)
  • Regulatory-delay insurance
  • Shifting of health-related liabilities to taxpayers
  • Reduced property tax burdens for new plants at state or county level
  • Subsidized access, bonding on public lands for uranium mining
  • Percentage depletion on uranium extraction
  • Legacy costs of uranium mining, milling sites (contamination costs staying with taxpayers)
  • Federal uranium-stockpile management
  • Free or subsidized use of large quantities of cooling water
  • Cap on accident liability: reactors, contractors, fuel-cycle facilities, shippers ("Price-Anderson" cap)
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission services not paid by user fees
  • U.S. funding of proliferation oversight abroad by the IAEA
  • Plant security/low design-basis requirements for attacks
  • Tax breaks for reactor decommissioning
  • Nationalization of nuclear waste management
Obviously, these subsidies reduce the costs of nuclear energy and cause injustice on renewable energy sources. Zelenika-Zovko & Pearce (2011) assessed  possibility of divesting those subsidies from nuclear energy giving to solar energy in the United States. According to their analysis, subsidy transfer from nuclear to solar will result in dramatic increase in photovoltaic power production, which will eventually surpass nuclear electricity production from 2046.

The second difficulty governments have to handle is people's distrust in their governments once any nuclear accident takes place.
Because every pro-nuclear government has been championing the safety of nuclear power plants, they can hardly admit adverse health effects or fatality of radioactive materials coming from failed nuclear facilities. Consequently, people cannot trust a government's delayed or summarized announcements. Since Fukushima Dai-ich nuclear power plant accident occurred, nuclear apologists tell us radiation levels in our neighborhood (whether it is in America, Europe or Asia) are so low that they do not affect our health. That can be true, although nobody won't actually dare to feed their children with irradiated milk or lettuce.
But sometimes psychological effects of nuclear accidents can exploit people's health even the actual radiation level is negligibly low. This is an important issue that Becker (2011) raises in his editorial of the journal BMJ.

Psychological effects of a nuclear accident are: anxiety disorders, depression, a persistent subjective sense of ill health, deep fatalism about the future, and multiple unexplained physical symptoms. Becker cites World Health Organization's conclusion about the Chernobyl nuclear accident that psychological effects had been "the largest public health problem caused by the accident to date."

Becker points out importance of people's 'trust' in a government to protect people from nuclear emergencies. He stresses that it is more important for a government to gain people's confidence than to explain them how low the radiation level is. He makes this point clear by saying,
"the provision of timely, accurate, clear, and credible information may be the single most important way to save lives, reduce injuries and illnesses, prevent psychosocial effects, and help maintain people’s trust and confidence."

Therefore, my conclusion is: "Governments, declare nuclear moratorium!"

Becker, S. M. (2011). Protecting public health after major radiation emergencies. BMJ, 342, 717-718. [Full-text at http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1968]
Koplow, D. (2011). Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subsidies. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. [Full-text at http://j.mp/Nuke_Subsidies]
Zelenika-Zovko, I., & Pearce, J. M. (2011). Diverting indirect subsidies from the nuclear industry to the photovoltaic industry: Energy and financial returns. Energy Policy, 39(5), 2626-2632. [Full-text at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2011.02.031]

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