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The following is a piece I submitted a while back to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They didn’t seem interested in an economic and environmental defense of nuclear power in the wake of the Japan disaster.
Commercial nuclear power generation started in Russia in 1954 and since then to the end of 2010, there has been 67 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated world-wide and 19 trillion kilowatt-hours generated in the United States. In 2010, fourteen percent of the world’s electricity was from nuclear power and 19 percent in the United States.
If you assign a value of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour to electricity, you see the world-wide value of nuclear electricity up to the end of 2010 is $3.4 trillion and $95 billion in the United States.
The three major commercial nuclear power plant accidents reported to the world were Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. It is hard to assess a value on the Chernobyl accident because it was a power plant that should never have been built because its power would rise out of control if it lost its coolant.
The cost of the TMI accident was $1 billion for cleanup and maybe $6 billion for plant replacement today. This amounts to about one part in 140 compared to revenue from all nuclear power plants in the U. S. No fatalities were assigned to the TMI accident. It will be years before we are able to assign a cost to the reactor failures at Fukushima. It most likely will be small compared to the value of nuclear electricity produced in 2011.
Coal, natural gas, petroleum, and hydroelectric are the other main sources of electricity today. All these sources have risks for which the public is aware; but may not pay attention. Last year we had a coal mine explosion in West Virginia with many deaths, a natural gas line explosion in California with much damage and fatalities, an oil well blow-out with deaths and great cost in the Gulf of Mexico, and hydro-electric plant dam failures — with people drowning downstream due to rapid increases in water discharge when power generation is increased (as has happened many times in the Republic of Georgia).
Undoubtedly, studies have been made to calculate the costs of accidents for each of these energy sources. Worldwide annual deaths are in the tens of thousands. The risks for each source will be similar and one must weigh risks versus rewards.
In the U.S., electricity is taken for granted because it is cheap, reliable, and available to everyone. The benefits are clean water and sewage disposal, lighting, home heating, air conditioning, hot water, cooking, refrigeration, vacuum cleaners, washers and dryers, dishwashers, computers, and power for many other gadgets that increase our quality of life.
In 1900, life for housewives was drudgery and lifespan in the U.S. was 45 years due to poor living conditions. In 2009, the lifespan had increased to 78 years. (Perhaps due to the Obama administration, the lifespan in 2010 was recently reported to have increased to 78.2 years.) All this has come about despite continual tales of woe from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One can argue millions of lives are saved annually due to abundant, reliable, and cheap electricity.
Many advocates of “green” or “clean” energy for generating electricity, such as wind or solar, argue these sources are risk-free. This most certainly is not true. Cost and unreliability are a risk. On February 1 of this year, an ice storm and cold weather in Texas — followed by reduced power generation by wind turbines — caused rolling blackouts throughout most of the state. A similar event happened on February 26, 2008. These sources cost at least three times more than the cost of conventional electricity. If your electric bill was tripled (or worse), would your lifestyle remain the same? This is for certain: Those with lower incomes would see their lifestyles progress backwards to days of early 1900s.
Some say we should abandon nuclear energy because of unacceptable risks, and rely exclusively on fossil fuels, hydroelectric, and other renewable sources. But, they say, there is a limit on the availability of fossil fuels due to depletion — which will increase the price of electricity. Yet uranium is abundant. And if we start employing breeder reactors to make better use of uranium, the availability of nuclear power will last many thousands of years. In addition, increasing use of nuclear power will stretch out the time before fossil fuels become scarce, and allow its allocation to other uses such as chemical manufacturing and transportation.
No one can predict the energy future. We will see a progression in energy sources shown by the history of man — solar, wind, wood, coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and new, future discoveries or inventions beyond our imagination.
James H. Rust is a policy advisor on environmental policy for The Heartland Institute.