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Capitol Hill Briefing on the Risks of Nuclear Reactors

May 21, 2010

Dr. Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Vermont Law School, presented his research on the high and rising cost of building nuclear reactors. He found that cost estimates by reactor venders and utilities in the 1970s and 1980s were extremely low compared to actual reactor construction costs, and that the same pattern of cost underestimation is happening again now. Dr. Cooper compared the cost of low-carbon electricity technologies, concluding that all will benefit from putting a price on carbon, but nuclear will still be too expensive. In his research, he found that there are a dozen cheaper technologies that will meet energy needs and protect electricity ratepayers.  Furthermore, commitment to large nuclear reactors makes it unlikely that a utility will focus on efficiency and renewable energy measures. Dr. Cooper is the author of a comprehensive study on the cost of new reactors in the US, The Economics of Nuclear Reactors: Renaissance or Relapse?.

Peter Bradford, former Commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, discussed the fact that loan guarantees do not reduce the financial risk of new reactors; they just shift the risk to taxpayers.  Every $10 billion in loan guarantees represents an exposure of about $100 for every U.S. family. He also talked about the backlash by electricity consumers in states like Florida to increased rates to pay for new reactors. Mr. Bradford also discussed the historical cases in which proposed new reactors led utilities to under-invest in or even reject other cheaper options. He called the provisions that shortcut reactor licensing in the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill “particularly shameful,” especially given consequences of the financial crisis, coal mine accident and Gulf oil spill of weakening safety regulations.

Dr. Alexander Glaser, assistant professor at Princeton University, spoke about the proliferation risks of nuclear power, concluding that “the world is not now safe for a rapid and global expansion of nuclear power.”  He provided two recommendations for what need to be done in the next 10 years to make nuclear power safer: (1) refrain from reprocessing of spent fuel, because it creates weapons-useable material; and (2) build a new framework for the nuclear fuel cycle that includes multilateral enrichment facilities. Dr. Glaser is co-author with Robert Socolow of Balancing Risks: Nuclear Energy & Climate Change in the Fall 2009 issue of Daedalus.

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