Wind, solar, and hydropower sources—which now exceed nuclear power in generating capacity in the United States, and during one recent month even produced more total electricity—have also been the recipient of subsidies. The difference is, their aggregate subsidies are an order of magnitude smaller, and renewables (particularly on-shore wind and utility-scale photovoltaics) have delivered on their promise to lower costs, with costs that are one-third of nuclear power on a levelized basis and still falling, as I reported in my recent book (see Figure 5.1 for current costs and Figure 5.3 for future costs). They succeed, where nuclear fails, not simply because of the complexity of nuclear technology, but also because of their inherent economic characteristics. Smaller in scale and more decentralized, they encourage entry by multiple suppliers, allow demonstration before massive deployment, and foster continuous competition to lower costs and improve quality.
Three strikes against nuclear. The failure of nuclear economics is not just bad luck. Nuclear power is inherently uneconomic, because it relies on a catastrophically dangerous resource that is vulnerable to human frailties and the vicissitudes of Mother Nature. Second, the severe threats to public safety posed by nuclear power, and the evolving demands for safety improvements as plants age, result in an extremely complex technology that requires long lead times and large sunk costs. Finally, the technology suffers constant cost escalation and does not benefit from cost-reducing processes that are observed in other industries. These three problems make it impossible for nuclear power to compete with alternatives (today, renewable energy and demand-side management) on a level playing field.
Any nation that claims to have the technical expertise and economic resources to build a “safe” nuclear reactor should also have the wherewithal to meet its needs for electricity with alternatives that are less costly and less risky. Now and for the foreseeable future, it is a virtual certainty that nuclear power is not going to be the lowest-cost option or close to it, even within a low-carbon utility sector. Nuclear power is the most expensive way to lower carbon emissions and is not needed to reach carbon-reduction goals.