Empirically Yours

No Nukes: Carbon-free Electricity


We pay about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity in Washington state, much less than the national median of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour. Here I’m just comparing the electricity costs, not the other charges on a typical monthly bill. Some places in the United States may never have rates like ours, because of poor decisions they made decades ago. Take the state of Georgia, for example. But first, a bit of the energy history of Washington.

Are you old enough to remember about 40 years ago when there was a push to build nuclear plants in the U.S. ? It happened here, when the Washington Public Power Supply system (WPPSS: pronounced “Whoops”) decided our state needed to build five nuclear power plants based on infantile projections of population and industrial growth. These would be financed by a public issue of bonds and paid back with sales from the plants. As construction started and the expenses started to bite, two plants were canceled and two others were stopped although they were more than half-complete. Only one plant was finished and connected to the grid.

But many bonds were sold since they had the imprimatur of being as safe as municipal bonds, plus they paid as much as 15% simple interest. The extravagant interest rate was because the bonds went to market just as the national inflation rate was surging in the early 1980s. Ultimately, the Whoops bonds resulted in the nation’s largest municipal bond default.

Power planners in Georgia were also infected with nuclear fever. Georgia’s path to going nuclear makes me glad Whoops did not go forward.

In the 1980s, Southern Company, an NYSE for-profit firm based in Georgia, persuaded Georgia Public Service Commission, a government panel chartered to regulate energy generation and protect the interests of the public, to start building nukes. So, in the late 1970s, construction of two nuclear plants began. They were finished 13 years later and cost 13 times more than originally budgeted. But Southern Company’s stock price was strong, and it proposed two additional nukes to its regulator, which were promptly approved. The new plants had a nifty new design with an estimated construction price of 14 billion dollars.

Alas, there were problems. Design problems, staffing problems, sloppy construction, insufficient documentation, and the designer of the plants (Westinghouse Electric Company) went bankrupt. But work continued, in part because Southern Company persuaded its regulator to add a monthly charge for “nuclear construction cost recovery” to the monthly bills of essentially all of the household rate payers, years before the plants were finished. They did not issue bonds, nor did they ask their stockholders to help. Southern Company and the Gorgia Public Service Commission did graciously exempt the big industrial power users from the nuclear recovery surcharges.

Southern Company’s stock value continues to be strong to this day. Its officers and investors were sheltered from the cost overruns, thanks to the regular rate payers. Early this year, the first of these two plants finally started adding power to the Georgia grid, while the second may go online late this year or early next. The final cost of both plants is now 34 billion dollars. We can be thankful that Whoops did not follow this path.

The state of Georgia is now the proud owner of the two most expensive nuclear power plants on Earth, generating the most expensive electricity in the poorest region of the United States. This investment could have purchased four solar power plants with the same power output (2,000 megawatts) plus a week’s storage for only 8 billion dollars, or one-quarter the cost.

Yes, nuclear power is carbon-free if one ignores the CO2 released during the construction, but it is breathtakingly expensive, requires constant security, and the spent fuel remains dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

The proponents of nuclear and fossil fuel-powered electricity continue to tell us that wind and solar power are intermittent, and we must therefore always build a nuke or a gas-fired generator as backups. But battery systems are already routinely added to utility-scale wind and solar systems and gravity-based storage options are an alternative to batteries.

Gravity backup is as simple as pumped hydro, where water flows on demand down from a high lake and turns a generator making electricity. Off-peak, the water is pumped back uphill.

Alternatively, the Swiss company Energy Vault stores energy by elevating 24-ton blocks of compressed dirt high into a building when power is available and lowers them to turn generators when power is needed. Energy Vault is building its first utility-scale storage plants in China and Texas. They will start lowering blocks later this year. Europe is storing wind energy by making and storing hydrogen gas. Storage is not an issue anymore.

My wife and I have solar panels on our house and garage that provide a bit over one-third of all the electricity we need each year. This includes our heating and hot water. We think of our connection to Peninsula Light Co. as our backup system, since in the winter we rely on Pen Light much more, but during the summer the panels make about five times more electricity than we use each day. Pen Light gives us a modest credit for our excess power.

I originally calculated that our solar panels would pay for themselves in eight to ten years. But the payback time is decreasing since the value of electricity increases as we move away from fossil fuels. Soon we look forward to buying an electric vehicle and charging it up with some of the power that we now sell back to Pen Light. That electricity will be particularly valuable, since as a transportation fuel it will displace gasoline that currently costs nearly $5 a gallon. We can also replace gas-powered yard tools with battery versions. Hopefully, we will use no fossil fuels at all. This is a key advantage to going solar: no carbon or methane emissions.

A second advantage is that renewable electricity costs much less than nuclear or fossil fuel energy. And while the costs of fossil fuels and nuclear energy continue to rise, the cost of wind and solar continue to decline each year. A third advantage to homemade electricity is that we have some control over it.

The energy we need to slow global warming should only come from renewable sources that do not release CO2 into the air, like power from wind, hydroelectricity and photovoltaic panels. Not nuclear.

Richard Gelinas, Ph.D., whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay.