Doing Without Nuclear Power

The case for nuclear power has always rested on two claims: that reactors were reasonably safe and that they were indispensable as a source of energy. Now the accident at Three Mile Island has shaken the first claim, and we will soon have to face the flaws in the second. The result should be the abandonment of nuclear power and the emergence of a more rational energy policy, based on measures to improve the efficiency with which energy from fossil fuels is used.

The dangers of nuclear power have been greatly underestimated, while its potential to replace oil as the world’s primary energy source has been vastly exaggerated. Rather than being indispensable, nuclear power can make, at best, only a modest and easily replaceable contribution to future energy requirements.

Nuclear power plants currently generate 13 percent of the electricity produced in the United States, and slightly smaller percentages in Western Europe and Japan. (Countries such as Sweden and Switzerland which depend on nuclear reactors for 20 percent of their electricity are exceptions.) Since electricity accounts for only 30 percent of the total energy supply, nuclear power provides less than 4 percent of the overall energy of the industrial countries. More surprisingly, as the economist Vince Taylor has shown in a report to the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, nuclear power will provide, at most, only a 10 to 15 percent share of the energy supply of the advanced countries by the year 2000.

Taylor’s argument begins with the fact that nuclear power provides only electricity—an expensive form of energy which absorbs only 10 percent of the oil used in the US and other advanced countries. The great hopes for nuclear energy were based on the possibility that electricity could be substituted for oil in processes where electric power had not been heavily used. In fact, little such substitution has occurred. The petrochemical and transport industries, including automobiles, now use 50 percent of available oil. There is no foreseeable technical possibility of electrifying large proportions of these industries. The remaining 40 percent of oil is used for heating and for industrial energy. In both cases, major electrification is ruled out by nuclear power’s high cost.

What are the relative costs of energy from nuclear power? They are rarely compared to the costs of burning oil in engines or furnaces, yet such a comparison is central if we are to weigh the prospects of substituting nuclear power for oil. If we carefully estimate the different kinds of costs involved in producing kilowatts at nuclear plants and in obtaining barrels of oil, we find that the cost of energy from a nuclear plant built today can be calculated at $100 for the “heat equivalent of a barrel of oil.” This figure reflects fuel, maintenance, and—most important—the cost of constructing the nuclear plant itself. It is over four times the cost of heat from oil at OPEC prices.

The heat in electricity, of course, can be …

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