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Nuclear power is expensive and undemocratic August 23, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Nuclear Power, rant, South Africa.

Advocates of atomic energy frequently lament that renewable energy sources are not economically viable and can only survive because of massive government handouts. In reality, it’s the renewables that are nuclear’s poor cousins as far as public spending goes.

According to Public Citizen, the US consumer advocacy organisation, the “high capital costs and long construction times make new [nuclear] reactors prohibitively expensive unless they are heavily subsidised by taxpayers. [….] The [nuclear] industry was created by government. Through subsidies, tax breaks, a government-sanctioned exemption from insurance coverage and other supports, government has propped up nuclear power ever since”.

From 1947 to 1999, the US nuclear industry received over US$115 billion in direct taxpayer subsidies. Government subsidies for wind and solar energy for the same period only amounted to US$5.7 billion.

From 1948 to 1998, US federal spending on research and development amounted to US$74 billion for nuclear and only US$14.6 billion on renewables.

The situation in South Africa is similar. Eskom has a budget of R6 billion for atomic energy that dwarfs the R4.5 million equivalent for renewable energy sources.

A 2002 UK Cabinet Office report found that nuclear power costs more than on-shore or off-shore wind electricity per unit generated. The competitive-looking price of atomic electricity frequently quoted by its supporters typically don’t include the huge costs of decommissioning old power stations, the as yet unsolved problem of disposing highly radioactive wast, 0r the fact that nuclear fuel prices will rise substantially as high-grade ores become exhausted worldwide.

In addition to being very costly, nuclear power is deeply undemocratic. Around the globe, there has been very little public debate or consultation about the pros and cons of the “nuclear renaissance” we are told is on the cards for the near future. In fact, the process has been driven almost exclusively by governments and the nuclear industry itself.

In the US, the blueprint for the government’s energy policy, the Nuclear 2010 program, was drawn up by a panel of 13 people, 10 of which are either directly employed by the nuclear industry or have been consultants to it.

Between 1995 and 1998, companies, labour groups and other organisations who are members of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying organisation of the US nuclear industry, have contributed almost US$12.8 million to the political campaign coffers of members of Congress, while nuclear industry political action committees spend more than US$260 000 on the Bush/Cheney election campaign.

In South Africa, the government is essentially synonymous with the nuclear industry. Eskom is a state owned enterprise with the SA government as its sole shareholder. In 1999, Eskom established the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor company, PBMR (Pty)Ltd, the only non-government investor in which is the US nuclear energy giant Westinghouse with a share of 15%.

There has recently a limited show of so-called public consultation, but government officials are essentially presenting the South African public with a nuclear power fait accompli. Minister of Minerals and Energy, Buyelwa Sonjica declared recently that “the days of talk shops on nuclear issues among peers are over… We are going to invest in nuclear research and development as well as nuclear manufacturing capability”.

And it looks like the public will be carrying most of the bill for our indigenous atomic energy program: Public Enterprises Director-General, Portia Molefe, recently suggested that government (i.e. tax payers) should be willing to consider paying the full cost of the pebble bed modular reactor project.


1. Rory Williams - August 23, 2007

Today’s Business Report notes the formation of South Africa’s Coalition Against Nuclear Energy:

“Fourteen non-governmental organisation and community groups, along with several individuals, have formed the national Coalition Against Nuclear Energy (Cane), to oppose the expansion of the local nuclear industry and demand a commitment to public participation in energy planning.”

2. david bradish - August 24, 2007


In the U.S., nuclear power is very democratic. Intervenors have the opportunity to present their case to the NRC as to whether the reactor will be able to receive a license or not. If they succeed then a unit will not receive a license therefore will not be built.

Intervenors are also able to keep up with and access proposed and changing laws. Rules and regulations are always changing so it’s not like anyone is sitting on their thumbs.

Utilities pay attention to the citizens around where a plant will be built. If public support is fairly terrible, it is unlikely a plant will be built. Utilities want to make things simple. They want to provide power the best and most profitable way and if the public is difficult, then it makes it that much hard and that much more expensive. On the contrary, the public around the plants are more favorable to additional units than the general public. Thus, the public do have influence and a voice.

In terms of subsidies, please check out this detailed post on government incentives and not a front page of Public Citizen. While you’re information only focuses on R&D, the link above quantifies subsidies from every angle. You’ll be surprised at the results.

I see that you care for the environment in your “about me” page. I highly recommend this study from Jesse Ausubel as it will paint you a picture of how much resources nuclear consumes versus renewables.

“Renewables are not green. To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, water and biomass, cause serious environmental harm.”

3. Audrey - September 4, 2007

Dear Andreas

Don’t know why I’m having trouble commenting here… wordpress says something about “You are commenting too quickly, slow down”…

So I’ll type slowly then. Even more slowly, I mean. Sorry if you get this comment nine times…

Just wanted to say thank you for this blog, which I came across yesterday, quite by accident. Good, sane writing in this midden of a blogosphere is a rare find. I’ll be back. I envy your well-measured grip on the environmental stuff, because all I can do is conniption fits and frothing at the mouth… 🙂

4. Andreas - September 4, 2007

Thanks, Audrey…glad you like my stuff. Will have a look at your blog a little later on today.

5. ahhhhh - November 17, 2008

your both retarded as hell
i hate science

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