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Sustainable Idaho: Nuclear Economics

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Over the course of this series, we’ve introduced nuclear energy and explored its pros and cons. Today, we’ll be concluding our nuclear energy series by talking about economic perspectives. For this episode, we invited economist, Dr. Greg Weeks, and Citizens' Climate Lobby Liaison to Representative Mike Simpson, Nancy Basinger to talk with us about nuclear energy’s economic viability. To start off, let’s go over some statistics relating to nuclear energy costs.

TNO, an independent research organization, released a report in 2018 which stated that total construction costs for a 1600 megawatt capacity power plant average between 6.7 and 14 billion dollars and construction time average 7-10 years. When comparing levelized energy costs, or costs that take every stage of energy production into account, nuclear is more expensive than renewables at 9.3 cents per Kilowatt hour while wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro average 3.7 cents per Kilowatt hour according to the Department of Energy. In short, plants take a long time to build and have a high up-front cost. But for plants that are already built, keeping the plant online is very cost-effective.

Now with this background information, we can truly dive into the show. First, we asked Basinger about the economics behind nuclear energy in Idaho and she explained the current plan to build SMRs and their costs. While SMRs have garnered excitement in the state, Basinger highlighted that they come with a hefty price tag and take a long time to develop. We asked Dr. Weeks about other costs associated with nuclear energy, and he explained the concept of externalities.

When discussing nuclear energy costs, there’s a lot of aspects to consider. Not only is there the cost of building a plant and the operational and maintenance costs of producing energy, but there’s a host of external factors to take into account. For example, Dr. Weeks brings up the cost of creating waste storage sites. Basinger elaborated on such nuclear energy externalities. She built upon what Dr. Weeks stated: there are a number of externalities when dealing with nuclear energy, some of which we don’t fully understand yet, such as waste storage.

Now, there’s a flip side to this. People in favor of nuclear energy are aware of the drawbacks but push for it nonetheless because of an externality caused by fossil fuel energy sources: climate change. According to an Economist Intelligence Unit’s Climate Change Resilience Index, Climate change is expected to result in losses upwards of trillions of dollars to the global economy by 2050.

We asked Basinger whether she knew about energy subsidies and how this federal money is fueling low carbon innovation in Idaho. We also asked Dr. Weeks about where he thinks federal money is best invested. Coming full circle, he brought attention back to the issue both sides of the nuclear debate are trying to address, the climate crisis. Dr. Weeks seems to bring both sides together as he advocates for more research into all types of green energy and notes, as most of us know, that there isn’t one perfect solution. To him, more research is needed to conclude which energy sources are the best to devote our resources to.

Throughout this series, we have learned that nuclear energy is a high-density fuel that can produce enormous amounts of low-carbon energy. Proponents argue that this gives the energy source vast potential in aiding in our transition away from fossil fuels. On the other side of this issue, many believe that nuclear power risks outweigh possible benefits. The economics of nuclear energy provides a more nuanced account, where the energy source appears not to be a sole guiding light but instead one of many options for our energy future.

Next week, on Sustainable Idaho, we’ll be hopping from one power source to another. Join us as we introduce solar energy. Join us for Sustainable Idaho, every Tuesday morning at 7:35 a.m.

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Eizaak Jordan was born and raised in McCall, Idaho. He spent summers in Yellowpine, Idaho, near the Frank Church Wilderness Area. Eizaak's days were characterized by interacting with the natural world in both locations, curating his passion for Idaho’s ecosystems. He is currently an ISU Political Science student and President of ISU’s Sustainability Club. After graduation, he will be applying for a graduate program in environmental politics, which will hopefully open opportunities to gain full employment doing environmental advocacy. Eizaak spends his free time reading, cooking, and fly fishing.
Ailie Maclean was born and raised in Alaska but moved to Kimberly, Idaho right before high school. Ailie is an undergraduate Political Science and Global Studies major at ISU. She is going into her last year at ISU as Vice President of Idaho State’s student government, ASISU, and has served as an Honors Program Mentor, Communications Envoy, and ASISU Supreme Court Justice in past years. In her free time she enjoys reading, longboarding, hiking, watching anime, and swimming in unique places (Silfra in Iceland for example). Ailie plans on studying environmental, or some variation of international law, after taking a gap year to travel and work abroad.