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Will “Pandora’s Promise” convince us that nuclear is the answer?

This Saturday night I’ll be seeing the new pro-nuclear movie Pandora’s Promise at Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.  Afterwards, Climate One (part of the Commonwealth Club) will sponsor a conversation about the movie between me and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute (one of the environmentalists turned nuclear advocates who stars in the movie).  I’m hoping the movie isn’t a quasi-religious rant about how nuclear is cost competitive with fossil fuels (it isn’t…yet) and can easily eliminate all global greenhouse gas emissions (it can’t….yet).  What we need is a balanced conversation that recognizes how incredibly cheap fossil fuels are likely to remain and how difficult (and necessary) it is to get the developed and developing world to switch to alternatives.  Nuclear may turn out to be the alternative that can do that, and it should be part of the discussion, but without government intervention none of the alternatives beats fossil fuels (…yet).  Andrew Revkin had a piece on his NYT blog about the movie and it got written up in most major papers today.  Here are the LA Times and Washington Post reviews.



Severin Borenstein View All

Severin Borenstein is Professor of the Graduate School in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group at the Haas School of Business and Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. He received his A.B. from U.C. Berkeley and Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. His research focuses on the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. Borenstein is also a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA. He served on the Board of Governors of the California Power Exchange from 1997 to 2003. During 1999-2000, he was a member of the California Attorney General's Gasoline Price Task Force. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee, which advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. In 2014, he was appointed to the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, which he chaired from 2015 until the Committee was dissolved in 2017. From 2015-2020, he served on the Advisory Council of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Since 2019, he has been a member of the Governing Board of the California Independent System Operator.

3 thoughts on “Will “Pandora’s Promise” convince us that nuclear is the answer? Leave a comment

  1. They are many claims that without the incredible regulatory burden nuclear would definitively be competitive with fossils, including shale gas. Vogtle claims nuclear can generate power at about $1/mmBtu see They by the way still didn’t take the loan guarantee and could end up not using it.

    And when talking about construction costs, recent modern IGCC coal plant aren’t anything like cheap at all, at $3.42 billions for a 582 MW unit :
    This is definitively in the same ballpark as the per MW construction cost for Flamanville in France or Olkiluoto in Finland.

    It’s foremost all the regulatory cost that increase the bill to build and to run nuclear plant. Estimates are that the Kewaunee unit had around 135 millions of fixed costs before generating the first kWh, but a majority came from regulation, not from actual difficulties of operating the plant (for obvious reasons, most of the day to day operation of a nuclear plant is fully automated). Nuclear must pay the NRC to be regulated, a fixed cost that doesn’t depend on the size of the unit (so is very expensive for a smaller unit like Kewaunee). But in addition to the actual license cost, there’s the fact that a lot of money must be paid to maintain employee aware of every aspect of the license, on which improvements are also regularly done, so that’s another cost that you can not bypass if you stop generating. Kewaunee had around 600 employees not because this was really required, but because the NRC would impose multiple redundancies, constant non automated measurement and check, and that all the employees required for that would have to stay on site. According to the people involved, none of this really increases security.

    Another consequence of this regulation is that it’s basically impossible to mothball a nuclear plant in the US. If you do, either you continue to pay the license anyway, or you will need to restart the process from scratch if you decide to restart it. But the license delivery or renewal delays are counted in years, and not just 2 or 3, some have taken 6 years already. And getting a new license from scratch means with the up-to-date requirement, many of which probably did not exist when the plant was built, which means that some old units just are fully incompatible with them. As a result, restarting a shut-downed NPP has a cost that runs in the billions of dollar, and about the only one where this was done, Browns Ferry, might actually still have had the license since they was several reactors on the same site, and the others were not closed.

    We could do a follow-up to Pandora’s Promise about the costs, but until today, I very rarely saw environmentalists pretending costs were the main repellent for them when deciding which option to select, and it made sense for Pandora’s Promise to focus instead about the perceived risks.

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