Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away, according to a February 2011 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The report, Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies, looks at the economic impacts and policy implications of subsidies to the nuclear power industry—past, present, and proposed.
Nuclear power subsidies vary by type of ownership (public or private), time frame of support (legacy, ongoing, or new), and the type of cost (or “attribute of production”) they address—from startup capital to decommissioning and waste disposal. Subsidies can take many forms, including tax breaks, accident liability caps, direct payments, and loan guarantees.
While the exact value of these subsidies can be difficult to pin down, even conservative estimates add up to a substantial percentage of the value of the power nuclear plants produce—approaching or even exceeding 100 percent in the case of legacy subsidies and subsidies to new privately-owned reactors (see chart).
Subsidies were originally intended to provide temporary support for the fledgling nuclear power industry, but the promised day when the industry could prosper without them and power from nuclear reactors would be “too cheap to meter” has yet to arrive. It is unlikely to arrive any time soon, as cost estimates for new reactors continue to escalate and the nuclear power lobby demands even more support from taxpayers. Piling new subsidies on top of existing ones will provide the industry with little incentive to rework its business model to internalize its considerable costs and risks.
Nuclear subsidies effectively separate risk from reward, shifting the burden of possible losses onto the public and encouraging speculative investment. By masking the true cost of nuclear power, subsidies also allow the industry to exaggerate its economic competitiveness; consequently, they diminish or delay support for more economical and less risky alternatives like energy efficiency and renewable energy.
The most significant forms of subsidies to nuclear power have four principal objectives: Reduce the cost of capital, labor and land through loan guarantees and tax incentives; mask the true costs of producing nuclear energy through subsidies to uranium mining and water usage; shift security and accident risks to the public via the 1957 Price-Anderson Act and other mechanisms; and shift long-term operating risks such as radioactive waste storage to the public.
The report evaluates legacy subsidies that helped build the industry, ongoing support to existing reactors, and subsidies available for new projects. According to the report, legacy subsidies exceeded 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (¢/kWh), well above the average wholesale price of power from 1960 to 2008. In effect, the subsidies were more valuable than the power the subsidized plants produced.
“Without these generous subsidies, the nuclear industry would have faced a very different market reality,” said Doug Koplow, the author of the report and principal at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consulting firm, Earth Track. “Many of the 104 reactors currently operating would never have been built, and the utilities that built reactors would have been forced to charge ratepayers even higher rates.”
The industry continues to benefit from subsidies that offset its operating costs, which include uranium mining, cooling water, accident liability insurance, waste disposal, and plant decommissioning. The exact value of these subsidies, however, is difficult to ascertain. According to the report, ongoing subsidies range from 13 percent to 98 percent of the value of the power produced. Even at the low-end however, subsidies account for a significant portion of nuclear power’s operating cost advantage over competing energy sources.
Subsidies to new reactors could significantly exceed those enjoyed by the existing fleet. In addition to benefiting from ongoing subsidies to existing plants, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 introduced a new suite of subsidies for nuclear power. The report estimates that these subsidies could be worth between 4.2 and 11.4¢/kWh, or as much as 200 percent of the projected price of electricity when these plants are built.
“All low-carbon energy technologies would be able to compete on their merits if the government established an energy-neutral playing field and put a price on carbon,” said Vancko. “Investing in nuclear power carries the unique risks of radioactive waste storage, accidents, and nuclear weapons proliferation that must be fully reflected in the technology’s costs, which is not the case today.”
Based on these findings, the report recommends that the federal government reduce subsidies to the nuclear power industry. If subsidies are necessary, the government should award them competitively to the most cost-effective low-carbon energy technologies. The report also recommends that the government modernize liability systems for nuclear power and establish regulations and fee structures for uranium mining, waste repository financing, and water usage that fully reflect the technology’s cost and risks.
“After 50 years,” said Koplow, “the nuclear industry needs to move away from government patronage to a model based on real economic viability. The considerable operational and construction risks of this power source need to be reflected in the delivered price of power rather than dumped onto taxpayers.”
For detailed background economic analysis, see:
Policy Challenges of Nuclear Reactor Construction, Cost Escalation and Crowding Out Alternatives: Lessons From the U.S. and France for the Effort to Revive the U.S. Industry With Loan Guarantees and Tax Subsidies (September, 2010)
All Risk, No Reward for Taxpayers and Ratepayers: The Economics of Subsidizing The ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ With Loan Guarantees And Construction Work In Progress (November 2009)
The Economics of Nuclear Reactors: Renaissance or Relapse? (June 2010)