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King Coal: nuclear power's troubles may put it back on throne

Is nuclear power going to price itself out of the market compared with coal? Yes, says New York energy economist Charles Komanoff. In a 323-page analysis , he concludes that electric power from new nuclear plants will cost about 25 percent more than from new coal plants built in the 1980s.

Officials in the nuclear industry disagree -- but are examining the study. An analyst with a major electric utility association is skeptical of the study's conclusions.

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The answer as to what will produce cheaper electricity could affect the direction utilities -- the greatest users of nuclear power -- tilt in this decade, either toward more nuclear or coal-fired plants.

That tilt, in turn, involves issues such as future electric bills of millions of Americans, nuclear safety and waste (and, some say, nuclear proliferation), the effect of coal burning on the environment, mining safety, and the health of miners.

No one study is likely to change things abruptly. But neither is the Komanoff study likely to be ignored, given what Edison Electric Institute (EEI) analyst Jerry Karaganis says is "the bottom line for all utilities . . . to make money."

An ever-expanding -- and costly-- list of nuclear safety requirements is the main reason nuclear power will outprice itself in favor of coal, Mr. Komanoff says. Although nuclear fuel will remain much cheaper than coal, this prices advantage will be outweighed by meeting costly safety requirements, he says.

Even with the rising costs of coal and antipollution equipment, coal-fired plants will be able to produce 25 percent cheaper electricity in the 1980s than nuclear plants, Mr. Komanoff says.

He bases his findings on a study of the actual costs of all nuclear and coal plants form 1971 to 1978. From this he projects costs through the '80s.

By 1978, a new nuclear plant costs 50 percent more to build than a coal plant , the study shows. The gap will widen to a 75 percent for plants built in the 1980s, Komanoff finds.

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One of his main assumptions is that the cost of meeting safety regulations will add much more to nuclear plant construction than antipollution controls will add to coal plant building.

Why? New nuclear safety problems continue to emerge, as they did after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburgh, Pa., he notes. On the other hand, most of the antipollution requirements for coal plants are known. One can expect fewer environmental controls -- fewer surprises -- with coal plants because there is less to go wrong, he contends.

But, says Don Winston, a media relations officer with the Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF): "We believe the capital [construction] costs will level off" for nuclear plants. And he says, Komanoff underestimates the cost of antipollution "scrubbers" for coal plant stacks and the cost of coal.

Nonetheless, the AIF, which represents the nuclear industry, has decided to appoint a panel of experts to study the Komanoff report in depth. The reports "does a good job of expressing the problems of the industry," admits Mr. Winston.

EEI's Mr. Karaganis says he thinks the Komanoff estimate of electric of electric power from new coal plants as 25 percent cheaper than nuclear-generated electricity in the 1980s is "a little high."

He argues that the 1970s was a decade of nuclear regulatory change unlikely to be duplicated in the 1980s. Many nuclear plants were well under construction when forced to add costly safety devices, he said.

In his opinion, it is "a tossup" as to whether power from coal or nuclear will be cheaper in this decade. "Probably the sensible thing to do is come up with a mix," he says.

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