Nuclear Power-“Too Cheap to Meter”?

by Peter Bursztyn

“It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”
Lewis L. Strauss: Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City September 16th, 1954.

A similarly bold statement was also made in the 1950s by Walter Marshall who became Chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in 1981 and Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board two years later. It has come to haunt the advocates of nuclear power, because nuclear power has proven to be far from cheap.

Between 1947 and 1999, it has been estimated that the U.S. government gave the nuclear power industry $150 billion in subsidies.* Despite the money lavished on it, nuclear power continues to be more costly than most other electricity sources. Almost all of the electricity in the U.S.A. is generated by private utilities. As such, they must make profits for their shareholders. Over the years, they “abandoned” nuclear power. Although they continue to operate existing reactors, no new reactor project has been started in North America since 1978.
*”Two reasons to oppose nuclear power that even a conservative can understand”, Mark Hertsgaard, San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 5, 1999

It takes 10-15 years to build a power reactor. During this time, money must be borrowed, but there is no income until it begins to operate. Moreover, it appears that every reactor project built in Europe or North America has run over budget and taken longer to complete than expected, magnifying the cost of borrowing, and making its power production – when it eventually begins – more costly (see Olkiluoto-3, below).

Gary Gallon, who worked in the Ontario Ministry of the Environment said: “Our office was assured by Ontario Hydro that nuclear power would provide clean, cost-effective, and long-term energy (40 years) for Ontario. We were assured that “Nukes as Scrubbers” was the way to go with the coal-fired plants. Instead of putting in large and costly “Baghouse-Scrubbers”, as we had demanded, Ontario Hydro promised to shut down the coal-fired plants and replace their energy with that from nuclear power plants. We, in the Minister’s office (Sarah Rang, David Oved and Mark Rudolph) didn’t see it that way. We argued for scrubbers to be placed on coal-fired plants. Finally, we forced Ontario to go to Environmental Assessment hearings on Electricity Demand and Supply. We aimed Ontario Hydro away from nuclear towards conservation. We provided $2.0 million in intervenor funding for groups like Energy Probe and cities like Toronto to demonstrate how we could generate cheaper and more reliable energy from “negawatts*”, renewable sources, and energy conservation. During the 3-year hearings 1987-90, Ontario Hydro succeeded in deflecting efforts to moderate its nuclear power push and our efforts to place pollution control devices on coal-fired plants. Now, twelve years later we are beginning to experience the negative results of poor decision-making by Ontario Hydro.” Gallon Environment Letter, May 6, 2003, Vol. 7, No. 11
* “Negawatt” is a term invented by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. It is a negative watt, or a watt of electricity not used.


At the same time, Eric Reguly wrote: “The overhaul of the nuclear units is costing billions (original estimate: $800 million), and the first of four units was supposed to back in action at the end of 2000. Without Pickering, combined with startup delays in the Bruce 4 nuclear reactor, the potential for electricity shortages this summer can only soar.” First, Pickering and Bruce 4 were not supposed to break down so soon. They were supposed to last 40 years before major repairs. Secondly, the costs of repair are almost reaching the original cost of construction of the nuclear plants. Thirdly, the delays in start up mean that there are serious health concerns related to possible radioactive leaks from the newly-repaired nuclear power plant problems.” and “Ontario Hydro is importing electricity at a cost ranging from 6.15 to 15.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is much higher than the 4.3 cents per kWh Ontario Hydro is selling the same electricity to big industrial and commercial users. Normally, coal-fired power costs about 3.5 cents per kWh, and Ontario Hydro reports that nuclear-fired power costs about 3.0 cents per Kwh to produce, though the real cost of nuclear power, including repair and long-term waste management, is closer to 6-8 cents per kWh.” and “What is amazing is that high-priced lawyers and well-trained electrical engineers have made such poor decisions leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs plus environmental degradation. The environmentalists within the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), Energy Probe, had they been listened to, and their advice acted upon, they would have saved Ontario taxpayers billions of dollars and cleaned up their air in the process.”
“Ontario’s Dim Electricity Policy Will Shock Users Soon”, The Globe & Mail, Report on Business, May 3, 2003

Ontario Power Generation announced the completion of work on Pickering “A” Nuclear Power Unit #1 in November of 2005 with a statement from the President “The culmination of this project represents an outstanding achievement for Ontario Power Generation”.

Date of
Estimated Completion Date Estimated Cost
August 1999 January 2002 $213
March 2004 September 2005 $825
July 2004 September 2005 $900
November 2005 actually done! $1016
Ontario Clean Air Alliance, Nov. 28, 2005

A project originally expected to take 28 months took 75 months – three times the estimate. Cost at completion was 5 times the estimate. OPG called this an “outstanding achievement”! This reactor and its only operating mate at Pickering “A” were shut down for “unplanned maintenance” in June 2007 by Ontario Power Generation. (The other two Pickering “A” reactors have been mothballed for years.) In July, OPG announced (The Toronto Star, July 7, pB1) that the reactor would be shut down for the entire summer – the period of highest electricity demand. It is likely that Ontario will purchase electricity generated by rather old and “dirty” American coal-fired power stations to make up the shortfall. So much for “outstanding achievement”!

Finland planned to build a nuclear power plant in 1992, at which time the cost was estimated at €2.5 billion. In 2004, a contract was signed with the French company Areva to build it for a cost of €3.2 billion. Construction of Olkiluoto-3 began in August 2005. By December 2006, after just 18 months of construction work, the project was 18 months behind schedule and €507 million over budget . . . In 2007, the Finnish nuclear regulator discovered a several “safety deficiencies” likely to increase costs further, and delay completion* This was Europe’s first nuclear project since 1991. The fact that this example of the “European Pressurised Water Reactor”, the model for future European reactor designs, is over budget and behind schedule is likely to cloud Europe’s acceptance of more nuclear power.*
*New Scientist, June 30, 2007, p6

At the end of 2007, Canada’s oldest nuclear reactor – Chalk River – was shut down for maintenance. It was then discovered that two back-up cooling pumps, required under the terms of the 2006 operating license had not been installed. Canada’s nuclear regulator forced the facility to complete the installation before they resumed operation again. For decades, the Chalk River reactor has been producing over half the world’s supply of medical isotopes. Because of this, the Canadian government allowed Chalk River to restart before the pump installation was complete. The government also fired the nuclear regulator’s CEO, who is now suing for improper dismissal!! This dismissal was politically controversial because the nuclear regulator is supposed to be independent of government . . .
Because the Chalk River reactor is so old (commissioned in 1957), and responsible for producing a large proportion of the world’s medical radioisotopes, two new reactors, MAPLE I & II, were built and made ready for commissioning in 2000. Sadly, these reactors proved to have a “positive coefficient of reactivity”. As temperature increases, the chain reaction accelerates, increasing heat generation. Well over budget and 8 years delayed, this property finally “killed” the project. The Maple reactors were cancelled in May 2008, and the government’s $600 million investment was written off!

That has been the story of nuclear power projects everywhere. This also makes private companies reluctant to risk their money on nuclear power. However, they are happy to build them with government backing!

Germany’s Öko-Institut ( reckons the cost of generating nuclear electricity is €0.046 – €0.065 per kilowatt-hour. In “The Future of Nuclear Power”, (MIT 2003) nuclear power is reckoned to cost US$0.067 per kilowatt-hour, but with improvements to construction time could drop to $0.051. The same analysis put the cost of coal fired electricity at US$0.042 per kilowatt-hour. Other analyses agree that nuclear derived electricity is more costly than other types of “conventional” generation.

Nuclear Power-“Too Cheap to Meter”?