The End of the Nuclear Renaissance

Solar_panelsJohn Quiggin in The National Interest:

In 2011, nuclear power ceased to be a serious option for meeting the world’s energy needs, and solar photovoltaics (PV) finally became an option worth noting.

The “solar vs. nuclear” dispute had been largely symbolic for several decades. After rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s, new installations of nuclear power came to a grinding halt. This was partly a result of safety fears created by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Economic factors were even more significant. Far from being too cheap to meter, nuclear power turned out to be far more expensive than its main rival, coal, primarily because of unpredictable capital costs and generally high interest rates.

As a result, since 1977, when the River Bend plant in Louisiana commenced construction, not one new nuclear-power plant has been ordered and completed in the United States. The situation in most other developed countries was similar. Only where some combination of military funding and concern about national self-sufficiency allowed for substantial subsidies was there any new construction of nuclear-power plants.

Meanwhile, the case of PV was reminiscent of what used to be said about Brazil as a country of enormous but permanently unfulfilled promise—that is, it seemed PV was doomed always to be the energy source of an ever-receding future. Despite decades of promising press releases from research labs, the average price of PV cells at the beginning of the twenty-first century was more than $5 per installed watt, leading to a cost of more than 50c per kilowatt hour. The global installed base of PV totaled a mere 1.4 gigawatts (GW), about equal to one medium-sized coal or nuclear plant.