Nuclear Power: Setting Sun? (4/8/11)


Nuclear Power: Setting Sun?


Jacques Besnainou, CEO AREVA Inc.
Lucas Davis, Professor, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley
Jeff Byron, Former Commissioner, California Energy Commission


This panel agrees that nuclear power, despite offering the promise of carbon-free electricity and safer next-generation reactors, is challenged by steep upfront costs and where to store spent fuel. Jeff Byron, formerly a member of the California Energy Commission, says the Fukushima tragedy offers the nuclear industry and its regulators a sobering learning opportunity. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission just can’t go ahead and rubber-stamp license renewal applications,” says Byron. Uncertainty over how to proceed has put the United States in a bind, he adds. The US nuclear fleet is aging, with every reactor at least 30 years old. “We really want to retire them,” Byron says. “We’re extending the license of every one of these existing plants well beyond their intended design life. These are 50-year-old designs. I wouldn’t get on a 50-year-old aircraft if you paid me.” Lucas Davis, an energy economist based at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, warns against the prohibitive expense required to replace all of those aging plants. “If you look at lifetime costs, including waste disposal at the end, the levelized cost of nuclear, with updated cost and fuel numbers, is about $0.10 per kilowatt-hour compared to $0.05/kWh for natural gas. That’s a big gap,” he says. Despite the obstacles, Jacques Besnainou, CEO of US-based AREVA Inc., insists that policymakers maintain nuclear in the energy mix. ”I’m not saying nuclear is the solution. But there is no solution without nuclear energy,” he says. Lucas Davis agrees, offering that he’d welcome to be proved wrong on the question of costs. “Get in there and prove to us that you guys can build reactors on budget and an on time. That would change everything. But, to be fair, for 60 years the industry has been saying that costs are going to come down and the empirical evidence on it is pretty mixed,” he says.


This program was recorded in front of a live audience at the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco on April 8th, 2011