The long-touted economic benefits of using nuclear energy may turn out to have been a pipe dream for customers of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and other nuclear plants nationwide, according to newly released findings from economic analyst Mark Cooper of the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment.
Missing from calculations regarding the true cost of nuclear energy, Cooper says, are the dollars spent by consumers dealing with the long-term storage of radioactive waste generated by power plant reactors. According to his research, such overlooked expenses increase the cost of nuclear power by at least $10 and by as much as $20 per megawatt hour — the federal Energy Information Administration says that as of 2012, total nuclear costs were $25.48 to produce the equivalent amount of energy.
There are three ways the public pays for nuclear waste, Cooper said in comments submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on December 16.
"Utilities pay a fee to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a Nuclear Waste Fund that is intended to pay for the repository. This fee is collected from ratepayers," Cooper writes. Additionally, "the cost of temporary at-reactor storage is also being recovered by utilities from taxpayers in the form of penalties imposed on the federal government for the failure to execute its contractual commitment to take the spent fuel off reactor sites. This penalty is paid out of the U.S. Treasury."
Utilities also collect ongoing fees from ratepayers for decommissioning costs expected at the end of a plant's life — San Diego Gas & Electric customers have already kicked in nearly $1 billion toward that end of a total $3.6 billion set aside, roughly $500 million short of what's expected to be necessary to complete the task.
These costs, however, are likely dwarfed by the cost of indefinitely storing tons of nuclear waste at dozens of sites around the country. No permanent home for the waste — which continues to be generated at Diablo Canyon along California's central coast among a host of other sites — exists, nor is one in serious development. Until such time as a project like the proposed Yucca Mountain repository is built, spent fuel will sit onsite in dry storage casks or exposed fuel pools such as the ones used in Fukushima.
While there are inherent risks with such a model, there are also costs. The storage casks themselves, if spent fuel is eventually encapsulated in such a fashion, will have to be replaced every 50-100 years at a cost of $1.6 million per unit. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates say the fuel rods could remain onsite along San Diego's northern coast for as long as 600 years. And despite the fact that San Onofre will eventually be decommissioned over the coming decades, as long as the fuel is onsite, there will need to be a staff to monitor and guard it, plus infrastructure at the facility will need to be maintained.
According to a Government Accountability Office study, a "best case" scenario over the next 100 years that assumes no accidents or other unexpected costs would result in an additional $100 billion cost to taxpayers as a result of having nowhere for the nuclear waste to go.