The true cost of nuclear power

The photo shows pages of a 2001 report purportedly outlining a breakdown of the cost of nuclear power. It was provided by Kenichi Oshima, a

PHOTO shows documents relating to the calculations made in 2001 by the Japanese government's cost analysis committee regarding  the cost efficiency of nuclear power. Almost the entire document has been blacked out. The figures, which were originally submitted to the committee by the Federation of Electric Utilities, simply show that nuclear power is cheap. Nonetheless, the committee approved the report as an official report about the cost of generating electricity by nuclear power.

PHOTO shows documents relating to the calculations made in 2001 by the Japanese government’s cost analysis committee regarding the cost efficiency of nuclear power. Almost the entire document has been redacted. The figures, which were originally submitted to the committee by the Federation of Electric Utilities, simply show that nuclear power is cheap. Nonetheless, the committee approved the report as an official report about the cost of generating electricity by nuclear power. PHOTO COURTESY OF KENICHI OSHIMA

Ritsumeikan University professor of environmental economics, who was among lawmakers and researchers who had requested from the government a breakdown of how the cost of nuclear power had been calculated.

Clearly, even after being furnished with the report they would have been none the wiser. Oshima says that a similarly redacted dossier was released following the original assessment of the costs of various energy over 50 years ago. The popular PR slogan used in the early days was that nuclear power was “too cheap to meter,” perhaps because the meters, too, had been covered in black ink.

The Japanese government has always said that nuclear was the cheapest power, it was a method used to sell nuclear power right from the start,” Oshima told me. “But the figures submitted were accepted without question and were the subject of huge criticism. Nobody was allowed to access the actual data, not even Parliament members.”

According to Oshima, the figures submitted to the government’s cost analysis committee by the federation of electric utilities placed nuclear energy at ¥5.3 per kilowatt hour (kWh) compared with ¥13.6 per kWh for hydro; ¥10.2 per kWh for oil; ¥6.5 per kWh for coal; and ¥6.4 per kWh for LNG.

Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, however, the data was reappraised by a governmental “cost verification committee” that included Oshima among its expert analysts. The committee revealed that in addition to the much-publicized “safety myth” attached to nuclear power, there was a “cost myth” that had been covered up for decades, Oshima says.

The committee determined that nuclear power had two related costs: first, the cost incurred by generating electricity and back-end fuel cycle costs, such as costs incurred by the disposal of radioactive waste; and second, societal costs, such as research and development and accident costs.

They used a model power plant representing the Japanese average for nuclear power plants to calculate a new Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE). The results were revealing. When societal costs were included, nuclear rose to ¥9 (based on accident costs of ¥5 trillion) as opposed to coal (¥9.4); LNG (¥10.7) and hydro (¥10.6).

Oshima was still doubtful that this was a true reflection of the cost of nuclear power, especially as a far greater proportion of public expenditure, such as R&D, goes to nuclear. Indeed, according to some reports, nuclear receives 64 percent of Japan’s total energy R&D budget, compared to renewables’ 8 percent.

Oshima also believes that the final cost of the Fukushima accident could be upwards of ¥15 trillion. Taking those factors into account, his final calculations put nuclear at ¥12.5 per kWh, though he insists that other “invisible” societal costs, such as damage to the environment and loss of human dignity associated with loss of homes and jobs, if calculable, would up the unit price further.

Interestingly, other researchers and industry officials think even this figure is conservative. One of them is Masayoshi Son, CEO and founder of telecommunications giant SoftBank. Admittedly, Son’s company has invested heavily in solar power both in both Japan and India since the 2011 disasters, which may influence his perspective. But using Oshima’s data and other research undertaken by the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies as a base, Son’s research led to the conclusion that the real cost of nuclear could be as high as ¥15 per kWh.

The cost of energies is covered in more detail in my book, “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe. Fukushima – March 2011.”

For more information visit www.yoshidas-dilemma.com

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