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Cut emissions at the Sherco plant? Switch instead to emission-free nuclear power

Courtesy of Xcel Energy
Xcel's Sherco plant burns about 30,000
tons of coal per day.

Xcel Energy is under increasing pressure to limit output at its largest power plant, the Sherco coal plant, which burns about 30,000 tons of coal per day, releasing more than 20 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, not to mention mercury and sulfur emissions. 

There are a dozen new generation Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear plants under construction in China, Georgia and South Carolina. One of those AP1000s could replace the Sherco facility with round-the-clock emission-free electric power. 

The 1979 Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania raised irrational fears about nuclear energy and interrupted nuclear expansion in the United States, exposing us to additional pollution from fossil fuels. Japan’s Fukushima accident has added to those fears.

In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly asked the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, or UNSCEAR, to undertake a “full assessment of the levels of exposure and radiation risks” regarding the Fukushima accident.

UNSCEAR is the independent international body set up in the 1950s to give impartial advice on the effects of radiation on people and the environment. Released recently, the UNSCEAR assessment concluded that “the rates of cancer or future hereditary diseases in Japan were unlikely to show any discernible rise in affected areas, because the radiation doses people received were too low.”

Radiation exposure 'low to very low'

Although upwards of 20,000 people died or are still missing from the earthquake and tsunami, there have been no reported deaths from radiation at Fukushima. Prompt evacuations from the area around the nuclear plants helped ensure that radiation exposure was reduced to levels that were “low to very low.”

The report said lifetime additional radiation exposures to the public in the Fukushima region were expected to be less than what the Japanese receive from natural background radiation.

Those conclusions were supported by a January report from the World Health Organization, which said for the general Fukushima area, “the predicted risks are low, and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated.”

Switched to fossil-fuel power plants

As a result of Fukushima, Japan shut down nearly all of its 50 nuclear reactors which supplied 30 percent of its electric power. Japan was then forced to switch to fossil fuels for electric power generation. Air pollution from fossil-fuel power plants causes far more sickness and deaths from pollution per unit of electricity produced than carbon-free nuclear plants do.

There is no longer any chance Japan will meet its commitments in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 25 percent by 2020. The country’s 2013 total for greenhouse gas emissions was about 1.3 billion tons, making Japan now the fifth-largest emitter worldwide.

It’s time to reconsider carbon-free nuclear energy.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and is a guest faculty member on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota's Lifelong Learning programHis fall quarter class will be No. 17041, "CO2 is not C: MN coal plants and the new EPA rules." 


If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

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Comments (12)

At what cost nuclear?

Xcel Energy is spending $1.8 billion to extend the life of its two Minnesota reactors. That's significantly more than it cost to build them 40 years ago, and Xcel customers will be paying those bills.

The costs of building nuclear power plants keep going up, even as public trust in their safety goes down. Meanwhile, the cost of both wind and solar are dropping fast.

While Rolf likes to talk a lot about what Germany of Japan is doing, I prefer to focus on Minnesota.

* In 10 years, we have cut the amount of coal consumed in MN power plants by 30%
* We have one of the strongest renewable energy laws in the nation, and it's working. Our carbon emission have been cut, the lights stay on,and our rates remain fairly low.
* Per capita, Minnesotans use more renewable energy than any other state.

While nuclear power has strong points in its favor, it is highly unlikely that any new plants will open in Minnesota in the near future.

Response to Moffitt

Analysis by independent organizations (such as Union of Concerned Scientists) show that use of renewables such as wind or solar are only useful to about the 30-40% level after which the variability of source limits its ability to supply sufficient energy to meet demand. So we still need an alternative to fossil fuels. Safe nuclear is the answer.

Replacing coal

We are currently using natural gas to replace coal, as with the High Bridge and Riverside gas plants in the Twin Cities. We are exposed to a price risk as a few years ago natural gas was 3 to 4 times its current price. A return to that level would send power prices soaring.
Nuclear fuel is about one half cent per kwh, so there is little price risk. Nuclear plants cost a lot to build in the US, but their operating cost is low, and they produce an enormous amount of round the clock power over their 60-80 year life.

Cost ranking of the 5 main sources of electricity

U.S. average levelized costs (2012 $/MWh) for plants entering service in 2019

1) Natural Gas-fired, Conventional Combined Cycle: 66.3
2) Wind: 80.3
3) Hydro: 84.5
4) Conventional Coal: 95.6
5) Advanced Nuclear: 96.1


What could go wrong?

I can't think of anything.

More from Jay's EIA report

He forgot to add offshore wind at 204 and solar thermal at 243. Existing nuclear plants beat them all at about 50. Too bad we didn't build twice as many when costs were lower like they are today in China. They plan to build a hundred new nuclear plants to clean up the air in their cities.

San Onofre and more

Gosh, they sure could build them "cheap" in the past.

"Southern California Edison estimates the cost of decommissioning the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station will total $4.4 billion....

The 20-year decommissioning process is expected to start in early 2016."

Unit 1 at the plant lasted 24 years.
Unit 2 lasted 30.
Unit 3 lasted 29.

Quite a far cry from a "60-80 year life".



* The US is not China.

* Please prove your assertion, with trusted government data, that existing nuclear plants have a levelized cost of $50/MWh in 2012 dollars. Include all the lifecycle costs.

* Also, the subject line was "Cost ranking of the 5 main sources of electricity". Neither solar thermal nor offshore wind fit that description in the US.

It's perfectly fine to have opinions about matters, but facts are a different matter. Among the 5 fuel sources the US relies upon to generate electricity, nuclear is the most expensive. Fact.

All one needs to do is look at the capacity that has been added and will be added in the US and the market reflects this. Private industry tends to favor things that are more cost effective. From 1989 to 2011, less than 1% of the added generating capacity in the US was from nuclear.

Since 1955, 28 nuclear generating units have been permanently shut down in the US and the number of operable units has remained essentially constant for 3 decades.



Those shutdown plants were mostly small experimental units. Operating cost of our existing plants is about 2 cents/kwh. Total fuel cost is about.6 cents/kwh. The existing 100 unit fleet is a huge bargain for the US.

Facts v Unsubstantiated Claims

"Those shutdown plants were mostly small experimental units."

Incorrect. All of them were power reactors. See the list.

"Operating cost of our existing plants is about 2 cents/kwh. Total fuel cost is about.6 cents/kwh. The existing 100 unit fleet is a huge bargain for the US."

Operating costs are only a very small portion of total costs for nuclear and the EIA shows fuel costs to be double what you're claiming. The prior claim of $50/MWh (2012$) levelized cost of current reactors has yet to be substantiated with hard evidence from a reputable government source.

Nuclear is the most expensive of the 5 primary fuel sources of electricity in the US. This is an iron-clad, documented fact [from the EIA itself - see prior posts]. This is why private industry keeps shunning it.


Rolf, Jay asked you for the sources of the numbers you have been posting here.

I hope you can eventually do that.

Also, does any cost estimate for nuclear-generated electricity include the amortized cost of storing the radioactive waste for upwards of 10,000 years?

Let me answer my own question: No, they do not.

Because no economist or government analyst can even begin to estimate such a cost because ... I mean, how can they?

No single government on earth has lasted more than a couple of hundred years, and we are generating waste that has to be monitored for 10,000 years? What madness!

Factor in the ultra long-term storage costs, even by picking a ridiculously low per year cost per ton of waste, and the cost of nuclear power becomes astronomical. And that's why Rolf and every other nuclear power proponent never, ever talks about this.

But what the hell, that cost will be paid for by the next 300 or so generation, so why should we care anyway?

Increasing nuclear.

In the USA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved more than 140 uprates totalling over 6500 MWe since 1977,
Worldwide 60 new nuclear plants are under construction, 6 of those in the U.S.
Wind and solar have not replaced one large base load power plant anywhere in the world. They are useful supplements that require a lot of natural gas capability for backup. Nuclear plants have a 90% capacity factor. US wind is about 30 % and solar 25%.

EIA numbers

Folks, please help the discussion when quoting numbers. Are the numbers you quote the cost to build various generation plants? Of which off-shore wind would indeed be expensive as so dutifully pointed out. OR are the costs you quote an operational cost over a design lifetime? Off shore wind is expensive to build but the cost of that fuel just can't be beat.
And just for fun, lets include who will pay for the insurance of these various projects, eh?