Nuclear reactors are shutting in the U.S, and across the world. Reactors have always been dangerous, but over time they have also become more expensive than ever. A 2017 report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates U.S. reactors lose $2.9 billion per year in operations overall. Eight American reactors have closed permanently since 2013, and most of the remaining 97 units are very old and costly.
Plans have already been made to shut more reactors in the next few years. Only two new reactors are under construction, and due to enormous delays and soaring costs, these may never open.
Natural gas, now the most common U.S. electricity source, is cheaper than nuclear – as are solar and wind power, now the fastest-growing sources of electricity. But nuclear power operators are not giving up just yet. Touting nuclear power as “emission-free” energy, they have used this lie to convince four state legislatures to include nuclear in laws that otherwise attempt to reduce carbon emissions. In these states, nuclear operators are allowed to raise electric bills (totals are in the billions), and more states may follow.
But the true costs of nuclear vs. other sources are not simply a matter of cost per kilowatt hour. Medical costs are a huge factor and must be added to the public discussion.
Nuclear reactors emit a mix of over 100 chemicals, each radioactive and cancer-causing. These chemicals do not exist in nature but are only found in operating reactors and exploded atom bombs. They can be stored as toxic waste – which must be kept from human contact for thousands of years. Some escapes from reactors and enters human bodies through breathing and the food chain.
Studies of local disease and death rates from cancer and other diseases have been ignored and hotly contested by government officials. One such study was published in the April 14 issue of the Journal of Environmental Protection, which focused on Salem/Hope Creek, a plant in Salem County, New Jersey with three reactors that began operating in 1976, 1980, and 1986.
Using data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the article showed that Salem County’s cancer death rate was consistently just below the state rate for decades. But beginning in the mid-1980s, soon after the reactors began operating, the county rate exceeded the state, with the gap growing over time. By 2015-2017, the county rate was 33% greater than the state – the highest of the state’s 21 counties, high for all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, and common cancer types.
The article calculated that in the 31-year period 1987-2017, the gap between the actual county cancer deaths and an estimate of the number if the county had remained just below the state was 1018 deaths – a large number for a county of just 62,000 people. To date, no other potential cause is known, other than exposures to radioactive releases from Salem/Hope Creek.
Researchers have attempted to calculate costs of cancer deaths. Two of them, one who now work for the American Cancer Society and the University of Colorado School of Public Health, have published studies making estimates for 1) direct medical costs, and 2) costs of lost productivity to society and non-medical costs of assisting persons who die of cancer. A ballpark figure of this total cost is $700,000 for each person who dies of cancer (in 2020 dollars).
So in little Salem County, the 1018 “excess” cancer deaths cost over $700 million up to 2017, a number that will continue rising unless future cancer death rates suddenly plunge back to where they were in the 1980s – a highly unlikely scenario. A number like this needs to be added to the costs of generating electricity if a true comparison between energy sources can be made. And this just includes cancer; in Salem County, rates jumped in the past 30 years for other causes (not as rapidly as cancer), which likely moves medical costs from $700 million to $1 – $2 billion.
Over 70 nuclear plants dot the U.S. map. Similar studies are needed to understand the extent of the problem.
Nuclear power is expensive. It is expensive because it is dangerous. Public discussion needs to include a full accounting of costs as decisions are made to shift America’s energy future to a much greater reliance on truly safe and renewable sources.