“Clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.” This sunny tagline from the early days of atomic energy has more recently become the quickest way to sum up how dark and dismal its prospects are today–as in, nuclear power has proven itself to be unclean, unsafe, and prohibitively expensive. “Clean, safe and too cheap to meter” now sounds less like boastful marketing, and more like a schoolyard taunt.

The numbers of ways nuclear power plants have betrayed their Madison Avenue mantra has pretty much been the backbeat of this column for nearly ten months now, and 2012 keeps up the cadence.

Exelon Corporation, the nation’s largest owner of nuclear facilities, has already hit a sour note. . . or two.

First, Exelon and Constellation Energy, another major nuclear operator that Exelon agreed to buy last April, have just seen Citigroup downgrade their stock from “buy” to “neutral.” The reason this time, it seems, is not due to the shaky future of nuclear holdings, but instead due to the falling price of natural gas. Gas prices have hit a two-year low thanks to the glut of gas from a nation gone frack-happy.

But why should a Citigroup not worry about the value of nuclear stocks when current problems have required costly shutdowns and repairs, and future improvements that might (might) be required post-Fukushima will necessitate more capital outflow? One need look no further than the same Exelon portfolio, as reflected in a separate story out just one week later:

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission wants Exelon Corporation to detail its plan regarding a decommissioning fund shortfall for the Limerick Unit 1 nuclear power plant in Pottstown.

“Once we receive the (request for additional information) response, we will make a determination regarding reasonable assurance of adequate decommissioning funding for the plant,” said Neil Sheehan, NRC Public Affairs, via email on Wednesday.

Sheehan said Exelon planned to request rate relief from the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission later this year to address the deficit.

“The relief, if approved, would take effect at the beginning of 2013,” Sheehan said.

In other words, a nuclear facility isn’t only ridiculously expensive while it is up and running, generating some power–and so, in theory, some revenue–a nuclear plant is a massive liability for years (decades, really) after it is shut down.

Decommissioning a plant is a process that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires operators to finish within 60 years. Yes, it can take that long to safely dismantle a facility, store its moderately radioactive parts and entomb its massively radioactive reactor shell. The cost, as estimated by the NRC itself, is “$300 million or more.”

Indeed, the emphasis should be on “more.” The NRC’s lowball figure not only assumes everything goes smoothly and there are no nasty discoveries, like, say, radioactive contamination of surrounding ground or water, it assumes a constant dollar value over the life (death?) of the decommission. Take note, for instance, that the fund for the decommissioning of one Limerick reactor is at present required to be over $628 million.

But again, why would that not more seriously affect the rating of a company like Exelon, with its vast stable of aged, faulty reactors? Because Exelon, as is the case for all its nuclear brethren, doesn’t expect to have shoulder the costs by themselves–if at all.

Feeling a little light in the decommissioning fund? Do not fear! As pointed out in the story above, Exelon expects rate relief. In other words, Pennsylvania power consumers will pick up the tab in the form of increased electric bills.

Worried the rate hike won’t quite cover it? No problem! As the NRC hints at here and has proven elsewhere, when push comes to dangerous, radioactive shove, the federal government will cover any shortfalls. After all, the alternative–a halfway or half-assed shutdown–is not an acceptable policy option.

Concerned that even with a rate hike and a government bailout something still might go wrong, resulting in pricey lawsuits? Hush, now! Thanks to the Price-Anderson Act, the liability of the nuclear plant operator is remarkably limited.

This is all part-and-parcel of the standard obfuscation procedure and pass-the-buck accounting that allows the nuclear industry to pretend to compete in the energy marketplace. Exelon executives no doubt love to praise the free market, but they are possibly the only ones that get away for anything close to free. Their taxes are discounted, their infrastructure is subsidized, their loans are guaranteed, and their accidents are indemnified, all by state and federal governments, which means all by taxpayers–taxpayers already paying up front for higher energy bills.

Lest this story be misinterpreted, the answer is not, of course, to permit more fracking to continue to drive down the price of natural gas–that option is as rife with dangers as it is ridiculously shortsighted. No, the answer is to take into account all of the money that really goes into nuclear power generation when costing out energy options. Take just a fraction of what the US government expends to backstop atomic energy and invest it instead in improved efficiency, conservation programs, and truly renewable alternatives, and then see what power source can really claim the mantle of clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.