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Nuclear Energy More Expensive Than Some Clean Power, Study Says

Growing support for nuclear energy in the U.S. has hinged on three key arguments in recent years: It offers a carbon-free alternative to coal; a domestic alternative to petroleum; and a supposedly cheaper, more reliable alternative to renewable sources like wind and solar. But according to a new analysis from Climate Progress, existing nuclear power plant technology can generate electricity at no less than $0.25 to $0.30 per kilowatt-hour (including fuel and O&M, excluding distribution) for the first year of operation.

Costs would drop slightly in following years, but that’s triple today’s average utility rate, about 10 times the estimated per-kilowatt-hour cost of efficiency-boosting measures, and more than some generation costs for existing renewable energy technologies.

As a result of the research, Climate Progress, which is published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said it may nix nuclear energy from the 14 “stabilization wedges” included in its proposed climate change response. The current list suggests 700 gigawatts of nuclear energy plus radioactive waste storage capacity equivalent to 10 Yucca mountains.

In addition to assessing business risks for new nuclear power facilities, study author Craig Severance set out to clarify the notion that short-sighted, anti-nuclear environmentalists halted carbon-free energy development. High costs, he writes, have thwarted nuclear all along:

Utility executives and Wall Street financiers were the ones who stopped nuclear power’s expansion in the 1970’s. As more evidence of the business risks and the costs associated with nuclear power became clear through  utilities’ own experiences, utility boards across the country, and the financial houses who fund them, stopped  considering  nuclear power a serious future option. Orders for new plants that had already been advanced, were quietly withdrawn. The nuclear industry simply failed to compete against other available options, whose risks and costs were significantly lower.

Climate Progress challenged nuclear energy advocates today to go beyond touting relatively low operating costs for paid-off nuclear plants, and provide detailed documentation of cost estimates for energy from new facilities. As for next-generation nuclear technology (like Hyperion’s nuclear-in-a-hot-tub-sized-box device), Climate Progress considers it a fine idea — and worth pursuing — but not likely to help us meet 2020 or even 2030 greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets.

As Time’s Michael Grunwald noted last week, “It turns out that new plants would be not just extremely expensive but spectacularly expensive.” The fallout from overly optimistic early estimates can now be felt around the world, from Finland, where costs have ballooned and progress slowed at a nuclear plant, to Florida, where a plant planned for just off the Keys could cost up to $18 billion.

13 Responses to “Nuclear Energy More Expensive Than Some Clean Power, Study Says”

  1. Alfred Paul Bulf

    I firmly believe the best way to bring the cost of nuclear power plants down even more than mere standardization would be to make plants triple purpose facilities i.e., Electricity, Fresh Water and Mineral separation. This can never be achieved with solar or wind technologies. One inconvenient fact that most detractors to this article have chosen to ignore is that Solar and Wind energy simply do not provide the amount of power necessary to replace our dependency on fossil fuels. Tidal and Wave Power provide a much better return on investment than Solar or Wind. Yet the lackeys of the Oiligarchy continue to promote Wind and Solar over Tidal and Wave power. Why not consider this inconvenient fact.

    Or this one: Geothermal power releases toxic chemicals and radiation from inside the earth, and poorly informed advocates continue to promote geothermal energy as ‘Clean”.

    Atomic fission provides more energy concentrated in one spot then other energies outside of fossil fuels. And fossil fuels are continuing to destroy our global environment worse than the nuclear option

    Besides, we as a people have a moral obligation to convert the nuclear warheads, that will become increasingly available as we pursue nuclear disarmament, into peaceful use. They can not be stored safely. So, forget that argument. It was a failed policy, and needs to be eliminated. Reprocessing is the only viable solution. With discipline, nuclear materials can be utilized safely, over and over. Spent fuel can be turned into new fuel assemblies with reprocessing. That is a technology that has been used since the Manhattan project. But, like always in America, politicians bullied the scientists and we ended up with the impossible problem of attempting to safely store nuclear byproducts commonly called waste. We could put all of those war heads in MOX fuel for the benefit of all humanity and the Earth. We could show by example that more good can come from Nuclear energy instead of aiming weapons at each other.

  2. Quite a bit of selective information in this article! I’ll try to keep this short, but:

    1) Why would the author ever use the cost of nuclear energy for the FIRST YEAR only for comparison purposes? The advantage of nuclear plants is that they are ridiculously economical to operate over their entire lifespan, which in the new plants’ case is 60 years, and most likely more. Just for rough comparison, a $20B (WAY high!), 1600 MWe plant that ran for 60 years with $250M in annual costs (again, high), and an availability factor of 0.9 (low) would produce electricity at ~4.6 cents / kW. Clearly, very competitive even with egregiously conservative assumptions. With a $7B initial cost and 95% availability factor, that number drops to ~2.8 cents / kW.

    2) As mentioned by a previous poster, where are the alternative sources mentioned in the article? Let’s say the author supports wind and thinks we should use those instead (likely). To equal a 1600 MWe nuclear plant we’d need about 800 2MWe wind mills right? No, since wind is AT BEST a 0.25 availability factor, you’d need about 4 times that, or ~3600 2MWe wind mills at ~$4M each (total? $14.4 billion). Not to mention that each windmill completely consumes between 0.35 and 0.5 acres, not to mention the 5 to 10 turbine diameters required between each turbine (not included in the 0.35-0.5 estimate). So, figure between 500 and 1000 acres of land? Remember, this has to be in a WINDY area.

    Articles like these, seemingly intended to once again scare the public away from nuclear power, need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Hopefully, most people with common sense will realize that…

  3. The paper suffers from the same problems all papers do that are written solely to reach a predetermined conclusion.

    The author bases all his nuclear-cost calculations on worst-case assumptions. Some nuclear plants have seen cost over-runs because of litigation from political groups, but others have been built on schedule and within budget. But the writer assumes that all future plants will face the same political attacks. The world would be better served if people were given accurate information instead of anti-nuclear propaganda like this article.

    To illustrate the author’s separation from reality, consider this quotation from his article: “Energy storage and load management offer additional solutions to reduce, shift and better manage loads. Pumped-water and compressed-air energy storage as well as utility-scale batteries are now being implemented.” A more false statement could hardly be imagined. Not only are there no large-scale energy storage systems being implemented, not only are none to be implemented in the foreseeable future, there is no imaginable system on the distant horizon. For more on this point, please look at Solar Energy, Wind Power, Intermittency, and Storage.

    The author believes that reducing electricity demand will solve the problem. Not so. The most effective thing that can be done to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is converting fossil-fuel applications to electricity — battery-powered cars, electrified rail transport, heat pumps in place of furnaces, etc. etc. Electricity demand will definitely rise, not fall.

    Typical of such anti-nuclear polemics, this article references a study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates that calculated the construction cost of obsolete reactor designs using obsolete manufacturing and construction methods at current prices. The CERA study ignores actual data of contemporary designs available from countries that are building nuclear plants. This data shows the CERA study to be wildly wrong.

    As would be expected, the author nowhere considers the costs of alternatives to nuclear energy, which have risen in parallel with nuclear costs for the very same reasons. He also leaves out the pertinent fact that most wind turbines, which are the only renewable energy source close to competing with nuclear, are imported from Asia, where workers’ pay and safety standards are much lower. The heavy subsidies wind projects get now benefit foreigners much more than they do Americans. Since the US is running an unsupportable trade deficit, it’s not clear at all how this can proceed.

    All the author has achieved is proving that by carefully selecting material that serves his purpose and ignoring inconvenient facts he can succeed in confusing his readers.