Nuclear Power: Climate Solution or Hype

OWOE Staff:The energy world has been rocked by a number of crucial events during the past two months. In the transition to renewable energy and more particularly in the removal of fossil fuels form the energy mix, there are possibly three history-making game changers:

  1. The International Energy Agency (IEA) came out with its report on the state of the climate, and it was brutal toward fossil fuels. It laid out the reality of the current climate crisis and pointed to one clear action required to prevent catastrophic global warming: “The world has a choice – stop developing new oil, gas and coal fields today or face a dangerous rise in global temperatures.” It is important to point out that the report didn’t call for the immediate elimination of fossil fuels as energy sources. The IEA understands the need for some transition period to a fossil-free future. But the transition needs to be speedy, and the IEA feels that the best way to do this is to stop all new developments, live off the current reserves, and use that time to develop the technologies, change behavior and make the transition.
  2. President Joe Biden issued his sweeping climate goal to cut US emissions in half by 2030 ahead of convening an historic summit with 40 world leaders to demonstrate American leadership in the quest to elimination of fossil fuels by 2050.
  3. ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron were rebuked by shareholders and the courts for not aligning their strategies with the threat of climate change. 

While some critical actions needed to transition to a fossil-free world are pretty clear, i.e., eliminate coal-generated electricity and replace internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles with alternative transportation, including electric vehicles (EVs), others are not. For example, how does nuclear power fit into these plans?

Fig. 1 – 2018 World energy generation by source (EIA)

Nuclear power is an energy source that certainly has the potential to play a key role in the transition. It is a known technology that has performed well, or reasonably well, for over 50 years, and it is currently a significant contributor to the worldwide energy mix (see Fig. 1) at about 10% in total, it is “dense” in that a relatively small quantity of fuel and a relatively small facility footprint produce a large quantity of electricity, and it is “green” in that it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases during operations. Some proponents of nuclear energy such as Michael Schellenberger, tout it relentlessly as the only solution for the world. Unfortunately, Schellenberger and other nuclear proponents downplay four very significant issues with nuclear power:

Fig. 2 – Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy Comparison
  1. Cost: The cost to build the only new nuclear plant to start construction in the US in the past 30 years, Plant Vogtle in Georgia, is currently estimated to cost approximately $26 billion for two new reactors of 1,117 MW rated capacity each. This is an increase from $14 billion when the project was sanctioned in 2009. That works out to a capital cost of $12,250/kW when adjusted for an assumed 95% capacity factor. Similarly, although a bit less expensive, the first new nuclear power station to be built in the UK in over 20 years, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is now projected to cost approximately $31.6 billion (23 billion euros) for 3,250 MW capacity, or an adjusted $10,200/kW. We can compare these against other forms of renewable energy using Lazard’s 2020 Levelized Cost of Energy report2). Development cost for a new onshore wind farm is $3,500/kW (adjusted for a 40% capacity factor) or a new solar farm at $3,900/kW (adjusted for a 25% capacity factor). That’s capital cost only. Looking at Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE), which takes into account fuel cost (small for nuclear, zero for wind/solar), longer life for a nuclear plant, and higher operating costs for nuclear, but excluding expensive nuclear decommissioning costs, a new nuclear plant costs between $129-198/MWh.  This compares to $29-42/MWh for new solar and $26-54/MWh for new onshore wind. No matter how you look at the cost, nuclear is 3-4 times as expensive as wind or solar. See Figure 2.
  2. Time to commercial operation: Plant Vogtle was originally projected to be operational in 7 years from its sanction date. The first reactor is currently at 98% complete, and commercial operation is expected in early 2022, for a real construction duration of 13 years. Compare that to approximately 3 years for wind or solar farms. By the time the world would go through the process of designing, approving and building sufficient facilities, we would have missed our opportunity to control warming.
  3. Nuclear waste disposal: In the 50 years of commercial nuclear power, the US industry has been unable to find a robust solution for disposal of the spent nuclear fuel. The closest it came was the planned Yucca Mountain underground storage facility in Nevada that was under construction until killed in 2011 by the Obama administration for political rather than technical reasons. The not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) forces prevailed and prevented a national solution to a real problem, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to do so in the future. The result is local storage at each individual facility. The preferred method is so-called dry cask storage. But how safe is this? Fig. 3 is a view of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Stations (SONGS) in Southern California that is in the early stages of decommissioning, with 73 casks of spent nuclear fuel on site. Note the Pacific Ocean in the near background, recognize that this is an earthquake and tsunami zone, and think Fukushima.
  4. Meltdown / explosion risk: This is the risk that killed the initial wave of nuclear plant construction in the US, triggered by the Three Mile Island near meltdown in 1979. It is also the risk that killed the so-called Nuclear Renaissance in 2011, triggered by the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster. Between those two events we had the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986. Nuclear proponents like to point out that there have been no deaths in the US due to such nuclear accidents, and worldwide the deaths per MWh of power generation are much fewer when compared to coal power related deaths. While that is all true, consider that the Japanese government estimates the cost to clean-up the Fukushima plants at between $73-$470 billion and will take between 30-40 years. Although a relatively small risk over the full population of nuclear reactors, I wouldn’t want to be the utility hit with that bill (or utility customers or taxpayers footing a bailout).
Fig. 3 – Dry Cask Storage at SONGS

How about Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that are being touted as the nuclear technology that might resuscitate the industry? The first U.S. small-scale project, NuScale Power LLC, is planning to develop twelve 60 MW modules at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The project’s initial cost estimate was $3.6 billion in 2017; it’s now projected at $6.1 billion. This works out to be $8,950/kW, not much below today’s conventional nuclear development cost. More recently in the news, power companies run by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have chosen Wyoming to build the first Natrium SMR on the site of a retiring coal plant in Wyoming. Its cost is projected to be $1 billion for a 345 MW facility. If that holds, we could see SMRs as low as about $3,000/kW, or in the range of new wind and solar. But both these technologies are in very early stages, and history tells us that these costs are only going to grow, and likely significantly.

Given costs and unsolved challenges, OWOE doesn’t believe nuclear power is the solution to the world’s pending energy crisis. Nuclear power will and should continue to be a major player in the mix of green energy because the advantages of nuclear power, namely high capacity baseload power packed into a small geographic space, make it somewhat irreplaceable in the foreseeable future. Every effort possible must be made to extend the life of current nuclear facilities and ill-conceived, partisan-based decisions like the one to prematurely shut down the California Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant must be prevented. But nuclear power alone cannot solve the world’s energy and climate problems. Solving the problems will require all forms of renewable and/or green energy, and, instead of fighting over partisan solutions, a concerted and collaborative effort from all to find the best combination is critical.


2 thoughts on “Nuclear Power: Climate Solution or Hype”

    1. At 10% of global power generation we can’t afford to not have nuclear power in the mix. But the nuclear industry has struggled for 40 years to solve its cost and other problems with no progress. So, important – definitely; likely to be the key to a low carbon future – no.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.