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OWOE - Nuclear Power - What does it cost to build a nuclear power plant?
  Figure 1 - Capital Cost Comparison of New Generation Resources (Lazard)
Figure 1 - Capital Cost Comparison of New Generation Resources (Lazard)
Figure 2 - Nuclear Plant Capex In Terms of Activity (World Nuclear Association)
Figure 3 - Nuclear Plant Capex In Terms of Labor, Material and Equipment (World Nuclear Association)
Figure 4 - Unsubsidized LCOE Comparison (Lazard)
What does it cost to build a nuclear power plant?
Topic updated: 2024-02-21

Nuclear power plants are among the most costly infrastructure projects ever undertaken in terms of capital expenditures (capex). The final cost for the first new nuclear plant to be completed in the United States since 1996, Plant Vogtle Unit 3 in Georgia, which started commercial operations in 2023, was approximately $15 billion. With a rated capacity of 1117MW this amounts to an installed cost of $13,400 per kilowatt of capacity.

In its April 2023 report, Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis - Version 16, Lazard presented its comparison of the capital cost of new power generation facilities (Figure 1). The cost for new nuclear plants is shown as ranging from $8,475/kW to $13,925/kW, with the high end defined by Plant Vogtle estimates. This closely matches the above calculation and is a factor of 2 higher than any other technology. (See also OWOE: How much does it cost to build a new power plant?)

In its 2020 report, Capital Cost and Performance Characteristic Estimates for Utility Scale Electric Power Generating Technologies, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) gave an estimate for a new US nuclear plant of $6041/kW in 2019 dollars. This is even lower than the Lazard low-end cost and more in line with the original Plant Vogtle cost estimate. Figure 2 shows a typical breakdown in capital cost for a nuclear plant in terms of activity from the EIA report, and Figure 3 shows the breakdown in terms of labor, material, and equipment.

It should be noted that in the US, nuclear plants have significant additional costs to meet stringent safety and security requirements as imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Other countries with ongoing nuclear programs, particularly in the Far East, are building new nuclear power plants at significantly less cost than in the US. These countries have the advantage of lower labor costs, more recent experience building reactors, economies of scale from building multiple units, and streamlined licensing and project management within large civil engineering projects. In the 2020 edition of the Projected Costs of Generating Electricity joint report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), the capital costs ranged from $2,157/kW in South Korea to $6,920/kW in Slovakia, with China at $2,500/kW. The high end of this range again seems to match the EIA value and, correspondingly, the low end of the Lazard range. Another data point, the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant being constructed in the UK is a 3.2GW facility with latest estimated cost of $43 billion. This corresponds to $13,400/kW, or comparable to the high end of the Lazard range.

Although capex and associated financing costs are extremely high for nuclear power plants, looking at costs using the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) metric (Figure 4), i.e., the net present value of the cost of a unit of electricity over the lifetime of the plant, gives a somewhat better picture of the cost of such plants. (See OWOE: What are LCOE and LACE?) Nuclear plants have significantly lower fuel costs and typically longer lives (40 - 60 years) and higher capacity factors (90-95%) than conventional power plants. Figure 4 compares LCOE ranges for different generating assets, with new nuclear power in the $141-221/MWh range (with the high value based on Plant Vogtle). These values are greater than all other utility-scale power plants except the upper range of new coal plant costs when carbon capture is included. But at least they seem to be more competitive. (See OWOE: What is the cheapest method for generating electricity today in the US?) Applying a carbon tax to account for the cost of climate change would help make nuclear more competitive. (See OWOE: What is a carbon tax, and how will it impact energy use?)

However, with the extremely high construction cost, widespread popular opposition to nuclear energy, and, most importantly, the less expensive options of renewable energy, it appears unlikely that new nuclear power will be a significant factor in the US in the future.

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