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OWOE - Nuclear Power - What does it cost to build a nuclear power plant?
  Figure 1 - Nuclear Plant Capex In Terms of Activity (World Nuclear Association)
Figure 1 - Nuclear Plant Capex In Terms of Activity (World Nuclear Association)
Figure 2 - Nuclear Plant Capex In Terms of Labor, Material and Equipment (World Nuclear Association)
Figure 3 - Unsubsidized Levelized Cost of Energy Comparison (Lazard 2016)
What does it cost to build a nuclear power plant?
Topic updated: 2017-09-01

Nuclear power plants are among the most costly infrastructure projects ever undertaken in terms of capital expenditures (capex), with the current estimated cost for a large, two-reactor plant in the United States (Plant Vogtle in Georgia) costing approximately $26 billion. The first nuclear power plant to come online in the United States since 1996 is the reactor at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA's) Watts Bar 2, which has the longest construction history of any reactor in the world. Construction began in 1972 but was suspended in 1985 after the TVA had spent approximately $1.7 billion to get the reactor to approximately 60% complete. The project was restarted in 2007, and the plant became operational in October 2016 after another $4.7 billion was spent. Inflating the original cost from 1985 gives about $5 billion in 2016 dollars, for a total Watts Bar 2 cost of $9.7 billion.

The 4 new nuclear reactors which began construction in the United States during what was once referred to as the "nuclear renaissance" have run into trouble. In 2017 construction cost estimates were $15 billion and $14 billion, respectively, for two 1117 MW reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia and two 1117 MW reactors at Virgil C Summer in South Carolina. The Summer project was cancelled in July 2017, and the Vogtle project continues but under extreme pressure. (See OWOE topic: What is the Nuclear Renaissance?) Figure 1 shows a typical breakdown in capital cost for a nuclear plant in terms of activity, and Figure 2 shows the breakdown in terms of labor, material, and equipment.

Although capex and associated financing costs are extremely high for nuclear power plants, looking at costs using the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCoE - See OWOE: What are LCOE and LACE?) metric, i.e., the net present value of the cost of a unit of electricity over the lifetime of the plant, gives a different picture of the cost of such plants. Nuclear plants have significantly lower fuel costs and typically longer lives (40 - 60 years) and higher capacity factors (90-95%) than conventional power plants. As a result, LCoE values are estimated in the $90-140/MWh range. Figure 3 compares LCoE ranges for different generating assets, with new nuclear power falling within the range of costs for new coal plants, albeit only in the range where carbon capture is included in the plant cost. (See OWOE: What is clean coal?) Applying a carbon tax to account for the cost of climate change would serve to make nuclear more competitive. 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.

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 different regulatory and government policy regimes, are building new nuclear power plants at significantly less cost than in the US.

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