What is the role of conventional nuclear power in our energy future?

 |  6 May 2024

Read more about nuclear power below.

Nuclear power is not cost competitive.

  • The primary shortcoming of nuclear power is that it is extremely expensive compared to all other energy options. This is because nuclear fission is an inherently dangerous technology, which necessitates very costly safeguards during construction, operation and decomissioning, as well as for the radioactive fuel and waste.
  • The cost of electricity from a new nuclear power plant ranges from three to over thirty times more than the electricity from solar, wind and battery power (SWB)
  • The cost of nuclear power has risen over 25% in the last 10 years, while in the same period the cost of solar power has fallen almost 90%, the cost of wind power has dropped fallen nearly 50% and the cost of batteries has fallen roughly 90%.
  • Nuclear power is one of the few industries in history with a negative experience curve, meaning that it gets more rather than less expensive as we build more of it.
  • The cost of nuclear power makes generous assumptions about decommissioning and waste management. Historically, these costs have been up to 100 times more expensive than originally budgeted.
  • Unexpected problems with nuclear power plants can arise that create huge unanticipated expenses. In France, for example, unexpected deterioration of some of the steel piping in the newest facilities caused extended shutdowns and required extremely costly repairs.
  • The discoveries plunged the operator into a crisis with repercussions for all of Europe. EDF called it an “annus horribilis,” and from early May to late October, about half of its 56 reactors sat idle due to the repair and maintenance backlog. It flipped France from Europe’s biggest electricity exporter into a net importer last year. From the Article: Cracking under pressure, The Japan Times.
  • The reported cost of nuclear power (typically calculated using standard levelized cost of energy methodology, which our research has shown to be fundamentally flawed) is based on the assumption that each plant operates at full capacity for 90% of the year and all electricity generated will be purchased and utilized. Obviously this would be impossible if nuclear power expanded to provide a sizable fraction of all electricity for a region, because the difference between a region’s minimum and peak demand can be very large. In California, for example, average demand is only about 50% of peak demand, meaning that an energy system based on nuclear power would see its nuclear plants sitting idle about half the time instead of running at full capacity all year. That in turn would roughly double the real per-unit cost of electricity from those nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power requires too much water. 

  • Nuclear power plants in France provide almost 75% of the country’s power, but in doing so they are also responsible for 50% of the country’s freshwater withdrawals – as much as all other industrial, commercial and residential use combined!  

  • Water for cooling depends on a large temperature differential. When the intake water temperature is high, its cooling effectiveness declines. During heatwaves that raise river water temperatures, nuclear plants in Finland, Germany, Switzerland and France have to shut down because it becomes impossible to cool them enough without returning discharged water back into rivers at temperatures so high that they destroy those rivers' ecosystems.

  • Not all countries are as water-rich as France. In the U.S., very few nuclear power plants operate in the dry western states except on the coast because the water requirements make siting and other costs impractical. 

 

Not all countries have the wealth, human resources, political stability and other factors required to safely power their entire country with nuclear power.

  • 31 countries currently have nuclear power plants, but the other 164 that are predominantly less wealthy do not necessarily have the capacity to safely manage a civilian nuclear power program. Powering “the world” with nuclear fission technology is therefore fundamentally infeasible.

  • Nuclear power plants are scale-constrained. Small power plants are possible, such as those on military naval vessels, but this is much more dangerous and much more expensive than building fewer but very large facilities. However, because large plants require roughly 10% downtime for maintenance, countries with small populations (35 countries have a population of 1 million people or less) that are served by a large single nuclear power plant would need other sources of energy for over one month of each year. 

Weapons material and technology proliferation.

  • This is already a serious security challenge today, and would be a much greater challenge if another 164 countries–many of them less wealthy and less politically stable–were also trying to safeguard all of the supply chains, supporting infrastructure and knowledge bases of a nuclear power industry.

Long build times.

  • Worldwide, average siting and approval time is two years and construction itself averages 7.5 years, for a total average build time of nearly 10 years.

  • Solar photovoltaic build time can be less than two years at the same scale, and build time is much faster for smaller scale plants.

Uranium reserves.

  • With 100% power worldwide from nuclear, we would only have 5-10 years worth of uranium reserves. Even if additional reserves could be discovered and developed, it is unlikely there is sufficient uranium to support our global civilization for decades or centuries based on mining alone. Thus, breeder reactors would be required to manufacture more fuel instead.

  • Breeder reactors are an extremely costly and as-yet-unproven technology. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials: “After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries.”

Rare materials.

  • Nuclear reactors require substantial quantities of rare materials, such as hafnium, zirconium, beryllium and niobium.

  • If we were to power all of civilization with nuclear fission technology instead of SWB, all of the same supply and mining concerns that SWB is criticized for would apply to nuclear power as well-just with a different set of rare materials.

Accident rate.

  • The historical nuclear accident rate is one accident per 1,250 power plant years.

  • At 100% nuclear power worldwide, with 15,000 reactors, that would be one accident every month.

  • Nuclear power plants would need to become more than 100 times safer to be considered an acceptable risk by the public, based on the past frequency of major accidents (i.e. roughly one event worldwide every decade).

Nuclear waste management.

  • This is still an unsolved problem after nearly 70 years.

  • If the quantity of waste increased by five times in the U.S. and over twenty times worldwide, it could become a major international environmental hazard, especially since smaller countries would need to export the waste to other countries with the necessary facilities for safe long-term disposal.

  • International transport of nuclear waste is inherently risky, whilst dumping nuclear waste at sea is both hazardous and immoral.

Siting constraints.

  • Each nuclear plant site has unique geography, natural disaster risks, water supply factors and exclusion-zone safety considerations.

  • Finding sites that meet all the necessary criteria is difficult, and would be essentially impossible for many small countries.

Unproven new nuclear technology.

  • Breakthroughs remain possible, yet as of the writing of this article there is currently no clear evidence that next-generation nuclear fission or fusion technology offers a safe, cost-competitive alternative to SWB.

Watch Director of Research Adam Dorr explain this in more detail in our video.

Explore the evidence...

 

  • Falling costs drive technology disruptions. Solar and wind are already the cheapest new generation options, and cost less than existing coal, gas and nuclear power plants in many areas. Read more about this on p8 of our Rethinking Energy report.

  • Coal, gas, and nuclear power assets will become stranded during the 2020s, and no new investment in these technologies is rational from this point forward. Adoption of SWB is growing exponentially worldwide and disruption is now inevitable because by 2030 they will offer the cheapest electricity option for most regions. SWB will transform our energy system in fundamental ways. Read more about this on p7 of our Rethinking Energy report.
  • The incumbent coal, gas and nuclear power technologies are already unable to compete with new solar and wind installations for generating capacity additions, and by 2030 they will be unable to compete with battery-firmed capacity that makes electricity from solar and wind dispatchable all day, all night, all year round. This means that the disruption of the conventional technologies is now inevitable, and that no new investment in coal, gas or nuclear power generating assets is rational from this point forward. Read more about this on p9 of our Rethinking Energy report.

  • Few, if any, coal, gas, nuclear or hydro power facilities will survive the transition to SWB without aggressive government intervention. Whether a conventional baseload power plant is old and already fully amortized, or newly constructed, its utilization profile and electricity selling prices will change during the 2020s, pushing it into competition not only with SWB but with existing peakers as well. Read p16-17 of our Rethinking Energy: The Great Stranding report to see our evidence of the LCOE of nuclear energy and our findings. Read our webpage on The Great Stranding.

  • The implications of the growing gap between the real cost of conventional energy generation based on actual market dynamics and the LCOE reported by mainstream analyses are explained on p20 -23 of our Stranded Assets report.

  • It is the end of nuclear. "In 2014, nuclear was already the most expensive way of generating electricity. Solar is also getting cheaper as nuclear gets more expensive. So why would a power utility even consider building a nuclear power plant? Three words: government protection and subsidies." This excerpt is from 'Chapter 6: End of Nuclear' in Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation, by RethinkX co-founder Tony Seba. Want to learn more? Clean Disruption is available here, on Amazon.

 

Witness the transformation

 

The disruption of the energy sector by technologies like solar photovoltaics, onshore wind power and lithium-ion batteries is inevitable. SWB will disproportionately replace old systems like nuclear power, with a system that has dramatically different architecture, boundaries and capabilities. 

Continue exploring Energy

Sign up to our Newsletter