30

One of the arguments I've seen levied against nuclear power is that it's not economically viable.

In the 1970s nuclear power cost half as much as electricity from coal burning: by 1990 nuclear power cost twice as much as electricity from coal burning (Slingerland et al, 2004 [possible ref]. Today the costs of nuclear power are estimated to be, on average, between 2 and 4 times more expensive than electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, about $0.05-0.07/kWh. [emph. in original]

Compared with some modern renewable energy sources, nuclear power has mixed fortunes: for example it is more expensive than wind, about the same price as hydroelectric power and cogeneration with gasified wood, and cheaper than solar energy using photovoltaic (PV) cells (Öko Institute, 1997 [possible ref]).

Therefore, it isn't a reasonable replacement for coal over wind, co-gen, etc.
For example, US nuclear power generation is federally subsidized, but how does that stack up against the extra burden imposed by complying with additional regulation?

  • 10
    US Nuclear industry is a VERY VERY poor data set to base any facts on. We have extremely aged plant designs, as well as, as per your note, extreme regulatory burden imposed largely for political reasons (as discussed elsewhere on SE - eg skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/1039/…) – user5341 Dec 24 '11 at 6:52
  • 10
    "economically untenable" might be OK if we weight concern about carbon emissions high enough. After all, there are lots of uneconomic renewable technologies being proposed to curb carbon dioxide emission from fossil fuel. More seriously we might need to define economically untenable at a specific point in time like today so it depends on the current price of fossil fuels otherwise the answer will depend on the timescale of the economic evaluation. – matt_black Dec 24 '11 at 22:24
  • 4
    @DVK: Some of those "regulatory burdens" are preventing a second Chernobyl, though. I suspect there's a cost-vs-safety tradeoff that needs to be factored in here. How much are you willing to spend to prevent a disaster? Is it good enough to be safer on average than every other power source? – endolith Apr 6 '12 at 18:43
  • 4
    @endolith - if you understood what exactly happened at Chernobyl, you'd know that none of the regulations are aimed at preventing a second one. – user5341 Apr 6 '12 at 20:36
  • 2
    @DVK: That's a vague, condescending response. – endolith Apr 6 '12 at 20:47
18

The lower-end of the linked claim by the Friends of the Earth is supported by the US Government figures.

The key claim in the linked article is:

Today the costs of nuclear power are estimated to be, on average, between 2 and 4 times more expensive than electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, about $0.05-0.07/kWh.

The US Energy Information Administration (part of the US Department of Energy) published the "Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2011" in November 2010.

Translated into English ("levelized"?!), that means "What cost would energy have in 2016, if we started building a new power-plant with today's technology, without any taxation subsidies?"

Table of costs
(source: eia.gov)

As can be seen, some variants of fossil fuel are in the upper end of that $0.05-0.07/kWh range. (Slightly confusingly, but appropriately for this question, the prices are in 2009 dollars.)

Advanced Nuclear prices are indeed just a smidgin under double that, at around $0.11/kWh.

So, these government figures don't support "4 times more expensive", but they are within a stone's throw of double - i.e. the lower end of the original claim.

Of course, the raw price isn't the only factor, as extrinsic costs must be considered including greenhouse gases, radioactivity, waste disposal, human safety, etc.

  • 3
    Good answer but I'm afraid this may plausibly be using figures that aren't realistic (oversimplified) by design. (1) Is this inclusive or exclusive capital expenditures of building the plant? (e.g. operating costs only)? If inclusive, it's incredibly misleading - nuclear plants are AFAIK designed to last longer than a windmill but cost a lot, meaning that using 2016 (as opposed to say 2050 to account for life of the plant) would be - by design - biased against expensive long-lived plants which nuclear plants are. – user5341 Dec 25 '11 at 20:39
  • 1
    (2) Another factor likely missing here is scalability - you can't build windmills/solar all over the place, and they take a lot of area for scaled up output; sooner or later your land use cost rise.... same with transmission costs (it costs more to transmit energy from 1000 windmills than from 1 compact plant). Hydro has even bigger problem - only finite amount of places to build one. – user5341 Dec 25 '11 at 20:40
  • 1
    (3) You also have to factor in costs of obtaining consumables - e.g. depending on the models you use re: peak oil and oil prices in general, cost of both gas and biomass (and possibly coal) is likely to rise significantly. Costs of uranium are likely (cit. needed) a miniscule part of nuke energy production. – user5341 Dec 25 '11 at 20:42
  • 5
    2) One of the reasons I encourage people to quote the original claim is so the answer can address it. The claim appears to be about what the next power station would cost, not the next 500. So scalability issues are interesting, but not relevant. Higher transmission costs for wind are explicitly included in the "Transmission Costs" column. – Oddthinking Dec 25 '11 at 21:26
  • 7
    @Oddthinking - I live in Central Illinois. We have at least 30 wind farms within 100 miles of me. The common theme we are hearing is that the turbines are breaking down far more than was expected and sapping the profits that are supposed to be shared with the farmers who's land they are built on. The numbers shown on the chart are consistent with what I have in the sales pitch material. So that leads me to suspect that their projections are still using the original GE reliability numbers. – Chad Dec 29 '11 at 14:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .