|Fig. 1: Net electrical generation from US Nuclear Power Plants from 1949- 2011, from the US Energy Information Administration. |
As the world's population and economies continue to grow, so do its energy needs. While coal, gas and oil currently supply approximately 80% of the world's energy needs, their contribution has been shrinking as alternative sources of energy become more and more lucrative. The need for alternative technology is slowly becoming a pressing issue, as fossil reserves continue to deplete and perhaps more importantly, continue to cause irreparable damage to the environment.
Nuclear energy is one of the more lucrative options. Currently, it supplies 4.8% of the world's energy needs and 9.7% of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OCED) energy needs.  (The OCED is a group of 34 major countries that does not include rapidly developing, high-energy consuming economies such as China and India.) But how does nuclear energy compare to other alternatives sources of energy such as photovoltaics and hydroelectric in terms of economic viability, environmental and safety concerns, and future outlook? This comparison is difficult to make given the large number of factors that can determine cost and availability. Location is one such very important factor. For example, photovoltaics work best in areas receiving sunlight year-round, wind turbines require high winds and large, flat areas of land, and hydroelectric power requires large, fast-flowing rivers. In terms of physical land requirements, nuclear energy is a very appealing source of energy. The land use intensity (in km2/TW hr/yr) of nuclear power is 1.9-2.8, whereas it is approximately 36.9 km2/TW hr/yr for photovoltaics and 72.1 km2/TW hr/yr for wind. Nuclear power is by far one of the most land use efficient.  Availability of conventional fuel resources is also an important factor, as they can be expensive to transport. France, for example, has almost no natural fossil fuels, which has led to 80% of its electricity being produced by nuclear power plants.  Political geographical constraints can also play an important role. State and federal regulations can promote (or impeded) the development of various technologies through subsidies and regulations.
Normalizing for some of these factors, consider the article Case Studies on the Economic Viability of Renewable Energy by Cox et al.  that explores the integration of various renewables on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. The renewable options considered are fuel cells, photovoltaics, and wind turbines, and the data comes from HOMER of National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Table 1 indicates the capital costs and average maintenance costs for these technologies.
|Table 1: Estimated marginal costs of implementing various alternative sources of energy on the IIT campus, as estimated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. |
The cost of nuclear energy is harder to pin down, again depending on a number of factors. The overnight capital cost of a nuclear power plant is the cost of building a nuclear power plant overnight, without any regard to financing concerns and costs. This figure has increased dramatically over the past few years, jumping from $2000/kW in 2002 to $4000/kW in 2007 (in the US), according to one estimate by MIT Professor Deutch et al.  These numbers jumped even higher in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, due to increased safety regulations. This estimate makes nuclear energy one of the more expensive options, especially once financing, decommissioning and waste storage costs are taken into consideration as well. Fuel costs vary but the average cost in 2013 was $0.79/kWh and the average operation and maintenance cost in 2013 was 1.5 cents/kWh.  By and far, nuclear energy is an expensive alternative, especially when contrasting it with coal, oil and gas. Its appeal lies in immeasurable quantities such as its "cleanliness" (environmentally friendly), cheap transportation, and high fuel energy density (1 g of Uranium can produce approximately 90,000x more energy as 1g of coal).  The technology for nuclear energy is also well- developed, as opposed to photovoltaics for example, the technology for which is still under development as energy efficiencies are increased. This led to a rapid increase in energy supplied by nuclear power plants from the 1970s but development has since slowed down (see Fig. 1) due to rising costs from increased safety regulations, financing difficulties, and falling costs of competitive technology. Many experts believe that nuclear energy's future growth is, and more importantly should be, limited.  Rising costs are not a problem in rapidly developing nations such as China and India, where capital and financing costs are much lower than in the US. So while nuclear may have a limited future in developed nations, it may have a market in less-developed nations.
© Prastuti Singh. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
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