Nuclear Development Costs

Trey Strobel
March 12, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed the first new nuclear power plant since the partial meltdown of the reactor core at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, Fig. 1, in 1979. [1] This represented a crucial first step in kick- starting the development of new nuclear facilities in the United States. The current fleet of nuclear power plants is aging rapidly despite producing almost 20% of the electricity in the United States with virtually no carbon dioxide emissions. [2,3] While the rock bottom prices of natural gas provide a formidable opponent to nuclear energy, the power plants themselves are the greatest roadblock to the future of nuclear power in the United States. Technical and financial challenges are among the main factors that impede the widespread adoption of nuclear energy in America.

Lack of Process Expertise

The lack of nuclear power plant development in the United States over the past decade not only leaves the country with an aging fleet of plants, but also provides little room for expertise in the building process. Learning-by-doing is key to reducing costs and minimizing uncertainty in the building process. The absence of this proficiency leaves projects behind schedule and over budget. The regulatory process further complicates this process as builders often make mistakes when they are unsure of the state in which inspectors would approve of construction. For example, the average plant took five years to complete in the 1950s as opposed to 14 years in the 1970s. [4] Combined with the environmental and political risks of nuclear fuel and waste, the lack of development in the nuclear industry has driven talented workers into other fields.

Cost Concerns

The lengthy building time and large upfront investment required in the construction of nuclear power plants present a significant financial barrier to new projects. The Three Mile Island meltdown is partly to blame for this. In its aftermath, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission adopted more stringent safety standards which contributed to higher construction costs for nuclear power plants. [1] Due to the lack of development in the years since that accident, it is difficult to forecast the cost of new projects. Even historical examples have become dated. Even so, nuclear power plants are projected to be five times more expensive and take five times as long to build as their natural gas fueled counterparts. [1] Equally troubling is the fact that nuclear energy continues to increase in cost while technologies like wind and solar energy become more economical. [3] These diverging paths are due to the shortage of suppliers of key inputs as well as the lack of skilled engineers capable of installing the equipment in the nuclear power industry. Without a change in the economics of nuclear energy, it will be difficult to attract investment in the face of the multiple alternatives that exist in the modern energy industry.


If nuclear power is to play a part in the United States sustainable energy future, it would be wise to examine the successful French model. Aside from the United States, France has the most nuclear reactors of any country. These plants provide about 75% of France's electricity. [4] What makes France's program unique is the standardization of the country's fleet of nuclear reactors. In fact, all but one of France's reactors is of the same design. [4] Yet in the nearly 40 years since the Three Mile Island meltdown, much technological development has taken place. This necessitates a balance between innovation and standardization. In the case of the United States, a modern design should be adopted for new plants, but there should be little room for variation in order to maximize learning-by-doing. With this approach, nuclear power will have a future that maximizes operational efficiencies and fully captures the cost savings associated with consolidation. [5]

© Trey Strobel. 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.


[1] A. Rascoe, "U.S. Approves First New Nuclear Plant in a Generation," Reuters, 9 Feb 12.

[2] R. Smith, "TVA Cleared to Start First New U.S. Nuclear Power Plant in Nearly 20 Years," Wall Street Journal, 22 Oct 15.

[3] M. Totty, "The Case For and Against Nuclear Power," Wall Street Journal, 30 Jun 08.

[4] L. Davis, "Prospects for Nuclear Power," J. Econ. Perspec. 26, No. 1, 49, (Winter 2012).

[5] J. B. Taylor and F. A. Wolak, "A Comparison of Government Regulation of Risk in the Financial Services and Nuclear Power Industries," in The Nuclear Enterprise: High-Consequence Accidents: How to Enhance Safety and Minimize Risks in Nuclear Weapons and Reactors, ed. by G. P. Schulz and S. D. Drell (Hoover Institute Press, 2012), p. 275.