Building a Nuclear Plant

Diana Kim
March 19, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Civaux Nuclear Power Plant near Poitiers, France. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Building a nuclear plant requires a large area, especially the one near a natural water body. This is because nuclear power plants need water in order to expel heat which is part of their condenser system. This is usually achieved with clearing of forests which can disturb the natural habitat of myriad of creatures that live nearby. Moreover, this can also disrupt the ecological balance of the region. [1] Also, the consent from the public is necessary because a lot of people have concerns about their exposure to radiation. A lot of effort has to be put in order to convince people that even after the construction of nuclear plant the area would be safe. It is important to keep the environment as safe and clean as possible even after the nuclear plant has been built. [2]

Three Main Steps

Building a nuclear plant is a difficult task because it takes a lot of steps to build nuclear plant. The three main steps to nuclear plant construction are following. First, you have to file an application for a combined the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. This will allow a company to build and operate a nuclear plant only after it is confirmed that the facility conforms to approved specifications in order to pass this step. Second, the procurement of major long-lead components and commodities begin. Finally, you can construct the nuclear plant. This involves a lot of engineers and huge cost which will be covered in the paragraph below. Fig. 1 shows a completed nuclear plant. [2]


Nuclear power plants, especially compared to other kind of energy plants, have extremely high upfront costs. First, there are costs that are used for planning and building the plant. The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency calculated the overnight capital cost of construction of a nuclear plant as $3,850/kW. This means that in order to build a 1 GW plant, it would cost about $4 billion. If you measure initial $4billion with a 40-year life span and interest rate of 11%, this results in a total cost of more than $17 billion over the life of the loan. [3] In the United States, Energy Information Administration estimated the cost as $5,339/kW. [4] It seems that the cost of constructing nuclear power plants in the United States is relatively more expensive than constructing in other countries. However, once a nuclear plant is built, it can run quite cheaply. The main operating cost of nuclear power plants comes from the cost of uranium. Uranium is not too expensive, but it has to be fabricated and enriched before it can be used for a nuclear power plant. Nevertheless, the nuclear plant's total operating expenses are a third less than that of gas turbine and fossil fuel plants. [1]


The construction of a building a new nuclear power plant includes in construction delays due to extremely expensive price, public opposition, and changes in the regulatory environment. Moreover, nuclear energy continues to increase in cost while other technologies such as wind and solar energy are becoming more economical. This is because there is a lack of skilled engineers who can install the equipment in the nuclear power industry. If there is no change in the economics of nuclear energy, it will be hard to get a lot of investment in nuclear energy over other multiple alternatives that exist in today's energy industry.

© Diana Kim. 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] J. M. Deutch et. al., "The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.

[2] M. Damian, "Nuclear Power: The Ambiguous Lessons of History," Energy Policy 20, 596 (1992).

[3] J. M. Deutch et. al., "Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009.

[4] J. R. Lovering, A. Yip and T. Nordhaus, "Historical Construction Costs of Global Nuclear Power Reactors," Energy Policy 91, 371 (2016).