The Future of Nuclear Energy

Collin Riccitelli
March 19, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: NuScale power module. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear power plays a large role in the US energy sector. In 2016, the United State's 99 nuclear reactors produced 805 billion kWh of electricity, amounting to almost 20% of total electrical output in the country. [1] Like renewables, nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases. Like coal, it is always on. Nuclear power doesn't face the price volatility that natural gas does, and it actually has a better safety record than the coal industry. [2] Despite all this, the future of nuclear power in the US is quite uncertain due to economic, efficiency, and risk challenges.

Industry Challenges

The main challenge facing nuclear energy is high costs. Nuclear plants are highly complex and cost more to finance than any other mainstream source of electricity. Nuclear's estimated capital costs are $5,429 per kilowatt, before interest charges. That compares with $2,883 for coal and $3,718 for coal-gasification. Energy efficiency also presents an issue for nuclear power. A forecast by the Energy Information Administration, for example, gives it only 3% of new capacity for electricity generation through 2040. Cheap and abundant natural gas is partly to blame, as gas-fired power is expected to grow 20 times as fast as nuclear through 2040. [2] It takes six years to construct a nuclear power plant, two to three times longer than to build a gas, coal, wind, or solar plant. [2] The nuclear waste produced at these plants sparks safety concerns, another issue that could hinder the growth of nuclear energy in the future.

A Possible Solution

Many companies are looking to revolutionize the nuclear sector amid fresh interest in design and development of commercial reactors. Nine projects are underway in California, 47 more in 19 other states, and five in Canada. [3] NuScale is one company hoping to lead a revival of U.S. commercial nuclear power by overcoming two problems that have crippled the industry, escalating costs and the risk of devastating accidents. NuScale's 50 MW reactor (Fig. 1) is tiny compared with conventional reactors and would generate a twentieth of the electricity. However because it is small, it would contain much less fuel and much less energy, and therefore could be operated with much less risk. It is designed as a modular unit that could be built in a factory, shipped by truck and put in place with very little hassle. Power plants could activate one reactor and generate revenue as they install additional reactors. [3] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that the design of the NuScale reactor, which relies on air circulation for cooling, is so safe that it does not need the expensive emergency pumps and backup electrical systems required of larger reactors. The decision brings NuScale closer than any company in decades to gaining a license to operate their entirely new reactor design in the U.S. for commercial use. [3]


The nuclear energy industry faces many challenges, including sky-high costs, energy efficiency issues, safety concerns, and waste disposal. However, new developments like NuScales smaller reactor could be just what the industry needs to move into the future as the leading energy option for the nation.

© Collin Riccitelli. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] "World Nuclear Performance Report 2017," World Nuclear Association, June 2017.

[2] K. Johnson, "What's Holding Back Nuclear Energy," Wall Street Journal, 11 Nov 13.

[3] K. Schneider, "The Future of Nuclear Power? Think Small ," Los Angeles Times, 1 Feb 18.