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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Why Is Nuclear Energy So Expensive?


We all knew that 2020 would be an incredibly tough year for nuclear energy. In the United States, the sector has been on the decline for years, saddled with hazardously aging infrastructure and a flood of cheap natural gas thanks to the West Texas shale revolution that the nuclear sector simply can’t compete with. As such, the domestic nuclear sector has become increasingly dependent on government handouts to stay afloat and has saddled the taxpayer with the staggeringly high cost of maintaining radioactive nuclear waste in the form of spent nuclear fuel.  COVID-19 only exacerbated the situation, by causing the bottom to fall out of energy demand and placing nuclear energy, which has largely fallen out of favor in the U.S., near the bottom of a long list of energy industries and industrial and economic sectors in general waiting for government bailouts. During the lockdown phase of the pandemic, “renewables have taken a bigger slice of the market because many nations had decided to give new green technologies priority into the grid” reported Bloomberg Green in a May article titled “Nuclear Is Getting Hammered by Green Power and the Pandemic.”

Earlier this summer, however, the U.S. nuclear sector did receive yet another taxpayer bailout. On June 18, the DOE announced “it would be awarding more than $65m in nuclear energy research, cross cutting technology development, facility access, and infrastructure awards.” According to reporting by PowerTechnology, “the awards fall under the department’s nuclear energy programs – the Nuclear Energy University Programme, the Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies, and the Nuclear Science User Facilities.” This sum of money, however, will almost certainly be too little, too late for domestic nuclear energy. 

Related: Iraq Ships More Crude Oil Despite OPEC Output Cut Pledge Just this week, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report summed up the state of the global nuclear industry, and it ain’t pretty. The report shows that the sector continues to stagnate while renewables are going gangbusters. “Just 2.4 GW of new nuclear generation capacity came online last year, compared to 98 GW of solar. The world’s operational nuclear power capacity had declined by 2.1%, to 362 GW, at the end of June,” PV Magazine paraphrased the report’s findings. 

And, in what is perhaps the nail in nuclear’s coffin, the report shows that nuclear is now the most expensive form of power generation in the world, with the exception of gas peaking plants. $65 million dollars from the government can’t fix that in a time frame that will save the industry, no matter how innovative the researchers get. The levelized cost of energy of nuclear power production is now $155 per megawatt-hour, as compared to $49/MWh for solar power and $41 for wind. What’s more, nuclear’s increased since the last report, while solar and wind both decreased in cost. 

“What is remarkable about these trends, is that the costs of renewables continue to fall due to incremental manufacturing and installation improvements while nuclear, despite over half a century of industrial experience, continues to see costs rising,” read the report released on Thursday.

The impact of this cost difference is obvious. It’s simple economics. Nuclear has become obsolete. “The cost difference is having a huge impact in new generation capacity deployment, with just 2.4 GW of new nuclear plants installed last year, compared to 98 GW of solar and 59.2 GW of wind,” writes PV Magazine.

Related: Oil Bulls Return As OPEC+ Reassures Markets

“Nuclear energy has become irrelevant in the electricity generating technology market,” Mycle Schneider, World Nuclear Industry Status Report coordinator stated. “At the same time, COVID-19 puts additional stress on the sector.” Co-author Antony Froggatt further elaborated: “In economic terms renewables continue to pull away from nuclear power, over the past decade the cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 89 percent, wind by 70 percent, while nuclear increased by 26 percent.”

While other nations are continuing to add nuclear capacity at a breakneck pace, most notably Russia and China, it’s becoming clear that nuclear is not the answer for powering the world in a climate-friendly way unless we see some serious innovation that allows the industry to cut costs in a major way. There are many scientists and researchers endeavoring to do just that, but for now, at least in the U.S., nuclear’s days are numbered.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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  • Raz Kelinkov on September 27 2020 said:
    Gee, no one would have expected if you took the capital costs of assets that last 60 years and assets that last 20 years and pretend they both last 30 years, the assets that actually last 60 years would appear more expensive than the 20 year assets we are pretending last 30 years.

    Why does France pay 17 cents a KW and Germany pays 30 cents a KW (with twice the Carbon)?

    The renewable crowd is in for a political surprise when people get sick of paying twice as much for energy only to have brownouts.
  • John Branscombe on September 28 2020 said:
    The one biggest problem with nuclear fission past, present, and future, is the disposal of the nuclear waste products. They are long term problems that must be dealt with. Problematic fission byproducts that become nuclear waste are mostly isotopes that last a from many decades to hundreds of thousands of years. If the half-life of them is relatively short, they are very radioactive but decay quickly into less harmful elements. If they have long half-lives, they can persist for millions or even billions of years, but decay so slowly they are not extremely radioactive, and so present only a small amount of hazardous radiation. Cleaning up the current stockpiles and future ones to come is very important if we want nuclear energy in our future energy mix.

    I think we really must consider and discuss the disposal and sequestration of dangerous nuclear waste in suitable subduction zones deep in the ocean. I am not a qualified geologist, but I am sure some could find and suggest places where this would work well. The process of subduction is slow. The packaged waste could be placed below the bottom of the trench where it could be slowly absorbed deeper into the Earth. Eventually, it would meet the magma and then the asthenosphere, by which time it would melt. The molten state would allow for the heaviest isotopes to sink further towards the core. Lighter ones would mix and be diluted in the magma and continue to decay over millions of years. Such ocean trench subduction zones are often associated with volcanoes, but the lava that comes to the surface is not necessarily from the material being subducted. Even if it were, the nuclear waste would have hundreds of thousands, if not many millions of years, to have decayed. We should keep in mind that magma and lava are already somewhat radioactive.

    If a number of proposed sites could be scouted for suitability for this purpose, and existing nuclear waste stockpiles were properly sequestered there, we would have dealt with a problem that is now not handled well at all. If this were available for the disposal of future nuclear waste then the only thing stopping the wider use of nuclear power would be how fast it could be built and put online.
  • Alfred Parish on September 28 2020 said:
    The "World Nuclear Industry Status Report" which seems to be the only source is nothing more than a grandiosely named pamphlet published by professional ANTI-Nuclear power activists. No one who works on it is an subject expert or associated with the nuclear industry, it's just a grab-bag of poorly sourced highly cherry picked statistics that they think will push their political agenda.

    Is that level of research supposed to be OilPrice Journalism???

    FYI, most nuclear power plants today are making energy at 30$ a Megawatt. Actual real world numbers, you can look up, not the wishful thinking calculations of the LCOE. Some power plants are even under 20$ and few are more expensive. Your analyses besides just being wrong ignores several key points. Like the lopsided subsidies renewable power gets, so much so they can often bid negative to get into markets. As well as constraint payment for doing nothing, and even outright government mandates that they be built at any cost.

    You're also only looking at whole sale costs, not the actual retail cost ratepayers spend for their electricity. Once the grid instability is taken into account and all the extra infrastructure that renewable power needs, they get very expensive very quickly. That's why Germany and other places that have gone hard for renewable power pay double there nuclear using neighbors.
  • Pekka Lehtikoski on October 01 2020 said:
    Jon Branscombe had a rational approach to the nuclear waste issue, and varying half-life of different byproducts. Some low activity by-products may be chemically toxic even these are not real radiation hazard, and the short-living isotopes are active to dangerous levels. The real issue is that we have these laying around in temporary storage which can be compromised by a natural disaster, war, or terrorist action. One working solution is to find a geologically stable location and dig deep enough. Luckily the amount of waste is tiny (in energy waste scale of things, compared to CO2, used batteries, or scrapped power plants). This has been done in practice:


    We do not need to go as far as hundreds of thousands or millions of years, sufficient criteria for "long enough" is that it doesn't any more measurably change the environment radioactivity or toxicity even if the containment is broken.

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with the author's conclusion, for now, Nuclear energy dead in US, for political reasons too strong to overcome. The next decades Natural Gas seems most likely backbone of US energy.

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