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Nuclear Fission

Nuclear power is the extraction of energy from fission of heavy atomic nuclei, as opposed to fusion. Here we assess the economic and environmental impact of today's nuclear technology and consider the prospects of future forms.

Today's Nuclear Economics

The following portrays estimates of the cost of today's nuclear technology and possible future technologies.

Levelized cost of electricity from current and potential future nuclear technologies. Data sources: Abdulla and Azevedo [1], Bowen [4], Bustreo [8], Electric Power Research Institute [12], Energy Innovation Reform Project [13], Enter et al. [14], European Fusion Development Agreement [15], IEA et al. [27], Lazard [28], OpenEI[36], Rochau [41], Rosner and Goldberg [42], Rothwell and Ganda [43], Rubio and Tricot [44], EIA [50]. Contemporary new nuclear construction tends to be expensive relative to other options, though depreciated nuclear--keeping existing plants open--costs an estimated 2.8 ¢/kWh. Cost estimates for nuclear technologies under development, especially fusion, should be regarded as highly uncertain.

Factors that affect the costs of nuclear power include management issues, safety regulation, and commodity prices [52]. The long construction times, risk of cost overruns, and high capital costs make nuclear a particularly difficult power source to finance. Nuclear costs also vary considerably by country.

Observed capital costs of nuclear power in China, the United States, Japan, Korea, and Europe. Most of the cost of nuclear electricity is capital cost. Sources: IEA [26] and IEA et al. [27].

The cost breakdown of a typical nuclear plant is estimated as follows.

Estimated breakdown of the levelized cost of nuclear power. The figures assume a capital cost of $5000/kW (amortized over 50 years at a 7% discount rate and seven year construction time). Sources: World Nuclear Association ([52] and [53]).

Under today's conditions, nuclear plants require some form of revenue certainty to be economically competitive [52]. A capacity market, which would pay operators for dispatchable capacity to insure grid reliability, would also help nuclear economics [52], but the industry's long-term viability requires cost reduction.

Uranium and Thorium Mining

While there is no apparent prospect of a shortage of terrestrial uranium reserves on the horizon, the possibility of recovering uranium from seawater would serve as a backstop against major price increases and insure sufficient supply in the event of an expansion of nuclear power.

Cost of providing uranium or thorium (on a uranium-equivalency basis), in per-kilogram and per-kWh generated bases. Sources: thorium data from IAEA [24], seawater extraction from Parker et al. [38], uranium price peaks from Frisby [17], recent uranium prices from TradeTech [48], and translation of per-kg to per-kWh prices from the World Nuclear Association [52].

The development of fast breeder reactors, which use uranium fuel much more efficiently, or thorium reactors, could allow an expansion of nuclear power without pressuring reserves [35]. However, uranium would have to reach a price of about $400/kg for the thorium cycle to be cost-competitive [24].

Health, Environmental, and Social Impact

Nuclear power has the following estimated externalized health and environmental costs.

External costs of nuclear power. Greenhouse gas emissions from Schlömer et al. [46], plant operation, mining, enrichment, and disposal (non-greehouse gas) and estimated by Dones et al. [11], and accident risks are quantified by Samadi [45]. It should be noted that the proper valuation of accident risk is highly contested. Non-accident external costs are generally confirmed by ExternE [16] and the OECD and NEA [37].

The nuclear industry needs to develop long-term solutions for waste management. There are several inexpensive options available relative to the cost of electricity.

Estimated costs for several nuclear waste disposal options. Sources: deep borehole disposal from Brady et al. [5], sub-seabed disposal from porter [39], reprocessing from Recktenwald and Deinert [40], and other options from the National Research Council [30] and the NEA and OECD [32]. While more expensive, partioning and transmutation is the only option that (partially) destroys radioactive isotopes, rather than sequestering them, though residual waste would still need to be managed by another method [30]. For most of the world, sub-seabed disposal would require revisions to international law [3]. Reprocessing would save money on the fuel cycle by reducing the need for uranium mining, but is unlikely to be economically sound at today's uranium prices [7]. Some other options, such as geological injection of liquified waste, or launching waste into the Sun, are probably infeasible [30].

Experts are divided on the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation that may result from nuclear power. It is difficult, though not impossible, to repurpose civilian enrichment facilities for weapons production [47]. Historically, states with civilian nuclear programs have not been more likely to develop weapons than those without [29].

Small Modular Reactors

Small modular reactors (SMR) are typically defined to have under 300 MW electrical capacity, in contrast to the typical 1000 MW or more of modern nuclear power plants, and they may allow components to be mass-produced and assembled onsite. While SMRs do not offer a clear advantage on cost of electricity, they may reduce construction time, capital risk, and be more attractive for smaller grids [33]. Through reduced need for backup power supply, improved seismic capability, and large underground pool storage for spent fuel, the risk of the type of failure seen at Fukushima Daiichi would be reduced [42].

The International Atomic Energy Agency has tracked 55 ongoing SMR projects, of which 19 have the following projected commercialization dates.

Projected commercialization dates of small modular reactor projects. Source: IAEA [34].

Advanced Nuclear

The nuclear industry is developing a set of new reactor designs which collectively are known as Generation IV. They are expected to be commercially available after 2030. The Generation IV Forum has identified six leading reactor candidates [21]. The following shows the main rationale [6][18][19][20][23][25], current status of research projects [2], and estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) [22]. The TRL is measured on a scale from 1, indicating a technology that is only at a conceptual stage, to 9, indicating a technology that is commercially deployed in its final form.

Summary of Generation IV reactor concepts. Rationales are given by Brookhaven National Laboratory et al. [6], the Gen IV International Forum ([18], [19], [20]), and the IAEA ([23], [25]); current status reported by the Advanced Reactors Information System [2]; and Technological Readiness Level estimated by Gouger et al. [22].

The Breakthrough Institute has identified safety, modularity, thermal efficiency, and technological readiness as the main criteria for reactor designs. They have determined high-temperature gas-cooled reactors--particularly for thermal applications--sodium-cooled and lead-cooled factor reactors, and molten salt reactors as most promising, and gas-cooled fast reactors and supercritical water reactors less promising [31].

Bringin an advanced reactor to market would cost an estimated $5.25 billion public and $6.25 billion private funding, or $11.5 billion today over a 25 year process [10].

Value of Nuclear Advancement

Developing low-cost advanced nuclear technologies would create value by reducing emissions and other pollution and by lowering electricity costs. We estimate the benefits as follows.

Estimated benefits of developing an advanced nuclear reactor now. The greenhouse gas reduction and electricity price reduction are estimated from the "Reduced Cost Nuclear" scenario of the ReEDS model [9]. The price reduction is applied to projected U. S. electricity to 2050, as reported by the Annual Energy Outlook [51]. Non-greenhouse gas environmental benefits are based on the projected reduction of coal generation and the external costs of coal. A 5% discount rate is applied to the benefits of price reduction and non-greenhouse gas reduction benefits. We furthermore assume that annual benefits after 2050 are equal to benefits before 2050, with a 5% discount rate applied.

The value of advanced nuclear includes export benefits. We assume that worldwide benefits are equal to U. S. benefits per-kWh, with world electricity demand estimated from the International Energy Outlook [49], and that American companies could supply 25% of world demand. These estimates do not include the possible value of nuclear energy for direct heat or synfuel production.

The ReEDS model projects that the share of U. S. electricity from nuclear will decline through 2050, even with cost reduction. An advancement sufficient to increase the nuclear share, as opposed to merely slowing the decline, would likely have greater value than estimated above.

For Further Reading

The Economist's overview of the Generation IV Roadmap.

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