Food and Water
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.
The following portrays estimates of the cost of today's nuclear technology and possible future technologies.
Factors that affect the costs of nuclear power include management issues, safety regulation, and commodity prices . 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.
The cost breakdown of a typical nuclear plant is estimated as follows.
Under today's conditions, nuclear plants require some form of revenue certainty to be economically competitive . A capacity market, which would pay operators for dispatchable capacity to insure grid reliability, would also help nuclear economics , but the industry's long-term viability requires cost reduction.
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.
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 . However, uranium would have to reach a price of about $400/kg for the thorium cycle to be cost-competitive .
Nuclear power has the following estimated externalized health and environmental costs.
The nuclear industry needs to develop long-term solutions for waste management. There are several inexpensive options available relative to the cost of electricity.
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 . Historically, states with civilian nuclear programs have not been more likely to develop weapons than those without .
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 . 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 .
The International Atomic Energy Agency has tracked 55 ongoing SMR projects, of which 19 have the following projected commercialization dates.
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 . The following shows the main rationale , current status of research projects , and estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) . 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.
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 .
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 .
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.
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.
The Economist's overview of the Generation IV Roadmap.
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