Economics of new nuclear power plants: Wikis


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Sources of electricity in the U.S. in 2008.[1] Nuclear power accounts for 20% of electricity produced in the U.S.

The economics of new nuclear power plants is a controversial subject, since multi-billion dollar investments ride on the choice of an energy source. Nuclear power plants typically have high capital costs for building the plant, but low fuel costs. Therefore, comparison with other power generation methods is strongly dependent on assumptions about construction timescales and capital financing for nuclear plants. Cost estimates also need to take into account plant decommissioning and nuclear waste storage costs. On the other hand measures to mitigate global warming, such as a carbon tax or carbon emissions trading, may favor the economics of nuclear power.

Analysis of the economics of nuclear power must take into account who bears the risks of future uncertainties. To date all operating nuclear power plants were developed by state-owned or regulated utility monopolies where many of the risks associated with construction costs, operating performance, fuel price, and other factors were borne by consumers rather than suppliers. Many countries have now liberalized the electricity market where these risks, and the risk of cheaper competitors, are borne by plant suppliers and operators rather than consumers, which leads to a significantly different evaluation of the economics of new nuclear power plants.[2]


Capital costs

Because of the large capital costs for nuclear power, and the relatively long construction period before revenue is returned, servicing the capital costs of a nuclear power plant is the most important factor determining the economic competitiveness of nuclear energy.[3] The investment can contribute about 70% of costs of electricity, according to one 2005 OECD/NEA study (which assumed a 10% discount rate).[4] The discount rate chosen to cost a nuclear power plant's capital over its lifetime is arguably the most sensitive parameter to overall costs.[5]

The recent liberalization of the electricity market in many countries has made the economics of nuclear power generation less attractive.[6] Previously a monopolistic provider could guarantee output requirements decades into the future. Private generating companies now have to accept shorter output contracts and the risks of future lower-cost competition, so they desire a shorter return on investment period — this favours generation plant types with lower capital costs even if associated fuel costs are higher.[7] A further difficulty is that due to the large sunk costs but unpredictable future income from the liberalised electricity market, private capital is unlikely to be available on favourable terms, which is particularly significant for nuclear as it is capital-intensive.[8] Industry consensus is that a 5% discount rate is appropriate for plants operating in a regulated utility environment where revenues are guaranteed by captive markets, and 10% discount rate is appropriate for a competitive deregulated or merchant plant environment,[9] however the independent MIT study (2003) which used a more sophisticated finance model distinguishing equity and debt capital had a higher 11.5% average discount rate.[2]

However, another consideration is that even though consumer demand is not guaranteed, nuclear is placed among the lowest operating cost options.[10] Once the plant is built, it has a distinct advantage over coal, gas, and other fuel based generation types in winning the momentary supply auctions, thereby resulting in operations at full reactor capacity. In this regard, typical Present Value (PV) calculations for risk-adjusted discount should be applied carefully, possibly approaching the guaranteed, captive market levels.[11]

The smallest nuclear power plant that can be built is often larger than other power plants, making it possible for a utility to build the other plants in smaller increments, or in areas of low power consumption. (However, several new designs are being targeted at smaller markets, such as PBMR, IRIS, and SSTAR).


Recent construction cost estimates

2007 estimates have considerable uncertainty in overnight cost, and vary widely from $2,950/kWe (overnight cost) to a Moody's Investors Service conservative estimate of between $5,000 and $6,000/kWe (final or "all-in" cost).[12]

However, commodity prices shot up in 2008, and so all types of plants will be more expensive than previously calculated[13] In June 2008 Moody's estimated that the cost of installing new nuclear capacity in the U.S. might possibly exceed $7,000/kWe in final cost.[14]

The reported prices at six new pressurized water reactors are indicative of costs for that type of plant:[15]

  • February 2008 — For two new AP1000 reactors at its Turkey Point site Florida Power & Light calculated overnight capital cost from $2444 to $3582 per kW, which were grossed up to include cooling towers, site works, land costs, transmission costs and risk management for total costs of $3108 to $4540 per kilowatt. Adding in finance charges increased the overall figures to $5780 to $8071 per kW.
  • March 2008 — For two new AP1000 reactors in Florida Progress Energy announced that if built within 18 months of each other, the cost for the first would be $5144 per kilowatt and the second $3376/kW - total $9.4 billion. Including land, plant components, cooling towers, financing costs, license application, regulatory fees, initial fuel for two units, owner's costs, insurance and taxes, escalation and contingencies the total would be about $14 billion.
  • May 2008 — For two new AP1000 reactors at the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station in South Carolina South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. and Santee Cooper expected to pay $9.8 billion (which includes forecast inflation and owners' costs for site preparation, contingencies and project financing).
  • November 2008 — For two new AP1000 reactors at its Lee site Duke Energy Carolinas raised the cost estimate to $11 billion, excluding finance and inflation, but apparently including other owners costs.
  • November 2008 — For two new AP1000 reactors at its Bellefonte site TVA updated its estimates for overnight capital cost estimates ranged to $2516 to $4649/kW for a combined construction cost of $5.6 to 10.4 billion (total costs of $9.9 to $17.5 billion).
  • On April 9, 2008, Georgia Power Company reached a contract agreement for two AP1000 reactors to be built at Vogtle,[16] at an estimated final cost of $14 billion plus $3 billion for necessary transmission upgrades.[17]

In comparison, the AP1000 units already under construction in China have been reported with substantially lower costs:

  • In 2007, the reported cost for the first two AP1000 units under construction in China was $5.3 billion.
  • In 2009, the published cost for 4 AP1000 reactors under construction in China was a total of $8 billion.
  • in 2010, the Chinese nuclear commission expect construction costs would fall significantly once full scale mass production is underway. In addition, a domestic CAP1400 design based on the AP1000 is due to start construction in April 2013 with a scheduled start of 2017. Once the CAP1400 design has been proven, work is scheduled for a CAP1700 design with a target construction cost of $1000/kW

Effect of delays

Construction delays can add significantly to the cost of a plant. Because a power plant does not yield profits during construction, longer construction times translate directly into higher finance charges. Modern nuclear power plants are planned for construction in four years or less (42 months for CANDU ACR-1000, 60 months from order to operation for an AP1000, 48 months from first concrete to operation for an EPR and 45 months for an ESBWR)[18] as opposed to over a decade for some previous plants. However, despite Japanese success with ABWRs, the first EPR (in Finland) is significantly behind schedule.

In some countries (notably the U.S.), in the past unexpected changes in licensing, inspection and certification of nuclear power plants added delays and increased construction costs. However, the regulatory processes for siting, licensing, and constructing have been standardized, streamlining the construction of newer and safer designs.

In the U.S. many new regulations were put in place in the years before and again immediately after the Three Mile Island accident's partial meltdown, resulting in plant startup delays of many years. The NRC has new regulations in place now (see Combined Construction and Operating License), and the next plants will have NRC Final Design Approval before the customer buys them, and a Combined Construction and Operating License will be issued before construction starts, guaranteeing that if the plant is built as designed then it will be allowed to operate — thus avoiding lengthy hearings after completion.

In Japan and France, construction costs and delays are significantly diminished because of streamlined government licensing and certification procedures. In France, one model of reactor was type-certified, using a safety engineering process similar to the process used to certify aircraft models for safety. That is, rather than licensing individual reactors, the regulatory agency certified a particular design and its construction process to produce safe reactors. U.S. law permits type-licensing of reactors, a process which is being used on the AP1000 and the ESBWR.[19]

To encourage development of nuclear power, under the Nuclear Power 2010 Program the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has offered interested parties the opportunity to introduce France's model for licensing and to subsidize 25% to 50% of the construction cost overruns due to delays for the first six new plants. Several applications have been made, two sites have been chosen to receive new plants, and other projects are pending (see Nuclear Power 2010 Program).

Operating costs

In general, coal and nuclear plants have the same types of operating costs (operations and maintenance plus fuel costs). However, nuclear has lower fuel costs but higher operating and maintenance costs.[20]


Unlike other power plants, nuclear plants must be carefully guarded against both attempted sabotage (generally with the goal considered to be causing a radiological accident, rather than just preventing the plant from operating) and possible theft of nuclear material. Thus security costs of both protecting the physical plant and the screening of workers must be considered. Some other forms of energy also require high security, like natural gas storage facilities and oil refineries.


Nuclear plants require fissionable fuel. Generally, the fuel used is uranium, although other materials may be used (See MOX fuel). In 2005, prices on the world market averaged US$20/lb (US$44.09/kg). On 2007-04-19, prices reached US$113/lb (US$249.12/kg).[21] On 2008-7-2, the price had dropped to $59/lb.[22]

While the amounts of uranium used are a fraction of the amounts of coal or oil used in conventional power plants, fuel costs account for about 28% of a nuclear plant's operating expenses.[21] Other recent sources cite lower fuel costs, such as 16%.[23] Doubling the price of uranium would add only 7% to the cost of electricity produced.

Currently, there are proposals to increase the numbers of nuclear power plants by 57% more reactors from the 435 currently in operation, according to John S. Herold's Ruppel. While it is unlikely all proposed plants will actually be completed, an increase in plants, combined with the current decline in supply, caused by flooding at some of the world's largest uranium mines, and speculators winning repositories in North America and Europe, means that prices are likely to increase. In addition, about 45% of the 2006 world supply of uranium came from old nuclear warheads, mostly Russian. At current supply and demand levels, those old stockpiles will be completely depleted by 2015.[21]

Mining activity is growing rapidly, especially from smaller companies, but developing a uranium mine takes a long time, 10 years or more.[21] The world's present measured resources of uranium, economically recoverable at a price of 130 USD/kg according to the industry groups Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are enough to last for "at least a century" at current consumption rates.[24]

Waste disposal

All nuclear plants produce radioactive waste. Medium and high level wastes are strong emitters of radiation and will require shielding for thousands of years. The status of waste disposal plans in various countries are described in other articles, notably radioactive waste and high-level radioactive waste management.

To pay for the cost of storing, transporting and disposing these wastes in a permanent location, in the United States a surcharge of a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour is added to electricity bills.[25]

In 2009, the Obama administration announced that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository would no longer be considered the answer for U.S. civilian nuclear waste. Currently, there is no plan for disposing of the waste and plants will be required to keep the waste on the plant premises indefinitely.

The disposal of low level waste reportedly costs around £2,000/m³ in the UK. High level waste costs somewhere between £67,000/m³ and £201,000/m³.[26] General division is 80%/20% of low level/high level waste,[27] and one reactor produces roughly 12 m³ of high level waste annually.[28]


At the end of a nuclear plant's lifetime (estimated at between 40 and 60 years), the plant must be decommissioned. This entails either Dismantling, Safe Storage or Entombment. Operators are usually required to build up a fund to cover these costs while the plant is operating, to limit the financial risk from operator bankruptcy.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires plants to finish the process within 60 years of closing. Since it may cost $300 million or more to shut down and decommission a plant, the NRC requires plant owners to set aside money when the plant is still operating to pay for the future shutdown costs.[29] In June 2009, the NRC published concerns that owners were not setting aside sufficient funds.[30]



Insurance for nuclear or radiological incidents in the U.S. is organized by the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act. In general, nuclear power plants have private insurance and assessments that are pooled into a fund currently worth about $10 billion. Insurance claims beyond the fund's size would be organized by, and probably paid by, the U.S. government. In July 2005, Congress extended this Act to newer facilities. For full history, details and controversy, see Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act.


In the UK, the Nuclear Installations Act of 1965 governs liability for nuclear damage for which a UK nuclear licensee is responsible. The limit for the operator is £140 million.[31]


The Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage and the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy put in place two similar international frameworks for nuclear liability.[32]. The limits for the conventions vary. The Vienna convention was adapted in 2004 to increase the operator liability to €700 million per incident, but this modification is not yet ratified.[33]

The nuclear industry states that it already has a large liability insurance, and that it would be unfair to demand full liability for its plants[34], the insurance industry cannot to supply full liability insurance[35], and environmental NGOs demand that the polluter pays principle is applied to this aspect of the nuclear industry, and state that for every € 8.000 of third party damages after a nuclear accident, only € 1 of private insurance could be available [36].

Load following capability

Most existing plants (excepting BWR and CANDU types) have limited ability to significantly vary their output to match changing demand[37] (called load-following). As such, nuclear power reactors, like coal fired power plants, are generally intended solely for baseload supply.

This means they would be unlikely to provide 100% of the generation on most large grids. At the same time, nuclear power plants were never intended to provide this level of generation or load following capability. Also many techniques such as demand management, smart grids, interconnections are required in the same way that they will be for most intermittent renewable such as wind. It is considered by E.On of Germany and EDF Energy of the UK that nuclear and renewable are incompatible for this reason.[38]

Some newer reactors offer some form of enhanced load-following capability.[39]

Cost per kW·h

The cost per unit of electricity produced (kW·h) will vary according to country, depending on costs in the area, the regulatory regime and consequent financial and other risks, and the availability and cost of finance. Costs will also depend on geographic factors such as availability of cooling water, earthquake likelihood, and availability of suitable power grid connections. So it is not possible to accurately estimate costs on a global basis.

Various groups have attempted to estimate the economic cost for electricity generated by the most modern designs proposed for particular countries where these factors are generally fairly consistent.

In 2003, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) issued a report entitled, "The Future of Nuclear Power". They estimated that new nuclear power in the US would cost 6.7 cents per kW·h.[2] However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 includes a tax credit that should reduce that cost slightly.

The lifetime cost of new generating capacity in the United States was estimated in 2006 by the U.S. government (the 2007 report did not estimate costs). Nuclear power was estimated at 5.93 cents per kW·h. However, the "total overnight cost" for new nuclear was assumed to be $1,984 per kWe[40] — as seen above in Capital Costs, this figure is subject to debate.

A 2008 study based on historical outcomes in the U.S. said costs for nuclear power can be expected to run $0.25-.30 per kW·h.[41]

A 2008 study concluded that if carbon capture and storage was required then nuclear power would be the cheapest source of electricity even at $4,038/kW in overnight capital cost.[15]

In 2009, MIT updated its 2003 study, concluding that inflation and rising construction costs had increased the overnight cost of nuclear power plants to about $4,000/kWe, and thus increased the power cost to 8.4¢/kW·h.[42][43]

Comparisons with other power sources

See Also: Relative cost of electricity generated by different sources

Generally, a nuclear power plant is significantly more expensive to build than an equivalent coal-fueled or gas-fueled plant. However, coal is significantly more expensive than nuclear fuel, and natural gas significantly more expensive than coal — thus, capital costs aside, natural gas-generated power is the most expensive. Most forms of electricity generation produce some form of negative externality — costs imposed on third parties that are not directly paid by the producer — such as pollution which negatively affects the health of those near and downwind of the power plant, and generation costs often do not reflect these external costs.

A comparison of the "real" cost of various energy sources is complicated by several uncertainties:

  • The cost of climate change through emissions of greenhouse gases is hard to estimate. Carbon taxes may be enacted, or carbon capture and storage may become mandatory.
  • The cost of environmental damage caused by (fossil or renewable) energy sources, both through land use (whether for mining fuels or for power generation) and through air and water pollution and solid waste.
  • Outside the U.S., the cost or political feasibility of disposal of the waste from reprocessed spent nuclear fuel is still not fully resolved. Disposal of U.S. spent nuclear fuel, which currently is not reprocessed, is funded by a fixed surcharge on generation which funds the U.S. government taking possession of and title to the fuel.
  • Operating reserve requirements are different for different generation methods. When nuclear units shut down unexpectedly they tend to do so independently, so the "hot spinning reserve" must be at least the size of the largest unit (this partly makes nuclear power more suitable for large grids). On the other hand, many renewables are intermittent power sources and may shut down together if they depend on weather conditions, so the grid will require either back-up generation capability or large-scale storage if the portion of generation from these renewables is significant. (Some renewables such as hydroelectricity have a storage reservoir and can be used as reliable back-up power for other power sources.)
  • Governmental instabilities in the next plant lifetime. New nuclear power plants are designed for a minimum of 60 years (50 for VVER-1200), and may be able to be refurbished. Likewise, the waste from reprocessed fuel remains dangerous for about this period.
  • Actual plant lifetime (to date, no plant has been shut down due to maximum licensed lifetime being reached, or been refurbished).
  • Due to the dominant role of initial construction cost and the multi-year construction time and planned lifetime, the interest rate for the capital required is of particularly high importance for estimating the total cost.

Several recent comparisons of the costs of plants are available (see below); however, commodity prices have shot up since they were completed, and so all types of plants will be more expensive than shown[13]

A UK Royal Academy of Engineering report in 2004 looked at electricity generation costs from new plants in the UK. In particular it aimed to develop "a robust approach to compare directly the costs of intermittent generation with more dependable sources of generation". This meant adding the cost of standby capacity for wind, as well as carbon values up to £30 (€45.44) per tonne CO2 for coal and gas. Wind power was calculated to be more than twice as expensive as nuclear power. Without a carbon tax, the cost of production through coal, nuclear and gas ranged £0.022–0.026/kW·h and coal gasification was £0.032/kW·h. When carbon tax was added (up to £0.025) coal came close to onshore wind (including back-up power) at £0.054/kW·h — offshore wind is £0.072/kW·h — nuclear power remained at £0.023/kW·h either way, as it produces negligible amounts of CO2. (Nuclear figures included estimated decommissioning costs.)[2][15][44]

However a much more detailed review of over 200 papers by the UK Energy Research Centre, on the issue of intermittency came to much lower costs about the cost of wind energy compared to nuclear energy.[45] A recent study shows the current generating costs of wind, nuclear and coal plant in the UK which stills shows nuclear the cheapest, but not by a great a margin.[46]

The lifetime cost of new generating capacity in the United States was estimated in 2006 by the U.S. government: wind cost was estimated at $55.80 per MW·h, coal (cheap in the U.S.) at $53.10, natural gas at $52.50 and nuclear at $59.30. However, the "total overnight cost" for new nuclear was assumed to be $1,984 per kWe[40] — as seen above in Capital Costs, this figure is subject to debate, as much higher cost was found for recent projects.[citation needed] Also, carbon taxes and backup power costs were not considered.[47]

A May 2008 study by the Congressional Budget Office concludes that a carbon tax of $45 per metric ton would probably make nuclear power cost competitive against conventional fossil fuel for electricity generation.[48]

Costs for Clean coal and Carbon capture and storage can be found in those articles.

Estimates of total lifetime energy returned on energy invested vary greatly depending on the study. An overview can be found here (Table 2):[49]

The effect of subsidies is difficult to gauge, as some are indirect (such as research and development). A May 12, 2008 editorial in the Wall Street Journal stated, "For electricity generation, the EIA(Energy Information Administration, an office of the Department of Energy) concludes that solar energy is subsidized to the tune of $24.34 per megawatt hour, wind $23.37 and 'clean coal' $29.81. By contrast, normal coal receives 44 cents, natural gas a mere quarter, hydroelectric about 67 cents and nuclear power $1.59."[50]

Other economic issues

Nuclear Power plants tend to be very competitive in areas where other fuel resources are not readily available — France, most notably, has almost no native supplies of fossil fuels.[51]

Making a massive investment of capital in a project with long-term recovery might impact a company's credit rating.[52]

Any effort to construct a new nuclear facility around the world, whether an existing design or an experimental future design, must deal with NIMBY or NIABY objections. Because of the high profiles of the Three Mile Island accident and Chernobyl disaster, relatively few municipalities welcome a new nuclear reactor, processing plant, transportation route, or nuclear burial ground within their borders, and some have issued local ordinances prohibiting the locating of such facilities there. However, a number of U.S. areas, some already with nuclear units, are campaigning for more (see Nuclear Power 2010 Program).

A Council on Foreign Relations report on nuclear energy argues that a rapid expansion of nuclear power may create shortages in building materials such as reactor-quality concrete and steel, skilled workers and engineers, and safety controls by skilled inspectors. This would drive up current prices.[53] It may be easier to rapidly expand, for example, the number of coal power plants, without this having a large effect on current prices.

The number of companies that manufacture certain parts for nuclear reactors is limited, particularly the large forgings used for reactor vessels and steam systems. Only four companies (Japan Steel Works, China First Heavy Industries, Russia's OMX Izhora and Korea's Doosan Heavy Industries) currently manufacture pressure vessels for reactors of 1100 MWe or larger.[54][55] Some have suggested that this poses a bottleneck that could hamper expansion of nuclear power internationally,[17] however, some Western reactor designs require no steel pressure vessel such as CANDU derived reactors which rely on individual pressurized fuel channels. The large forgings for steam generators — although still very heavy — can be produced by a far larger number of suppliers.

Nuclear plants require 20–83 percent more cooling water than other power stations.[56] During times of abnormally high seasonal temperatures or drought it may be necessary for reactors drawing from small bodies of water to reduce power or shut down. Nuclear plants situated on large lakes, seas or oceans are not affected by seasonal temperature variations due to the thermal stability of large bodies of water.

New plants under construction

The latest plant designs currently available for building are generally called generation III+ reactors. They include AREVA's European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), General Electric's ESBWR, Westinghouse's AP1000, and AECL's ACR-1000. Russia (see VVER), Japan, Korea, India and China all also have indigenous plant designs currently available for deployment.

In 2008 China planned for 100 reactors, all to be operational or under construction by 2020, in addition to other reactors planned or under construction (see Nuclear power in China).

According to the NRC, as of August, 2008 35 new U.S. nuclear power units are planning to apply for licenses.[57] Early Site Permit Applications have been filed in the U.S. for several AP1000 plants.

In July 2008, Russia announced plans to allocate $40 billion from the state budget over the next 7 years for development of the nuclear energy sector and the nuclear industry. This will allow for construction of 26 major generating units in Russia by 2020 — about as many as were built in the entire Soviet period.[58]

As of 2008, the UK has indicated that it will take steps to encourage private operators to build new nuclear power plants in the coming years to meet projected energy needs as fossil fuel prices climb, however there would be no subsidies from the UK government for nuclear power.[59] An online calculator outlining UK means and limitations in meeting future energy needs illustrates the problem facing lawmakers and the public.[60]

The 1600 MWe European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) reactor is being built in Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, Finland. A joint effort of French AREVA and German Siemens AG, it will be the largest PWR in the world. The Olkiluoto project has benefited from various forms of government support and subsidies, including liability limitations, preferential financing rates, and export credit agency subsidies.[61] However, as of August 2009, the project is "more than three years behind schedule and at least 55% over budget, reaching a total cost estimate of €5 billion ($7 billion) or close to €3,100 ($4,400) per kilowatt".[62]

Four ABWRs are already in operation in Japan, and one more is being built in Japan and two in Taiwan. Two of the Japanese plants were brought in under budget and ahead of schedule.[63]

Several Indian plants are planned as of 2008.[64]

Russia has begun building the world’s first floating nuclear power plant. The £100 million vessel, the Akademik Lomonosov, is the first of seven plants (70 MWe per ship) that Moscow says will bring vital energy resources to remote Russian regions.[65]

SSTAR, a leased reactor intended for developing nations, is under development.

South Korea plans to build 12 new nuclear power plants from 2009 to 2022.[66]

See also

External links


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  63. ^ Advanced Boiling Water Fact Sheet GE Hitachi]
  64. ^ BBC NEWS | Europe | Nuclear power around the world
  65. ^ Floating nuclear power stations raise spectre of Chernobyl at sea
  66. ^ South Korea to build 12 new nuclear power plants


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