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What Killed Nuclear Power?

November 4, 2011

The knee-jerk response would be the Fukushima disaster.

But, just as in the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car”, the answer is not so simple.

Germany did decide to kill the nuclear industry after Fukushima, but Germany may be the exception.

In Europe, France, despite some anti-nuke sentiment, appears to be standing by its nuclear policy. Sweden and Finland are building reactors and are also committed to building storage for their nuclear waste.

The Czech Republic is considering building additional nuclear reactors at its Dukovany site, probably recognizing that Germany will be in desperate need of electricity after it shuts down its nuclear power industry.

China is going ahead with its nuclear energy plan, albeit with a slightly smaller target due to the delay caused by Fukushima. It has also decided to only build Gen 3 reactors, which precludes building reactors similar to those at Fukushima.

Indonesia plans to build four reactors. India and other countries seem to be continuing with their plans.

But, what about the United States with its existing fleet of 104 reactors?

A few are being shut down for extraneous reasons, primarily because of environmental cooling water issues.

Of the remaining units, 71 have already received extensions to their operating licenses allowing them to operate for an additional 20 years beyond their original 40-year license.

The immediate effect of Fukushima has been to put in jeopardy the granting of license extensions to the remaining units, which could result in more of the existing units being shut down prematurely.

But, even if all the units are granted extensions, some will have to begin to shut down 20 years from now in the 2030s, unless they can receive a second extension. A second extension becomes problematic since the units will be 80 years old by the end of a second extension.

It would appear as though nuclear in the United States faces a slow death.

Building new units would revive the industry. Two units are essentially under construction at the Vogtle site in Georgia. A few others are still being actively talked about. FPL and Progress Energy have just received authority to bill its customers for new units they may build.

The fact remains, there are very few new nuclear reactors being built in the United States, which would indicate that the nuclear industry in the United States is dying a slow death.

But why aren’t new reactors being built?

The anti-nuclear crowd might claim credit, but the real reason is more mundane. Nuclear power plants cost too much, and take too long to build.

It costs at least $5,000 per KW to build a new nuclear plant (probably closer to $6,000/KW). It also takes five years or more to complete the plant.

Compare this with a natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plant that costs around $1,200 / KW and takes one to two years to build, or an ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant that costs around $2,800/KW and takes three years or so to build.

The current very low cost of natural gas means that NGCC power plants win hands down over nuclear power.

The high cost of building new plants is killing nuclear power in the United States.

The only ray of hope for nuclear power is the possible emergence of small, modular nuclear reactors. They, however, are still on the drawing board.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. neil Midkiff permalink
    November 4, 2011 10:24 am

    Accurate summary of the state of Nuclear Power in the US. More alarming is the number of units that will be operating in China in 15 years …..

  2. November 4, 2011 10:29 am

    I know you are an expert on nuclear power, so I appreciate your comment.

  3. Mark permalink
    November 4, 2011 11:01 am


    France must have a very different cost basis for nuclear plants as they are moving forward with additional nuclear capacity. Do you happen to know how they keep their build costs down? In the USA I concur that natural gas fired generation is going to be increasing in the future. The advances in shale gas technologies support the statement by Mike Ridley

    “The impact of shale gas in America is already huge. Gas prices have decoupled from oil prices and are half what they are in Europe. Chemical companies, which use gas as a feedstock, are rushing back from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico. Cities are converting their bus fleets to gas. Coal projects are being shelved; nuclear ones abandoned.”

    From an energy security point of view I concur with Mike’s thought- “The best thing about cheap gas is whom it annoys. The Russians and the Iranians hate it because they thought they were going to corner the gas market in the coming decades.”

    I hate to think what my cost (PG&E customer, they average about .19kwh for residential customers currently!) would be for electricity if the price of gas had continued to follow Crude Oil prices. I assume Dick Cheney is surprised by this decoupling of energy sources and price.

  4. November 4, 2011 11:32 am

    Thanks for your comment. You are 100% correct when you say we are getting back many of the jobs we lost when natural gas prices were high.
    Europe, except for Poland and some others in the Eastern bloc, doesn’t seem to realize how shale gas could free it from being so dependent on Russian natural gas.

  5. November 5, 2011 12:36 am

    Yes, but why does it take so long? It’s the anti nuclear crowd.

    An interesting comparison is the 660 megawatt Millstone 1 reactor in Connecticut that was ordered in 1966 and built in 5 years for $101 million. Across Long Island Sound in the 820 megawatt Shoreham nuclear power plant cost $6 billion and required 11 years to build from 1973 to 1984. It never received an operating license due to political protests and was finally scrapped after never producing commercial electric power. Comparing the two reactors started in 1966 and in 1973 construction time doubled and cost increased by a factor of about 40. The nuclear industry experienced reverse progress with costs increasing instead of decreasing as would normally be expected in a young industry with increasing volume of production. The enemies of nuclear power were able to achieve this victory by legal obfuscation and by frightening the public.

  6. November 5, 2011 10:09 am

    There’s truth in what you say.
    China is building nuclear power plants quicker, and at about half the cost.


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