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Can Innovation Make Nuclear Energy Cheap?

by Michael Levi
March 18, 2013


Nuclear power promises zero-carbon electricity but suffers from serious cost challenges. That makes calls for more research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) efforts to promote innovation natural. But ask sixty experts where nuclear energy is heading, or ask them whether innovation could change that, and you’ll get sixty different answers. Who should you believe?

In a paper published last fall in Environmental Science & Technology (that, as best I can tell, has gone unnoticed in policy circles), a team at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Venice-based FEEM answers the question in an new and enlightening way. Their bottom line will surprise many people: experts are very pessimistic about the ability of even greatly increased RD&D to bring down nuclear costs over the next twenty years.

The researchers develop their results by combining individual surveys of sixty experts (thirty each in the United States and Europe) with an exercise that forces the experts to weigh and incorporate each others’ judgments into their own views of the world. This novel approach yields results that give a great sense of where the overall body of expert opinion points.

The paper starts by reporting projections for nuclear costs absent new support for RD&D. The vast majority projects capital costs for Gen III/III+ reactors (basically what’s being deployed today) in 2030 to be the same or higher than what they are today. The most popular forecast is for stable costs; a minority (ten out of sixty) foresee cost reductions. The experts are also near-unanimous in projecting higher costs for large next-generation (“Gen IV”) reactors in 2030 than for Gen III/III+ today. Similar trends prevail when it comes to projections for the small modular reactors (SMRs) that get a lot of buzz.

What happens when you throw RD&D into the equation? Most of the experts surveyed recommend a large increase in RD&D support. But they still do not anticipate large cost reductions as a result. “The participating experts,” the authors report, “generally agreed that their recommended increases in RD&D would have a relatively limited impact on future costs”. Instead they emphasized potential gains for “safety, waste management, and uranium resource utilization”.

One can imagine that these developments might ultimately affect nuclear costs. Better safety could, in principle, reduce regulatory uncertainty and permitting delays, in turn lowering borrowing costs and hence the ultimate cost of nuclear power. Better waste management could similarly reduce long-term risks. And, of course, the many experts could be wrong.

If you’re serious about zero-carbon energy, though, that’s probably not a wise bet to rely too heavily on. Bringing down nuclear costs, if that’s possible, will probably require a more fundamental rethinking of how we regulate nuclear power development. (I remain a fan of greater standardization in both technology and permitting.) And maximizing the odds of having cost-effective zero-carbon options will require continued innovation investment along multiple technology fronts.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Jen Tolbert

    It’s a crony capitalism funding and subsidy sinkhole.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    The LLE risk of Gen II NPPs is already very low:
    Professor Cohen’s “Understanding Risk”
    Nobody died from radiation at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Further, the actual deaths in Europe from various generation sources, divdied by energy produced, is lowest for NPPs despite Chernobyl (which was included in the study). The Gen III/III+ designs are many times safer in trade for some extra cost.

    Yet the primary reason for current costs, which some perceive as high, lies entirely in construction management. Westinghouse, with their AP-1000, appears to be well aware of the issues. So what is needed, in my opinion, is not so much more R&D as a steadier rate of deployment. This keeps a more stable group of workers, engineers and managers at work, increasing experience which otherwise dissipates.

    Indeed, standardize on a few designs, as one pressurized and one boiling (the US doesn’t have any other types). That is less important than continuing the build out of each of the types selected at a steady rate so that expertise expands.

  • Posted by Rick Maltese

    The biggest cost by far is the nuclear tax. You may ask what nuclear tax? The extra unnecessary safety measures that add so much to the cost of nuclear are unfair. If coal and natural gas were required to follow such extreme rules under such scrutiny they would be too expensive to build.

  • Posted by Robert Hargraves

    Unfortunately the names of the “experts” are behind an ACS paywall.

    I agree with David Benson that repetitive manufacturing will lower costs of nuclear power plants. And although today’s $5/watt capital costs are high, the plants can still produce steady electric power at lower cost than unsubsidized wind or solar sources.

    Many of the costs, both financial and emotional, are due to the public’s exaggerated fears of possible health effects from low-level radiation. Only nuclear power is constrained by the vague “as low as reasonably achievable” requirement, which should instead be the same as for other environmental safety standards, below observable health effects.

  • Posted by G.R.L. Cowan

    A gaggle of experts forced to consider each other’s views carefully, with their numbers transatlantically balanced, sounds pretty good. But could it be that no balancing was attempted between privately and publically funded experts?

    Because the entity that has most to lose as nuclear power becomes inexpensive is government. When Japan made its own nuclear power unavailable, the central government’s income increased 4.8 percent (The Mainichi, 2012-04-02).

  • Posted by Casey Thormahlen

    I’m a bit skeptical of the usefulness of such ‘expert opinion’ polling data. The usefulness of the responses is directly related to the assumptions communicated to the respondents; if none are given, they may have inconsistent or biased assumptions.

    In any case there is enormous opportunity to reduce the cost of nuclear power plant construction. Standardizing otherwise similar designs is a good idea, but it is extremely important that we don’t unduly narrow the fundamental design space. Why do we have pressurized and boiling water reactors today? Because they work extraordinarily well in nuclear submarines. On land PWRs and BWRs are in no way the best technologies available. The national labs did an enormous amount of research into alternative reactor designs from the 1950s through the 1970s, identifying many attractive alternatives. In my opinion Molten Salt Reactors are the most promising of all.

    MSRs allow you to eliminate many complicating design factors that are endemic to other technologies, which would help drive down costs.

    MSRs operate at very high temperatures and atmospheric pressure. This increases thermal efficiency and eliminates the need for enormous containment structures.

    MSRs use liquid fuel, allowing continuous processing, high fuel efficiency, and eliminating any need for fuel fabrication.

  • Posted by PetrH

    > “Nobody died from radiation at Fukushima Dai-ichi.”

    Carefully worded. No one died *yet* from *radiation*.

    But people have died already from the horror of evacuation. People will die from the radiation.

    That’s how the nuke cult play games with words to hide the true cost of nukes.

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