- Nuclear can increase by gigaton scale by 2020 for an investment of $1.27 trillion.
- Nuclear power already displaces more than 1 gigaton of CO2e annually.
- Major technical challenges to scaling nuclear include rapid expansion of the supply chain, including the build-out of large steel forges, and expansion of the workforce.
- Concerns surrounding weapons proliferation, waste disposal, and safety render nuclear uniquely challenging.
- High costs and lengthy permitting periods have stalled nuclear growth in the U.S. and other western countries; much of the expansion in nuclear is poised to happen in Asia.
The nuclear industry has stagnated in western countries for several decades, but recent concerns about climate change and fossil fuel prices, coupled with subsidies for nuclear energy, have led to construction starts on 44 nuclear plants worldwide, chiefly in Asia, and a spike in proposed nuclear plants in the U.S. Nonetheless, the industry continues to face serious challenges to rapid, large-scale growth: costs, component manufacture scale-up, and waste disposal.
Capital costs, including component manufacturing and plant construction, account for more than half of the cost of nuclear electricity. These costs have skyrocketed during the past several years. With overnight capital costs estimated from $3,000 to $6,700 per kilowatt (kW) for new reactors, expanding global nuclear power to avoid 1 gigaton of CO2e emissions by 2020 would require between $709 billion and $1,690 billion in capital investment. Unlike other emerging low-carbon energy technologies, nuclear power may not realize long-term cost reductions unless experience with standardized designs drives down costs substantially, and the manufacturing supply chain - with its ultra-large forges, trained workers (a gigaton scale-up in nuclear power would create an estimated 268 thousand direct jobs), and uranium enrichment facilities - can expand in advance of new reactor construction. These constraints, in addition to the costs of waste disposal and the security risks associated with an expanded global nuclear sector, could forestall a rapid nuclear expansion or raise reactor costs substantially.
The cost record for recent Asian and European plants is too limited so far to justify conclusions about future costs. There are potential indications of cost reductions for recent Asian plants, but overruns in Europe and rising cost estimates for planned U.S. plants are reminiscent of the cost escalations during the last nuclear revival more than 30 years ago.
If expansion barriers are surmounted, nuclear power still is likely to be more expensive than average U.S. wholesale electricity rates. If low cost estimates for nuclear power hold true, policies that put a reasonable price on carbon emissions could make nuclear power competitive in the U.S. If costs for new nuclear plants are closer to the high estimates, no carbon price foreseeable by 2020 would likely be sufficient to make nuclear energy competitive purely on a cost basis. In countries with higher electricity costs, nuclear power might be competitive without a price on carbon emissions. New nuclear power plants are likely to be built more rapidly outside the U.S., in countries with a combination of lower costs, fewer regulatory requirements, and less historical experience with construction cost overruns and plant cancellations. In countries with cost-effective distributed renewable energy options, the case for nuclear is weaker.
These cost and supply-chain barriers to rapid scaling of global nuclear power are daunting for the near term. But France redirected its power infrastructure from overwhelming reliance upon oil to 78% nuclear generation in about 25 years. If cost is not a primary consideration, the French example suggests that, given strong national or international resolve and perhaps twice as much time as the 2010-2020 time frame considered for the Gigaton Throwdown, large-scale nuclear power could be realized.