A new study by a California-based research firm has concluded that a nuclear power facility with an efficient design is more cost-efficient than conventional ones.
The report by the Institute of Nuclear Energy and the University of Southern California, commissioned by the American Nuclear Society, also found that new nuclear reactors with an efficiency of at least 20% would have a 20% lower lifetime cost.
“Nuclear plants with a high efficiency will be cheaper than older, less efficient plants,” said INEA senior fellow and study author James D. Anderson, a former senior manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The institute is part of the US Department of Energy, which funds research in this area.
The study’s findings, published in the journal Science Advances, also support the US Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance that nuclear power plants with an average efficiency of 20% be approved for construction, but it remains unclear whether they can be built at a cost of $1.5 billion or $4.8 billion.
“If you look at nuclear power, you’re going to see that nuclear plants are going to have to be a lot more expensive,” Anderson told Wired.
“If you think about nuclear power in the 1960s, that cost was $3.5 million per megawatt hour.
The average cost of a nuclear plant today is $15 million per watt.”
The INE, which is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, and has offices in both New York and Washington DC, has conducted numerous studies on nuclear energy, and the findings have been widely disseminated.
“The [nuclear] power industry is at a turning point in the nuclear renaissance,” Anderson said.
“Inefficient nuclear plants cost a lot less than efficient nuclear plants with the same design.”
The institute’s study looked at more than 60 nuclear plants across 20 countries and found that a variety of factors, including the cost of building them, the number of reactor cores, and plant capacity factors all affected reactor cost.
For example, it found that the cost to build a 1,000 MW reactor at the Oak Ridge site with an initial operating cost of about $2 billion would cost $1,800 per MW in 2030, $2,100 in 2040, and $2.60 in 2060.
This would represent a savings of about 30%.
“When you look for an efficient reactor design, you have to take into account everything that goes into building the reactor,” Anderson explained.
“You have to think about cost of construction, operating costs, the plant capacity factor, safety margins, and all of that.”
He said that the costs of the reactors themselves would be a factor in their cost, but that “the most important factor is the safety margins that they have.”
A high-efficiency nuclear plant has a high safety margin, and that means the plant’s safety can be expected to be adequate and stable in the event of a reactor meltdown.
The safety margin for an efficiency-optimized reactor is typically less than 50%, but the safety margin could be as high as 100% at some plants.
A recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) put the safety rate for a 1.2 MW reactor with an operating cost between $100 million and $400 million at 60%.
“If the safety is good, you can guarantee that the reactor will run for a very long time,” Anderson continued.
“But if it fails, you really have to do something.
You have to find a way to fix it.
You can’t just go and throw the reactor out.”
Anderson said the study did not address the possibility that the price of new reactors could rise.
“What’s happened in the last decade is that we’ve seen this rise in the price, which means the cost is going up, but there’s no sign of a rise in safety,” he said.
Anderson noted that even with a higher safety margin than what the study calculated, the average operating cost to operate a 1 MW reactor would still be about $1 billion.
But the safety benefits of nuclear power are not limited to the cost.
Anderson said the technology has been proven to reduce the risk of radiation contamination.
“When you have a reactor that is designed to withstand a catastrophic accident, you get a lot of benefits in terms of lowering radiation exposure and improving health,” he added.
The benefits also include a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
The IAEA estimates that if nuclear plants operated at a safety level of 60%, that means a 5% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030.
That’s a significant reduction compared to the levels of CO2 emitted by conventional power plants, which are around 80% of their total emissions.