Crucial to Decarbonization, Costs Dim Prospects for Nuclear Power

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) interdisciplinary study found that nuclear power has the potential to contribute greatly to the achievement of deep decarbonization goals, yet despite its promise, cost hinders the expansion of nuclear power.

The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World” was released on September 3. It is the eighth in the MIT Energy Initiative’s “Future of” series, which “aims to shed light on a range of complex and important issues involving energy and the environment.” The first study in the series also looked at nuclear power; it was released in 2003. Subsequent studies delved into geothermal energy, coal, an update on nuclear power, natural gas, the nuclear fuel cycle, the electric grid, and solar energy.

Controlling Costs

While the costs for other generation technologies have come down in recent decades, the prices for new nuclear plants have increased. “This disturbing trend undermines nuclear energy’s potential contribution and increases the cost of achieving deep decarbonization,” the report says. To address the problem, the authors offered several recommendations.

Increase Focus on Proven Project Management Practices. The report says recent experience has shown “repeated failures of construction management practices.” As a result, projects have rarely been delivered on-time or on-budget. Some actions that could help include: completing greater portions of the detailed design prior to construction; appointing a single, primary contract manager with proven expertise in managing multiple, independent subcontractors; and enabling a flexible regulatory environment that can accommodate small, unanticipated changes in design and construction in a timely fashion; among other things.

Shift to More Serial Manufacturing of Standardized Plants. The researchers found opportunities to reduce capital costs and shorten schedules by deploying multiple, standardized units, especially at single sites. Factory-style fabrication could take advantage of higher productivity found in the manufacturing sector.

Furthermore, the report says cost-cutting opportunities exist across all reactor concepts and designs, including Generation-III light water reactors, small modular reactors, and Generation-IV reactors.

Safety and Policy Matters

Public fears about safety are also hindering nuclear power’s growth potential. To address those concerns, the researchers suggested “a shift toward reactor designs that incorporate inherent and passive safety features.”

Meanwhile, the report says policymakers should act to help promote nuclear energy. Measures suggested include: creating a level playing field that allows all low-carbon generation technologies to compete fairly, establishing reactor sites where companies can deploy prototype reactors for testing and operation oriented to regulatory licensing, and establishing funding programs around prototype testing and commercial deployment of advanced reactor designs.

Existing Nuclear Units Have Value

The study found that existing nuclear units are cost-efficient providers of low-carbon electricity, in most cases.

“Premature closures of existing plants undermine efforts to reduce carbon dioxide and other power sector emissions and increase the cost of achieving emission reduction targets,” the report says. The problem, according to the researchers, is that nuclear generators are not fully compensated for their low-carbon attributes. “Ameliorating this deficiency would change nuclear energy’s market position and conserve much existing nuclear capacity,” the report says.

In the end, four key messages were delivered by the study. They are:

  • The biggest opportunity for nuclear energy during the next several decades lies in its potential contribution to decarbonizing the power sector.
  • The high cost of new nuclear capacity is the biggest challenge to realizing this contribution.
  • The industry must aggressively and expeditiously pursue methods to reduce nuclear energy’s cost.
  • Well-designed energy and environmental policies, and appropriate governmental assistance in the early stages of new nuclear system deployment, is needed to realize the full potential of nuclear power.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).