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The Economics of Nuclear Energy

  1. Dec 2, 2006 #1

    Andrew Mason

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    I am interested in comparing the cost of nuclear energy with the costs of fossil fuel and renewable fuels for electric power generation.

    The figures I have for fuel consumption are:

    1. a 1000 mW conventional LWR nuclear plant consumes 25 Tonnes of fuel (lightly enriched uranium) a year or about 1000 kg of 235U.

    2. a 1000 mW coal plant consumes about 4,000,000 T of anthracite or bituminous coal in a year or about 10,000,000 T of Lignite coal

    3. a 1000 mW biomass plant would consume about 8,000,000 T of biomass per year.

    4. a 1000 mW natural gas plant would consume about 100,000,000 GigJoules of natural gas.

    A tonne of bituminous coal is about $50 - $60 a tonne and about $30 for lignite coal (about $1.70/ gigajoule) so the yearly fuel cost for a coal plant is about $200 - $300 million.

    A tonne of biomass is a little more variable. Wheat straw would be less than $30 a tonne or about $2 / gigajoule. Assuming you had a sufficient supply the annual fuel cost would be about $240 million.

    Natural gas costs about $4-$5 a gigajoule so the annual cost would be $400 - $500 million.

    I am having a little difficulty figuring out the total fuel cost for a nuclear reactor. The current spot market price for natural Uranium U3O8 is about $63 a pound or about $140 a kg, $140,000/T . But the conversion, enrichment and manufacturing costs add a fair amount to that (enrichment to 5% requires about 7 kg. of natural U for each kg of enriched U). The latest source that I can find is about 10 years old and put the price of enriched fuel at $1400 a kg, when uranium spot prices were much lower. So I will just assume it is about double that now: $3000 /kg or $75 million/year for 25 T.

    Candu reactor fuel would be much cheaper because the Candu uses natural U, avoiding the enrichment costs. But it appears to use less of the U-235 so goes through more fuel.

    So just looking at fuel costs: nuclear power is only 1/3 the cost of coal power and biomass power and 1/6 of the cost of natural gas. This seems high. I would have thought it would have been much less.

    This ignores the much higher capital costs, the waste storage and disposal costs and the plant decommissioning costs, of course. So if you factor those in, the economic advantages of nuclear power are not very evident.

    The potential economic advantage of nuclear could be there if the reactor technology could make better use of fuel to consume much less U and and to minimize waste.


    Last edited: Dec 2, 2006
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