Analysis: Nuclear Power Making Worldwide Comeback

Published May 1, 2005

On March 23, officials from 74 countries meeting in Paris at the behest of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a declaration that nuclear power could “make a major contribution to meeting energy needs and sustaining the world’s development,” according to the Financial Times.

According to a March 22 Associated Press report on the conference, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, stated, “It’s clear that nuclear energy is regaining stature as a serious option.”

U.S. officials agreed, according to the Associated Press story, with U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman stating, “America hasn’t ordered a new nuclear plant since the 1970s, and it’s time to start building again.”

A number of prominent environmentalists–including the former British ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Crispin Tickell; Time magazine’s Eugene Linden; Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore; and “Gaia Theory” author Dr. James Lovelock–have recently argued for increasing the role of nuclear power in the world’s energy mix. This also explains why England and Germany have shelved plans to phase out nuclear power, why Finland will begin construction of a new nuclear reactor later this year, and why France plans to build one in 2007.

According to the World Markets Research Centre, Poland’s deputy environment minister, Tomasz Podgajnia, has said he “sees no alternative to the development of nuclear power in order to meet European Union carbon dioxide emission targets.” Poland currently generates 98 percent of its electricity in high-emitting coal-fired power plants and none from nuclear.

Demand for Electricity Surging

Worldwide demand for electricity is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades, according to energy experts cited in several recent reports.

China is expected to quadruple its energy production by 2020, according to Asia Pulse. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) “Annual Energy Outlook 2004,” the demand for electricity in the United States will increase by 50 percent by 2025. At least 350,000 megawatts of new generating capacity–hundreds of new power plants–will be needed before then.

While it has been 26 years since an accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant brought the construction of new U.S. reactors to a standstill, nuclear power has not been dormant. The nation’s 103 operating nuclear reactors generate approximately 20 percent of the electricity used in the U.S.

Given energy demand forecasts, positive changes in the nuclear power industry, relatively high and wildly fluctuating fossil fuel prices, and environmental concerns, many analysts believe nuclear energy likely will grow as a percentage of the nation’s energy mix.

Increased Efficiencies Favor Nuclear

In 1980 the average U.S. nuclear power plant operated at 58.5 percent of its rated capacity. Today, the nation’s nuclear plants average more than 90 percent of their capacity. The increase in electricity produced by nuclear plants since 1990 could power 26 cities the size of Boston or Seattle.

Thanks to consolidation in the nuclear power industry, streamlined federal relicensing procedures, and improved operating efficiency, operating costs have fallen from 3.31 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh) in 1988 to 1.7 cents today, according to Larry Foulke, immediate past president of the American Nuclear Society and an adjunct fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA). That is slightly lower than coal and much lower than the 3 to 5 cents per kwh cost for natural gas-fired plants. Only hydroelectric plants have lower operating costs.

Operating costs are only one part of any energy facility’s cost structure. Historically, various factors made nuclear plants among the most expensive generators to build. While constructing reactors isn’t cheap, it is the redundant safety mechanisms and massive containment facility that have made nuclear plants, and thus the energy they supplied, so expensive. Constantly changing safety requirements made it virtually impossible to standardize reactor designs, meaning each nuclear plant was one of a kind.

New Technologies Spur Growth

Fortunately, new technologies and improved knowledge about risk factors have made it possible to produce modular light-water nuclear plants with fewer, standardized parts. (Unlike complex “heavy-water” reactors, light-water nuclear reactors use enriched uranium and ordinary water and cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.) The cost of building these plants has fallen from the range of $2 to $6 billion to an estimated $1.4 to $1.6 billion, according to the January 31 edition of Forbes.

Nuclear plants are still more expensive to build than most other types of electric power generating facilities, but with the low fuel costs, nuclear power is one of the cheapest supplies of electricity. Nuclear power costs will fall further if emerging reactor technologies prove to be commercially feasible.

China, for example, is building the world’s first commercial Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). PBMRs differ radically from light-water reactors. They use helium instead of water to cool nuclear fuel, eliminating the need to locate PBMRs near large water supplies. Rather than using uranium fuel rods, PBMRs use thousands of ceramic-covered uranium “pebbles” encased in graphite spheres. The containment facilities typical in other reactors are unnecessary because the ceramic casings make a meltdown virtually impossible.

The overall cost per unit of energy produced is forecast to be less than half that of earlier reactors. Also, PBMRs should be able to extract several times as much energy from each ton of fuel–which means less radioactive waste.

Nuclear Promotes Cleaner Air

In addition to cost considerations, other concerns, including energy security and environmental impact, make nuclear plants a critical component of a diverse electric power system.

For every megawatt hour (mwh) of electricity produced, nuclear power plants produce no sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide emissions. Coal-fired plants produce 13 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 6 pounds of nitrogen oxides; oil-fired generators produce 12 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 4 pounds of nitrogen oxides; and natural gas-fired plants produce 0.1 pound of sulfur dioxide and 1.7 pounds of nitrogen oxides.

Spurred by the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union has committed to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 8 percent below 1990 levels. European leaders have determined they need to increase rather than decrease the percentage and absolute amount of nuclear-generated electricity if they are to have a chance of meeting that goal.

Nuclear power plants emit no CO2. By comparison, for every mwh of energy produced, coal-fired power plants produce 2,249 pounds of CO2, oil-fired power plants produce 1,672 pounds, and gas-fired power plants produce 1,135 pounds.

The clean air benefits of nuclear energy are a major reason China, despite its abundant reserves of coal, is taking the lead in building new nuclear energy capacity. China has determined that, in the interest of human health, it cannot afford to tap its vast reserves of coal for all of its growing energy needs. On January 15, the New York Times reported China plans to more than quadruple its nuclear energy output in the next two decades, adding nearly two new reactors a year between now and 2025.

Asia Leads the Way

China’s growing nuclear power portfolio should also, over the long term, relieve some of the pressure on world oil markets. The March 24 issue of International Oil Daily reported China’s recent increase in oil consumption came not from the personal transportation sector, but instead from the Chinese electricity grid being unable to meet demand, pushing the country to use more oil-fired diesel boilers to generate electricity.

All but one of the more than 40 new nuclear power plants currently under construction or being licensed worldwide are being built in fast-growing Asian countries. But Europe is also jumping on the nuclear bandwagon, though somewhat reluctantly.

Europe already leads the world in the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power. Seventy percent of France’s, 55 percent of Belgium’s, 28 percent of Germany’s, and 24 percent of the United Kingdom’s electric power comes from nuclear power plants.

But the growing prominence and influence of avowedly anti-nuclear Green parties in Europe led to an abandonment of Europe’s pro-nuclear stance in the 1980s. A number of European countries committed to shuttering their nuclear industry entirely. Economic and environmental reality has, however, made many European leaders reconsider that commitment.

Politics Driving Disposal Issues

Another environmental drawback for some fossil fuel power plants is solid waste. While burning natural gas for electricity does not produce significant volumes of solid waste, coal-fired and oil-burning plants do. For example, coal-fired power plants produce more than 20 million tons of waste ash annually. Though some recycling is possible, most of these residues require disposal, generally burial in a manner that limits migration into the environment.

The volume of spent fuel produced by nuclear power plants–erroneously called “waste”–is minuscule by comparison. In more than 30 years of operation, nuclear plants have produced only 50,000 tons of spent fuel, all of which has been safely stored on site since start up. Most of this spent fuel could be recycled and reused, as it is in France and Japan, if the U.S. government would allow the industry to do so.

Putting that into perspective, Foulke writes for NCPA, “if all spent fuel was collected in one location, it would cover a football field to a depth of six feet.” Barring a decision to recycle it, all of that spent fuel will be stored safely in the federal government’s Yucca Mountain repository when it becomes operational–a “waste” storage solution that has already been built into the cost of nuclear power through a disposal tax levied on the industry.

Nuclear power promises cost-competitive, reliable flows of emission-free electricity. Nuclear power may not be a panacea for all the world’s energy ills, but as changes in government policies around the world demonstrate, it is increasingly being seen as a viable part of the solution.

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute based in Dallas, Texas.

For more information …

“Burning Bright: Nuclear Energy’s Future,” a Brief Analysis issued by the National Center for Policy Analysis on March 28, 2005, is available online at

“The Silence of the Nuke Protestors,” published in the January 31, 2005 issue of Forbes magazine, is available online at