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Meeting Today’s Electricity Demand with Nuclear Would Require Nearly 2k New Plants, Cost $25 Trillion, Take Generations

Submitted by Taps Coogan on the 13th of February 2020 to The Sounding Line.

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A decade of extremely low natural gas and coal prices, falling oil prices, and growing wind and solar capacity has been a disaster for the nuclear power industry. To make matters worse, the newest generation of nuclear plants, once heralded as revolutionary, has proven to be wildly more expensive and time-consuming to build than initially anticipated. The stark reality of the nuclear industry today is that decommissioning power plants has become a bigger business than building them.

As such, the nuclear power industry is attempting to rebrand itself as a source of ‘green’ carbon-free power and the only scalable, viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Putting aside the debate about how ‘green’ nuclear power actually is, the feasibility and cost of converting the world’s electric grid to nuclear power is being dramatically oversimplified by nuclear advocates.

In the 66 years since the world’s first grid-connected nuclear power plant was built in Russia in 1954, the world has built roughly 855 nuclear power plants, including research and experimental reactors. According to the World Nuclear Association, 413 have been decommissioned.

The remaining 442 active nuclear power plants around the world produce about 2,563 Terawatt-hours of electricity (TWH), roughly 9.6% of the 26,614 TWH of electricity that the world consumed in 2019.

The US is currently building two new nuclear reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. Each reactor will produce about 9 TWH of electricity per year (1,117 MW reactors, 92% capacity factor), a third more than the average existing reactor. The two reactors are estimated to cost at least $25 billion and will end up taking at least 13 years to build when they are eventually finished.

If the world wants to meet 100% of its present electricity demand via nuclear power, it would need to build 2,671 reactors like the two being built at the Vogtle power plant, which would cost over $33 trillion dollars, excluding economies of scale.

Using other reactors yields similar results. Based on capacity and cost estimates of the Flamanville reactor currently being built in France, it would require 1,865 reactors at a price tag of over $25 trillion. Based on the Hinkley C reactors currently being built in the UK, it would require a similar 1,865 reactors but cost over $27 trillion.

Over the last decade, global investment in new power generation has been steady at roughly $500 billion year. The Flamanville reactor, the cheapest of the three examples previously mentioned, will end up taking about 15 years to build and cost $13.5 billion, or roughly $900 million a year until it’s finished. If 100% of the $500 billion a year that the world invests in new power plants was shifted to building nothing but Flamanville type reactors, construction of about 555 reactors could be initiated simultaneously. Assuming that suitable locations could be found for 555 new reactors, it would still take about 50 years of continuous investment of $500 billion a year to build enough Flamanville reactors to meet today’s electricity demands. During that time period, demand for electricity will grow dramatically, particularity if electric vehicle adoption becomes widespread. Also, nearly all of today’s 442 existing nuclear plants will need to be replaced. Realistically, it would take closer to a century of break neck investment to transition the world’s electric grid to nuclear power.

Even assuming cost and timing improvements from economies of scale, quickly or cheaply transitioning to nuclear is infeasible by orders of magnitude.

The reality is that we use inconceivably large amounts of energy and roughly 85% of it still comes from fossil fuels. Our current energy infrastructure is the result of a century of breakneck investment and innovation. Regardless of how badly we want, or need, to transition away from fossil fuels, it isn’t going to happen quickly under any realistic scenario.

Point in case, in the scenario of 100% wind and solar, simply buying enough lithium-ion batteries to back up the US electric grid for 1% of the year would cost $22 trillion.

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