How affordable is nuclear energy really?

As far as I know, nuclear power is subsidized right now, which I take it means it’s more expensive than coal or gas or other conventional ways of producing electricity (setting fire to things).

Some questions:

A) Taking into account the costs of building the installations & storage of waste, how much more expensive is it? Much more than other “alternative” energy sources like solar / wind / tides(?), assuming the same amount of power generated?

B) Given realistic increases in power consumption, how long till we run out of nuclear fuel? I’m talking fission here - as far as I know fusion is not (yet?) a viable option.

C) Also: I’ve read that much of the nuclear waste that’s now stored is actually not very radioactive at all and may be disposed of in other ways. Would that work, and if so, would it significantly help reduce the costs?


I work for a small fire alarm company. One of our customers is a nuclear power plant. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but I do know our service contract price there is quite a bit higher than for our normal clients. The reasoning behind this is the amount of mind numbing, time wasting service procedures set in place by the department that oversees the work we do.

One particular fire suppression system, that in the outside world would take less than forty five minutes to test and inspect, takes half a day. Most of this extra time is taken up by complete nonsense. A few test cycles ago, there was a variation of test procedures form that needed to be filled out because I used the key on my ring to open the control panel rather than “key #120” which we had obtained from the central control room. The guy I was working with had "Key #120"in his hand, but was on the phone.

We also have to call and get permission from the central control room each and every time we plug an extension cord into an ordinary wall outlet to power up test equipment.

This sort of nonsense jacks the costs up for each and every routine procedure done in the plant.

We won’t run out of nuclear fuel. We will run out of relatively cheap nuclear fuel. I have heard that we have about forty years worth at current production rates. Fortunately I understand that you can double the cost of fuel and only increase the price of the electricity about 5%.

I have seen a lot of articles about how we don’t need to store waste in Yucca Mountain but right now it is not economical to process waste. I think that on-site dry cask storage would necessarily be cheaper than shipping it to Nevada.


According to the Energy Information Administration, nuclear power currently receives a subsidy of $1.59 per megawatt-hour. This is a little higher than gas or coal ($0.25 & $0.44 per megawatt-hour, respectively) but much lower than wind or solar, both which receive about $24 per megawatt-hour.

France seems to get by OK.

So basically, ALL electricity in the US is subsidized? What would that accomplish?

edit: does that subsidy for nuclear production include possible subsidies on waste-storage?

The same thing that subsidising all mail or all sewage services accomplishes. Some services have to be universally available for a functioning modern society but would be unaffordable for many of they were user pays only. So they get subsidised to keep the price down to a level where everyone can afford them. The benefit to society as whole outweighs the cost of the subsidy. Rather than having poor suburbs without sewage or electricity or forcing employers to payexorbitant costs for production and the negative effects that would have for the whole of society we subsidise those services and ensure that everyone has a reliable service.

Are there any developed countries in the world where electricity isn’t subsidised, at least for industry and the poor? I can’t think of any.

As I understand it, the cost of the fuel is a small amount of the cost of nuclear power. So even a large increase in the cost of the fuel won’t have much effect on electricity prices.

As for the cost of nuclear power; much of the cost is political in origin.

Concur with this. The major problem with building a nuclear power plant is you have to have a BIG bag of money up front for construction costs. Once the plant is up and running, it’s a cash cow.

Waste disposal really is not an issue now and anyone who says they like nuclear power except we have to “solve the waste disposal issue” doesn’t know what they’re talking about. We have all of our waste right here at the plant and we know exactly where it is - in the spent fuel pool and in the concrete casks at our onsite storage facility. No dirt burner can say that. I’m not real hopeful about Yucca Mountain, but we really don’t need it. We do want our money back from the Feds if Yucca Mountain does not get built.


Will it ever become economical to reprocess the spent fuel or will it always be cheaper to mine it or extract it from sea water or whatever?

As an aside, do you know anything about PBMRs?


Reprocessing of nuclear fuel (a “closed” fuel cycle as opposed to the current open one where the waste is disposed of) is not as economical as the open cycle. The main reason you do it is to reduce the amount of nuclear waste. However, while you have less waste after reprocessing what is left is particularly nasty stuff (plutonium). Far more toxic and vile than the uranium you started with. There is also a proliferation concern with reprocessing. Weapons grade plutonium is an end result of this process which is why it was banned by Ford and Carter (Reagan removed the ban IIRC but no one has built any reprocessing plants…not sure why).

Out of curiosity, is this true on a long-term basis, or cyclical? I’ve heard some stuff here about “Ontario’s nuclear reactors are growing old - they need major reinvestment to improve them or they’ll start to die off - probably quietly, but you never know.”

That makes some sense to me - that repair costs wouldn’t be as high as initial construction, and probably could be paid for pretty easily out of the money the plant has already earned - but high enough that the owners might be inclined to put it off. What do you think?

Once the infrastructure is put into place for reprocessing (big bag of money), sure it can be viable. This could extend our fuel supply for hundreds of years. You’ll always need mining to makeup for whatever losses there are.

Don’t know too much about Pebble Bed reactors other than supposedly they are walk-away safe and therefore don’t need a containment. :dubious:

You need to invest some large amounts of money for maintenace (for example up to $300,000,000 for new steam generators at PWRs) , but not the BILLIONS required for construction. Once you can get assurance from the NRC that you can operate longer (license renewal), this makes capital projects like steam generator replacement or turbine replacement more attractive. You might also look into power uprates.

As far as nuclear waste disposal; it’s hard because we set ridiculous requirements, far in excess of realistic need. The stuff that’s radioactive for thousands of years isn’t very dangerous - it lasts so long because it’s not all that radioactive. No, you don’t want to let the high level waste into the environment before it decays, and you don’t want to just dump even the low level stuff into a river. But it simply isn’t necessary to build facilities to contain the stuff perfectly for millennia.

And it’s pretty amusing for people to freak out over nuclear waste being dangerous for thousands of years, when quite a lot of substances are dangerous permanently. Like, say, arsenic or lead. But we don’t insist that lead paint chips be placed in underground fortresses designed to last millennia.

Eventually, you’d have to pony up more dough to refurbish the power plant, but this is true for pretty much any major industrial site. Secondly, absent horrifically bad maintenance (and in CANDU reactors, a fundamental shift in the laws of physics), the reactors will not and cannot have a meltdown.

Depends on the stuff in question. Uranium loses a lot of its radioactivity pretty quickly (IIRC 50 years or so and then it is mostly, although not completely, tapped out…or significantly less dangerous anyway if not actually “safe”).

Plutonium on the other hand remains dangerous on the order of 100,000 years. Further, plutonium can much more easily form a critical mass and will react with air and water and is flammable (it can possibly ignite at room temperature). If it heats up it can easily break any container it is in.

Further, while lead is dangerous if you eat it plutonium can be dangerous if you are merely in the vicinity of it and the plutonium is concentrated enough.

Uranium 238 has a half life of about 4.5 billion years, while U235s is 700 million. After 50 years, the calculations done to make a weapon will have changed significantly enough to justify recalculation, but in an accident scenario their effectiveness is essentially unchanged. On the other hand, Pu 239 (weapon grade), the one everybody is worried about, has a half life of 24,000 thousand years.

Yes, plutonium is pyrophoric. But how do you think Pu238 (heat source, as opposed to Pu239, weapons grade) is stored and transported, if not in containers?

Also, plutonium is dangerous if you are near it, but it’s much, much more dangerous when uptake occurs. Uptake is the only thing analyzed in an accident scenario to the public, since the MEOI (maximally exposed offsite individual) is assumed to have gotten out of the area before long term effects set in.

This can’t be right. Plutonium is nasty stuff if you inhale it or ingest it, but it is an alpha emitter. If you look up plutonium on wikipedia, you will see a picture of a technician holding a disk of it in an incubator-like device which wouldn’t be sufficient if it were the radioactivity that were dangerous. It is also true that it is pyrophoric, but so is uranium, I believe. If getting a critical mass of plutonium were likely in nuclear waste, I am pretty sure that it isn’t technically waste (although I defer to experts). You better not eat the stuff, and I am not sure if it is more dangerous than other heavy metals, but it isn’t going to kill you if you get near it. Now some of the other isotopes are nasty, but they have short half-lives as noted.


Well…there is this:

I could have sworn I read somewhere that despite the half-life of plutonium being ~24,000 years safe storage needed to be 4x that (so ~100,000 years). Perhaps because you after 24,000 years you still have a lot of dangerous stuff. So push to 100,000 years till there really is not enough left to worry about.

For example you have 100 pounds of plutonium. After 24,000 years you have 50 pounds of plutonium. After 48,000 years you have 25 pounds of plutonium. After 72,000 years you have 12.5 pounds and at 96,000 years 6.25 pounds. (I think that is how half-life works)

Admittedly on that point I am dodgy…I’ll see if I can find anything.

Of course but it becomes more of a problem when you have lots and lots of it. And you need to design a container that will not let air or water get to it for millenia and not just for a trip across country.

There have been cases of people dying from inadvertent exposure to a critical (or near critical) mass of plutonium. Of course you want to avoid a critical mass getting together but storing a helluva lot of it in piles for ages one has to wonder.

Pretty sure he was not handling it but just near it. Not a pleasant way to die.