A nuclear power plant requires a complex design. In addition to safety concerns, the nuclear reactor’s cost and environmental impact are also significant considerations. While China is leading the way in nuclear capacity, Russia, India, and South Korea account for over 60 percent of global nuclear capacity. Meanwhile, several newcomer countries are either in the planning or implementation phase of nuclear power programs. The question is, which design will be the most cost-effective and efficient?
The next-generation nuclear reactor incorporates several new safety features. For instance, the noble gas helium will not react with other materials even at high temperatures. These reactors also use refractory materials that are not prone to melting. They also do not have to cool themselves, which increases their energy efficiency. And they are flexible enough to be deployed as small power modules. In addition, they are less expensive to build than traditional reactors.
The economics of new nuclear plants is a significant concern. With costs now at $1,500 per kilowatt-electric (kWe) rising, new nuclear plants may not be competitive enough to spur a renewed interest in nuclear power. One widely discussed cost goal for new nuclear plant construction is $1,000 per kWh, making nuclear power plants competitive with combined-cycle natural gas plants. That’s not a small price tag but an important goal that could make a nuclear power plant an excellent option for consumers and businesses.
The thermal efficiency of new nuclear plants varies widely, but most are in the mid-thirty percent range. The latest designs of reactors boast up to 39% thermal efficiencies. By comparison, the thermal efficiency of new coal-fired plants is approximately 40%, and new CCGT nuclear power plants are approaching 60 percent. As a result, thermal efficiency is essential, as a power plant with a 39% thermal efficiency will discharge 24% less heat.
Another critical factor is the neutron energy spectrum. Thermal reactors use a moderator to slow down the neutrons’ speed, making the neutrons more likely to undergo fission. While thermal reactors are cheaper to operate, they are not as effective in producing nuclear fuel. On the other hand, Breeder reactors can recycle atomic power and have an even greater energy efficiency than current reactors.
The safety of a new generation nuclear reactor depends on its ability to resist extreme events. The atomic reactor design must meet the mandated safety indicator for core damage or meltdown. U.S. nuclear regulators require reactor designs to meet the theoretical frequency of one in ten thousand years. New reactor designs, however, often exceed this requirement. The U.S. utility safety standard for new reactors is one in a million. The safest reactors on the market today and in the next decade are likely to meet these requirements.
Nuclear safety is also improved by using control rods, which are designed to absorb neutrons and control the fission process. Other important engineered safety provisions include an emergency cooling system that removes excess heat from the reactor core. These safety features are geared more toward plant damage than public safety; however, they still represent a risk to the public. There is a high probability of harm and radioactive contamination in a nuclear accident.
The Nuclear Safety Inspectorate of Switzerland has studied a hypothetical scenario where a new-generation nuclear reactor would crash and release large amounts of radioactivity. The resulting radiation release would be very low compared to an older plant. On the other hand, a new generation reactor relies on gravity to provide emergency cooling water. In addition, some new reactor designs are redundant, requiring pump failures to avoid leaking water into the reactor.
While cost is one of the critical questions in nuclear power, many variables affect cost. Although the average cost of building a new nuclear reactor is rising steadily, this figure may mask a decreasing trend in some reactor designs. The study’s authors examined the cost trajectory of four standard plant designs that achieved a cumulative built capacity of 8 gigawatts of electricity. In three cases, construction costs were lowest when the plant was the first one to be constructed.
The U.S. nuclear vendors initially thought the best way to lower costs was to build large reactors. However, more extensive construction projects are harder to finance and rapidly escalate in price. To understand, cost escalation in nuclear plants, Cantor and Hewlett analyzed four regression studies to determine overnight capital costs. They separated the effects of economies of scale, regulatory changes, and learning. Using the cost data of reactor construction, the researchers estimated that the costs would increase by two for every doubling of U.S. capacity. While they do not prove causality, the data from these studies could be helpful in future econometric and case studies.
While the cost of a new generation nuclear reactor has risen significantly, the overall costs have remained relatively stable in countries like France and Japan. One utility oversees the construction process, and the reactors are typically built in pairs at single sites. During the 1970s, South Korea grew into a major power producer, and by the late 1990s, the country had developed its domestic reactors. Building a new generation nuclear reactor is expected to be $14 billion.
A significant concern of the environmental impact of nuclear power is the generation of radioactive waste. This waste includes spent reactor fuel and uranium mill tailings. These wastes remain radioactive for thousands of years, and there are stringent regulations for their storage, handling, and disposal. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, there is little scientific evidence to prove that radiation affects the development of cancer or other diseases.
The long wait for new nuclear plants in China has increased CO2 emissions. China’s emissions have increased by 1.3 percent between 2016 and 2017, while global CO2 emissions decreased by 0.3 percent. This increase may have led to up to 69,000 additional deaths from air pollution in the previous two years. However, the environmental impact of nuclear power plants is expected to be much smaller than their predecessors. And because the reactors are less expensive, they may reduce pollution to a significant extent.
The main environmental impact of nuclear power is related to the plant’s construction, the procurement of fuel, and the thermal load of cooling water discharged into the sea. However, the environmental impact of new nuclear power is still much less than that of wind and solar power. A nuclear plant can produce tons of electricity and run continuously around the clock, and it does not produce greenhouse gases. If this energy source is not used correctly, it can significantly impact ecosystem health and water quality.
Partnership with the federal government
The United States Department of State is launching a program called the Foundational Infrastructure for the Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST). This program builds on over 60 years of nuclear energy innovation by fostering capacity-building in partner countries. FIRST supports clean energy goals and atomic programs under the highest international standards. By building a new nuclear reactor in the U.S., the United States is paving the way for a new generation of nuclear power.
In the United States, nuclear power has contributed to nearly 20 percent of our nation’s total electricity production since 1990. While the federal government intends to continue operating existing reactors, many have extended licenses for several decades. One reason for this is the relative affordability of uranium, and it can be mined from the Earth or extracted from seawater. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said the world’s uranium supply is sufficient to meet projected global nuclear energy needs for decades to come.
The Nuclear Energy Partnership includes industry, environmental, government, academic, innovation, and financial leaders. The partnership strategy was shaped during a summit in December 2010, hosted by Third Way. This multidisciplinary group is making progress toward a common goal of building a new generation nuclear reactor in the United States.
Although the United States currently has no nuclear power reactors under construction, growth in nuclear reactor capacity is occurring abroad. According to the World Nuclear Association, 60 nuclear power reactors are in operation or planned in 15 countries, with another 155 planned for construction. Another 320 nuclear power reactors are being proposed, giving the United States more than three hundred thousand megawatts of power. This is a significant growth rate for nuclear power in the U.S.