Can we make nuclear energy cheap?

Published: 08 Oct 2013

Nuclear energy provides substantial amounts of renewable energy globally but how can we increase the number of plants?

Is cheap nuclear power the key to green energy future?

Nuclear engineers are responsible for maintaining and generating 13% of the world’s electricity. Currently a number of the reactors built between the 1960s and 1980s are being decommissioned in developed economies, without the proper replacements to support the burgeoning demand for energy.

It’s the developing markets and economies that are investing in nuclear as a way to satiate their growing need for energy. China, which has seen astonishing growth in all sectors, is building 28 reactors and there are plans in the pipeline to create dozens more. Russia and India are also building nearly 20 combined and this number will no doubt rise.

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Despite being seen as a green, renewable option, the rise of nuclear is being stemmed somewhat by cost. It’s not the running or production costs that hold back development, it’s the associated cost a new build, including standard labour costs, as well as the strict building standards. Safety is always paramount in a nuclear reactor, though because of this, the regulations that protect and contain the radioactive substances, produced power and the environment around the plant quickly add up.

A new report from the Breakthrough Institute has stated that the key to reducing costs and increasing production on new reactors is to start introducing new designs. If you want to make nuclear a mass market form of energy generation, then the production infrastructure must reflect this. Modular, mass-produced component parts which already incorporate safety features as standard will take away from the requirement for pricey backup systems that can often contribute largely to the costs. It isn’t to say that existing plants don’t need backups; they do, it’s simply that an efficient design wouldn’t require multiple contingencies.

Currently these ideas are just that: ideas. Concepts exist in the minds of engineers and some might even make it to blueprint stage, but finding the funding to get the projects off the ground is difficult to say the least. With costs sometimes spiralling billions over budget, some projects are abandoned and are never completed. A smarter way of building, utilising new and up to date plans and concepts, is what’s needed for breaking this pattern.

Nuclear is one of the few carbon-free sources of energy generation available. Nuclear, hydro-electric and other renewables make up less than a 1/5 of increases in energy generation, which implies that removing carbon and taking a greener approach to energy just isn’t happening. If we want to see nuclear advancing to new levels while creating new jobs, stimulating engineering breakthroughs and refocusing on safety then it’s time to get investing.


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