How to Make Nuclear Cheap
Nuclear energy is at a crossroads. It supplies a substantial share of electricity in many developed economies — 19 percent in the United States, 35 percent in South Korea, 40 percent in Sweden, 78 percent in France — but these figures may decline as reactors built in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s retire. Meanwhile, developing countries are increasingly turning to nuclear to meet rapidly growing energy demand and to reduce pollution. China is currently building 28 reactors and has plans for dozens more; 11 are under construction in Russia, seven in India. Nevertheless, fossil fuels remain dominant worldwide, with coal the reigning king and natural gas production booming. The central challenge for nuclear energy, if it is to become a greater portion of the global electricity mix, is to become much cheaper.
A new Breakthrough Institute report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap: Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency, details a number of new advanced reactor designs that bring substantial benefits over the existing light-water fleet, such as inherent safety mechanisms and the ability to reuse spent fuel. Yet not all features will result in lower costs. So what are the key characteristics that will make advanced nuclear energy cheaper?
The answer lies in part in discerning what has contributed to rising costs. While existing nuclear plants produce affordable energy — they have the second lowest production costs in the United States — new builds have become expensive largely because of strict building standards, environmental and safety regulations, and labor costs. Safety features necessary for current generation reactors — especially massive containment domes and multiply redundant cooling and backup systems — make up a significant portion of such costs.
It is just as important to identify which factors will not decisively influence cost. Fuel availability, waste disposal, and proliferation risk are largely political and institutional concerns, rather than technological challenges, and will continue to require attention regardless of what new designs are pursued. Innovations in fuel cycle and waste reprocessing are unlikely to reduce costs until nuclear energy is much more widely deployed.
Our assessment of nine advanced designs, from high-temperature gas reactors to fusion, finds four factors that will most likely prove determinative in achieving any significant cost declines. We conclude that policymakers, investors, and entrepreneurs should pursue reactors models that are:
1. Safe: Inherent safety characteristics eliminate the need for expensive and redundant safety systems.
2. Ready: Ready designs will utilize existing supply chains and will not require the development or commercialization of new or unproven materials and fuels.
3. Modular: Modularity allows whole reactors or their components to be mass-produced and assembled uniformly.
4. Efficient: High thermal efficiency enables reactors to generate more electricity from a smaller physical plant.
Reactors with advantages in these areas show an emerging technological path to safer and cheaper nuclear energy. A good place to begin is with the Generation III+ reactors currently being deployed, which exploit existing supply chains and incorporate new materials and techniques that will prove important to Generation IV designs. Gas-cooled and salt-cooled thermal reactors, which can also rely on much of the light-water supply chain and fuel cycle, are the most ready candidates for commercialization among Generation IV designs. Over time, fast reactors may become attractive for disposing of nuclear warheads and reusing spent fuel, though their widespread commercialization and deployment will most likely depend on the successful commercialization of advanced thermal reactors.
While it is crucial for policymakers to identify the technologies most amenable to commercialization and deployment, it is also important to not lock in energy systems to a single design, as in the case of light-water reactors. The choice is not, for example, between fast reactors and thermal reactors. Policymakers should instead support a broad commitment to nuclear innovation aimed at expanding, rather than restricting, technological options. To advance these priorities, policymakers should support three key areas of reform:
Invest in nuclear innovation. Expand support for public research, development, and demonstration; certification of new materials; supply-chain development; and test facilities.
Innovate across advanced designs. Prioritize technological challenges that have the greatest cross-platform relevance to multiple reactor designs.
Licensing reform. Increase government cost-sharing; integrate licensing with the innovation process, so developers can demonstrate and license reactor components; and lower the costs, regulatory barriers, and time to market for new designs.