Cost of electricity from new nuclear power stations

Current discussions about possibilities to mitigate the effects of global warming have also opened discussions about a potential revival of nuclear power. In this context, it is often argued with very low cost of electricity from nuclear power plants. This seems to be one of the strongest arguments in favor of atomic energy. To determine the future cost of electricity from nuclear power, the cost from currently operating power stations is taken into account. However this is not correct.

In the above mentioned discussions about building new nuclear power stations, the cost for electricity from new and not from already existing atomic power stations should be taken into account. This makes a huge difference as we will see further below. As a matter of fact, it is nearly impossible to estimate the cost of building new nuclear power stations. This is mainly a consequence of missing national and international safety standards. It is not clear which safety measures will have to be applied and as a consequence the investment costs can barely be estimated.

Finland is the only country in Europe, where a nuclear power plant is currently being built. In this situation, the best possible practice is, to use the costs for the plant in Finland for cost comparisons with other technologies. (An overview of the number of nuclear reactors under construction per country can be found here)

Cost of the new nuclear power reactor in Finland

The company Areva got the contract to build this nuclear reactor according to the ERP process (European Pressurized Water Reactor). The plant should have an installed power of 1.4 GW, the planned costs were 3.4 billion Euro and commissioning was scheduled for the year 2009. According to the current state of knowledge (beginning of 2008), the start-up of the plant will be delayed at least until 2011 and the costs will be at least 40% higher than originally estimated.

On this base, it is easy to calculate the cost of depreciation per kWh of electricity. Let's assume the following:

  • 8'000 hours of operation per year, with 1.4 GW electrical power
  • Interest rate of 9%
  • Time to build the plant: 6 years
  • Time to completely depreciate the plant: 20 years

This leads to cost of depreciation of about 4 to 5 Euro-Cents (about 4 to 5 US-Cents) per kWh of electricity. Just to remember: this is only for depreciation of the investment costs. In order to get the full costs of electricity, the following costs have to be added:

  • Costs of fuel (Uranium)
  • Costs of assurances
  • Costs for discharging the hazardous, radioactive waste
  • Costs for dismantling and discharging the plant as hazardous waste after its lifetime
  • Costs for personnel operating the plant
  • Costs for protecting the plant against terror attacks, etc.

Compare the above figure of 4 to 5 Euro-cent only for cost of depreciation with the current full cost of wind power for about 6 Euro-cent (about 6 US-cents) per kWh at good locations in Germany, Scandinavia, Benelux or Austria! It becomes evident that nuclear power has lost its cost advantage. In addition, for wind power, there is a clear trend to further lower the costs within the next 10 to 20 years.

Nuclear power from new atomic power stations is too expensive

The simple calculation above makes it evident that also for pure economic reasons it does not make sense to build our future on nuclear power. In addition, there are many problems in the following areas: Discharging of hazardous waste, limited resources of usable Uranium, risk of operation, risk of nuclear proliferation, insufficient liability insurance as well as missing acceptance in the population.

The current lobbying activity of the nuclear industry has primarily the goal to prolong the lifetime of already existing nuclear power stations. However, this is very problematic, too, because the existing nuclear power stations were built according to lower safety standards than e.g. the new plant in Finland.



Nuclear power plant costs two to four times higher in the USA

See the following article from Rebecca Smith in the Wall Street Journal of May 12, 2008:

" A new generation of nuclear power plants is on the drawing boards in the U.S., but the projected cost is causing some sticker shock: $5 billion to $12 billion a plant, double to quadruple earlier rough estimates.

Nuclear power is regaining favor as an alternative to other sources of power generation, such as coal-fired plants, which have fallen out of favor because they are major polluters. But the high cost could lead to sharply higher electricity bills for consumers and inevitably reignite debate about the nuclear industry's suitability to meet growing energy needs.  ... "

Further down she writes:

"Estimates released in recent weeks by experienced nuclear operators — NRG Energy Inc., Progress Energy Inc., Exelon Corp., Southern Co. and FPL Group Inc. — “have blown by our highest estimate” of costs computed just eight months ago, said Jim Hempstead, a senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service credit-rating agency in New York. "

In other words: The cost for electricity from nuclear energy is dramatically increasing all over the world. Just the cost from electricity from old (already existing) nuclear power stations is moderate.

Cooling water requirement for nuclear power reactors

As you can probably imagine, your questions are not easy to answer in a general way. However in the links provided below, you can find further details.

Cooling water from nearby lakes or rivers is normally heated up by max. 30° F (max. 17° C).

Nuclear power reactors are about 33 percent efficient, i.e. for every three units of thermal energy generated by the reactor core, one unit of electrical energy goes out to the grid as electricity and two units of waste heat go into the environment. Two modes of cooling are used to remove the waste heat from electrical generation: once-through cooling using water from rivers, ocean or lakes and closed-cycle cooling. In the latter, water from rivers, ocean or lakes is used to make-up the water evaporated in the cooling tower.

Nuclear power reactor with once-through cooling system

For example, the typical 1,000 Mwe nuclear power reactor with a 30ºF ΔT needs approximately 476'500 gallons of water per minute (130'000 m3 water per hour). If the temperature rise is limited to 20ºF, the cooling water need rises to 714'750 gallons per minute (195'000 m3 per hour). 

Nuclear power reactor with closed-cycle cooling system

The typical 1'000 Mwe nuclear power reactor with a cooling tower consumes (evaporates) about 2'800 m3 of water per hour (about 10'300 gallons per minute). 

See the table below for a summary of the cooling water requirements for nuclear power units depending on the type of cooling applied. All figures indicated are in m3 water per MW electricity:


water withdrawal

[m3 water per MWe]

water consumption

[m3 water per MWe] 

Once-through cooling
 830'000  13'000
Pond cooling
 17'000  13'000
Cooling tower
 27'000  24'000

The table about has been extracted from an Australian Study with the title "Water requirements of nuclear power stations"

Another source of information is from the Union of concerned scientist with the title "Got water?"


Cost of electricity from nuclear power

The newest estimates for the cost of nuclear power in the USA are (costs indicated are per delivered kWh):

  • 11.2 US-cents per kWh nuclear power (MIT 2003)
  • 14.1 US-cents per kWh nuclear power (Keystone June 2007)
  • 18.4 US-cents per kWh nuclear power (Keystone midrange estimate) 
In the UK, the cost of nuclear electricity was estimated to be 8.2 US-cents per kWh (for an interest rate of 10%) and US-cents 11.5 per kWh (for an interest rate of 15%). Here transmission and distribution of the electricicity (usually about 3 US-cents per kWh) have to be added (Source: Thomas, Bradford, Froggatt, Milborrow, 2007). So in the UK the costs of nuclear energy is estimated to be in the same range as indicated above.

Comparison with other technologies, e.g. large wind power farms: 7 US-cents per kWh delivered.

Alternative renewable energy sources like e.g. solar energy, wind power, etc. are getting less expensive almost daily while nuclear power is getting more and more expensive. Isn't this alone a very strong indication that nuclear power is a technology from the past?

Cost of nuclear technology is too high

The reactor type you are describing is not available. A lot of research and development would be needed to develop this technology for productive applications. We probably talk about a time frame of 30 to 50 years, if not even longer. But we need a solution now! It is urgent.

The costs for the development are very difficult to estimate and therefore the costs indicated above might be (and probably are) wrong. In the history of nuclear power, the cost of development have always been tremendously under estimated.

We should put full effort into developing sustainable energy technologies further and phase-out nuclear technology . This will open many opportunities and have many positive side effects. It is time for change!

In addition, we will inevitably have to change our behaviour : We should only use as much energy as we are able to produce with sustainable technologies. Demand of energy has to follow available supply of sustainable energy. This will have many positive side effects, too.