Why use nuclear power?

Almost all national governments, the great majority of climate scientists and all open-minded and well informed people have recognised that climate change and ocean acidification are major problems, so the world has to move away from the burning of fossil fuels as a way of generating electricity. On top of this, the air pollution from the burning of coal kills millions of people each year.

Many people see nuclear power as a way of generating the electricity we need at the same time as greatly reducing our greenhouse and other harmful emissions. Is their optimism justified?

Written 2006/07/16, last edited 2021/03/06
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

Cost of Energy Technologies, 2020
Costs are US$
Graph Credit, Wikipedia
Wikipedia credit the data used to produce this graph to Beneficial New Energy Finance, the International Renewable Energy Agency and Lazard.
More information on another page on this site.

The questions:

  • Will increased use of nuclear power substantially reduce environmental problems?
  • What are the ethical implications of nuclear?
  • If nuclear power stations were built in most of the world's countries, what are the risks that terrorists, or irresponsible regimes, would misuse the materials involved?
  • Is enough uranium available to replace the fossil fuel-powered generators that the world currently relies on?
  • Is nuclear the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse emissions and the acidification of our oceans?
  • Considering nuclear power station disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, how willing would people be to have a nuclear power station built nearby?
The graph above shows that by 2020 nuclear power cost about three times as much as onshore wind and utility solar power. Also, the cost of wind and solar power are still both declining.

In September 2020 a price of under Aus$45/MWh (US$32) was agreed for power from the proposed Goyder South Renewables Zone Wind Farm near Burra in South Australia.

Conventional LCOE estimates for selected technonogies
Cost of energy graph
CSIRO report "Electricity generation technology projections 2017-2050" by Jenny A Hayward and Paul W Graham, December 2017. The report shows plainly that renewable energy is much cheaper than nuclear and new-built fossil fuel power generation with carbon capture and storage; without CCS fossil fuelled power generation is cheaper, but still more expensive than wind and solar PV.
Perhaps the most compelling demonstration by August 2017 that nuclear power was not the way of the future was the abandonment of two part-completed nuclear power stations in South Carolina, USA, because of cost overruns and delays.

Apart from the costs there are ethical arguments; the way nuclear power is used at present about 1% of the available energy in the uranium is used and the remaining 99% goes out with the waste. (The 235U is used, the great bulk of the uranium, most of the 238U is wasted; it could all be used.) Is this fair to future generations? Also, we use the energy and leave the waste for future generations to look after.

Nuclear power can be used to generate electricity, and there is no release of greenhouse gasses during the generation process, although mining, concentrating, and refining uranium, as it is done today, does consume large amounts of fossil fuels and produces corresponding amounts of greenhouse carbon dioxide. Nuclear power is not a substitute for the petroleum that is running out; it is not suitable for powering transport except for possible use in shipping.

We have lived with nuclear powered electricity generation since the 1950s. So far as I know all the world's nuclear power stations have been built at the expense of national governments and no-one seems to know what nuclear power really costs; especially when the costs of the whole life-cycle of nuclear power is taken into account: mining the ore, refining and enriching the ore, building the power station, safely storing or disposing of the waste, and decommissioning of the power station.


The ideal power station

The ideal power station would be available all the time, would produce low-cost emission-free electricity, and would be able to increase and decrease its generation quickly to follow the variation in demand. The ideal power station does not exist.

Is nuclear scalable?

Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable?, (by Derek Abbott, School of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, University of Adelaide) provides a convincing argument that nuclear power cannot replace fossil fuels as mankind's main source of energy.

Pronunciation of 'nuclear'

The word nuclear has two syllables, nu-clear, 'nu' and 'clear'. It is pronounced 'new-clear' – look at the bloody spelling; there's nothing difficult about it! Why would anyone pronounce it 'nuke-you-lah'?

If nuclear power was economically competitive, why do nuclear power stations have to be subsidised by tax-payers?

If it was the cheapest option then we should be able to leave the building and running of new nuclear power stations to private enterprise. Of course it would have to be a whole package, part of the deal would be the locking away of appropriate sums of money for decommissioning of reactors at the end of their useful life and for the safe long-term storage or disposal of all radioactive materials. Disposal of radioactive waste, in particular, is difficult to cost because it must ensure that the material is kept out of the active environment for several thousand years or even more.

I strongly suspect that no company would be interested in taking full financial responsibility for the whole life of a nuclear power station and the waste; the amount of money that they would have to lock away would be too large and would make the whole operation economically unviable. If building and running nuclear power stations is economically unviable for private enterprise why should our governments take it on and we the tax payers foot the bills? Private industry is willing to build sustainable power generation facilities – wind, solar and geothermal – that are comparable in cost to fossil-fuelled power stations when the cost of pollution or the proper disposal of waste is taken into consideration.

Conserving energy and using electricity more efficiently is by far the best way that we can reduce our greenhouse impact.

What really is the attraction of nuclear power stations to Western nations? Is it that some people short-sightedly see nuclear as a real saviour, or are there hidden agendas? I must admit that I don't know the whole answer, but a part of the answer seems to be that while many people realise that fossil fuels have to be phased-out they simply don't like renewable energy; they see it as a do-gooder, greeny, leftist thing.

Why build nuclear power stations that will be a great target for bombing in any war, and a great target for terrorist attack, if you don't need to? What would happen to New York if a nuclear power station on its outskirts was bombed? It would be much worse than Chernobyl and Fukushima because of the huge number of people irradiated.

Wind and solar power are where the future of energy generation lie
Snowtown Wind Farm
A small part of Snowtown Wind Farm near my home in Mid-North South Australia

Advantages of nuclear power

  1. Nuclear power, in itself, does not release greenhouse gasses, nor necesserily any other gasses into the atmosphere.

  2. A nuclear power station can generate power continuously, unlike most renewable options.

  3. Nuclear power stations are compact, unlike wind farms and solar power stations that must be spread over a large area.

  4. Nuclear power stations can be built where the power is needed, unlike, for example, coal-fired power stations that need to be close to the coal mine, or a wind farm that needs to be built where there are strong and reliable winds.

Disadvantages of nuclear power

The costs of the cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear power station in perspective.
Since this graphic was produced the cost of the cleanup and compensation has risen to Aus$250 billion (about US$200 billion). The Japan Center for Economic Research, a private think tank, has estimated that the cleanup costs could mount to some $470 billion to $660 billion.
Cost of Fukushima cleanup
Graphic credit Greenpeace

First I've just listed the disadvantages, then I've given fuller explanations of each

  1. Nuclear power is too expensive;

  2. It is base load, not dispatchable; we need dispatchable power to compliment renewables;

  3. It is unsustainable;

  4. It is not up to the job of replacing fossil fuels, there is insufficient uranium;

  5. The lead-time to build nuclear power stations is too long;

  6. Major accidents are rare but devastating;

  7. Greenhouse carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during construction of the power station and during the mining of the materials and fuel used;

  8. Nuclear power stations would be very tempting targets in war time;

  9. Nuclear material is attractive to terrorists;

  10. Nuclear power requires huge amounts of water for cooling;

  11. The waste heat from the power station that goes into the cooling water causes increased evaporation. Water vapour is a strong greenhouse gas;

  12. It produces radioactive waste that has to be kept separate from the environment for centuries;

  13. Nuclear power stations cannot be built without huge government subsidies;

  14. No one wants a nuclear power station built anywhere near them;

  15. Nuclear power is a very inefficient use of uranium.

Explanations of the disadvantages of nuclear power

  1. Nuclear power is expensive. While it is very difficult to get accurate figures on the cost of nuclear – because nuclear power stations have generally been given big support from government and little is known about the true cost of decommissioning and containment and disposal of waste – it is significantly more expensive than sustainable alternatives such as wind and solar PV. Nuclear power is very difficult to cost because, if the figure is to be meaningful, it must cover mining, building the power station, running costs for the full life of the power station, protecting the nuclear material from possible theft by terrorists, decommissioning costs, the costs of disposing of the radioactive wastes and protecting them from disturbance for many years and the costs of insurance against major accidents of the type of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

    A report to the UK Parliament titled "The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s management of the Magnox contract" it was stated that:
    "The cost of the long-term liability to decommission the UK’s civil nuclear sites now stands at £132 billion..."
    That's worth emphasising, £132 billion (Aus$236b, US$183b). It's an eye-watering amount, and it is only for decommissioning. And we all know that costs tend to increase as the job gets done.

    The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) Weekly Report number 30 of 2019 stated:
    "Investing in a nuclear power plant is uneconomical. This holds for all plausible ranges of specific investment costs, weighted average cost of capital, and wholesale electricity prices.

    The economic history and financial analyses carried out at DIW Berlin show that nuclear energy has always been unprofitable in the private economy and will remain so in the future. Between 1951 and 2017, none of the 674 nuclear reactors built was done so with private capital under competitive conditions. Large state subsidies were used in the cases where private capital flowed into financing the nuclear industry."
    The German Institute for Economic Research (Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung) or more commonly DIW Berlin is one of the leading economic research institutes in Germany.

  2. Nuclear power is not dispatchable; that it, nuclear power stations produce a constant amount of electricity while demand for electricity varies greatly. Nuclear power would be much more valuable if it could produce a variable amount of power to match demand.

  3. Nuclear power is unsustainable, it relies on a finite resource.

  4. Nuclear power cannot be scaled-up to replace the world's fossil fuelled power stations. The world's high-grade, shallow uranium deposits have largely been mined-out. The remaining deposits are either low-grade or deep, or both, so are expensive to mine. A significant increase in the amount of nuclear power in the world would quickly cause a severe shortage of uranium fuel. Derek Abbott, School of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, University of Adelaide published a study in October 2011, 'Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable?' in which it was calculated that if nuclear was to supply all the world's electricity the known reserves would only last five years.

  5. The lead-time for building a nuclear power station is at least 15 years and this is much too long for it to constitute a viable method for combating climate change which demands quick action.

  6. While major accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are very rare, they are also staggeringly expensive. The cost to the Japanese economy of the Fukushima disaster have been estimated at Aus$250 billion in late 2016. Credible estimates of the ultimate cost of Fukushima range up to $660 billion.

  7. While greenhouse carbon dioxide isn't released from the 'combustion' of the nuclear fuel (as in fossil fuel power stations) much fossil fuel is burned during the mining and fabrication of the materials used in construction of the power station and during mining and preparation of the fuel used, with the release of greenhouse gasses.

  8. Nuclear power stations would be a target in any war. A bombed nuclear power station would spread more radiation around than would any nuclear bomb because there are many tonnes of highly radioactive material in a nuclear power station compared to the kilograms in a nuclear bomb. A bombed nuclear power station would produce a similar amount of wide-spread contamination to that produced by the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. I've written more on this aspect of nuclear power on another page on this site.

    Wind turbines and solar panels, because they are spread over a big area, are much more difficult to destroy by bombs, and would not spread pollution if they were bombed. Only a small section of the top, at most, of the deep wells that are the most expensive part of a hot dry rock geothermal power station could be destroyed by bombing; these could be relatively cheaply and quickly repaired.

  9. Nuclear materials, both nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, are attractive to terrorists, who could use them for criminal purposes.

  10. Nuclear power stations require large amounts of water for cooling. If natural water bodies such as lakes, streams and the ocean are used, then the release of large quantities of warm water back into the environment can cause environmental damage. (Compare to wind, tidal, wave and solar power that require little, if any, cooling water.)

  11. Nuclear power stations only convert about 30-40% of the energy that is obtained from the fission of their uranium fuel into electricity, the remainder has to be expelled from the power station as waste heat. In some power stations this is released as steam, in other stations it is released as warm water. If the latter then the result is increased evaporation from whatever water body is involved in providing the cooling water. Either way, a large amount of water vapour goes into the air due to the nuclear power station. Water vapour is a strong greenhouse gas. (More on this and other points at Leonardo di Caprio Foundation)

    Of course all the waste heat from the power station also adds to global warming.

  12. Nuclear power, as it is in the early twenty-first century, produces large quantities of radioactive waste that need to be isolated from the environment (and protected from possible theft by terrorists) for thousands of years. Can we be confident that nuclear waste has been, and will continue to be, disposed of properly? People and companies are very inclined to save money and effort by cost-cutting, often 'bending the rules' to do so.

  13. Renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal can be built by private industry without government subsidy (so long as there is a 'level playing field') while no private company would be willing to touch nuclear power without big government subsidies.

  14. Following Chernobyl and, in particular, Fukushima there will be huge opposition from the local community to the building of a nuclear power station in any Western nation.

  15. As it is used at present nuclear power is a very inefficient use of uranium. Only about 1% of the energy available in the uranium is used. See Efficient use of nuclear resources.

Viable and credible nuclear power

Nyngan solar PV farm, NSW; 102 MW
Solar farm
Solar PV at this sort of scale is far less expensive than nuclear power.
Pumped hydro power or possibly batteries (expensive in 2017) can be used to store the power for use when the light is not bright.
If nuclear power is ever to become a credible and viable source of electricity it should be able to pass a number of tests.
  1. It must be possible to convincingly demonstrate that when its total emissions – from mine to dump and decommissioning – are taken into account it is a genuinely low-carbon option.

  2. We must be able to know exactly where and how the waste is disposed of.

  3. The whole nuclear cycle, mining, planning, building, running, decommissioning, disposal of waste and insurance must be economically viable and not require government subsidy. (Enough subsidy to allow the power produced to compete with fossil fuel electricity could be excepted, see Level playing field.)

  4. There must be convincing evidence that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes or used for terrorism.

  5. The uranium must be used efficiently (that is, a large percentage of the potential energy is utilised – not the approximately 1% that is currently extracted – before the 'spent' fuel is dumped.)

  6. Finally, one condition that before the Fukushima fiasco might have been thought obvious; no plants should be built on major fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashores or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned or any other places which are geologically unsafe.
(Some of the points above were adapted from an article by George Monbiot.)

Wind and nuclear power in China

Wind power overtakes nuclear in China
Nuclear and wind in China
Graph credit Earth Policy Institute
A piece by J. Matthew Roney of the Earth Policy Institute was published on 2014/03/04:
"In China, wind power is leaving nuclear behind. Electricity output from China's wind farms exceeded that from its nuclear plants for the first time in 2012, by a narrow margin. Then in 2013, wind pulled away-outdoing nuclear by 22 percent. The 135 terawatt-hours of Chinese wind-generated electricity in 2013 would be nearly enough to power New York State."
This seems to be a demonstration that nuclear power is simply not an economically viable option any more, irrespective of its environmental questions and advantages or disadvantages.

This section added 2017/01/24

Decommissioning cost

It seems that very few nuclear power stations have been fully decommissioned, certainly it is difficult to obtain reliable figures on decommissioning costs.

Wikipedia, 2017/01/24, listed estimated decommissioning costs varying from US$153 million to US$514 million per reactor.

In the USA 'in-situ decommissioning', that is the entombment of nuclear power stations cost US$73 million for two reactors. Whether leaving the reactors in place indefinitely can truly be called 'decommissioning' is highly questionable.

Wikipedia stated that:

"In 2016 the European Commission assessed that European Union's nuclear decommissioning liabilities were seriously underfunded by about 118 billion euros, with only 150 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 268 billion euros of expected decommissioning costs covering both dismantling of nuclear plants and storage of radioactive parts and waste."
The cleaning up of mines at the ends of their useful lives has historically been seriously underfunded; often leaving a large part of the costs to be covered by tax-payers. Can we have any confidence that the decommissioning of nuclear power stations will be properly funded?

Changing to the responsible use of uranium

If the world was to change from using just the 0.7% 235U in uranium to using 100% of it (including the 'harder to burn' 238U) there would be so much nuclear fuel available around the world, from old nuclear fuels, depleted uranium stock-piles, etc., that there would probably be no need to mine uranium for a hundred years. This would not be good for the big uranium mining companies; they would resist such a move as strongly as they possibly could, and companies like BHP have a lot of push with governments.

This section written 2011/03/31

Fukushima nuclear power station, Japan



The cost to the Japanese economy of the Fukushima disaster have been estimated at Aus$250 billion (US$200 billion) in late 2016.
It seems, to an outsider, that the problems that were triggered by the earthquake of 11th March 2011 showed a degree of incompetence in the siting, design and subsequent operation of the plant. Blindingly obvious in hind-sight, the power station was sited too close to the sea. Apparently the tsunami was a metre or so higher than the largest that was planned for! Why not allow a ten or twenty metre safety margin rather than a metre or so? There seems to have been little planning for backup cooling in emergencies. How difficult can it be to plan for several alternative ways of getting a flow of cooling water into a power station?

No doubt it's easy to criticise from a distance.

What will it mean to the future of nuclear power?

As I write this (2011/03/31) it seems very likely that the meltdown and nuclear contamination at Fukushima will strengthen the anti-nuclear lobby and make nuclear power more unpopular world-wide. The alternatives are:
This is the quick, easy and (relatively) uncontroversial option. Unfortunately we are approaching Peak Oil; and burning more petroleum to generate electricity is not a realistic option.

To burn more coal will exacerbate the already dire climate change problem. It would fix the short term problem at the expense of increasing the long term one.

Sustainable energy
Sustainable energy is a viable alternative.

Energy conservation
There are huge potentials for reducing our profligate rate of energy consumption.
Energy conservation combined with increased development of sustainable energy is the only responsible option that is viable in the long term (sustainable energy always was the only energy option really, the alternative, unsustainable energy, is by definition not sustainable). Wind energy is a mature technology and can be developed much further than where it stands in 2011, but it will never be "the answer" to the energy problem on its own. Solar can and should be developed much further; it is not yet the mature technology that wind power is, but perhaps that should be thought of as an oportunity rather than a problem.

This section written 2017/09/01

USA turns away from nuclear

US utility dumps nuclear September 2017

Joe Romm wrote for RenewEconomy on 2017/09/01 about Duke Energy in Florida announcing that it would terminate all plans to build its Levy Nuclear Project and instead invest $6 billion in solar energy, smart meters, and grid modernization as well as electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and a battery storage pilot program.

Part built power stations abandoned August 2017

Here is yet another reason to not build nuclear power stations: quoting from an article in RenewEconomy –
The so-called "nuclear renaissance" in the United States has had another major setback, with another two nuclear reactors under construction in South Carolina abandoned after costs spiralled out of control, leaving consumers holding the bill for plants that will never be completed.
Procon, 2017/08/04, reported:
"On Monday July 31, the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company announced that it was abandoning construction on two new nuclear power reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, SC due to cost overruns and delays in construction.

The two nuclear reactors were 40% complete, and $9 billion dollars had already been spent on their construction.

The two reactors were originally scheduled to come online in 2018, however, due to regulatory disputes and construction problems, the utility announced early in 2017 that the reactors would not begin producing electricity before 2021. The utility also announced that completing construction could cost up to $25 billion, over twice the original estimate of $11.5 billion."

This section added 2018/04/08

Thorium instead of uranium?

There are some advantages (and disadvantages) in using thorium to fuel a nuclear power station rather than uranium. Whether these will prove sufficient to make thorium a viable source of non-polluting power remains to be seen.

This section added 2019/06/25

Nuclear power in Australia

In 2019 there was no nuclear electricity generation in Australia but there was a push from some people for the development of nuclear power.

Those who are advocating nuclear power are predominantly the same people who are opposing the further development of renewable power. My impression is that these people know that we have to reduce greenhouse emissions, they have some sort of ideological disliking for renewable energy (for whatever reason), so they see nuclear as a way out of what would otherwise be a dilemma for them.

Those in the pro-nuclear lobby, not surprisingly, either are ignorant of, or not willing to address the questions of:

  1. the high cost of nuclear,
  2. the very long lead time required to build nuclear power stations,
  3. the strong opposition that would inevitably come from the people living in the vicinity of any proposed nuclear power station,
  4. and all the other disadvantages of nuclear power.
Regarding the strong opposition to nuclear power, a major nuclear power station would have to be built on the coast of Australia because of the need of large volumes of cooling water and a generally very limited supply of fresh water in Australia. It would also need to be built close to existing high-capacity power lines, which would rule out it being built in a remote area. Places on the Australian coast near high-capacity power lines are generally highly populated.

This section added 2020/02/01

Which nations are getting out of nuclear power?

Extracted from Wikipedia: Nuclear power phase-out;
"Following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany has permanently shut down eight of its 17 reactors and pledged to close the rest by the end of 2022. Italy voted overwhelmingly to keep their country non-nuclear. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors.

As of 2016, countries including Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, and Portugal have no nuclear power stations and remain opposed to nuclear power. Belgium, Germany, Spain and Switzerland are phasing-out nuclear power."

This section added 2018/10/19

Related pages

External pages

High-Priced and Dangerous: Nuclear Power Is Not an Option for the Climate-Friendly Energy Mix, DIW (German Institute for Economic Research) weekly report number 30, 2019.

Part built power stations abandoned August 2017: an article in RenewEconomy –
The so-called "nuclear renaissance" in the United States has had another major setback, with another two nuclear reactors under construction in South Carolina abandoned after costs spiralled out of control, leaving consumers holding the bill for plants that will never be completed.
More on this development above on this page.

Failed nuclear power station converted to amusement park. "This failed $5.3 billion nuclear power plant in Germany is now an amusement park that gets hundreds of thousands of visitors each year."
"The SNR-300 was supposed to be Germany's first fast breeder nuclear reactor when construction began in 1972. The reactor was made to use plutonium as fuel, and it would output 327 megawatts of energy. Built in Kalkar, the government had some concerns about the safety of the nuclear reactor, which delayed construction. The power plant was finished in 1985 — $5.3 billion later. But after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the SNR-300 never got a chance to fully operate, and by 1991 the project was officially canceled."