Nuclear power is slow, expensive, and risky, and it creates radioactive waste. However, it also can avoid emissions produced by generating electricity from fossil fuels.
The complicated dynamics around safety and public acceptance of nuclear power will influence its future direction. We assume its share of global electricity generation will change from the current 10.5 percent to 14–9 percent depending on the total power generation scenarios considered. With a longer lifetime than fossil fuel plants resulting in fewer facilities overall, installation of nuclear power plants could have net first costs of US$176.92 billion, despite the high implementation cost of US$8,330 per kilowatt. Lifetime net operating savings could reach US$332.88 billion. These scenarios could result in 3.17–3.64 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions avoided.
Nuclear power plants split atomic nuclei, releasing energy that is then used to generate electricity. Greenhouse gas emissions are far lower than those of coal-fired plants. However, nuclear power is expensive and offers many reasons for concern, including waste management and the potential for deadly meltdowns, tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, and more.
Project Drawdown’s Nuclear Power solution involves generating electricity from nuclear fission in the form of uranium-235 as used in pressurized water reactors, a type of light-water reactor using low-enriched uranium fuel. This solution replaces conventional electricity-generating technologies such as coal, oil, and natural gas power plants.
At Project Drawdown, we consider Nuclear Power a “regrets” solution. It has potential to avoid emissions, but carries many concerns as well.
This analysis models the adoption of nuclear fission as used in pressurized water reactors, the current most prevalent form of nuclear energy. Advanced reactors such as thorium-based reactors, gas-cooled reactors, pebble bed reactors, and other technologies in the pre-commercialization phases are out of the scope of this analysis.
Total Addressable Market
We based the total addressable market for the Nuclear Power solution on projected global electricity generation from 2020 to 2050. The total addressable market is different for the two adoption scenarios because Scenario 2 projects extensive electrification of transportation, space heating, etc., dramatically increasing demand and therefore production of electricity worldwide.
We estimated current adoption (the amount of functional demand supplied in 2018) at around 10.5 percent of generation (2,750 terawatt-hours).
We calculated impacts of increased adoption of nuclear power from 2020 to 2050 by comparing two scenarios with a reference scenario in which the market share was fixed at current levels.
- Scenario 1: Nuclear power captures 14 percent of the electricity generation market share in 2050 (5,881.05 terawatt-hours). We base this on the evaluation of six climate optimistic scenarios and ambitious solution adoption scenarios from IEA (2017) Energy Technology Perspectives 2DS and B2DS scenarios; IEA (2018) World Energy Outlook SDS; Equinor (2018) Renewal Scenario; Grantham Institute and Carbon Tracker (2017) with the strong mitigation policy scenario, with Original technology costs and Medium energy demand; and IEEJ (2018) Advanced Tech Scenario; using a medium growth trajectory.
- Scenario 2: Nuclear power captures 9 percent of the electricity generation market share in 2050 (5,881.05 terawatt-hours). We base this on the same external sources scenarios as Scenario 1 with a medium growth trajectory. We assume that because of higher adoption of renewable energy systems such as wind and solar the need for new nuclear energy facilities will not increase despite the higher total electricity generation market.
All costs presented are in 2014 US$.
We assume an average installation cost of US$8,331 per kilowatt, compared with US$1,786 per kilowatt for the conventional technologies such as coal, natural gas, and oil power plants that nuclear power plants are replacing. We used an average capacity factor of 82 percent, compared with 57 percent for conventional technologies. The average fixed operation and maintenance cost was US$108.8 per kilowatt and the variable operation and maintenance cost was US$0.016 per kilowatt-hour, compared with US$34.7 per kilowatt and US$0.005 per kilowatt-hour for the conventional technologies, respectively. We used an average cost for uranium of US$0.0045 per kilowatt-hour.
To integrate the Nuclear Power solution with other solutions, we adjusted the total addressable markets to account for reduced demand resulting from the growth of more energy-efficient technologies (e.g., LED Lighting and High-Efficiency Heat Pumps) as well as increased electrification from other solutions such as Electric Cars and High-Speed Rail. We calculated grid emissions factors based on the annual mix of electricity-generating technologies over time. We determined direct and indirect emissions factors for each technology through a meta-analysis of multiple sources.
Scenario 1 has a net first cost of US$176.92 billion and US$332.88 billion in lifetime net operational savings. Under this scenario, the adoption of nuclear power could avoid 3.17 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from 2020 to 2050.
Scenario 2 shows an emissions reduction of 3.64 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent with the same net first cost and lifetime net operational savings.
The adoption of nuclear power depends on a number of factors. Trends that may accelerate adoption include the public acceptance of nuclear power for abating climate change and creating jobs; the commercialization of technologies that produce less radioactive waste; government support (subsidies, loan guarantees, etc.) of nuclear power; and a carbon tax. Trends that may decelerate adoption include public disapproval, nuclear incidents and accidents, lack of nuclear power skills training, and cost overruns and construction delays.
Advantages of increasing nuclear energy adoption include the zero-carbon nature of generation, provision of baseload capability, a high capacity factor, and the ability to use waste heat to power other systems. Disadvantages include legacy waste and the public perception of risk, which leads to a high cost of capital for new builds.
International Energy Agency (IEA). (2017). Energy Technology Perspectives 2017 - Catalysing Energy Technology Transformations. Retrieved from: https://www.iea.org/etp/
International Energy Agency (IEA). (2018). World Energy Outlook 2018. Retrieved from: https://webstore.iea.org/world-energy-outlook-2018
Equinor (2018) Renewal Scenario. Equinor-energy-perspectives-2018-data-appendix (version 2) [Renewal Scenario]. Equinor. https://www.equinor.com/en/sustainability/energy-perspectives/ep-2018.html
Grantham Institute- Climate Change and the Environment and Carbon Tracker Initiative (2017). Expect the Unexpected. The Disruptive Power of Low-carbon Technology. Retrieved from: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/grantham-institute/public/publications/collaborative-publications/Expect-the-Unexpected_CTI_Imperial.pdf
Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (2018). IEEJ Outlook 2019 — Energy transition and a thorny path for 3E challenges. [Advanced Tech Scenario]. Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. Retrieved from https://eneken.ieej.or.jp/en/whatsnew/430.html