Nuclear power plant
Technical Summary

Nuclear Power

Project Drawdown defines nuclear power as the electricity generation 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.

Commercialized civil nuclear energy captures the energy released by the splitting of atoms in radioactive elements. This energy can be extremely powerful and resource-efficient: 1 kilogram of uranium-235 contains 2–3 million times the energy equivalent of 1 kilogram of oil or coal. During nuclear fission in the reactor core, heat is produced; this heat is used to boil water into steam; the steam then turns turbine blades that drive generators to make electricity.

Methodology

This analysis models the adoption of nuclear fission as used in pressurized water reactors, a type of light-water reactor using low-enriched uranium fuel, 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 research.

Total Addressable Market[1]

Two total addressable markets were developed for this sector solutions, supported on lower and higher climate emissions mitigation targets linked to different levels of electricity demand and renewable energy sources integration. The total addressable market for nuclear electricity generation is based on projected global electricity generation in terawatt-hours from 2020 to 2050, with current adoption[2] estimated at around 10.5 percent of generation (i.e., 2750 terawatt-hours).

Adoption Scenarios[3]

Impacts of increased adoption of nuclear power from 2020 to 2050 were generated based on two growth scenarios. These were assessed in comparison with a Reference Scenario, in which the solution’s market share was fixed at the current levels.

  • Scenario 1: This scenario is based 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. In this scenario, nuclear captures 13.2 percent of the electricity generation market share in 2050 (i.e., 6093 terawatt-hours).
  • Scenario 2: It is assumed that because of the higher adoption of other renewable energy systems, such as wind and solar, the need for new nuclear energy facilities will not increase, despite in this scenario the total electricity generation market is significantly higher. This scenario is built upon the same external sources scenarios as Scenario 1 with a medium growth trajectory, capturing 8.6 percent of the electricity generation market share in 2050.

Financial Model

The financial inputs used in the model assume an average installation cost of US$8331 per kilowatt.[4] compared with US$1786 per kilowatt for the conventional technologies as coal, natural gas, and oil power plants the solution is replacing. An average capacity factor of 82 percent is used for the solution, compared with 57 percent for conventional technologies. An average fixed operation and maintenance cost of US$108.8 per kilowatt and US$0.016 per kilowatt-hour for variable operation and maintenance, are considered for this solution, compared with US$34.7 per kilowatt and US$0.005 per kilowatt-hour for the conventional technologies, respectively. An average cost for uranium of US$0.0045 per kWh was considered.

Integration[5]

Through the process of integrating nuclear power with other solutions, the total addressable markets were adjusted to account for reduced demand resulting from the growth of more energy-efficient technologies,[6] as well as increased electrification from other solutions like electric cars and high-speed rail. Grid emissions factors were calculated based on the annual mix of different electricity generating technologies over time. Emissions factors for each technology were determined through a meta-analysis of multiple sources, accounting for direct and indirect emissions.

Results

Compared with the Reference Scenario, the financial results for the Scenario 1 of adoption show marginal first costs of US$192.3 billion from 2020 to 2050, and over US$345 in savings over the lifetime of the technologies installed in the same period. Under the Scenario 1, the adoption of nuclear for electricity generation could avoid 2.65 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from 2020 to 2050, compared with the Reference Scenario. Scenario 2 depicts a lower emissions reduction  impact of nuclear energy’s role in the future due to integration and double counting methodology, with emissions reduction impacts over 2020 to 2050 of just over 3.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent.

Discussion

The adoption of nuclear power plants depends on a number of factors. Trends that may accelerate its adoption include the public acceptance of nuclear power as a climate change abatement and job creation strategy; 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 the adoption of nuclear power plants include public disapproval of nuclear power, nuclear incidents and accidents, lack of nuclear power skills training, and cost overruns and delays on the construction.

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 nuclear’s waste heat to power other systems. The disadvantages of increasing nuclear energy adoption include legacy waste and the public perception of risk that leads to a high cost of capital for new builds.

Note: August 2021 corrections appear in boldface.


[1] For more about the Total Addressable Market for the Electricity Generation Sector, click the Sector Summary: Electricity Generation Sector link below.

[2] Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand (i.e. TWh) supplied by the solution in 2018.

[3] To learn more about Project Drawdown’s two adoption scenarios, click the Scenarios link below. For information on Electricity Generation Sector-specific scenarios, click the Sector Summary: Electricity Generation link.

[4] All the costs presented are in 2014 US$.

[5] For more on Project Drawdown’s Electricity Generation Sector integration model, click the Sector Summary: Electricity Generation link below.

[6] For example: LED lighting and high efficiency heat pumps.