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Nuclear Energy Sustains Worsening Development Under COVID-19 Pandemic Due to Highest Power Generation Cost

published: 2020-10-13 18:30

The cost of nuclear energy is seemingly on the rise. As pointed out by the 2020 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the cost of nuclear energy is currently at US$155/MWh, and no longer possesses the advantages in price and capacity compared to solar energy at US$49/MWh and wind energy at US$41/MWh.

The installation cost of solar and wind energy has become increasingly low with the establishment of the time and learning curve, and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has pointed out that the cost of large ground solar had been reduced by 19% in 2019, with a global average of US$0.068/KWh, whereas the cost of onshore and offshore wind farms has also dropped by 9%, arriving at US$0.053/KWh and US$0.115/KWh respectively.

In contrast, the cost of nuclear energy is on a continuously ascending slope. As indicated by the <World Nuclear Industry Status Report>, nuclear power currently costs US$0.155/KWh, whereas the cost of solar and wind power has been lowered to roughly US$0.04/KWh. As of mid-2020, there are merely 408 units of operating nuclear reactors, which is the lowest figure over the past 30 years, and the installed capacity has declined to 362GW. Now that the peak period for nuclear energy has passed, there are only 408 units of nuclear reactors left, which is lower than the 418 units in 1989 and the highest peak of 438 in 2002.              

The existing new nuclear power plants are in urgent need for new investment. Although numerous countries believe that nuclear energy is one of the crucial elements in achieving the target of reduced carbon emission, the elevated cost in maintenance over old nuclear power plants that are at the end of their lifespans, and the boycott on new power plants from environmental protection groups, as well as the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic this year, have resulted in substantial ramification to the construction of nuclear energy, where the progress for 33 out of 52 nuclear reactors that are in the midst of construction is currently trailing, with no completed power plants in 2020.

The nuclear energy of the US has become increasingly dependent on the subsidy of the government as new nuclear power plants are no longer able to compete with the more affordable natural gas, and that the depleted nuclear power plants are on the verge of the end of their lifespans, where the exorbitant disposal of nuclear wastes will also be transferred to the pockets of the taxpayers. The report indicates that the stagnancy in nuclear energy is irretrievable despite the innovation of the researchers and the whopping subsidy of US$65 million on innovative development from the US government.

Solar media PV Magazine commented that the cost of energy is closely related with the actual installed capacity. There were merely 2.4GW of nuclear power plants established around the world in 2019, and in comparison, the new installed capacity for solar and wind energy had reached to 98GW and 59.2GW respectively. Antony Froggatt, co-author of the <World Nuclear Industry Status Report>, commented that renewable energy continues to stay ahead of nuclear energy from the economic perspective, and the cost of solar and wind energy for public utilities over the past 10 years or so has gone down by 89% and 70% respectively, whereas the cost of nuclear energy has had a contrarian growth of 26%, despite possessing over half of a century of experience.

In addition to the cost factors, one of the reasons for the unpopularity in nuclear energy may also include “prolonged time of establishment”. The 2019 <World Nuclear Industry Status Report> pointed out that the average global construction period for nuclear reactors has been around 10 years since 2009, which exceeds far from the anticipation of 5-8.5 years by the World Nuclear Association (WNA). If one wishes to alleviate on global warming and climate change, the most substantial degree of carbon emission must be achieved within the shortest duration and under the lowest cost.

Mycle Schneider, first author of the report, commented then that the mitigation on climate change is the most pressing issue, though the construction of nuclear power plants is sluggish, and both technology and operation of nuclear power is unable to surpass other low carbon energies that are better, cheaper, and faster.

 (Cover photo source: Flickr/Jeanne Menjoulet CC BY 2.0)

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