from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Can Innovation Make Nuclear Energy Cheap?

March 18, 2013

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Technology and Innovation

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power promises zero-carbon electricity but suffers from serious cost challenges. That makes calls for more research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) efforts to promote innovation natural. But ask sixty experts where nuclear energy is heading, or ask them whether innovation could change that, and you’ll get sixty different answers. Who should you believe?

In a paper published last fall in Environmental Science & Technology (that, as best I can tell, has gone unnoticed in policy circles), a team at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Venice-based FEEM answers the question in an new and enlightening way. Their bottom line will surprise many people: experts are very pessimistic about the ability of even greatly increased RD&D to bring down nuclear costs over the next twenty years.

The researchers develop their results by combining individual surveys of sixty experts (thirty each in the United States and Europe) with an exercise that forces the experts to weigh and incorporate each others’ judgments into their own views of the world. This novel approach yields results that give a great sense of where the overall body of expert opinion points.

The paper starts by reporting projections for nuclear costs absent new support for RD&D. The vast majority projects capital costs for Gen III/III+ reactors (basically what’s being deployed today) in 2030 to be the same or higher than what they are today. The most popular forecast is for stable costs; a minority (ten out of sixty) foresee cost reductions. The experts are also near-unanimous in projecting higher costs for large next-generation ("Gen IV") reactors in 2030 than for Gen III/III+ today. Similar trends prevail when it comes to projections for the small modular reactors (SMRs) that get a lot of buzz.

What happens when you throw RD&D into the equation? Most of the experts surveyed recommend a large increase in RD&D support. But they still do not anticipate large cost reductions as a result. “The participating experts,” the authors report, “generally agreed that their recommended increases in RD&D would have a relatively limited impact on future costs”. Instead they emphasized potential gains for “safety, waste management, and uranium resource utilization”.

One can imagine that these developments might ultimately affect nuclear costs. Better safety could, in principle, reduce regulatory uncertainty and permitting delays, in turn lowering borrowing costs and hence the ultimate cost of nuclear power. Better waste management could similarly reduce long-term risks. And, of course, the many experts could be wrong.

If you’re serious about zero-carbon energy, though, that’s probably not a wise bet to rely too heavily on. Bringing down nuclear costs, if that’s possible, will probably require a more fundamental rethinking of how we regulate nuclear power development. (I remain a fan of greater standardization in both technology and permitting.) And maximizing the odds of having cost-effective zero-carbon options will require continued innovation investment along multiple technology fronts.