Why are nuclear power plants so expensive to build and operate?

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Advice across the board is that nuclear power plants take a really long time and cost a lot of money. They almost always go far over time and budget. And they’re expensive to operate. Why is that so?

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16 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

There’s a lot of different factors.

Some of them are inherent to the design and operation of nuclear plants. A nuclear plant is complicated and the design needs to be adapted to the specifics of the site. Then, once it’s built, you need to pay nuclear engineers to run it, who don’t exactly come cheap. The one thing that is cheap is the fuel, because you need so little of it compared to other power sources. There are also other considerations like security and disaster preparedness which have special concerns with nuclear power. Compare this to something like a field of solar panels: they’re modular, simple to install, and don’t need a team of engineers monitoring them around the clock.

However, extrinsic factors may be the biggest contributor to cost. In most countries, fossil fuels are heavily subsidized by the government because almost everybody needs them currently, and cheap fuel is good for the economy. This makes it cheaper to run fossil fuel plants than it otherwise would be, making nuclear less attractive. Moreover, nuclear faces regulatory and political challenges because people are afraid of it. Nuclear plants very rarely break, but when they do, they do so in a way that is very expensive to fix and clean up (this is a valid concern to some extent) and that people think will kill everyone (this is less a valid concern but it is a very persuasive one).

Finally there’s another issue: economy of scale. Things become cheaper to build as more of them get built, because it becomes more profitable for designers and builders and parts manufacturers to specialize in those things. Solar is quite cheap right now because lots of solar is getting built right now, and the inverse is also true, nuclear plants are more expensive to design and build because western countries haven’t designed and built very many lately

Anonymous 0 Comments

There are a ton of rules and regulations to build a nuclear power plant. Everthing has to be secured by redundant systems because a failure could be very fatal.

All these things cost extra in addition to the components that are also extremely expensive. There are not many companies that build nuclear reactors and so this stuff is pricey.

Anonymous 0 Comments

the largest benefactor is safety. nuclear powerplants nowadays are extremely safe because many precautions have been taken.

the problem is, is that those precautions cost buckets of money and large amounts of time to build/setup exactly for the reason that they need to be implemented correctly and safely.

nuclear power plant can be boiled down to a huge investement that costs practically nothing (for a government that is) for the rest of it’s lifespan after the initial first fase

It’s worth it in the long run when the plant is up and running because it is really inexpensive to operate/maintain a running nuclear power plant and they are able to be used for an (objectively) long time.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Simply speaking power generation is boiling water to create steam, which then spins a turbine.

Burning coal and gas is super easy to create the heat source. Anybody could do it. But Nuclear power is incredibly complex to harness nuclear reactions to create heat- the expertise to build and maintain it so it doesn’t fuck up and irradiate your country.

Anonymous 0 Comments

1. They are incredibly complicated. It takes a LOT to build a nuclear power plant that functions. It takes even more to build one that is safe and won’t kill everyone in a three state area. It’s very very hard to anticipate every tiny little thing, and in something as complex as a nuclear power plant if something doesn’t line up how you expect, it can have huge knock-on effects
2. They are incredibly rare. The fact that they don’t build a lot of them means there’s no economy of scale. There’s no factory pumping out all the parts thousands of a time
3. In addition to number 2 above, they are all bespoke. They’re all almost completely different. Because they are built so rarely, or because the specific site has specific requirements, they are all a little, or sometimes a lot, different from each other. This means they have to be engineered and certified independently. Operators have to be trained on the specific site, and the training and certification doesn’t carry over
4. They take a long time to build. This means they are subject to inflation because even in a low-inflation environment, prices are still going up over the course of 5-10 years that a project takes

Many proposals to “reinvigorate” the nuclear industry tackle a lot of these problems: make them smaller so they’re not so complex, and you build more small reactors instead of fewer giant ones. You build the same one every time so they are identical and you get more benefits of a large scale manufacturing and construction operation

Anonymous 0 Comments

Safety mostly. You really really really really really really really really really really (add a few hundred more reallys) don’t want a bad accident at a nuclear power plant and the damn things shave to be operated safely for 30-50 years before being decommissioned – and they have to withstand every conceivable condition and occurrence (storms, earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, aging infrastructure. etc etc). Everything has to be over engineered and have multiple redundancies. Then you have a whole layer of security on top of that that typical power plants don’t have. Fuel or spent fuel can’t make an atomic weapon but can definitely be used in a dirty bomb.

There’s a whole complicate regulatory environment that may be overkill – but obtaining the necessary environmental approvals can take years and years and that’s before you start building anything.

You also have to account for the costs of storing spent fuel and ultimately decommissioning a plant which can be nearly as expensive as building one.

Anonymous 0 Comments

There is a reason the nuclear power is the safest power generation technology on the planet. It’s because smart people spend a lot of time and energy building them that way.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s not that nuclear power plants themselves are so expensive to build and operate, it’s the bureaucracy and politics involved in any major project in the modern era.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco cost $660 million in today’s dollars. 11 people died during its construction.

The Bay Bridge retrofit in San Francisco cost $8.5 billion in today’s dollars. No one died during its construction, but the retrofit turned out to be a complete joke. Turns out there are cracks in the foundation, impossible to get rid of. A big earthquake will completely demolish it.

Just the way things are now.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Two big reasons is safety regulations, which proponents of nuclear energy are likely to say are out of control and intended to prevent nuclear plants from being built at all. They’d argue that reactors would be perfectly safe without so many safety regulations impeding their construction. They have to assuage every fear people have about them whether or not those fears are rational. That costs a lot.

The other big reason is that we just don’t build them anymore. Because we don’t build them, there’s no economy of scale and there’s little infrastructure in place to build parts. Let’s say it costs $1 million to get a manufacturer set up to make a thingamajig for a nuclear plant plus $500K to actually build it. If you’re only building one plant, that thingamajig is gonna cost $1 million plus the $500K. Now lets say we decided that instead of building one plant, we’re gonna build 5. Now each thingamajig costs $200K plus $500K.

Anonymous 0 Comments

This article gives a pretty thorough run down of where the cost increases have come from

https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/11/why-are-nuclear-plants-so-expensive-safetys-only-part-of-the-story/

The basics being safety requiring more complex designs, supporting regulations requiring a lot more record keeping of what materials have been put where, and a failure to standardise designs