Capital cost of a nuclear power plant
SINCE the mid-90s, environmentalists and many neutral observers alike argue that even if nuclear power plants meet environmental standards, they should not be built because nuclear power is the most expensive way to generate electricity. While the cost of operating nuclear power plants is low, the capital costs of the plants themselves are very high. Moreover, the cost to build a nuclear plant far exceeded those that would have resulted from inflation, thereby undercutting the advantage of low fuel cost. Consequently, nuclear power plant has become a multi-billion dollar misadventure, particularly for the underdeveloped countries
In a 2010 report titled "Updated Capital Cost Estimates for Electricity Generation Plants," the US Energy Information Administration gave an estimate of $5,339 per kW for building a new reactor. The capital cost will, of course, vary substantially across countries.
On October 2, 2013, the prime minister of Bangladesh laid the foundation stone for the construction of the much anticipated Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. It will be built by the Nuclear Energy State Corporation of Russia, Rosatom, at a bargain-basement price of $2,000 per kW. It won't be an exaggeration to say that in today's economy, it would be foolish to expect a good and a safe reactor at such a bargain price.
Russian nuclear industry, just like its Bangladeshi counterpart, operates under a veil of secrecy. In a 2011 article titled "The Economics of the Russian Nuclear Power Industry," Leonid Andreev of the Bellona Foundation (Norway) wrote: "The economy of the Russian nuclear energy industry is the least known and most opaque of all the many facets that make up the vast dominion that is the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom….economic information, if it is revealed at all, is only made available in relative figures and general data whose accuracy it is impossible to verify."
Construction of new nuclear power plants is beset with spiraling costs and long delays. The 2013 World Nuclear Industry Status Report estimates that in the past decade the cost has skyrocketed to $7,000 per kW installed. The need for additional safety measures arising from the Fukushima accident is also having substantial impact on both the building and operational costs of a nuclear plant. After a reality check, Rosatom finally realised that the cost estimate of the Rooppur reactors is ridiculously low and the actual cost could soar to $5,000 per kW ($10 billion for the two reactors), which is more in line with the actual start-up cost of a reactor.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, the claim made by Sergey Kirienko, Director General of Rosatom, that Russian reactors are 100% safe is scientifically untenable. To the contrary, they are beset with numerous safety issues, as articulated by many writers in this newspaper and elsewhere. In a stunning report prepared after the 2011 Fukushima accident, Rosatom admits that Russian reactors "are grievously under-prepared for both natural and man-made disasters ranging from floods to fires to earthquakes or plain negligence." In view of the climate and topology of Bangladesh, this report should be of greatest concern to the energy policy makers of the government.
Rosatom expects the Rooppur nuclear plant to go into operation in 4 to 5 years time after the construction starts. However, the average building time of a nuclear power plant varies from 8 to 10 years. It should be noted that Rosatom/Russia has not yet developed all the documentation that is required before setting the wheels of construction into motion. Thus the estimate of 4 to 5 years as the completion time for the Rooppur power plant seems far-fetched.
According to the 2013 World Nuclear Industry's Status Report, Russia's plan to build the nuclear power plant in Bangladesh is not well-defined. It is, therefore, quite likely that the prospects for the construction of the Rooppur power plant won't go beyond the proposals stage.
There is now a general consensus among majority of the world citizenry that nuclear power is no longer an economically competitive choice. The dream of energy that we once thought would be cheaper than the cost to "meter houses" has failed to materialise.
The share of nuclear energy in the world's power generation reached a historic peak of 17% in 1993. Since then, it has steadily declined to about 10% in 2012. If this trend continues, it is quite likely that nuclear power will soon disappear as part of the global energy portfolio.
Nuclear power is also perceived to be unsafe, can be used to make nuclear weapons, produces dangerous wastes, lacks waste disposal facilities, vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and draws funds away from the development of sustainable energy. Dollar for dollar, low-carbon energy sources, such as wind power, solar power, geothermal energy, and biomass can deliver cleaner, safer, and more efficient energy than nuclear power.
Finally, referring to the Chernobyl accident, Alice Slater of the US based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation wrote: "The tragic news uncovered by comprehensive new research that almost one million people died in the toxic aftermath of Chernobyl should be a wake-up call to people all over the world to petition their governments to put a halt to the current industry-driven nuclear renaissance."
The writer is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.