This article is from the In-Depth Report The Future of Nuclear Power

Can Nuclear Power Compete?

Newly approved reactor designs could reduce global warming and fossil-fuel dependence, but utilities are grappling with whether better nukes make market sense

Perhaps even more of a question is the shape of the market that reactors would serve. Some states have a goal of zero electric growth, achieved by replacing lamps, pumps, blowers and everything else that runs on electricity with updated equipment that does the same work with less energy. If growth stopped—an ambitious prospect—new plants would still be needed to replace old ones as they wore out, but far fewer orders would result.

By almost all accounts, cutting demand is a lot cheaper than building capacity. Dan W. Reicher, a former assistant secretary of energy for conservation and renewables, has complained repeatedly that companies will invest in solar plants that produce electricity at 20 or 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, while ignoring fixes that would save comparable energy at a cost of four cents per kilowatt-hour.

Wild cards add even more uncertainty to how much power will be needed. Proponents talk about tens of millions of plug-in hybrid or even electric cars, each of which might use 10 kilowatt-hours a day from the grid to cover 30 or 40 miles of travel. That would substantially bump up demand, but the success of such vehicles is difficult to predict. If millions of the cars did sell, they would mostly recharge at night, which would change the shape of the “load curve”—instead of households consuming peak amounts of power during the day and far less at night, consumption would be at a more constant level across a 24-hour period, which favors technologies such as nuclear that are capital-intensive but operate around the clock with low marginal costs. Consequently, any power company planning a big generating station that takes six or eight years to build does so without a clear prediction of what demand will be by the time the plant is finished.

Potential carbon regulation adds even more guesswork. Governments are seriously considering a flat tax on emissions or a cap-and-trade system that would create a de facto surcharge for emissions. Either way, predicting the price is hard: the initial experience in European trading was a wildly unstable market. Still, economists predict such a system would result in a price that averages in the tens of dollars per ton of emissions. A $10 charge per ton would raise the consumer price of electricity by about a penny a kilowatt-hour. A new coal plant typically produces that much electricity for six or seven cents, so an addition of $20 or $30 a ton would create a huge advantage for carbon-free technologies such as nuclear power.

In fits and starts, a nuclear renaissance might actually be under way. Wallace’s vision is for standardized plants, identical right down to “the carpeting and wallpaper,” that could therefore be manufactured and approved for less than reactors of the past, almost all of which were custom-built. Teams of engineers and craft workers would construct the same plant again and again in different locations; just like assembling furniture from kits, practice would make perfect. The idea that mass production—or, at least, serial production—is cheaper than one-of-a-kind products is nearly universally held in the industry. John Krenicki, president and CEO of General Electric’s Energy Infrastructure division, says site-by-site construction will never create a cost-effective solution.

Wallace’s idea seems to be catching on. The first standardized plant is planned as a third unit beside Constellation Energy’s two existing Calvert Cliffs plants, about 45 miles south of Washington. In July, AmerenUE, a big Midwestern utility, also filed a license application for a cookie-cutter unit. More applications are waiting in the wings: one in Pennsylvania, one in upstate New York, one in Idaho and a twin-unit plant in Amarillo, Tex. All would be built by the UniStar joint venture, in partnership with a local utility or generating company. UniStar has not listed precise costs, but in recent briefings Wallace has pointed to other studies of standardized plants that quote “overnight costs” (not counting interest for construction) of $4,000 to $6,000 per kilowatt of capacity. His plants would be in the upper end of that range, he says. An up-to-date coal plant costs about $3,000 a kilowatt, but charges levied on carbon dioxide emissions, or extra equipment to capture the gas instead, could add substantially to that.

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