The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 10/22/08

The present reactors are thermal reactors that burn uranium-235, which constitutes only 0.7 percent of natural uranium. The remaining 99.3 percent consists of uranium-238 that can be burnt in fast reactors. Prototypes have shown that these reactors can be built, although at present they are uneconomic. If the uranium price rises to the level that they become economical, they can take over, increasing the amount of energy obtainable from uranium by a factor of about sixty. Since it is also possible to use the fissile element thorium, which is even more abundant than uranium, there is thus no danger that nuclear reactors will ever suffer from shortage of fuel.

Reliability

Nuclear reactors are unaffected by the weather and rarely suffer breakdowns. The best reactors operate for over 90 percent of the time and nearly all the remainder is for planned maintenance, which is arranged for periods of low demand. Nuclear reactors are thus highly reliable.

Cost

Nuclear power stations are more costly to build but cheaper to run than other power stations, and therefore the cost of the electricity produced depends strongly on the rate of interest required on the initial capital expenditure. The cost is also affected by the lifetime of the reactor, which may be around fifty years, and in that period the effects of inflation may be very large. This makes it difficult to give a precise figure for the cost of nuclear power.

Some estimates of the cost of nuclear power compared with those of other energy sources were given in the previous article. Such comparisons are affected by many factors, but on the whole, they show that nuclear costs are similar, or perhaps rather less, than those of coal. This comparison takes no account of the huge and unquantifiable costs of global warming and climate change due to the carbon dioxide emitted from coal power stations. The carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power stations are less than one percent of those from coal power stations.

The decommissioning of nuclear reactors after they have reached the end of their useful life has to be carried out with great care due to the large amounts of radioactivity they contain. The fuel rods are easy to remove, and much of the building and parts of the reactor are not radioactive and can also be removed easily. This leaves the highly radioactive reactor core which can either be allowed to decay for many decades before dismantling or could be sealed and buried under a mound of earth. Dismantling the core greatly increases the cost, since it must be carried out by remote control. This cost can easily be covered by setting aside a small fraction of the profits during each year of the reactor’s life. As a reactor can operate for fifty years or more this accumulates sufficiently to cover the cost of decommissioning. It has been estimated that the cost of decommissioning is about 0.05 p/kWh for pressurized water reactors.

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