High-profile incidents like at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have severely impacted the reputation of nuclear energy. Even if an overwhelming number of plants are safe, it only takes one accident to render the land around a plant uninhabitable.
In the U.S., “nukes” (as protesting musicians nicknamed them in the 1980s) continue to be unpopular. The number in the U.S. has dropped from a peak of 107 in 1990 to 93 as of 2022, according to the Pew Research Center.
Roughly 1-in-4 Americans say their government should actively discourage nuclear energy production, which could explain why so few plants have been built over the last 10 years. Yet fear is only part of the equation, as the financial bottom line also plays a crucial role in the lack of any nuclear energy embrace.
New nuclear power plants are mostly being built in countries where all infrastructure is cheaper to build. China is currently developing 24 new plants — the most in the world. Meanwhile, India is building eight new reactors. It’s simply cheaper to build plants in these regions.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the overnight cost of building a new plant in China, which assumes no interest payments, is $2500/kWe, while the cost in the U.S. is $6041/kWe (short for kilowatt-electric or one thousand watts of electric capacity). This price disparity is another reason why nuclear power isn't favored in the developed world — though the causes go far beyond this.
Nuclear power takes several years to deploy — and that’s on the conservative end. A plant can typically be constructed over a period of five years. However, regulatory and financial hurdles could delay these projects along the way. Meanwhile, a typical wind farm can be fully deployed in as little as six months, according to EDF Energy.
The classic example of how mismanaged a nuclear project can get is as close as Georgia. There, the third reactor at Plant Vogtle went online at full capacity in late May but was supposed to start generating power in 2016. It was approved for construction in 2009, and overruns pushed the cost to more than $17 million; combined with a fourth reactor still in the testing phase, the total price comes to a staggering $35 billion.
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‘The most reliable source’
Indeed, time and cost ultimately represent the biggest barrier to adoption. Even Finland's energy experts understand the commercial challenges. “[Nuclear] it seems is not very attractive for the investors,” Jukka Ruusunen, chief executive of Finland’s national grid operator Fingrid, told The National.
However, nuclear power has several non-commercial advantages. Unlike wind and solar, nuclear energy output is stable regardless of weather and sunshine hours. The U.S. Energy Department once called it “the most reliable energy source and it's not even close.”
Of course all bets on stability are off in the event of a meltdown — and in terms of catastrophes compared to anything possible with solar or wind, you might also say it’s not even close.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also highlighted nuclear’s potential to deliver national security and energy independence. Yet the near catastrophes at the Chernobyl plant during the war almost seem to counteract that fact.
On the upside, Finland’s new nuclear plant has helped it avoid blackouts despite sanctions on Russian energy and could help explain why several other European countries are also now pushing for more nuclear power.
But in the end, nuclear is complicated — and it only takes a tsunami, fat finger on the control panel or mechanical breakdown to once again become reacquainted with the fallout.
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