Why nuclear plants are more expensive to build in the US than overseas, and 4 ways to reduce costs

Photo courtesy Photo courtesy of NRC Flickr, ©Nuclear Management Co.

Next-generation nuclear plants are more expensive to build in the United States than elsewhere in the world, like in China. A group of researchers tried to understand why, and what to do about it…

According to a recent report developed by MIT, the cost per kilowatt of nuclear power in Eastern nations (China, Korea, UAE) is much less than in the West, at just $3,000-$4,000 per kilowatt.

In the West, the cost is double, at about $8,000 per kilowatt.

An article at Forbes summarized the study and provided three reasons for this higher cost (which they insist isn’t due to regulation):

  1. Plant designs aren’t always complete before construction begins.
  2. Inefficient construction management.
  3. Weak supply chains due to the fact that we basically stopped building nuclear plants 30 years ago.

A companion article, based on recommendations in the MIT study, provides four solutions to lower these costs:

  1. Build standardized, multi-unit sites to capitalize on economies of scale.
  2. Introduce proven seismic isolation technology (developed in the 1970s and ‘80s) to reduce the plant’s need to be so seismically robust.
  3. Use self-consolidating concrete (developed circa 1986), which is similar in strength to traditional concretes, but is much less labor intensive (and thus cheaper) to pour.
  4. Develop modular designs that can be constructed in a factory but assembled on site. This is a way to keep labor cheap but productive.

You can read the full report by clicking the following link:


A Long-term, scalable solution

These recommendations may be coming at an appropriate time. A warning came from Harvard this week about the dangers of a large-scale expansion of wind power. An AP News story cited a Harvard study that claims more wind farms may be worse on local climates than coal plants—at least at the scale that would be needed to go totally carbon-free.

The article reports that “researchers concluded that a dramatic, all-out expansion in the number of [wind] turbines could warm the country even more than climate change from burning coal and other fossil fuels, because of the way the spinning blades disturb the layers of warm and cold air in the atmosphere.”

They stress that wind turbines aren’t as bad as carbon emissions. The turbines only heat the local areas, and then only when the wind is blowing.

Of course, the wind advocates should also keep in mind the old political truth best articulated by former House Speaker Tip O’Neill: all politics is local.

Or, as Dale Carnegie put it, “A person’s toothache means more to that person than a famine in China which kills a milion people. A boil on one’s neck interests one more than 40 earthquakes in Africa. Think of that the next time you start a conversation.”

Lastly, the MIT study made one other noteworthy recommendation. To alleviate public safety concerns, the researchers recommend a move towards reactor designs that incorporate “inherent and passive safety features.”

When the new units at Vogtle are finished, that’ll be a great opportunity for the industry to demonstrate the benefits of safe, carbon-free nuclear power.

And hopefully provide a reason to build more like them.

What do you think?