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Assessing nuclear power’s place in the global energy mix

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Nuclear power

According to the World Nuclear Association, around 11% of the world’s electricity is generated using nuclear power. There are over 430 nuclear reactors in operation around the world with a total capacity of over 370 gigawatts or GW. Over 180 smaller nuclear reactors power ships and submarines. The US holds the largest nuclear power capacity at 104 GW, followed by France’s 63 MW. Japan comes third with a capacity of 42 GW (mostly disabled). In 2013, the share of nuclear power in electricity generation was around 20% in the US and around 75% in France.

Nuclear power offers the following benefits over conventional thermal power plants.

  1. clean energy
  2. reliability
  3. lower variable costs

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Clean energy

Coal has been under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s radar for being the most polluting fossil fuel. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power plants don’t emit pollutants. Plus, health risks for workers associated with nuclear power are much smaller than those associated with coal. There are other environmental challenges associated with nuclear power, which we’ll discuss in the next part of this series.

Reliability

While wind (FAN) and solar (TAN) power are cleaner sources of electricity, they’re intermittent. Wind power works when wind is blowing and solar power works when the Sun is out. In contrast, nuclear power plants work almost throughout the year, barring scheduled maintenances.

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Lower variable costs

According to the US Energy Information Administration (or EIA), variable costs (including fuel) for advanced nuclear power plants scheduled to come into operation would be $11.8 per megawatt hour (MWh) compared to $30 for coal-fired power plants and $49 for conventional natural gas–based plants. This makes nuclear power plants the cheapest to operate among all reliable power sources. However, nuclear power plants are one of the costliest to build, as we discuss in Part 16 of this series.

Looking at the positives, nuclear energy should be at the top of the agenda for energy policymakers. Nuclear power plant developers like General Electric (GE) and uranium miners like Uranium Resources (URRE) and United States Enrichment Corporation (LEU) should be optimistic about the future of nuclear energy. So why aren’t they? Read on to the next part of this series.

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