A new research article published in Joule Commentary argues that investing in new nuclear plants is not the most cost-competitive, safe, or time-effective strategy toward decarbonization. In fact, the article, “Why Investing in New Nuclear Plants is Bad for the Climate,” claims relying too much on new nuclear developments would make climate targets unachievable for most regions of the world.
The article argues that nuclear-based solutions being pushed specifically in the United States and European Union have poor evidence to back them, and high costs and long construction times needed for such projects serve as obstacles to achieving net zero goals. Instead, preference should reportedly be given to the “cheapest technology that can be deployed fastest.”
Their argument applies to new projects specifically rather than phasing out existing plants, and they focus on nuclear development for the U.S., Europe, and the United Kingdom.
Much of the report explains the massive costs of nuclear projects, including dramatic price overruns, construction delays, and safety concerns. Most projections of cost are also incorrectly estimated. The Plant Vogtle Unit 3 in Georgia, for example, is the first new operational nuclear power reactor in the U.S. in three decades but is reported to be at least $17 billion over budget and took seven years longer than expected to be completed.
For instance, cost projections made by the French grid operator RTE assumed capital costs for new nuclear plants to be less than two-thirds of the pressurized reactor plants currently located in Finland and France. The lowering costs of renewables make them an obvious alternative to nuclear development, according to the research.
Accounting for nuclear waste also remains an obstacle that would remain for thousands of years to come, incurring more costs. Finally, the reliance on uranium mining needed for nuclear power makes for a serious radiation hazard for miners, most of whom are located outside of Europe and other areas where nuclear power is currently being promoted.
Nuclear Development Requires “Time We Do Not Have”
In response to claims that any alternative fuel is better than fossil fuels, the report underscores the need to efficiently decarbonize global economies.
At present, the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency estimate construction times of around a decade, while renewables like wind and solar take only a fraction of that time to develop. Even a 10-year timespan seems unrealistic based on cited projects, including the development of Olkiluoto, which took sixteen years to build instead of its projected five, or Flamanville, which is currently over eleven years behind schedule.
The urgency of the climate crisis does not allow for delays as many countries aim to significantly decarbonize by 2030.
“If governments and economic actors believe that nuclear power will come online at a certain date, they will not make alternative plans, and without alternative plans, the current carbon-intensive electricity system will remain in place — rendering climate targets unachievable.” said the report.