Before we start, let us do a small exercise. Just go back one decade, to around 2002. That was the time when people started noticing more about Global Warming and Climate Change. If someone considers about getting rid of fossil fuels at that time he or she had a very limited options which were cost effective. Renewables like Solar were extremely expensive at around $6 per Watt, but Uranium was much cheaper instead. Public Confidence on Nuclear Energy was becoming better and better. Everyone agreed that Chernobyl was because of the faulty RBMK reactor design of the USSR. So Nuclear was a perfect option to avoid fossil fuels.
Now coming back to the current situation.
There have been a lot more concern about using fossil fuels nowadays because of Climate Change. But what are the cost effective alternatives? We do have the same options as before, mainly Nuclear, Solar and Wind power. But equations of Economics, Safety and Commercial availability are different. Let us take a look at how Nuclear take a stand in the game.
Types of fuels used in Reactors
Naturally available fissile material is only Uranium 235. Other two main fissile isotopes are Plutonium 239 and Uranium 233 but they have to be produced artificially. Plutonium 239 is produced from Uranium 238 and Uranium 233 is produced from Thorium 232 respectively and both of them require Neutron Capture and Beta Decay procedures. That means utilizing Breeder reactors and nuclear reprocessing. That is the reason why Uranium 235 is preferred as a nuclear fuel. But how much Uranium 235 is available? The answer is very less. 99.3% of the available Uranium is Uranium 238. In simple terms 140kg of natural Uranium is required to get 1kg of Uranium 235. Consider this large multiplication factor in determining the natural Uranium requirement.
Comparison with Renewables
Reserves: Uranium Reserves and Consumption Rate
Around 5000 kilotons of conventional reserves have been identified, at the same time, current World consumption is around 65 kilotons per year. That is enough for around 85 years at current consumption.
Main material used in Solar cells is Silicon and that is the second most abundant material on Earth.
Capital Cost of Nuclear Power
Nuclear Reactors are not cheap. They cost around $3 per Watt. For comparison Solar and Wind Power cost typically around $2 per Watt now. That is the current price, but one has to consider the fact that the price of Solar is going down at a very fast rate also.
Cost of Fuel: Depends upon Uranium Price
Price of Uranium went through a wave in 2007. During the beginning of 2000 it was around $20/kg and it climbed through $300/kg during 2007. It is some where around $110/kg for now. Major producers are Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada. This situation could potentially lead to yet another oil politics equivalent.
Renewable energy holds a great advantage because they do not require any fuel to operate.
Unlike many other power sources, Nuclear Power plants take a lot of time to get completed, typically in the order of 10 years or so. Where as, renewables could be installed in a very short time. This is yet another big drawback of Nuclear Power, a decision for a new nuclear power plant typically gets materialized in 10 years. Within that period much more renewables could be installed. As discussed above, one should consider the price drop rate of renewables during that time also.
Current share of Nuclear and Renewables
Nuclear power currently accounts for around 14% of world’s electricity (Wikipedia). Renewable Energy share varies from country to country. Germany is the world leader in Solar technologies while producing more than 20% power from renewables. In Italy it is more than 25%. For Spain, Wind Power is the single largest electricty source.
Requirement on Grid
Nuclear Plants are typically large capacity power sources located much away from load centres, increasing dependency on transmission systems, so as to upgrade or build new transmission grid. Renewables are very much decentralized and distributed. Also in many cases, they could be set up much closer to the actual load centres, reducing the requirement of Grid upgradation.
Security: The single most important point about Nuclear Energy
Nuclear took a real U-turn after the Fukushima incident. Germany decided to close all its reactors. Switzerland and Spain banned the construction of new ones. Unlike any other source of energy, this is a completely one sided problem of Nuclear power.
Quite openly, most of the people including many of the “Go Nuclear” activists may not want a plant in their own neighborhood itself. This problem arises mainly because of the safety concerns and the land usage. Renewables are less affected by this, with the exception of some concerns about the aesthetic sense of wind turbines. Whatever it may be, it is much smaller in scale compared to Nuclear power.
Nuclear is yet another form of thermal power plant. So it consumes a lot of water for its steam power cycle and plant ooling. Except for Solar Thermal system, renewables do not require water or any other resources.
A few thoughts
With all these details, I am not suggesting that we should stop Nuclear Energy and Research. But at the same time, considering Availability, Scalability, Safety and Cost, Renewables stand extremely competitive to Nuclear Energy.