Interactive tool lifts veil on the cost of nuclear energy
Despite the ever-changing landscape of energy economics, subject to the influence of new technologies and geopolitics, a new tool promises to root discussions about the cost of nuclear energy in hard evidence rather than speculation. Over the last two years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has developed the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Cost Calculator, an online interface that provides a nuanced look at the economic costs of nuclear power.
Built with significant funding from the MacArthur Foundation, and in collaboration with Prof. Robert Rosner and a team of researchers, the calculator provides a simple gateway into the physics-laden universe of nuclear economics.
A user can slide more than 60 moving scales to tweak inputs like uranium price or reactor construction time, and then watch the expected price shift. Spending time with the interface gives insight into costs in the field of nuclear energy, where building a new reactor can have a greater impact on energy cost than a spike in the price of uranium. The calculator also projects the costs of recycling versus disposing of spent nuclear fuel—a subject hotly debated among energy experts—and reveals that, when all costs are added in, recycling fuel results in consumers paying more per kilowatt hour.
“It’s completely transparent. You push a button, and out comes the answer,” said Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, and a faculty member affliated with the Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
Less transparent are the years of rigorous scientific effort underlying the project. Rosner worked with a team of nuclear engineers to develop the mathematical model at the calculator’s core when he was director of Argonne National Laboratories. The model captured the fluid relationships among variables that determine the price of nuclear energy in three different fuel cycles—that is, whether the nuclear fuel is disposed of, partially recycled (also called “mixed oxide,” or “MOX”) or fully recycled—revealing that the special materials and processes needed to recycle fuel come with high prices that are ultimately borne by energy consumers.