If we listen to the nuclear industry, there is no alternative to nuclear power for the future. Nuclear power is very clean, and is also quite cheap. Although it is very capital intensive, their life cycles are also very long which means that they can produce electricity for a very long time. This was the main reason why many developing countries like China and India went in massively for capacity addition in the form of new nuclear power stations.
Yet with the recent, imminent catastrophe that is unfolding in front of our eyes in Japan, this statement has been called into question. Even if the technology is very clean, there are a number of risks inherent in a nuclear power plant, and this is not something that is often discussed. Many people think that it is the most cost effective way to generate power, and cost is a major criteria when it comes to new investments.
A team from Queen’s university have however taken up this gauntlet and set out to calculate if nuclear power is indeed as cost effective as it is made out to be. They calculated the total cost of the construction of the plant, included all the indirect public funding it receives, and added the cost of liability in the event of an accident as is happening right now in Japan.
They took 100 nuclear plants that are currently operating in the United States as the basis for their study. They then compared this to the most abundant source of energy in the world today, sunlight. They found that when all costs are included into the factor, nuclear power is actually more expensive than solar power.
As of now the only reason why solar power is not used on a wider scale is because of the high initial cost of installation. This means that the cost of the power produced too goes up. As of now the cost of producing one KW using traditional methods is around 12 – 15 cents. Many power plants have even managed to bring this cost down to less than 10 cents. When compared to solar power that costs between 25 and 50 cents depending on the technology used, this seems logical.
The problem is that with recent advancements in solar power technology, the efficiency of photo-voltaic cells have gone up tremendously. Apart from this other new technological innovations like using solar concentrators in series have given much more efficiency than standard solar cells. This has brought down the cost of one KW to between 15 and 18 cents which is just a little more than existing costs.
Experts say that if the size of power plants could be increased, and two or more plants constructed close to each other so that they would be able to share resources like control rooms and spares, the cost would come down to around 11 cents, which is quite good. With advancements in technology, this can even come down to under 10 cents which is considered the holy grail of power generation.
The Queens team found that comparing all costs together, having solar power plants actually gave a savings of over $5.3 trillion over a 100 yr life cycle for the plant, which is quite a bit of money saved, not to mention, quite a bit of environmental damage prevented too.