Make Nuclear Power More Efficient and Cost Competitive with Natural Gas

Charles D. Ferguson

Dale Klein’s thoughtful essay underscores the point that the highest economic hurdle for new nuclear power reactors is the competition against the low cost of abundant natural gas. While U.S. supplies of natural gas—especially shale gas accessed by hydraulic fracturing—appear plentiful, the price may take a sharp turn upwards and experience wide swings if the United States substantially increases its exports of this fossil fuel and if natural gas becomes a commodity that is as globally traded as oil is.

So, can a case be made for investing in nuclear reactors in the United States? One major incentive that the United States could apply is to place a price on carbon emissions. This would favor nuclear plants, which do not emit greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, and wouldn’t favor coal and natural gas plants, which do emit these gases. But the political will has been lacking to levy such a fee or to establish a cap-and-trade system. Instead, the federal government has offered financial subsidies to stimulate the construction of another handful of reactors.

Rather than subsidies, a better strategy would be for nuclear power plants to compete with natural gas plants by becoming more efficient. Presently, commercial nuclear plants only convert about one-third of nuclear fission energy to electricity, whereas natural gas plants can convert about half the energy content of gas to electricity. More advanced nuclear reactors, called Generation IV, could achieve comparable energy efficiencies, but high construction costs and a history of technical problems with certain reactor types have dissuaded commercial investors. A continuing role for government in the nuclear industry is to fund research and development of these technologies to determine if they can cross into commercial viability.

CHARLES D FERGUSON, President, Federation of American Scientists, is the author of Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know, and has worked as a senior analyst for nuclear proliferation and arms control issues for the FAS nuclear security program.