What's the true cost of nuclear power? Ask The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Cost Calculator

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Don’t forget to include the cost of 3MI - Chernobyl - Fukushima style meltdowns and recovery of the radwaste from the environment.

We don’t yet know the costs of those, since none of the sites have been cleaned up yet.


If we assume major nuclear accidents (Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima) occur once every twenty-five years and if we assume they cost $100 billion each, then they add 1/5 of a cent per kilowatt hour.


OK - so how does this compare to conventional fuels like coal and gas and some of the newer things?


I have a hard time believing we can accurately estimate the long-term cost of nuclear waste storage considering Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. That would be like asking a Neanderthal to speculate on modern-day real estate markets.


We may have already overshot that budget, with no cleanup in sight.
Americans might prefer to credit Reagan, but Gorby for one has claimed that the USSR superpower was toppled by the costs of Chernobyl, and even after the USSR’s demise after years of containment expense, the ongoing costs to Ukraine and Belarus were double-digit chunks of GDP through the nineties, estimated at eleven digits, not counting the loss of land and opportunity.
Meanwhile, contamination marches slowly towards the Kiev water supply via the groundwater,


Why not just assume that they will cost $100T each, and require a thousand years to clean up?
Since they’ve already spent billions on some of the events I mentioned, and they still don’t even know where the corium went from Fukushima.

In Chernobyl, they know where it went, but it is still in place under the ruins of the building. And at 3MI, they just closed the big blast doors and walked away from the site. The partially-melted core is still inside the reactor vessel. Not to mention Hanford and the like. I would only consider a site “cleaned up” if all the radwaste is sealed in safe containers and buried somewhere like Onkalo. An impossible task for Fukushima since they’ll have to filter the Pacific Ocean.

If one of those happens every 25 years, the industry can’t afford it.


Any tentative calculations for the thorium-cycle molten-salt reactors?

Given how much energy is still stored in “spent” fuel, I don’t think storing the stuff forever is a good idea. Just burn the actinides off in a newer-generation (or even subcritical, with a neutron generator) reactor, get rid of the long-life isotopes that are giving greenies the willies, and recover the remaining energy.

Besides, where’s the cutoff for the activity of the material to consider it “safe”? Is it some insanely low level, or does it at least compare with the activity of freshly mined pitchblende?

Given the success rate of the speculators in comparison with a random number generator, said Neanderthal may have a comparable success rate.

Why the removal? Sealed in situ is not good enough exactly why?

For the ordinary, non-meltdown spent fuel itself, burying the energy-rich materials in a difficult-to-access place is DUMB.


Everyones’ estimates are wildly different though.

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I think we can safely say the cost of coal externalities is huge and probably incalculable. When we consider all the people who died prematurely from lung damage, the damage to buildings caused by sulfate corrosion, the contaminated land, the direct and indirect deaths from mining and the premature deaths caused by the release of cadmium and arsenic (and uranium) in combustion smoke, we’re looking at huge hidden costs.
Oil and gas are better but again we don’t have a good estimate of the deaths and mental illness caused by lead in gasoline. We do know how many road deaths were caused by the internal combustion engine - it’s an enormous number, many millions worldwide - which would have been avoidable had we relied on electrical power and public transport.
Compared to these, nuclear power has been relatively benign. And I’m not arguing for Luddism; just pointing out that pre-steam, the best GNP was a few hundred dollars per year at 2015 rates. With all the downsides, cheap energy has transformed the human race. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is debatable, but at least we are able to discuss it - which itself is progress.


Not only is it important to factor in the hidden costs with fossil fuel use, but what about the knock-on effects of using renewables? Take Germany’s recent closure of half their nuclear plants and increase in wind power with the result of a big negative outcome with respect to CO2 emissions. If increasing renewable use has the side effect of reducing nuclear use and increasing fossil fuel use, then the renewables have to bear part of the cost for the increased environmental damage from fossil fuels (wind is especially guilty here, due to the requirement for backup of pretty much every W generated).

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The nuclear plant closures were not caused by wind power - other than hot air from Green politicians post Chernobyl.

Because we do not share the same view on the meaning of “clean up”. I adhere to the stricter standard that it should be just as if nuclear fission never happened. By that standard, it has been an ever-expanding mess since the Curies first isolated radium from pitchblende.

It is because humans are too stupid for nuclear power. Not necessarily every human, but in the big picture, this is so. They will dig into the stored actinides to make war on other humans, or because they like to think they have a better idea what to do with it. Big picture, bottom line, this stuff gets scattered. Most of it isn’t of terrible environmental significance, for example plutonium, which is frequently mentioned for its scare value… it doesn’t really bioaccumulate and it tends to remain in the sediment or wherever it winds up.

But there’s another isotope of iodine: 129I … half life in the millions of years. Strongly bioaccumulates. How many tons of that can be strewn about without serious consequences? What percentage of the iodine in a biome can be 129I before it kills off most vertebrate life? And what is the nuke industry doing to collect it up? Nothing, apparently.

So as long as this policy remains of sweeping the news and information under the carpet, while strewing radwaste about the environment, I’m sticking to this simple statement: humans are too stupid for nuclear energy.

Very few things correlate with:

  • food surpluses
  • access to clean drinking water
  • sewage treatment
  • access to quality health care
  • women’s equality*
  • reduced levels of population growth

nearly as well as does affordable, readily available electricity.

This is an “externality” that needs to be on the table a lot more than it is.

Hell, even Stalin gave enough of a shit about the people he was dictator of that he built dams and power plants like crazy in the 1930’s.

* yes, I know about retarded theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran. I’m not claiming a 1.0 correlation…


What about the same standard for other energies? What about holding burning fossil fuels to the same standard as if oil was never found, as if coal was never mined? By that standard, the mess is way WAY worse.

Like the subcritical reactors, perhaps?

Or burned up in subcritical reactors.

So, not that much active, isn’t it?

To put in perspective, according to this table a 70 kg human body contains 0.02 g of iodine. With 180 µCi/g of I-129, if all of the iodine in human body would be that horribly scary I-129, this gives 3.6 µCi of activity, which is (1 Ci=3.7*10^10 Bq) 133,220 decays per second.

According to here, the occupational limit for ingestion is annually 5 µCi (inhalation limit is higher so let’s take the lower one).

Iodine intake per day is suggested to be (RDA, here) 150 µg per day for an adult, 54.75 milligrams per year. With 180 µCi/g the 54.75 mg is 9.86 µCi, which is only twice the conservative, ass-covering, considered-safe limit for oral intake, and just barely above the limit for inhalation.

If I get in the mood, I may calculate the internal dose equivalent from 100% I-129 in body vs the dose from K-40.

Rough estimate: 140 grams of potassium in human body contains 16,8 mg of K-40. With 7.1 µCi/g, this equals 0.12 µCi, or 4440 decays per second. This is 30 times fewer decays per second for K-40 than I-129. However, the decay characteristics differ and the emitted energy is vastly different.

Let’s assume the worst case, all energy is absorbed and none leaves the body.

For K-40, the decay is 90% by β-, emitting electron at 1.33 MeV top, and 10% of gamma emission (K-capture) with 1.46 MeV gamma emission. Let’s assume every decay contributes 1.3 MeV of energy.

For I-129, the decay is 0.152 MeV in beta at 100%, accompanied with 0.03-0.04 MeV gamma. Let;s count 0.04 MeV at 100% cases for simplicity. This gives us 0.192 MeV of energy per decay.

With K-40, we get 1.34440=5772 MeV per second of energy. With 31536000 seconds per year we get 1.8210^17 eV of energy per year. At 1.6*10^-19 J/eV, this gives us 0.029 joule per year.

With I-129, we get 0.192133220=25578 MeV per second. This gives us 8.0710^17 eV/year, or 0.129 joule per year.

As sievert, the absorbed dose, is defined as joule per kilogram, the totally absorbed dose for a 70kg person is 0.414 mSv/yr for K-40, and 1.842 mSv/yr for I-129.

Total background radiation dose is said to be 3-6 mSv/year as of now.

I am stressing again that this is the worst-case calculation, with ALL iodine replaced with I-129 and with every single gamma photon and beta particle being fully absorbed.

According to my back-of-the-envelope calculation, this goes quite far above 100 percent.

Why? It’s pretty much harmless. And with its modest cross-section, it can be burned up with neutrons (and we’re back in the subcritical reactor) or with strong pulsed lasers.

I’d rather say, humans are too stupid so they fear nuclear energy. (And terrorists. And bottles of water on the airplane. And their own shadows. And so on.)

Edit: Wow, this was long. If somebody wants, please check my calculations.


Your calculations look OK to me though, being very picky indeed, I would use fewer sf because it makes it easier for the nontechnical to follow. (the 70kg and 140g figures are sufficiently rough that we should take the overall as about 1.5sf, so 0.03J vs 0.13J and .4 vs 1.8 mSv/y. In a world where journalists are supposed to write “3 people in 10” rather than “30%”, dumbing down is a given.)
Perhaps worth pointing out too that the beta from potassium has enough energy to create positron emission, which could be more damaging per eV than the Compton scattering effects.
Anyway, great job on taking down another person who believes what they read on the Intertubes and can’t be bothered to do the math.
[edit - I checked something from memory just now and confirmed - a frequent flier can get around 2mSv/y additional exposure from the increased background radiation in the stratosphere. So complete replacement with I-129 adds about as much risk as being flight crew or a CEO - except that a lot of the exposure in aircraft is to neutrons which may be more damaging than the Sv equivalent suggests.]


Challenge accepted. BOTEC being prepared.
Also note that I have, in past messages, mentioned things that I find interesting about nuclear technology. Betavoltaics for example…

It’s just that whenever a power plant malfunctions, the very very human reactions are soooooo far from ideal. You have the bureaucrats sweeping the news under the rug while making the spew worse. And yes, of course, after 500 years or so the most dangerous crap will have decayed. But I never cease to be amazed by the stupidity.

In a rational world, yes. Subcritical, or even critical, reactors, and further extraction of useful work from the fission products… recycling and containment until the source is exhausted. In reality – not so much.

(also worth noting [prior to BOTEC] I am pretty sure that ingesting pure K-40 would not be healthy; natural K is only 0.12% K-40)


Meh, perhaps it would come up short of killing all vertebrate life. I get about 130,718 Bq/thyroid, for humans with all I-129. That’s about 177µCi … it’s pretty low energy β at 0.194MeV. I don’t really know what the health implications would be.

[edit] Note that all the damage from this radiation would be to the thyroid. It is not like a dose of whole-body cosmic rays, but rather is concentrated in this one smallish organ.


I don’t see any mention of the costs of insuring the powerplant sites against accidents/terrorist attacks or the millennia long storage needs for the nuclear waste. Comparing costs of an incident in Chernobyl (was inhabited by 14,000 residents pre incident) to similar incident in one of the plants near a major US metropolitan center is just crazy. If India Point (less than 50 miles upstream from NYC) had a Chernobyl type incident it could bring down the whole US economy. Or Diablo Canyon just about halfway from SF to LA, built so close to a set of geological fault lines that it is for all practical purposes to be regarded as built “directly over” an earthquake fault, and to make it even worse it is right on the coast, ripe for a tsunami incident.

Sure you could make a car powered by dynamite, but even if running it was 1/10 the cost of gasoline, it would still be a bad idea.

One should probably point out that those reactors were really really old designs. The problem in Fukishima was not only identified but fixed 50 years ago. They didn’t integrate those fixes into the Fukishima plant.

The Chernobyl and Fukishima nuclear plants have as much in common with modern nuclear plant as a Model T has with a Mercedes SLS.

A modern nuclear reactor literally can not melt down. The small one-time-use reactors are fully encased in lead and concrete and can be placed underground so nothing short of a megaton level nuclear bomb could crack their casing and let nuclear waste out.

If we allowed breeding reactors to exist without fear of the terrorists who for some reason are only interested in plutonium and not uranium, we wouldn’t have anywhere near the waste level we have today with the large number of old-style reactors we have around.