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Economics and Reliability

Nuclear power plants are one of the most economical forms of energy production.  Nuclear fuel costs (as a function of power generation potential) represent only a fraction of the cost of fossil fuels.  Including capital and non-fuel operating costs, the cost of operating a nuclear power plant is roughly equivalent to fossil fuels.  Recently, the average electricity production cost for nuclear energy was recognized as the cheapest source of electricity.  In 2002, the U.S. average cost of power generation by nuclear plants was 1.71 cents per kilowatt-hour, for coal-fired plants 1.85 cents, for gas 4.06 cents, and for oil 4.41 cents.  Costs for solar and wind are still well beyond that considered to be competitive to the public. The cost of regulation and industry oversight of nuclear power generation is substantially more than that of other power generation sources; however, improvements in reliability and operational and maintenance efficiencies have contributed to reducing those costs.  Currently, nuclear power plant capacity factors average over 75%.  This is competitive with those of fossil fired plants.  Most plants are designed to operate in a base load configuration; that is, they run at full power regardless of the demand on electricity.  Nuclear power plants are particularly well suited for this purpose since they are designed to produce large quantities of power and can sustain operation for up to two years without refueling.

The nuclear power industry is preparing a new generation of reactors. Simpler, standardized designs will expedite licensing and reduce the time and cost of construction – even while maintaining the highest standards of protection against accident, earthquake or terrorist attack. Advanced reactors will also cost even less to operate, and produce less waste. A key innovation will be the incorporation of ‘inherent’ or ‘passive’ safety features – the use of natural physical principles as a substitute for active controls.

Construction costs estimates of new nuclear power plants are rapidly approaching those of new construction of coal power plants. Already, due to low-cost fuel and improved efficiency, nuclear plants – once built – can be less expensive to operate.

Thus, even in a marketplace that does not fully credit its virtues, nuclear power is increasingly competitive. Putting a price tag on harmful emissions would quickly make nuclear power the cheapest option – as well as the cleanest – for generating increased energy on a global scale.

Beyond producing clean electricity, the clean energy from nuclear power could be used to distill salt water on a massive scale. ‘Desalination’ plants would help to meet the desperate shortage of fresh water that could afflict more than half the world’s people by 2025.

(excerpted from World Nuclear Association's autoessay "Energy for Sustainable Development")

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