In this guide, we list the pros and cons of nuclear energy.
This guide forms part of a series of guides we have put together outlining the benefits and disadvantages of different energy sources and energy generation methods.
Let’s take a look.
Summary – Nuclear Energy Pros & Cons
Clean energy – low to no emissions during operation compared to fossil fuels like coal, and might be more carbon friendly than solar, but equal to wind
Used in a wide range of countries
High fuel to power output ratio, and high energy density
Produces reasonably priced electricity in some countries
Uranium is a fairly cheap fuel source
Costs to make a nuclear plant are generally recouped back over the lifetime of the plant
Lifetime of a nuclear plant is generally around the same as a coal plant
The remaining supplies of uranium in the ground are adequate for short to mid term use (possibly more), and research and science would indicate that there might be other ways to find new supplies (such as in the sea), or develop current nuclear energy technology
Nuclear plants tend to have a positive economic impact and provide jobs
Low level and short lived radioactive waste can be safely stored on-site
Nuclear requires less construction materials than solar and wind
New nuclear reactors are more capable of ramping up fast
Existing reactors can achieve improved capacity and performance
Plants can have lifetime extended and maintained (with scheduled programmes)
It’s expensive to setup and build a nuclear plant, especially in Western countries (and it can be priced out of some energy mixes)
Medium to high level radioactive waste, and long lived radioactive waste can be hazardous
Nuclear waste must be managed and disposed of properly – this can be costly as it can’t go to a regular landfill (long lived and high level radioactive waste might have to be buried deep underground)
Nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel can take hundreds of years to decompose – where in the meantime it can be a threat to the safety and health of humans, wild life and plant life
Uranium and nuclear are not renewable like solar or wind power for example
It can be expensive to decommission and handle fuel at the end of a nuclear plant’s lifetime
There have been infamous nuclear accidents that have happened in the past
Nuclear plants are a potential terrorism or security risk
Not a portable or small use energy source like solar panels for example – more for large scale energy generation
Old/existing nuclear reactors are not as capable of ramping up fast
Number of operable reactors hasn’t grown much worldwide since 1988 (which brings into question potential for future expansion … however there are about 50 reactors under construction worldwide, and others are planned according to some reports)
Nuclear is used in a range of countries, although it is currently not a predominant source of power production in many countries like fossil fuels are.
Renewables currently don’t provide the level of mass energy production nuclear does with the technology available (due to factors such as power input ration, variability, and so on).
Comparably, renewables may also have more challenges that they pose in terms of transitioning to them, and adjusting infrastructure to suit.
Fossil fuels such as coal are high GHG emission energy sources compared to nuclear.
*Note – the above pros and cons are broad generalisations.
Obviously there are different variables to each specific energy project that impact the final pros and cons (like new technology that reduces emissions for coal power plants just as one of many examples).
Each energy project and situation (in different countries and cities) should be analysed individually.
Having said that, some broad principles and patterns about the pros and cons of different energy sources tend to stay consistent too.
Pros Of Nuclear Energy
Clean Energy Source With Low To No Greenhouse Gases During Operation
Compared to coal, gas, and other electric-generating plants.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), nuclear energy produces more clean-air energy than any other source.
It produces 62 percent of all emission-free electricity in the United States.
The large clouds you see leaving the smoke stacks [of nuclear plants] are …. vaporized water.
Wind energy produces about the same greenhouse gas emissions as nuclear, and solar power produces four times more GHGs than nuclear in total
Used In A Range Of Countries
Twelve countries in 2018 produced at least one-quarter of their electricity from nuclear … with the USA, France, China, Russia and South Korea some of the top generating countries. Currently, there are about 50 more reactors are under construction worldwide … [and there are reactors on order or planned in Asia and Russia] (world-nuclear.org)
Is A Reliable Source Of Power
Compared to renewable energy sources like solar and wind which can be variable (depending on weather conditions), and nuclear doesn’t need to use a storage battery to store energy
High Fuel To Power Output Ratio, & High Energy Density
It has the capacity to meet city and industrial needs with just one reactor.
A relatively small amount of uranium can be used to fuel a 1000 Megawatts electric plant, providing enough electricity to power a city of about half a million people.
Renewable sources, such as solar and wind, usually only provide only enough power to meet residential or office needs.
They don’t yet have the capacity of nuclear to handle large-scale power needs, especially in the manufacturing world
Produces Inexpensive Electricity When Operational In Some Countries
Cheaper than gas, coal, or any other fossil fuel plants.
Uranium is also a fairly cheap fuel source
Over Lifetime, Nuclear Recoups Costs
The costs to make a nuclear plant can be high, but over the lifetime of a plant, costs are almost always recouped back
A Nuclear Plant Has A Decent Lifecycle
Average lifecycle of a nuclear power plant is around 40-60 years – around the same as a coal plant (54 years average)
Doesn’t Rely On Fossil Fuels
So it’s not affected by the unpredictability of oil and gas costs.
We won’t be depleting the Earth’s supply of resources nearly as quickly.
Nuclear power requires much less fuel (than fossil fuel) to produce a higher amount of energy.
Current Supply Of Uranium Is Reasonable
With the current supply of uranium, it is estimated that we have at least another 80 years before supply becomes an issue.
There are also other forms of uranium that can be used if needed, extending that timeline even further.
This is probably time to find alternative sources of nuclear power generation (such as nuclear fusion), if more research and development is put into nuclear
Positive Economic Impact (Jobs, Income, Economic Activity)
Nuclear plants bring jobs, incomes and economic stimulation to local communities.
According to the NEI, one new nuclear plant creates 400 to 700 permanent jobs, not to mention thousands of others during its construction.
Most nuclear sites have at least 2 plants.
This is comparable to just 90 jobs for a coal plant, and 50 for a natural gas plant.
Each facility generates close to $500 million annually in sales of goods and services.
More workers at plants means more people who need lunches and more people with money to spend.
Low Level & Short Lived Radioactive Waste Can Be Stored On-Site
This is a relatively straightforward process.
Intermediate waste can also be stored on-site. (world-nuclear.org)
Nuclear requires less construction materials than solar and wind
Solar requires 18 times, and wind 11 times, the construction materials of nuclear.
One Of The Safest Energy Sources Available
New Nuclear Reactors Are More Capable Of Ramping Up Fast
Many designs of Generation 4 molten fuel nuclear reactors will be capable of fast ramping (wikipedia.org)
Existing Reactors Can Achieve Improved Performance & Capacity
The performance of nuclear reactors has improved substantially over time… for example, 62% of [existing] reactors achieved a capacity factor higher than 80% in 2018 (world-nuclear.org)
Plants Can Have Lifetime Extended
Plants can also have plant lifetime extension programmes that maintain their capacity (world-nuclear.org)
– renewableresourcescoalition.org, world-nuclear.org, dailymaverick.co.za, bettermeetsreality.com and trimediaee.com
Cons Of Nuclear Energy
Uranium has a limited supply.
Typical renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are essentially an infinite supply in comparison
Uranium Mining & Activation Process Can Be Expensive
Uranium has to be mined, synthesized, then activated to produce energy, and it’s very expensive to go through this process.
Environmental Impact Of Uranium As A Fuel Source
A typical nuclear power plant generates about 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel per year.
The problem is that this spent fuel is highly radioactive and potentially dangerous.
There’s also the mining of uranium to consider which has an environmental impact too
Management and Disposal of Radioactive Waste
You can’t take it to a normal landfill.
It has to be carefully handled and stored (which costs a lot of money), and it requires a hefty amount of specially designed storage space.
High level and long lived waste can sometimes have to be stored deep underground
High Up-Front Construction Costs For Nuclear Plants
Construction of a new plant can take anywhere from 5-10 years to build, costing billions of dollars. In the East—in Korea, in China and the UAE, which is being built by the Koreans—the cost is $3,000-$4,000 per kilowatt, whereas in the West the cost is north of $8,000 per kilowatt [due to design, construction management and supply chain and workforce] (forbes.com).
In Australia, nuclear is currently priced out of the energy mix compared to renewables. (reneweconomy.com.au)
Back End Costs Aren’t Cheap
High fuel handling and decommissioning costs for nuclear fuel and nuclear plants
Public Safety Of Waste/Spent Fuel
Spent nuclear fuel takes hundreds of years to decompose before it reaches adequate levels of safety.
Significant accidents are actually incredibly rare, but have happened throughout history (such as the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1978, and the Chernobyl explosion in 1986).
When accidents happen – they are a major problem.
Casualties may not be high from nuclear accidents, but the environmental and social issues can have an impact decades later.
Whilst wildlife has returned to the Chernobyl area, the area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.
Potential Terrorism & Security Threat
With fossil fuel plants, you don’t have to worry about them being targeted by terrorists and vigilantes.
Uranium used to power nuclear plants is of a different grade than weapons-grade uranium; however, it can be synthesized from it.
This makes it a threat if it gets in the hands on dangerous people.
Security is tight and the probability of an event is low though.
Not Portable Or For Small Use Applications
Can only be used for powering a large grid or in special applications such as a submarine.
Existing & Old Nuclear Reactors Are Not As Capable Of Fast Ramping
Thermally lethargic technologies like coal and solid-fuel nuclear are physically incapable of fast ramping (wikipedia.org)
Number Of Operable Worldwide Reactors Hasn’t Changed Significantly In The Last Few Decades
In 1988, there was 416 operable reactors worldwide.
In 2019, there was 442.
This suggests nuclear hasn’t grown in the past few decades.
Although, some sources say there are 50 reactors under construction
– renewableresourcescoalition.org, livescience.com, forbes.com, world-nuclear.org reneweconomy.com.au
Future Expansion Of Nuclear Power
The future of nuclear power plants might be divided into three categories:
Those being built/constructed
Those being planned or on order
Those being proposed
According to world-nuclear.org:
Construction – About 50 power reactors are currently being constructed in 15 countries … notably China, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates
Planned Or On Order – Over 100 power reactors … are on order or planned. Most reactors currently planned are in the Asian region
Proposed – over 300 are proposed.
world-nuclear.org also mentions that countries like the USA, Switzerland, Spain, Finland and Sweden have ‘uprated’ their existing nuclear power plants – which is an increase in capacity.
Existing plants have also has their lifetime extended in various countries.