According to the United Kingdom’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) 2012 and 2013 budget, of which the information was obtained from its 2012-2015 business plan, “nuclear legacy” issues cost £2.5 billion, roughly 42% of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s total budget.
I was shocked, too. It sounds odd that nuclear waste, or any power plant waste would cost that much money, and taxpayers’ money at that.
£1.6 billion of that budget is spent on managing multiple plants and storage facilities at Sellafield, which is an enormous site in Cumbria that is home to the radioactive remains of nuclear weapons and energy programmes which are more than 50 years old. Sellafield employs 9231 people, according to a new National Audit Office (NAO) report.
Notably, nuclear storage costs have consistently increased over the years, as this Guardian chart shows (interactive version with more details on the Guardian website).
Although the costs of Sellafield are primarily associated with handling waste from old nuclear plants, including postwar weapons programmes, the NAO’s report offers up the question of whether cost estimates for decommissioning future nuclear power plants may also have been underestimated.
It is impossible to determine if this is true. However, a glance at the figures suggests that even if decommissioning and waste disposal costs for future plants were double or triple current government estimates, that wouldn’t significantly change the economics of new nuclear plants (the fact that they’re more expensive than other power options today).
Nuclear proponents sometimes argue that a unit of reliable nuclear energy is worth more than a unit of intermittent solar or wind energy. But what really matters financially is the full cost of nuclear (including nuclear waste storage) vs the full cost of wind/solar energy backed up by energy storage storage systems or natural gas power plants. In a hypothetical 100% nuclear vs 100% renewable world, it is not realistic to compare nuclear power to renewable power plants that are not backed up (and then use their intermittency against them).
They have to be backed up, and the cost associated with that should be included to be fair. Solar and wind power plants with the right amount of energy storage are more reliable than nuclear, even when they are undergoing maintenance. Batteries keep the lights on, even when the wind is not blowing.
Furthermore, however, it should be noted that up to a certain grid penetration, wind and solar intermittency is not much of an issue. Additionally, with wind turbines and solar panels spread across large geographic area and connected via the grid, the intermittency is often balanced out, making the penetration level at which storage is critical quite high. So, every MW of wind or solar doesn’t require 1 MW of storage or natural gas.
In the end, there’s a reason why 40% of new power generation capacity installed in the past 4 years in Europe and the US has been wind power, and why nuclear power has been anything but a popular option — wind (as well as natural gas) is cheaper than nuclear power.
In the US, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), the median levelized cost of energy (LCOE) from onshore wind is $0.05/kWh while it is $0.06/kWh for nuclear. (However, wind costs are falling and nuclear costs only seem to rise.) Similarly, here’s another chart from the Guardian on the UK’s LCOE numbers:
I have a keen interest in physics-intensive topics such as electricity generation, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, energy storage, geography, and much more. My website is: Kompulsa.