Nuclear Energy

Published on November 19th, 2012 | by Nicholas Brown


How Much Does Nuclear Waste Processing Cost The UK?

November 19th, 2012 by  

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:

Source: Guardian

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About the Author

writes on CleanTechnica, Gas2, Kleef&Co, and Green Building Elements. He has a keen interest in physics-intensive topics such as electricity generation, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, energy storage, and geography. His website is:

  • Though you copied many of the graphs and facts from the Guardian article, you conveniently left out some of the balancing information showing that waste handling costs are reasonably small compared to the value of the electricity that nuclear plants reliably produce. Here is the link to the original piece:

    Here are some of the missing conclusions:

    “Although the costs of Sellafield relate mainly to handling waste from old nuclear projects – including postwar weapons programmes – the NAO’s report begs the question of whether cost estimates for decommissioning future nuclear power plants may also have been underestimated. Whether that’s true is impossible to know, though a glance at the figures suggests that EVEN IF decommissioning and waste disposal costs for future plants were TWO OR THREE TIMES HIGHER than current government estimates, that wouldn’t significantly change the economics of new nuclear plants.”

    Here is more from the final paragraphs of the article:

    “Those debates aside, rising decommissioning costs would be unlikely to change the comparisons significantly, because in the Mott MacDoland report only around £2.50 of the estimated £96–98 total cost of generating a megawatt hour from new nuclear plants is earmarked for decommissioning and waste disposal. So even if this amount doubled or tripled nuclear would remain a relatively low-cost low-carbon power source.

    Nuclear advocates also argue that the waste at Sellafield could be turned into valuable fuel for a new generation of ‘fast’ or thorium reactors.”

  • Colin Megson

    The vast majority of that 42.1% is for handling the legacy of our nuclear weapon’s programme. The enlightened perspective should be to regard this cost as paying for our energy security.

    There is enough fuel, in our legacy ‘resources’, including spent-nuclear-fuel, 35,000 tonnes of depleted uranium and 55 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium, to provide all of the electricity the UK needs, for 500 years. Energy security, or what?

    And the proven technology is here and now, in the form of the GE Hitachi PRISM Power Block.

    Get behind the one and only technology that can give the generations of your children and grandchildren an energy-rich future for all, whilst diminishing the risks of energy-wars and water-wars, which might threaten humanity, way before we are persuaded that global warming matters.

    Google “prisms to power the uk” to get on board.

    • Even if that was true there’s no way enough nuke plants would be built in time.

      There’s going to be a lot more evidence of AGW over the next decade, it will be increasingly hard to deny. That should increase support for more serious efforts to transition as the costs of inaction become clearer.

      Better to focus that transition on cheap and safe forms of power.

      • How long do you think it will take to build enough wind turbines and solar systems to begin to make a dent in fossil fuel waste dumping into the atmosphere? How severe would conservation programs have to be to make any real difference?

        Before you answer, please remember that we have been investing large sums of money into both of the above endeavors for a couple of decades without much return on that investment – solar and wind still produce a small portion of our electrical power and NONE of our transportation or industrial process heat.

        Note – some say that nuclear cannot help in those markets either, but as a former nuclear ship driver and as someone who has ridden on the excellent nuclear electricity powered trains in France, I beg to differ. Nuclear fission produces high quality heat with a wide variety of potential applications.

        • Renewable energy is already making a dent. And by the time anyone got a new nuclear project up (if anyone were willing to finance the expensive project), we could have put up wind turbines and solar panels that would create tons more electricity.

          Sorry you like nuclear and worked in the industry, but society must change… & it does.

        • Bob_Wallace

          “How long do you think it will take to build enough wind turbines and solar systems to begin to make a dent in fossil fuel waste dumping into the atmosphere?”

          It’s entirely feasible to dent fossil fuel usage a few percentage points per year. We increased natural gas generation by about 6% in the last year. Wind generation can be installed just as fast, solar faster.

          With the rapid drop in the price of solar we’re going to see very large acceleration for solar. With natural gas prices on the rise and wind prices continuing to fall we’re likely to see installation shift toward wind.

          Nuclear has dropped from 20% to 19% and is likely to keep dropping. We’ve got two reactors scheduled to close, two others down for very expensive repairs and which may be closed, and only three in the pipeline.

          Wind and solar are in the early stages of their growth curve. Nuclear likely peaked years ago and is gradually dying out.

        • With wind and solar there will be a lot less NIMBYism because they’re so much safer. They can be deployed with much lower capital investment and risk.

          Please acknowledge that the fossil and nuclear industries have and continue to receive far greater direct and indirect subsidies than wind and solar.

          Countries like Denmark now produce a very large percentage of their power from wind. Germany is making impressive gains in wind and solar. It is simply a denial of facts to say that NONE of the electricity feeding transportation comes from renewables. Obvious falsehoods like that doesn’t help your case.

          It is true that big increases in renewable power are needed. There’s huge potential for that as the costs keep coming down and the external costs of fossil and nuclear become clearer.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “Get behind the one and only technology that can give the generations of your children and grandchildren an energy-rich future for all,”

      That’s a great idea. But you picked the wrong horse.

      String a big wire over to Iceland. Their geothermal and hydro are not going to run out. You can be hooked up and well-served in less time than it would take to build a single reactor.

      Install lots of offshore wind and tidal, which is the big UK asset. And some solar to power AC which you will need as things warm up. Wind, tidal and solar are not going to run out.

      Beef up your connections to the mainland. Send your and Iceland’s surplus over there and take back some of their product if needed. Their wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydro are not going to run out.

      Go down the nuclear path and you only temporarily give yourself a power source. Plus you end up with massively expensive reactors for your children to decommission and piles of radioactive waste for your grandchildren’s grandchildren.

      Anyone thinking that nuclear is a good idea – remember all that has to happen is for one reactor to melt down in your country or in a nearby country and you will likely be facing the cost of building the generation you would have been wise to build from the get-go.

      And don’t say “It can’t happen here”. That’s a crock. The US melted one down (saved by the containment dome) and has had some other close calls. A very technologically advanced nation, Japan, just melted down a few. If, for example, France cooks one the outcry to shut down all reactors in the UK will be significant.

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