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.
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
Doesn’t need battery storage or backup energy
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
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
Lead Time On New Nuclear Plants
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)
General Comments On Nuclear
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. Some countries do not support the use of nuclear power as much as other energy sources
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.
*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 oil as energy sources
… nuclear energy produces more clean-air energy than any other source.
It produces 62 percent of all emission-free electricity in the United States.
… vaporized water … [is one of the by-products of nuclear power generation]
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
Nuclear can be considered an established power source that a number of countries can utilize.
A number of countries around the world use it, and there is either upgrades or new construction planned for the future.
Twelve countries in 2018 produced at least one-quarter of their electricity from nuclear …
Currently, there are about 50 more reactors are under construction worldwide … [and there are reactors on order or planned in Asia and Russia]
Is A Reliable Source Of Power
This is compared to say for example renewable energy sources like solar and wind which can be variable depending on weather conditions and geographic location
Doesn’t Need Battery Storage Or Backup Energy
Renewables for example might need either battery storage or backup energy sources due to their variable nature (to meet demand when they aren’t producing energy)
Nuclear doesn’t need this
High Fuel To Power Output Ratio, & High Energy Density
Nuclear has the capacity to meet city and industrial needs with just one reactor
Smaller amounts of uranium can be used to provide enough electricity for small to medium sized cities
Renewable energy sources generally do not have the power output ratio, and as a consequence, they aren’t as suitable at providing electricity at larger scales (at least not yet). This can especially be true for energy intensive activities like certain industrial activities
Some sources even indicate nuclear power requires much less fuel (than fossil fuel) to produce a higher amount of energy
Produces Inexpensive Electricity When Operational In Some Countries
Depending on the country where the reactor is constructed and operated, nuclear can sometimes be cheaper than gas, coal, or any other fossil fuel plants
Uranium can also be 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 Lifespan
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, or other issues common to the main fossil fuels.
Current Supply Of Uranium Is Adequate
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.
ecavo.com and world-nuclear.org outline the number of temporary and permanent jobs nuclear plants create during construction and operation compared to coal and natural gas plants
They also mention the dollars nuclear plants generate yearly for a local government, and the taxes governments can collect
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), instead of having to to engage in other waste management options
Nuclear requires less construction materials than solar and wind
Solar requires 18 times, and wind 11 times, the construction materials of nuclear (dailymaverick.co.za)
This means less resources are required and less waste has to be managed when a plant reaches the end of it’s lifespan
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)
This is an advantage for power grids as it gives them the flexibility of quicker energy on demand, especially when there are other variable energy sources being used in that power grid
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)
One of the advantages of improving existing reactors is not having the lead time on constructing new reactors, and there can also be benefits for investors who may get a better ROI on an existing asset
Plants Can Have Lifetime Extended
[In addition to having existing plants’ performance improved] Plants can also have plant lifetime extension programmes that maintain their capacity (world-nuclear.org)
Again, this means that new reactors don’t have to be constructed, and there can be cost savings and other benefits from taking this approach
(some of the above pros were summarised from renewableresourcescoalition.org, world-nuclear.org, dailymaverick.co.za, and trimediaee.com)
Cons Of Nuclear Energy
Like fossil fuels, uranium as a resource might have a limited supply left.
This is in comparison to energy sources like solar and wind which are more renewable
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
In comparison, energy sources like solar and wind require construction of equipment like solar panels and wind turbines, but don’t have the same mining/synthesizing and activation requirements
The lifecycle cost of each energy source can certainly play a role in the suitability of an energy source in an energy mix
Potential Environmental Impact Of Uranium As A Fuel Source
A typical nuclear power plant generates about 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel per year.
This spent fuel is highly radioactive and potentially dangerous, so, it requires proper waste management.
There’s also the mining of uranium to consider which has an environmental impact, and uses resources such as water, energy/electricity, and so on.
Management and Disposal of Radioactive Waste
You can’t take nuclear waste to a regular landfill
Handling and storage of spent nuclear fuel can be expensive, and requires specialized handling and storage methods.
High level and long lived waste can sometimes have to be stored deep underground (world-nuclear.org)
Lead Time On New Nuclear Plants
Construction of a new plant can take anywhere from 5-10 years to build (forbes.com)
High Up-Front Construction Costs For Nuclear Plants
There’s varying prices for nuclear construction around the world.
It’s cheaper in some places than others, and it’s actually too expensive for some countries.
Construction of a new plant can … cost billions of dollars.
In the East … 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].
In Australia, nuclear is currently priced out of the energy mix compared to renewables (reneweconomy.com.au)
Back End Costs Aren’t Cheap
There can be 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).
Wildlife might be able to live in an area after nuclear accidents, but, these areas are restricted from human habitation for thousands of 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
This is in comparison to say solar energy which can be used by individuals, and is a portable form of energy.
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 [and] in 2019, there was 442.
[What this suggests is that nuclear isn’t growing very quickly] Although, some sources say there are 50 reactors under construction
Having said this, it would be worth comparing these numbers against the number of reactors that have had their lifetime extended, or have been upgraded
This could be one explanation for slow growth of new reactors
But, politics, cost and other factors may also play a part
(renewableresourcescoalition.org, livescience.com, forbes.com, world-nuclear.org, and reneweconomy.com.au were used in part for this summary of cons)
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.
So, it appears that some countries are still certainly interested in nuclear power.