Power Plant Costings Analysis – Nuclear versus Coal Fired

Posted on Thu 12/02/2010 by


Could it actually be possible that Nuclear electrical power generation is cheaper than Coal Fired power generation?

Well, the answer is ….. yes it is.

There is currently talk under way in Australia about considering a move towards introducing Nuclear Power Plants. That talk is at last coming from within the Australian Labor Party, which is, and always has been, diametrically opposed to anything with the word ‘nuclear’ attached to it.

To hose down this talk, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has come out and said that this is really not an option, because Nuclear is too slow and too costly. This has generated widespread debate. The places where this debate is taking place are in the comments area of two of the major News sites here in Australia. One of those sites is the ABC Online News media site, and the second is Andrew Bolt’s Blog site.

The ABC, (the Australian National Broadcaster) has always stated with pride that it is neutral in all matters. That being said however, those who support the Left side of politics drift to that site where they leave their comments, and in the main, they also are diametrically opposed to anything with the word ‘nuclear’ attached to it. Those who do speak in favour of Nuclear electrical power generation are then roundly howled down and figuratively ‘beaten up on’ by those who support the Left and the Green sides of the political fence. Sometimes, comments in support are not even published there, as I have found out when I have tried to explain some of the processes there myself, and even having got in right at the start of those comments being opened up, my posts have not been published. I don’t care if others come in and snipe at me, and in fact I welcome it, because, having done so much research, I can write from a background of at least having some knowledge about what I’m attempting to say.

The second site that has generated comments is Andrew Bolt’s Blog, and when he opens up his comments area with each post, they usually result in a flood of comments. True, some may not get posted, but Andrew usually shows no fear or favour, and all sides of the fence get to have their say. In the main, however, those not from the left and the Green come to his blog to leave comments, and those that generate a lot of reply comments are those indeed who do support the left, and who consistently come to Andrew’s site to leave comments, safe in the knowledge that Andrew will let them through for the generation of further comment, unlike the ABC site which leaves its comments section only open for  a while, and routinely does not post comments.

So, when Julia Gillard came out and said what she did about Nuclear Power, it generated huge numbers of comments, especially at Andrew’s site.

Even those who do not support the Left and The Green commented that while ever coal is so cheap and plentiful, then there is no real reason to introduce Nuclear power plants into Australia, and while ever coal fired power is so cheap, then the same applies. Why go to the huge expense of constructing Nuclear power plants when it is so cheap to stay with what we already have, coal fired power, currently running at around 80 to 85% of all power being consumed here in Australia.

So, is coal fired power so much cheaper than nuclear power?

In actual fact, people will be really surprised.

To that end, I thought it worthwhile to do a comparison between these two major forms of generating large amounts of electrical power.

In an earlier Post in my Nuclear Power Series, at this link, I did a cost comparison of Nuclear power with those two forms of renewable power most currently in favour, Wind Power and Solar Power, effectively showing that Nuclear Power is so much better in every respect, supplying its power 24/7/365, and is effectively a quantum level less expensive than those two renewables.

So, this comparison is probably even a better one because it compares like with like. Large scale power generation for constant regular 24/7/365 power, power that actually can cover what is needed absolutely, that often discounted term called Base Load Power, the near two thirds of all electrical power being generated that is required for that full 24 hours of every day.

It is also an even closer comparison because both use the same process, that of using a fuel to boil water to high pressure steam, which then drives a huge turbine, which in turn drives a huge generator to produce large scale power.

I’ll speak in today’s dollars, but you need to be aware that these plants can take a while to construct, so the ‘cost’ of that original money increases due to interest accruing on that original funding. Having said that, the same applies for any plant. Both Solar and Wind plants take around the same time to construct, and in fact a modern coal fired plant, while taking less time to construct will also suffer from the same monetary constraints, so individually applying that burgeoning cost due to the cost of money just to a nuclear power plant is a spurious argument. Where this most comes into play is not for the actual construction of a nuclear plant, because they can come on line delivering power to the grid three years after the first concrete is poured at the site. The time factor is greater in that pre concrete pour stage, getting the planning and approvals in place, and the same applies also for any plant, even wind and solar, and coal fired.


For nuclear power plants, there are 2 main types of reactors currently in most common use, Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWR). The most recent versions of these are becoming cheaper to construct in relative dollar values at construction time that is.

The most recent version of the PWR comes in at around $1500 per KW of nameplate capacity. The most recent advance in BWR sees these plants coming in at around $2000 per KW of nameplate capacity. So, keeping that in mind, I’ll split the difference and call it at $1750 per KW. The thought here might be that as a supporter, I’d tend to try and make them as cheap as I possibly could, but if you follow this through, the point I’m trying to make will become as clear as glass.

Lets build one of those big ones with 2 reactors, and 2 huge turbine generator complexes. No cheaping out for me.

Let’s go 2200MW of nameplate capacity.

So at $1750 per Kw, then that comes in at $3.85 Billion. Let’s then just call that $4 Billion shall we?

Wow. That is a lot.

But wait there’s more.

The cost of decommissioning at the end runs at around $300 Million for the U.S. average, but gee, some pundits say it is around a third of the construction cost, so I’ll go with their larger figure. There’s an extra $1.3 Billion.

Now we have a total of $5.3 Billion, and smugly, those proponents of nuclear power plants are thinking, see we’re right. They are too expensive.

But wait there’s even more.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, from the original ‘dirt’ dug out of the ground, 150,000 tons of that then goes through 5 processes before it becomes low enriched nuclear fuel in the rods. I mentioned that amount of dirt produces 24Tonnes of nuclear fuel, and this is the amount used in each reactor for one year. The cost of that fuel comes in at $2200 per Kilogram, so the cost of that 24 Tonnes now comes in at $52.8 Million per year. There are 2 reactors, so now we see a yearly bill for the fuel amounting to $106 Million. However, after I received information from someone who works at a large Nuclear power plant, it was pointed out that with judicious and careful use, that refuelling for the plant is usually at around the 18 month mark, but to use the higher cost scenario, I’ll go with 12 months here.

Those people who rail against the expense of nuclear power plants must be starting to squirm a little now if I’m using the considerably higher costings structure for everything, and it’s still coming out a quantum level cheaper than those renewables.

Now Nuclear power plants have a commissioning life of 50 years. However, that can be extended out to 75 years and most plants currently in operation in the U.S. have a ‘life’ of around 60 years, so what I’ll do is just go with that mid range of 60 years.

Oh, by the way, that refurbishment after 50 years adds more to the total, and that is also around a quarter of the construction cost, so there’s another $1 Billion, so before the fuel cost is factored in the total now rises to $6.3 Billion.

60 years of fuel for the 2 reactors now adds a further $6.3 Billion.

That gives us now a total of $12.6 Billion.

Case closed. They’re way too expensive. End of story.

However, what do we get for that $12.6 Billion.

Nameplate capacity X 24 X 365.25 X 1000 for theoretical total power to consumers in KWH.

2200 X 24 X 365.25 X 1000 comes to 19.3 Billion KWH per year.

The U.S. plants are currently running at 92.5% power delivery efficiency rate, so the actual power delivered to the grid each year amounts to 17.9 Billion KWH.

For the full lifespan of the plant, 60 years that figure now becomes 1.08 Trillion KWH.


This plant will be the same size as a large scale Nuclear Plant, 2200Mw of Nameplate Capacity.

Keep in mind that these newer plants are considerably smaller than they once were, and that the only place constructing new technology large scale coal fired power plants is China, and they are bringing on line one new large scale coal fired plant every seven days.

These new coal fired plants also burn less coal.

Why is that?

Technology has advanced over the years, so much so that now, greater amounts of electricity can be generated from considerably smaller generators. Better Superconducting Magnetic fields, better wiring around those magnets, which can carry higher currents inducing even stronger fields in a super cooled environment for better magnetic conduction. Better Stator technology with more wiring in that and in smaller areas. This means commensurately less weight for the generator, and here you need to realise that the weight of that generator can be up around 250 to 400 tons, all that rotating at 3000 RPM, (3600 RPM in the US). That’s 400 tons having to rotate at 50 times each second.

Now that the weight is considerably reduced from those older style plants, then a smaller and newer technology turbine is used to drive that.

The steam is generated in smaller and more efficient boilers.

The furnaces have now become smaller and more efficient also, critical furnaces which burn hotter.

The coal pulverisers are also better.

It all works backward from the generator, so now a lot less coal is required for smaller plants that generate larger amounts of electrical power. In overall size the whole plant itself is also commensurately smaller as well.

In fact, those newer plants burn around 4.5 to 5 million tons of coal each year.

Older style plants like Eraring in Australia and Bruce Mansfield in the U.S. just two examples amongst hundreds will burn on average 6.5 to 7.5 million tons of coal each year to produce similar amounts of power.

The cost for constructing these new generation coal fired plants is considerably less than for a nuclear plant and comes in at around $525 per KW of Nameplate Capacity, so for 2200MW, that cost comes in at around $1.2 Billion.

These plants have the same life span as for Nuclear power plants, around 50 years. They can be relicensed out to 60 years, and then again out to 75 years.

So, the cost of refurbishing these plants must also be added to the initial cost, and in the same percentages as for those nuclear plants, even though the cost for nuclear plants would be higher.

You may notice here that I’m not deliberately making these figures small in an effort to make the price seem low. At every time, I am using the higher costings and then adding on top of that again. Even doing it like that, they still work out a quantum level cheaper than either of the favoured renewables, even when their costings are taken at the cheapest end of the scale.

So refubishment (twice) at a quarter of the original cost, now brings that original price up to $1.8 Billion.

Now add on site clean up at decommissioning at the same rate as for Nuclear plants, (one third of the original cost) and the total now rises to $2.2 Billion.

Compare that with the cost for the nuclear plant of $5.3 Billion, and it is patently obvious that coal fired plant producing the same power is only around 40% of the price of that nuclear plant.

However, as ever, there is always more to it.

As with the nuclear plant, we had to add on the cost of the nuclear fuel for those 50 years and more. The same applies with a coal fired plant.

The coal fired plant burns 4.5 million tons of steaming coal each year.

In today’s dollars, steaming coal comes in at around $60 per ton, and it has gone as high as double that. Now, because China especially uses so much Australian steaming coal, that price becomes competitive, and if you now have a guaranteed buyer of huge and increasing amounts, then the price can indeed be lowered, so I’ll work here on the $60 per ton amount.

So 4.5 million tons multiplied by $65, and multiplied then by, and let’s just use the same 60 years I used for the Nuclear Plant. The cost of the fuel, in this case coal, comes in at $16.2 Billion.

Add that to the original cost of $2.2 Billion, and the end cost after 60 years extrapolated out comes to $18.4 Billion.

The extrapolated all up costs for the nuclear plant came in at $12.6 Billion.

Can you see now, how even though a new coal fired plant, while so much cheaper at the front end, the cost is indeed greater than for a nuclear power plant.

This coal fired plant has a power delivery efficiency rate of 85% compared to the nuclear plant at 92.5%, so in effect this coal fired plant over its lifetime will deliver less power.

Hence the overall cost of the electricity produced is cheaper, and in fact quite an amount cheaper for a nuclear power plant than it is for a coal fired plant.

Even though this new coal fired plant costs in the long run more than a nuclear plant, it is still cheaper by the same quantum levels than for those two renewables, but all that is academic really. Both coal and nuclear deliver their power 24/7/365 while the best wind or solar can deliver is for 8 hours a day at the absolute best, and the averages for both are currently down around 4 to 6 hours.

You may have wondered why I haven’t gone the whole hog here and included costings for that pipe dream, that detested phrase ‘Clean Coal’, in reality Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

That is explained at this link.

Kerry Lieberman’s Clean Coal Hole In The Ground – Just Throw In Money

It is a dream, in reality an absolute nightmare, that will never be realised on the scale required, so entering into that argument for the sake of costings is a futile thing.

Suffice to say, it would add 50% on top of the base $2.2 Billion at the front end, and that is just for the plant site part of the equation. The rest, the hundreds of miles of pipes, the pumps, the cooling, the huge plant at the hole in the ground etc, and all the added infrastructure would add even more again.

On top of that, this process consumes one third of the power generated by the plant, so as you can see from that, the costs extrapolated out for the power generated over its life would again be considerably higher, but all that is moot. It is something that can never be achieved.

If it is a new style plant burning 4.5 million tons of coal, and if each ton of coal produces 2.86 tons of CO2, (explained at this link) then that hole in the ground to store this CO2 has to be capable of holding (forever) 650 Million tons of CO2 ….. just for this one plant. See the problem now?

So, the argument that Nuclear power is so costly is in fact not quite correct. Also, the fact that while coal is plentiful, the argument that it will always be cheaper than nuclear plants is also not really correct.

In fact, at the dawning of the Nuclear age, there was a school of thought that said that by using this Nuclear process to generate electrical power, there was every possibility that electricity could be provided to everyone for free.

Both Nuclear and coal fired power however are much less expensive than for either of those currently favoured renewables, by a factor of between four and seven. The biggest factor in favour of both coal and nuclear is that they can just hum along comfortably each and every day, supplying huge amounts of power that those renewables will NEVER supply, even in the wildest dreams of those Green supporters.

So when Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard gets in front of the microphone and says what she has here, she’s being very, very, badly informed, or has not even bothered to find out. It has to be one or the other, and either way, it shows that she is clueless on the subject.