Nuclear Renewables

Remote solar PV vs small nuclear reactor – electricity cost comparison

It is often claimed that small-scale renewable energy, such as solar photovoltaic panel arrays, will fill an important future energy niche by providing much-needed electricity to developing nations and other remote regions (such as the outback of Australia). That’s a seemingly reasonable argument, but how do the numbers stack up? Below, Gene Preston (SCGI member) provides some easy-to-follow calculations (currency is in US dollars/cents). The results might surprise many:


A friend of mine at the University of Texas and I were talking about his desire to develop a presentation for educators in Africa to use in estimating energy costs. He has just 3 hours for his presentation. He wants the teachers to be able to do the economics calculations themselves. I suggested he narrow down the discussion to just a comparison of solar versus small scale nuclear. Here’s what I came up with:

Solar – Lets go low tech with fixed solar panels. The cost is $8/watt (W) and runs about 14% of the time (its capacity factor). You will need energy storage, which costs $1/W + $.4/Wh (that is, 40c per watt hour**).

Lets say that we develop a solar system to serve a 5 kW peak load with an average load of 1 kW. The daily energy demand will be 24 kWh and peak load is 5 kW. This could be a few houses or a small school with some PCs. To produce the average amount of energy needed will require 1/.14 = 7.14 kW, so lets say 8 kW just to put in a little extra energy production factor. The 8 kW will cost $8/W (for 8000 W) = $64000. The energy storage system will cost $1/W (5000) = $5000 for the electronics and switchgear plus $.4/Wh (24000) = $9600 for one day’s energy usage. I would double this and install two days of storage just to be safe, which would cost $19,200.

Therefore the cost of the 5 kW peak demand solar system is:

$64000 for the panels (only half this cost is the PV array)

$5000 for the storage system electronics

$19200 for the batteries (2 days storage)


$88000 for the entire system. (see what I mean about this being a rich person’s energy source?)

Let’s calculate the cents per kWh energy cost. Assume a loan at 6% annual interest rate to pay for it. Assume the system has a 20 year life.

A = PW [(i)(1+i)^n] / [(1+i)^n-1] where A is the annual payment, PW is the present cost of the system, i is the interest rate of .06, and n=20 years.

Then A = (88000)(.06)(1.06)^20 / [1.06^20 – 1] = .08718 (88000) = $7672.24 annually.

The energy produced annually is 24 kWh/day (365 days/y) = 8760 kWh. The cost per kWh = 767,224 cents per year / 8760 kWh per year = 87.6 cents per kWh. (first wow — that’s expensive!)

What about if we instead generated this energy from small nuclear reactors? First, some examples/references:

The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor would have been in South Africa but there is local opposition

This is an interesting discussion of micro reactors, especially the Russian Navy’s design

This information paper from the World Nuclear Association shows the huge number of small-scale reactor technologies being considered

Here is an IEEE paper on small nuclear (2, 5, 10 and 20 MW reactors)

The objective of many of the above references is to get the nuclear power cost down to about 10 cents per kWh. Suppose we could buy into nuclear at $5000 per kW (that’s the estimated cost of the Babock & Wilcox small nuclear plant [called ‘mPower’], for a 125 MWe plant). The 1 kW of nuclear power portion of the small plant would run all the time so one kW would have an average energy based on the calculations for the solar plant. All we have to do is replace the $88000 with $5000 in the previous “A =” calculation.

Therefore the small nuclear program energy cost is .08718 (5000) (100) / 8760 = 5 cents per kWh. (second wow — that’s low cost!)

However we will need some peaking power to get 5 kW peak load. We can use the battery storage system to get the peaking power. We only need 4 kW since we will have the 1 kW nuclear running all the time. Also, the energy storage need only be about 4 hours at the most at 4 kW (conservatively). The peaking power using nuclear energy is $4000 for electronics + .4 (16000) for batteries = $10,400. Note that the peaking power system costs twice as much as the base load nuclear generation. The total cost is about $15,000 and the energy cost is about 15 cents per kWh.

This small nuclear + peaking system is only about 18% the cost of the solar + storage system.

This is an example of how anyone can, fairly easily, go through the economics calculations for solar and nuclear. Such an exercise would probably an eye opener for them, and dispel the myth that solar is ‘free energy’ or even a cheap source of power. But how are they to afford any type of power plant if they do not have industries that need power and produce income for them?


**This estimate is based on presentations given by Xtreme Power Inc.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

137 replies on “Remote solar PV vs small nuclear reactor – electricity cost comparison”

Wiki states that the term ‘troll’ is often used as an ad hominem strategy to discredit an opposing position by attacking its proponent.

This is exactly how a handful of needledicks here have gone about their nasty business of trying to discredit Fran who has been a strong advocate of Barry’s cause on other online forums. Way to go Barry Brook. Now that I have seen in full the type of wankers associated with 4th gen, I won’t be advocating it elsewhere either.


David Walters (81) — Maybe Egypt and South Africa have the expertise to run nuclear power plants. Doubt that Malawi nor most of the rest of the 53 countries in Africa do.

I approve of two village scale projects in India; both Jatropha oil based. One has a refinery (quite simple) to produce diesel. The other has a diesel engine modified to burn the Jatropha oil directly. Both projects produce a modest amount of electricity each evening, aobut 4 hours worth.

The best part of both schemes is that all the villagers participate in growing a small number of Jatropha plants, taking the seed pods to the press and resturning with the pressed oilcake for other uses, such a cooking heat. In both cases, although organized slightly differently, there is an essentially co-operative effort. I think that important.

And I wasn’t joking about the conditions in the Nairobi sums nor do I suppose that the people there much care for the quality of their lives. I was objecting to commenters here who seemed to think as the World Bank did, that they knew what was best for various African peoples. I’d rather, as much as possible, for the Africans to do what they need to do for themselves, with as little of the PL 480 and World Bank and IMF corrupted assistance as they possibly can.


David @107, I don’t object to villiage scale projects. But remember what we talked about? We are talking about a country, er, countries that have, say, 20 million people living in ONE city. Not a village. The whole dislocation of African society as well as much of Asian and Latin American society is one toward rapid, and massive, urbanization. Growing fuel from plants isn’t going to cut it for a country of 200 million people, or 40 million or any number.

What you advocate is also the NGO sponsored “telling people what to do”. This is how most solar ends up being in these small villages: western NGO’s coming with gifts and saying “here, try this”. I do not object per se, but it’s not a development model.

A *small* country like Malawi, one of the smallest in Africa, is simply not going to develop beyond a village standard of living thinking it’s going to produce all the energy it’s ever going to need. Far from it. Regional *African* designed energy grid development is being discussed. From bringing power up from S. Africa to the large Congo hydro projects. Small plots of land are only, also, going to keep these people oppressed and repressed with no *hope* for a better life. Or it will drive them to emigrate to other African countries and join the millions of poor living in the slums around Johannesburg and other African cities.

I’m all for making whatever it takes to make Africans control more of their own lives. I don’t see producing diesel as one of those but in the meantime, if it works for a few thousand, I don’t oppose it. I’m *suggesting* there are better ways and many Africans know this.

BTW…despite the huge political problems in Sudan (Dafur, underdevelopment, civil war), if you look at what THEY are doing, actually proposing and staring to build, you will be amazed at the very high tech and progressive development of that region in terms of infrastructure. They are NOT looking a small village economies to solve their problems. I don’t believe the World Bank and other malevolent forces have anything to do with it, but I’m not 100% sure.



Now that I have seen in full the type of wankers associated with 4th gen, I won’t be advocating it elsewhere either.

The merits of 4th generation nuclear is not related to the sexual self gratification undertaken by proponents. You are attempting to discrediting an idea by attacking the proponents. That is an ad hominem which seems to be precisely what you were complaining about in the first instance. Strange behaviour indeed.


Christ you all spend a lot of time dicking each other over. Who gives a damn what a commenters motives are, deal with what they say, not why they are saying it.

I got an idea. Why don’t you all start sprinkling the thread with some content on the subject at hand?


Salient Green # 106

Gen 4 supporters come in all shapes and sizes. A little on line spat between a handful of people is hardly reason to abandon a technology that could well be instrumental in saving the entire population of the earth.


#110 terje, you know damn well I meant ‘wanker’ in the sense of idiot, fool, self absorbed person and the ‘idea’ of 4th gen is being discredited by those wankers, not me fella.

Marion# 112, you are right of course and I will not abandon my view that the technology could save lives as long as it is not used to maintain our present high consumption, high population and economic growth lifestyle because that would lead to a greater loss of lives further down the track.

I will not be advocating 4th gen in other forums however as I believe that certain BAU elementals have attached themselves to this blog in the form of auschlecken and I don’t want to be associated with them.


@Salient Green:

You won’t be supporting gen IV nuclear technology? Of course you won’t! You’re an anti-human, anti-technology advocate of depopulation and energy starvation. Your pretence of not supporting a revolutionary, viable, economical, game-changing, carbon-free power production system on account of being offended by the style of posting of a few people here is as transparent as vacuum.


I have read through the comments on this thread, and note that it has strayed off original topic. As many threads do on many sites.

As I see it, there is no ONE source of energy that is the key to the future. All have their places. The disadvantages associated with each one are all being separately worked on and solved, at whatever rate for each. Thus,

a. solar cost effectiveness is improving;
b. battery storage (eg lithium ion for electric cars) is improving;
c. it looks like thorium reactors and IFR offer a way out of the high level nuclear waste problem associated with most established reactors;
d. there are other promising technologies, such as wave and tidal power.

I do not see any ONE of these as being THE answer to energy problems worldwide, but assume that coal-fired generation has to be phased out.

On the rural property I live on, the water supply is from a very reliable bore with a mains-powered submersible pump. A 22,000 volt line runs reasonably close to our other bore, which stopped feeding water into our farm system when its windmill became uneconomic to maintain (and later got blown to smithereens in what I can only describe as a tornado.) The last quote I obtained (about 20 years ago) said that 2 poles would be needed to get the power to the bore at A$10,000 per pole. I have neither had the need nor the courage to ask what it would cost today, and that is before installing any pump, wiring and electronics.

A big increase in electricity cost we would have difficulty passing on to our customers. Most of our consumption is for pumping water for livestock. We would have to destock and perhaps eliminate some of the wild animals (mainly kangaroos) that drink at our troughs as well if electricity costs were to go through the roof. So a major interest of mine has been in non-mains-powered water pumping systems.

In Barry’s original cost-comparison calculations of solar vs nuclear, I did not notice any reactor decommissioning costs as being taken into account. (This is one area where accounting tends to get hazy for the existing nuclear industry.)

I do not think it wise to assume that promising but yet unproven teachnology will solve the problems of disposal of the (relatively) small masses of high-level waste or of the (relatively) large masses of low-level waste, and so both for the present should be factored in at present real cost.


Ian, regarding decommissioning:

Utilities currently play 0.1-0.2c/kWh for decomm.

For a 1 GW reactor, this would result in a yearly deposit of $8-16 million (assuming 92% capacity factor) and an accumulated fund (at 5% interest) after 60 years of operation of $3-6 billion (more if the interest rate is higher).

Current cost estimates for complete shutdown and decommissioning for light and heavy water reactors, are in the range of $200-600/kW (or up to $600 million for a 1 GW reactor). For gas-graphite reactors, the cost is higher, around $2,500/kW, but there are few of these outside of the UK. The EBR-II decomm (a sodium-cooled fast reactor) was a spectacular success.

So, currently, the utilities in the US are covering their decomm costs at least 3-6 times over. It’s a(nother) non-issue that is hyped by antis (not saying you are, just generalising) and yet has no substance.


Barry, I’ve read of these insanely high costs to decom the Magnox reactors. And also the British failure to finance the decom.I have some questions.

Why ARE the costs so high?
What is about these reactors that make them so expensive, is it the graphit?
Will all graphite moderated reactors have such high decom costs?


David, regarding Magnox decomm costs. Magnox structures were generally bulkier and more heavily irradiated than PWRs. Sellafield is apparently so high because it was originally a facility for breeding Pu for the UK atomic weapons project. This involved large amounts of neutron bombardment of materials. More detail here:

WNA says the following:
“For gas-cooled reactors the costs were much higher due to the greater amount of radioactive materials involved, reaching $2600/kWe for some UK Magnox reactors.”

A lot more detail here:
“Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants: Policies, Strategies and Costs” (OECD)

You can view most of the book on Google books.


Surely to make grand statements about ‘only nuclear’ meeting our power needs for the future one also has to investigate the incremental but important advances in other corresponding technologies. So Gen3 and Gen4 can ‘eat’ old waste… OK, I’m a fan for that purpose alone.

But nuclear as our one-stop shop climate solution, because all the others are too expensive, especially when backup is required to smooth supply to the grid? Really? This list seems happy to count the blessings that advanced Gen4 reactors will bring, but unable to also anticipate other advances in other technologies.

What if we didn’t need a super-grid anymore to ‘smooth supply’ from wind power or solar farms? What if giant, CHEAP batteries became possible, that could almost make State grids irrelevant?

It’s possible. Pump the cost of a large state wide grid into these batteries, and various renewables may even become cost competetive. Local power from local cities into local battery banks on a more localised grid becomes a more secure prospect for a simplified and more locally rewarding grid.


Eclipse Now,

Just for you, I did this quick analysis. It is from the latest ABARE reeport (released yesterday) on the major electrcity generation projects under construction or with applications in the piper line

Wind farms are running at between $2.5/W and $3/W.

Multiply by 3 to get equivalent energy to nuclear or coal = $7.5 to $9/W (say $8/W)

Add $1 for gas to back up for the wind (not including capacity credit) = $1/W

Add $1W for transmission = $1/W

Total cost for wind power with same availability as nuclear and coal = $10/W

Solar thermal in ACT for $6.41/W.

Capacity factor in winter assume 10%

Solar with equivalent energy to nuclear or coal (multiply by 9) = $57.69/W

Gas back up = $1/W

Transmission = $1/W

Total = $60/W

Thank you John Stanhope; that is why my rates and electricity prices are skyrocketing – and we don’t even have the CPRS yet :)


Eclipse now, Surely you can see that batteries are simply going to add to the cost, not reduce it. Just think about it for a while.


I should have made that last post clearer. Wind capital cost is about twice that of nuclear to get the similar quality of energy supply. To get wind down to being equivalent you need to halve the cost of the wind farms, halve the cost of transmission (you cannot get rid of it) and provide batteries for half the cost of the fossil fuel back up – ie about $0.5/W and near $0//Wh.

What price do you have for storage in $/W and $/Wh? (actual prices not researchers’ optimistic dreams)


What price do you have for Gen4 nuclear power plants? (Actual Cost not researchers’ optimistic dreams)

I don’t care that I don’t know the cost of this new battery gizmo, as I was just making the point that you all tend to allow glowing reports about Gen4 future development but not really allow for incremental advances in boring non-nuclear technologies.

Anyway I have repeatedly explained that a LARGE share of the battery storage will be… what was it again? Oh yeah, FREE!!!

Utilities will NOT pay for installing it, neither will wind farms. A certain very generous electric car system setting up in Canberra in 2012 will demonstrate this new technology and business plan.

And of course, instead of taking the 1 cent / km coal powered energy they are taking the 2 cents / km wind powered energy because it STILL beats oil at an equivalent price / km working out about $0.80 cents a litre.

Oh no… we’re all going to be bankrupted by Better Place using wind not nuclear! ;-)

The cents / km are only marginally affected by the electricity price.

The majority of it is the battery technology and battery-swap business plan. But of course, as I already spelt out, the UTILITIES do not have to pay this… us car users do… at $0.80 cents a litre equivalent energy cost. Know anywhere you can fill up for that today?


What Barry Brook failed to take into account about the nuclear option is the enrichment process the get the uranium and the 250,000 years that the spent fuel is not only extremely dangerous but is impressively expensive to maintain, man and protect (add that little number in there and suddenly nuclear fission is not as viable). There’s also no CFCs put into the atmosphere with solar cells. The solar option is also made from silicon, one of the most common elements on the planet! Solar cells also have NO moving parts, won’t ever pollute and are portable!


Matt -Check again

Many industries produce hazardous waste. The nuclear industry has developed technology that will ensure its hazardous waste can be managed appropriately so as to cause no risk to future generations.

In fact, the radioactivity of nuclear wastes naturally decays progressively and has a finite radiotoxic lifetime. The radioactivity of high-level wastes decays to the level of an equivalent amount of original mined uranium ore in about 1,000 years. Its hazard then depends on how concentrated it is. Compare this to other industrial wastes (e.g. heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury), which remain hazardous indefinitely.

Most nuclear wastes produced are hazardous, due to their radioactivity, for only a few tens of years and are routinely disposed in near-surface disposal facilities.

If a typical in a First World nation got all of the energy they used in their lifetime (~70yrs) from nuclear fission, the total high-level waste ball would be the size of an orange.


Hi Matt,
it is precisely the IFR’s ability to burn all that horrible, long lived nuclear waste, reduce it to one tenth the mass, and leave behind a radioactive waste so ‘hot’ that it burns itself out in about 500 to 1000 years that has swung me around from being anti-nuclear to at least being open to the idea. In the USA alone the waste is sitting there in what, hundreds of thousands of tons of steel containers? We need to reduce that stockpile of nasty stuff by burning it. Then we store 1/10th the mass for 1000 years underground.

So the only way to do it is the variety of new generation nuclear plants being considered, and the main thing we are waiting on now is the economics of the right way to produce them in mass volumes off a production line.

So I’m for nuclear power, IF baseload renewables really don’t prove economically competitive in the long run. (About which I remain agnostic over the next 10 years as there are so many developments on all electricity generation fronts).

Remember, with peak oil in about 2014, there are far worse scenarios concerning *lack* of energy that will impact the entire globe.

EG: * many international airlines bankrupting and flight increasingly belong to only the uber-rich and governments
* international tourism taking a huge hit
* massive inflation in the price of EVERYTHING because everything involves production with oil or transport by oil
* the American petrodollar collapsing
* Greater Depression
* Carter Doctrine creating the possibility of REAL oil wars that dwarf Iraq and Afghanistan

So while trying to produce baseload power with renewables, we’ll also be forced to move much of mining, agriculture, transport and construction systems across to electricity… we can’t really afford to have our electricity supplies in doubt.

(On a more morbid note: another Chernobyl might even be good for the local environment, as look at all the wildlife that has come back around there now that us humans have abandoned the place. But I’d hate to lose Sydney… one of the most beautiful cities and harbours in the world.)


Eclipse – Two things: You have to make a distinction between ‘used fuel’ and ‘nuclear waste’ in particular in reference to one of the nuclear weapon Powers. The bulk of the real hazardous stuff, not just because it is just radiotoxic but also because it is chemotoxic and highly reactive, (and often liquid) is from nuclear weapons production. The antinuclear movement has always loved to confound the difference in there propaganda. Spent fuel per se, is relatively benign, once its initial cooling is complete.

The second thing is that spent fuel can be burned now, in current reactors – if it is reprocessed – something that is done in France, for example. Gen IV is not required for that. The leftover is a small mass of isotopes that may have other uses once there is enough of it to make it worthwhile to develop.


“The leftover is a small mass of isotopes that may have other uses once there is enough of it to make it worthwhile to develop.”

Like? I’m interested in what you think *might* be possible with the final waste product.


Like this.

I asked GRL Cowan at the top of that thread for info on the elemental composition of the waste. Then I tried to estimate the value in the materials. Like I say in the comment, its a very dodgy calculation. If anyone has better information I’d be interested.



Well neptunium, is a precursor in plutonium-238 production which is needed for RTGs for powering deep-space missions; americium is used for smoke detectors, and could be used in some designs of so-called ‘atomic batteries’; curium sources are used for alpha particle X-ray spectrometers; iodine-129, technetium-99, caesium-135 and strontium-90 are all used as ether medical or industrial isotopes.

In Japan, platinum group metals are also targeted, for commercial recovery from spent fuel reprocessing.


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