By Jake J. Smith
via Chicago Harris
Energy economics is a complex terrain, featuring an array of ever-fluctuating costs. Technologies sweep in and out of the landscape, altering the relative prices of wind versus coal versus solar, while geopolitical tremors can wreak havoc on supply and demand. Pinpointing costs is even trickier in the field of nuclear energy, where statistics are often shrouded in mystery, in the name of trade secrets or national security.
Out of this foggy landscape has emerged a new tool that promises to root discussions about the cost of nuclear energy in hard evidence rather than speculation. Over the last two years the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has developed the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Cost Calculator, an online interface that provides a nuanced look at the economic costs of nuclear power.
Built with significant funding from the MacArthur Foundation, and in collaboration with Chicago Harris professor Robert Rosner and a team of researchers, the calculator provides a simple gateway into the physics-laden universe of nuclear economics. A user can slide more than 60 moving scales to tweak inputs like uranium price or reactor construction time, and then watch the expected price shift before her eyes. Spend some time with the interface, and it quickly becomes clear that building a new reactor will have a greater impact on energy cost than a spike in the price of uranium. The calculator also projects the costs of recycling versus disposing of spent nuclear fuel—a subject hotly debated among energy experts—and reveals that, when all costs are added in, recycling fuel results in consumers paying more per kilowatt hour.
“It’s completely transparent,” Rosner explains. “You push a button, and out comes the answer.”
Less transparent are the years of rigorous scientific effort underlying the project. Rosner worked with a team of nuclear engineers to develop the mathematical model at the calculator’s core when he was director of Argonne National Laboratories from 2005 to 2009. The model captured the fluid relationships among variables that determine the price of nuclear energy in three different fuel cycles—that is, whether the nuclear fuel is disposed of, partially recycled (also called “mixed oxide,” or “MOX”) or fully recycled—revealing that the special materials and processes needed to recycle fuel come with high prices that are ultimately borne by energy consumers.
But beyond simply breaking down costs, the model provides an economic rationale against practices that Rosner and other scientists worry could raise the risk of nuclear materials landing in the wrong hands. Their concern is with plutonium, a prime nuclear weapons material that, due to its low-level radiation, is especially susceptible to theft. In a MOX fuel cycle, plutonium left over from previous nuclear reactions is not disposed of, but instead combined with uranium. The full-recycling process requires special reactors that can be turned into what Rosner calls “plutonium factories” with slight modifications to the design…