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Prospects for Nuclear Power

  • Lucas W. Davis

Nuclear power has long been controversial because of concerns about nuclear accidents, storage of spent fuel, and how the spread of nuclear power might raise risks of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. These concerns are real and important. However, emphasizing these concerns implicitly suggests that unless these issues are taken into account, nuclear power would otherwise be cost effective compared to other forms of electricity generation. This implication is unwarranted. Throughout the history of nuclear power, a key challenge has been the high cost of construction for nuclear plants. Construction costs are high enough that it becomes difficult to make an economic argument for nuclear even before incorporating these external factors. This is particularly true in countries like the United States where recent technological advances have dramatically increased the availability of natural gas. The chairman of one of the largest U.S. nuclear companies recently said that his company would not break ground on a new nuclear plant until the price of natural gas was more than double today's level and carbon emissions cost $25 per ton. This comment summarizes the current economics of nuclear power pretty well. Yes, there is a certain confluence of factors that could make nuclear power a viable economic option. Otherwise, a nuclear power renaissance seems unlikely.

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File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.26.1.49
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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 26 (2012)
Issue (Month): 1 (Winter)
Pages: 49-66

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:26:y:2012:i:1:p:49-66
Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.26.1.49
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  1. Paul Joskow & Nancy L. Rose, 1985. "The Effects of Technological Change, Experience, and Environmental Regulation on the Construction Cost of Coal-Burning Generating Units," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 16(1), pages 1-17, Spring.
  2. Ryan Kellogg, 2009. "Learning by Drilling: Inter-Firm Learning and Relationship Persistence in the Texas Oilpatch," NBER Working Papers 15060, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Lucas W. Davis & Catherine Wolfram, 2011. "Deregulation, Consolidation, and Efficiency: Evidence from U.S. Nuclear Power," NBER Working Papers 17341, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Rebecca Achee Thornton & Peter Thompson, 2001. "Learning from Experience and Learning from Others: An Exploration of Learning and Spillovers in Wartime Shipbuilding," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(5), pages 1350-1368, December.
  5. McCabe, Mark J, 1996. "Principals, Agents, and the Learning Curve: The Case of Steam-Electric Power Plant Design and Construction," Journal of Industrial Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 44(4), pages 357-75, December.
  6. Grubler, Arnulf, 2010. "The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 38(9), pages 5174-5188, September.
  7. Martin B. Zimmerman, 1982. "Learning Effects and the Commercialization of New Energy Technologies: The Case of Nuclear Power," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 13(2), pages 297-310, Autumn.
  8. Nicholas Z. Muller & Robert Mendelsohn & William Nordhaus, 2011. "Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 101(5), pages 1649-75, August.
  9. C. Lanier Benkard, 2000. "Learning and Forgetting: The Dynamics of Aircraft Production," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 1034-1054, September.
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