Many see nuclear energy as the best alternative to coal. Two bills to subsidize nuclear energy to the tune of approximately $500M, which would help save historic sites such as the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, are stagnantly in the hands of legislators. There is a growing fear within those in the nuclear energy industry, including the roughly 600 people who work at TMI, about the future of nuclear. But nuclear may not be the most cost-effective option.
Nuclear energy in whole is a capitally expensive energy source. The cost of construction of new nuclear power plants has risen exponentially. For example, the cost of a new plant rose from approximately $2B in 2002 to upwards of $9B in 2009. Nuclear is also more expensive when considering the levelized cost of energy, a metric that takes the total cost of construction and operation of a power plant. In 2017, the levelized cost per megawatt hour generated of nuclear energy was $112, more than twice as much as natural gas’s $42. The state and federal permitting process for nuclear plants is also a long and cumbersome
process, which can often take a decade from initial filing to the beginning of construction.
New technology allows for more cost-effective alternatives to coal, without the wait or cost associated with nuclear. In recent years, natural gas prices have dropped to record lows and have been rising to prominence in the US energy mix. Recognizing that trend, many coal-fired plants are being retrofitted to gas-fired while using much of the plant’s existing infrastructure, and at a much lower cost than building a new nuclear plant. The cost varies, but a recent conversion in a plant near Chicago cost approximately $205M. The retrofitting allows these plants to utilize the abundance of low-cost natural gas. Though not as green as nuclear power in terms of emissions, natural gas plants are a far more environmentally friendly option than coal.