Author:Jonathan Thompson
Course:EEE 460
Date:Spring 2002

Nuclear Fuel vs. Fossil Fuel


By:Jonathan Thompson

EEE 460

May 2002


††††††††††† Throughout the last half of the twenty-first century there has been an on going debate about whether or not we, as Americans, should build nuclear power plants or fossil fuel power plants.Arguments for the fossil fuel plants come mainly from people who have been influenced only by the anti-nuclear activists.These people believe that nuclear energy produces radioactive wastes that can destroy the environment. People also believe that nuclear power plants emit radiation that causes cancer and for this reason nuclear power plants should be discontinued.On the other hand, the arguments for nuclear power plants are that they have controlled waste, and they are environmentally friendly.In order to come to a reasonable solution to the argument on which power plant is better one would need to look at the efficiency of both of the plants, the cost of each of the plants, and the environmental safety of each of the plants.


††††††††††† In order to do a fair comparison of the two types of power plants it is important to look at the efficiency of each power plant. That is, how much power is lost in the normal process of each plant.The efficiency of a typical nuclear power plant is only around 33% due to the loss of heat in the piping, pumps, and other equipment.Therefore, twice as much energy is wasted as is converted into useful electrical energy.Fossil fuel plants can operate at higher steam temperatures and thus giving an overall efficiency of around 40% [1].In the case of how much power is output to how much power is created, the fossil fuel plants have a higher efficiency.


††††††††††† Another important factor to look at is what the cost of the fuel is for the two different types of power plants.To decide whether a nuclear power plant or a fossil fuel power plant is reasonable depends a great amount on how much it costs to build and run the plant.In my analysis I am going to ignore the cost of the operation and maintenance because the two costs are going to be very close.First, it is necessary to look at the overhead, or initial cost, of each of the power plants.In other words, how much it actually costs to build each plant.In the early 80ís the average cost in dollars per kilowatt of installed capacity was $1229 [1].On the other hand to build a coal power plant was $900 per kilowatt of installed capacity [3].It is assumed that the other fossil fuel plants will have a similar initial capital cost.The fossil fuel plants are much cheaper to build, but will the cost be made up in other expenses in time?Over time the major difference in cost between a Nuclear Power Plant and a Fossil Fuel Power Plant is going to be found in the amount of money that is spent on the fuel to run the plant on a daily basis.Fossil fuels do not have as much of an abundant supply as does the nuclear power plants and therefore they are more expensive.The cost of the fuel is going to be affected by the scarcity of the fuel and the cost it takes to extract the fuel. Taking this into consideration here are some comparisons of the approximate prices of fuels used in the two different types of plants.A typical fuel pellet cost about $7. This one fuel pellet has an equivalent energy of three barrels of oil, which cost $84, or one ton of coal, which cost $29 [2]. This difference in cost will add up to billions of dollars over the course of a year.For example, in 1993, the fossil fuels displaced by nuclear energy totaled 470 million tons of coal and 96 million barrels of oil, which translated to about $17 billion.†† By using nuclear energy at $7 per pellet, a savings of about $13 billion was generated in just one year [2].The nuclear power plants clearly have the advantage when it comes to the cost of the fuel; it is going to be shown that the amount of money being saved on fuel in a Nuclear Power Plant is going to make up the expensive cost of building the plant.


††††††††††† When we look at how each of the plants effects our environment we need to look at all the different pollutants that they give off. Fossil fuel plants give off many more pollutants than the nuclear power plant, but the nuclear power plant has leftover radioactive material that many people feel is harmful.What most people do not understand is that the waste given off by nuclear power plants is totally contained and does not affect our environment.But fossil fuel plants have quite a negative impact on our environment.Here are some of the raw numbers.A typical 1000-megawatt coal burning plant emits 100,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 75,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 5000 tons of fly ash into the environment per year while a typical 1000-megawatt oil-burning plant emits about 16,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 20,000 tons of nitrogen oxides [2].Some of the effects of this pollution are damaging the human lungs, acid rain, and global warming from the greenhouse effect.One of the only drawbacks of a nuclear power plant is what to do with the contained radioactive waste.From a typical 1000-megawatt Pressurized Water Reactor the amount of waste given off per year are shown in a graph in these calculations.Scientists have already figured out the best way to dispose of the radioactive material so that it does not have any lasting effects on our environment.


Nuclear power has advantages in many areas, including some that have been traditionally viewed as problems.Areas that it solves are pollution and environmental degradation of fossil fuels. It guarantees the world an everlasting supply of fuel without affecting resources sorely needed for other applications.It is not the most efficient but it makes up for that in the cost saving, and the environmental safeness.





[1] Murray, Raymond. Nuclear Energy, fifth edition. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001.


[2] Neil M. Cabreza, University of California, Berkeley, viewed on April 2002


[3] Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, viewed on April 2002