With both atomic energy and solar energy making headlines, it’s worth a closer look at how each power source compares to the other.
While both are carbon-free sources of electricity, the main similarities end there.
This article looks at how much each power source costs, their environmental impact and importantly, how long each resource takes to build.
It also examines their advantages and disadvantages and the public attitude towards both.
Renewable Energy Source
Of the many benefits of solar energy, the most important is that it is a truly renewable source of energy.
It is available every day and can be harnessed in all areas of the world.
We are not running out of solar energy, unlike some of the other sources of energy including atomic energy.
On the other hand, the production of atomic energy (also referred to as nuclear energy) requires low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel.
LEU is produced using natural uranium – mined in a few countries.
The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has estimated that the planet’s economically accessible uranium resources could keep nuclear reactors running for more than 200 years given current rates of consumption.
Solar vs Atomic Power – Cost And Time To Build
The biggest differences between solar and atomic power are the cost and time it takes to build each type of generating facility.
Atomic power is much more expensive and takes much longer to bring online.
A useful comparison can be seen by looking at the recent history of atomic power construction in the U.S.
Only one single atomic power plant has been completed there in the last 30 years: at the two-unit Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Tennessee, one reactor required 23 years to be operational and 33 years for the other.
What’s more, both of the two most recent nuclear projects under construction — which received approval in 2012 from the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC), are both over budget and far from completion.
A revised cost forecast for the Vogtle plant projects a total project cost of $25 billion, a 75 percent increase over its original $14.3 billion estimates.
In the six years after the approval of the Vogtle plant and V.C. Summer station, the Solar Energy Industries Association listed 57 utility-scale solar projects of at least 100 megawatts (MW) that have come online, with 14 additional 100-plus MW projects currently under construction.
One such project under construction, the Texas-based 250 MW Phoebe Solar Project, is scheduled to cost $397 million and take less than one year to bring online.
Solar – Cheaper To Build, In Less Time And Offers More Capacity
Solar projects cost less and can be built in much less time at a much lower cost than a single nuclear project.
Even accounting for capacity, large-scale solar farms remain much less expensive and quicker to bring online than nuclear plants as the leading source of carbon-free power.
This global trend has seen countries like Morocco building one of the world’s largest solar farms in order to meet their energy needs and reduce dependency on fossil fuel plants.
The public is taking up solar power generation in many countries as it is seen as clean and renewable.
Public Are Taking To Solar
Nowadays, individuals can buy solar rucksacks, solar trickle chargers, solar camping lanterns, and many other such products.
In the U.S., over 1,300,000 people have solar on their properties.
Rooftop solar is also widespread in Germany and Australia and other countries are providing incentives for people to be able to afford the initial expense of installing solar panels on their properties.
The cost of solar panels is currently quite high in some countries but proponents of solar argue that that initial cost is an investment which is quickly recouped over time.
In terms of jobs, the solar industry employs more than 260,000 people in the U.S. alone.
The continuous improvement in expertise, manufacturing and construction techniques drives down solar deployment costs every 3 months.
Pricing for new solar projects is coming in the range of 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Solar Reduces Electricity Bills
Consumers who install solar panels meet some of their energy needs with the electricity their solar system generates hence their energy bills drop.
Moreover, there is also a possibility for them to receive payments for the surplus energy they export back to the grid if they generate more electricity than they use and their solar panel system is connected to the grid.
Nuclear Cost To UK Taxpayers
To entice EDF, the French company, the British government controversially offered a very high price guarantee for buying the power that will be produced at Hinkley nuclear power station when it is completed.
EDF is being offered a guaranteed inflation-linked price for electricity over 35 years, commencing at £92.5/MWh, more than double the wholesale price of electricity in the UK, together with a loan guarantee of originally £10 billion (US$15.3 billion).
The advancement of technology in the solar industry has to lead to various factors.
Low Maintenance Cost
Solar energy systems installed on residential roofs don’t require a lot of maintenance.
You only need to keep them clean, so cleaning them a couple of times a year will do the job. Also, they have no moving parts so there is no wear and tear.
The inverter is usually the only part that needs changing every 5 to 10 years.
So, after the initial cost (which can be substantial) of the solar system, you can expect very little spending on maintenance and repair.
Likewise, solar farms require far less maintenance compared to the costly, complex, highly specialized and safety-critical maintenance that atomic plants have to undergo periodically.
Solar power technology is constantly advancing.
Innovations in nanotechnology and quantum physics can potentially increase the effectiveness of solar panels and increase the electrical output of solar power systems.
Solar power does have some disadvantages.
Solar Is Weather Dependent
Although solar energy can still be collected during cloudy and rainy days, the efficiency of the solar system drops since solar panels are dependent on sunlight to effectively gather solar energy.
In contrast, nuclear plants are not dependent on the weather.
Solar Energy Storage Is Expensive
Solar energy has to be used as it is produced, or it can be stored in large batteries.
These batteries can be charged during the day so the energy is used at night.
This is also quite expensive and in most cases, it is smarter to use solar energy during the day and take energy from the grid during the night
Like all energy sources, atomic power has advantages and disadvantages.
Though many environmentalists have opposed nuclear power, citing its dangers and difficulty of disposing of its radioactive waste, Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author argues that nuclear is safer than most other energy sources and is needed if the world hopes to drastically decrease its carbon emissions.
What Are Atomic Power’s Benefits?
Firstly, since it produces energy via nuclear fission rather than chemical burning, it generates electricity without producing carbon, which is responsible for global warming.
Secondly, nuclear power plants operate at much higher capacity factors than fossil fuels or renewable energy sources.
Capacity factor is a measure of what percentage of the time a power plant actually produces energy.
It’s a problem affecting all intermittent energy sources since the wind doesn’t always blow, nor does the sun always shine.
In the United States in 2016, nuclear power plants generate around 20 percent of U.S. electricity, had an average capacity factor of 92.3 percent, meaning they operated at full power on 336 out of 365 days per year.
On the other days, they were taken off the grid for maintenance.
In contrast, solar electricity arrays generated electricity only 25.1 percent of the time i.e. 92 days per year.
Hence nuclear is regarded as the winner in terms of reliability.
Continued Challenges For Atomic Power
Is the nuclear power industry on its death bed?
Even some nuclear enthusiasts think so.
With the exception of China, most nations are moving away from nuclear.
Existing atomic power plants across the U.S. are being shut early; new reactor designs are falling foul of regulators, and public support is falling.
And now, there are bankruptcies.
In an astonishing blow to the global nuclear industry, in March 2017, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse — the developer of the workhorse of the global nuclear industry, and for many decades the world’s largest provider of nuclear technology — filed for bankruptcy after hitting big problems with the AP1000, its latest reactor design.
The concentration of nuclear component manufacturing in a few companies has shown how a problem with quality led to a “single point of failure” affecting a range of French nuclear power plants.
This decline in nuclear is not a short-term trend. While renewables and gas get cheaper, the price of nuclear power keeps rising.
Dangers Linked To Atomic Energy
What are the downsides of nuclear?
In the public’s mind, there are two, both related to radiation: the question of nuclear waste disposal, and the risk of accidents.
Since the onset of commercial atomic power in the mid-1950s, there have been three large-scale accidents involving nuclear power: Three-Mile Island in the U.S., Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Fukushima in Japan.
The explosion and burnout of the water-cooled reactor at Chernobyl in 1986 was the worst nuclear accident in history.
While twenty-nine disaster relief workers died of radiation exposure immediately after the accident, it is believed that the accident also made a major contribution to many more deaths, namely from cancers, which appear over several decades.
Fukushima’s Legacy of Trauma, Radiation, and Fear
The accident in Japan at Fukushima in March 2011 followed a major earthquake and tsunami.
Water flooded out the power supply and cooling systems of three reactors, causing them to melt down and explode, and breaching their confinement.
Although radiation exposure beyond the station grounds was limited, the public appetite for more nuclear plants has diminished in Japan – and elsewhere – as a result of this accident.
Fukushima also proved to be the tipping point in Germany’s long-running nuclear debate.
The accident persuaded the previously pro-nuclear Chancellor Angela Merkel to change her mind.
Within weeks of the accident, she set a deadline of 2022 for shutting the country’s reactors, which at the time generated 22 percent of German electricity.
Nuclear Weapons Proliferation is Dependent on Civil Nuclear Energy
Another reason many environmentalists oppose nuclear power is that six countries (France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, and the UK) have covertly used civil nuclear energy to assist them to develop nuclear weapons.
Hence they argue that nuclear energy is facilitating proliferation and therefore is increasing the probability of nuclear war.
Nuclear Waste Disposal
When the uranium fuel in atomic reactors is used up, usually after about 18 months, the spent rods remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
Globally, nuclear waste disposal remains a problem.
Some argue that it is no longer a technological problem as there are many existing means of storage including impenetrable concrete-and-steel dry casks on the grounds of operating reactors and in underground sites.
However, for many people, the fact that it takes thousands of years for this waste to decay and become harmless feels them with dread.
They also believe that accidents can happen during storage and that there is no foolproof method of storing nuclear waste hence it is better not to produce nuclear waste in the first place.
This is why storage sites like the U.S. repository at Yucca Mountain have faced political and other opposition over the years.
Even if the technical and economic challenges are solvable, the social problem of managing these repositories for 100,000 years remains.
In the solar vs atomic energy debate, it is clear that one industry is on the rise while the other is at a crossroads and faces many huge challenges.
Given the political will, renewable energy could be scaled up long before Generation 3 and 4 nuclear power stations could make a significant contribution to the electricity supply.
With the current technology, we can keep producing more solar and we can plan and adjust to cheap energy in the middle of the day with time-varying rates.
And if we further develop energy storage, solar will make a huge contribution to meeting global electricity demands using an abundant and carbon-free resource.