Can Russia usher in a new-age of lower nuclear costs? Unlikely

The Russian-owned state nuclear company, Rosatom, recently reported to have cut costs across the board – from uranium mining, to power generation and waste management by 10% in 2014. On the construction side, Rosatom claims that costs have fallen 11% compared to 2007 numbers. Could this signal a new age to nuclear power?

One of the challenges with nuclear energy is cost overruns and what Arnulf Grubler termed "negative learning": the longer the technology is around the more expensive it gets.

Usually, technologies get cheaper with time as people learn how to do things better and more efficiently. But with nuclear power, the opposite is the case: it gets more expensive as time goes on due to growing public opposition grew and stricter regulations. The rising costs of nuclear installations have been documented in the French nuclear power program as well as in the U.S..

Could the recent news from Rosatom buck this historical trend of cost increases? Doubtful. For one, the biggest cost-cuts were achieved in the nuclear fuel cycle which is not the most expensive nor the most important part of nuclear power production. (In fact the cost of nuclear fuel accounts for a small percentage of the cost of nuclear-generated electricity).

The big cost in nuclear is from power plant construction. Rosatom reports to have slashed costs 10% since 2007 in that area. However, this only relates to nuclear power plants constructed in Russia which has a favorable regulatory environment and a strong state interest in keeping costs low.

Russian-made nuclear reactor on the way to the construction site of the Belarus Nuclear Power Plant. December of 2015

Russian-made nuclear reactor on the way to the construction site of the Belarus Nuclear Power Plant. December of 2015