Would nuclear be too expensive for Saskatchewan?

This piece refers to kilowatt-hours (kWh) and costs-per-kWh as well as cost per installed watt ($/kW). If you are new to these units, please consult our introduction to energy system terms.

In this area of knowledge, we defer to our publicly-owned utility for the best possible answer. Sask Power’s analysis in 2009, submitted to the Standing Comittee on Crown and Central Agencies, reveals that they expect nuclear power to cost 8-10¢/kWh with an installed cost of $5000-7200/kW. This number includes an allowance for decommissioning and interim fuel storage. Extremely long-term planning estimates including reprocessing or central long-term storage would have a slightly higher cost per kWh. Our estimates based on nuclear reprocessing costs in other nations lead us to a rough estimate of an extra 2¢/kWh for the cost of reprocessing towards a closed fuel cycle. These processes yield additional fuel for reactors and other valuable materials. The wastes from these processes are dangerous for far less time than those in normal spent fuel. We also estimate that long-term storage would be around 1¢/kWh extra cost. This brings the SaskPower number to 9-11¢/kWh for storage and 10-12¢/kWh for reprocessing.

We can compare this to the cheapest possible ‘compliant’ coal power plant that they list at: $4300-5700/kW and 7-10¢/kWh. “Clean as gas” coal plants come in at $6300-8600/kW and 8-12¢/kWh. Combined-Cycle natural gas comes in at $1500-2400/kW and 8-13¢/kWh. Co-generation natural gas numbers come in slightly lower, at $1500-2400/kW and 7-12¢/kWh. However, it does not make sense to compare natural gas co-generation to nuclear without co-generation. It is certainly possible to run cogeneration with nuclear power plants. An example of this is the Stade Nuclear Power Plant. Large-scale wind power comes in at $2000-3000/kW and 6-10¢/kWh. This is really nice, and we do like wind, but by itself it is not a baseload power source. Wind is more of an energy resource. With a lot of installed wind, we will need to burn less natural gas and run less water out of our hydro dams. Currently these are the two main systems that Saskatchewan uses to meet peaking demand.

Sask Power also only lists the longevity of wind turbines at 20 years. Their replacement or refurbishment is a cost to be considered as well when comparing them to nuclear which is generally rated at 60 years. These issues are included in the SaskPower analysis. Hydroelectric energy is a good option at $3000-6000/kW and 5-10¢/kWh. It is important to keep in mind that all of the ideal hydroelectric locations have already been developed. Development in the future will be more remote. This will require infrastructure construction and maintenance, grid upgrades, and more expensive construction costs due to the remote location.

All in all, nuclear is not necessarily an unreasonably expensive option for Saskatchewan. It is obvious that SaskPower has crunched the numbers and decided to go in other directions. There are many reasons for this, one of the major ones being the availability of water for cooling such a nuclear power plant. A full sized plant would require a lot of water, and this could pose a major problem. Heated water being reintroduced into the environment can have serious consequences for the water-based life. Also, there are strict guidelines for human use of any water that interacts with a nuclear power plant. These issues, as well as others, increase the difficulty and thus the cost of designing a feasibly nuclear power plant in Saskatchewan.

It is possible that future developments in nuclear technology will one day lead to greater feasibility and reduced cost. For now however the diagnosis is that nuclear is quite expensive, and it would require Saskatchewan to put all of their proverbial eggs in one energy basket. Developing other forms of power in addition to nuclear at this point would be prohibitively expensive for our province. The only way this could be justified economically is if we replaced our aging coal-powered generators near Estevan with a nuclear plant of similar size. This is an option that we hope SaskPower, our government, and the people of Saskatchewan will consider carefully. It is true that nuclear power has some problems, but our studies indicate that coal has more problems.

We would likely be better off long term in terms of cost, health and C02 emissions if we built a nuclear power plant on the boundary dam reservoir to replace our coal plants. Currently the political will to do this does not exist because we are supporting the substantial bill for researching clean coal technology at some of these plants. We believe that research is good, but we cannot depend on an unproven technology until it has been researched. Our current political direction is to expect that the clean coal project will be a shining success. This would help with the C02 emissions of coal at an additional cost, but would not necessarily address the other problems that coal has. We believe that it would be good for Saskatchewan to continue to conduct broad-based studies of our energy options in the future to ascertain our best directions for safe, healthy, and economic development.

This article is part of our nuclear myth and fact project.

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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