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In the debate over what constitutes the most cost-effective energy source to replace fossil-fuel power plants, it has long been claimed that nuclear power is the cheapest alternative available. But a new report indicates that such an assumption is flawed and that for the first time ever, the cost of solar power is now cheaper than the cost of nuclear. According to the study- “Solar and Nuclear Costs - The Historic Crossover” - by Duke University Economics Professor, John O. Blackburn and graduate student Sam Cunningham, while the cost of installing solar has been steadily declining, the costs of nuclear power plants have been rising “inexorably” over the past eight years. "Solar photovoltaics have joined the ranks of lower-cost alternatives to new nuclear power plants,” said Prof. Blackburn. In a “historic crossover” the costs of solar PV systems have declined to the point where they are lower than the rising projected costs of new nuclear power plants, the authors claimed.
The crossover point occurred at 16 cents per kilowatt hour.
A New York Times article discussing the study notes that estimates of construction costs have gone from roughly $3 billion per reactor in 2002 to an average now of roughly $10 billion. But since no one has ever built and commissioned a nuclear power plant in the United States according to present standards, no one actually knows what the final cost of a new nuclear power plant would be. Of the five proposed designs for new nuclear facilities being considered by U.S. utilities, only one has ever been built, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Thus nuclear power presents an inverted learning curve - whereas most technologies, such as solar, get cheaper over time as developers learn how to produce more and better products with fewer raw materials and less labor, it would appear that the more we learn about nuclear power, the more expensive it becomes.
This is certainly not for a lack of nuclear subsidies from the government. According to a 2000 report by Marshall Goldberg of the Renewable Energy Policy Project, from 1943 to 1999 the U.S. Government paid nearly $151 billion (in 1999 dollars) in subsidies to the wind, solar and nuclear power industries. Of that, 96.3% went to support nuclear power.
In the quest to deliver cheap and clean power to supply future needs, it is clear that solar has taken the lead - a lead it is not likely to surrender anytime soon.