The Cost of Fuel Cycle and Competitiveness of Nuclear Power

Tuesday, 18 January 2011 09:33

The Cost of Fuel Cycle and Competitiveness of Nuclear Power
JI Biao,LIU Chuan-de
(Qinshan Nuclear Power Co., Ltd., Haiyan of Zhejiang Prov. 314300, China)

Abstract: The price of nuclear fuel is rising and changeable in international market at present, which influences the cost and development of the nuclear power in China. This thesis suggests a plan to control the whole cost of the fuel cycle, to improve the competitiveness of nuclear power in China, to accelerate the development of both fuel cycle and nuclear power industries.

      Key Words: nuclear power; nuclear fuel cycle; cost control
      The uranium (U3O8) price in the international market has been $7/lb. in 2003, increasing to $20/lb. in 2004 and $40 to 70 lb. in 2006, and once it has been up to $136/lb. in June of 2007, since when the price has rapidly declined, and staying around $50/lb. currently. For the changes see Figure 1.

the cost of fuel cycle and competitiveness of nuclear power

Figure 1 Trends of Uranium Price in International Market

       With rapid rising of the overall fuel price and the short-term volatile movement, it’s unavoidable for the nuclear power industry to consider how the competitiveness of nuclear power in China cannot be affected substantially and how to keep the cost relative stability of nuclear power.

1 Overview of Nuclear Power Competitiveness in China

       In recent years, the power construction in China has kept rapid growth with new level of the annual installed capacity of national power. Till the end of 2009, the national installed power-generating capacity has reached 874.07 million kilowatts, increasing by 10.23%, among which, the hydropower 196.79 million kilowatts, accounting for about 23% of total capacity; the thermal power 652.05 million kilowatts, accounting for about 75%; and the nuclear power 9.08 million kilowatts, accounting for only 1%. For specific indicators see Table 1 below:

Table 1 Outline of Electric Power in China in 2009




Yearly Growth Rate

Installed power-generating capacity

10 thousand kilowatts




10 thousand kilowatts



Thermal power

10 thousand kilowatts



Nuclear power

10 thousand kilowatts



Wind power

10 thousand kilowatts



Power generation equipment

utilization hours of the electric power plant

of 6,000 kilowatts or above








Thermal power




Nuclear power




Wind power




     The proportion of nuclear power in total power generation in China is far behind that of the developed countries. With continuous development and improvement of the nuclear utilization as well as the popularization nuclear knowledge, there is a new opportunity for nuclear development. China has established the policy to “develop the nuclear power actively” for its large potentials. While, development of the nuclear power is based on competitiveness since stronger competitiveness will result into better growth momentum.

     There are three main factors to reflect the competitiveness, including brand, quality and price, with the respective analysis as follows:

     ①BRAND. The nuclear power is thought better by the public due to high technology,being safe and clean, however, the nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have also brought certain negative effects to the public together with the fear that cannot be ignored, damaging the brand reputation of nuclear power. The safety comparison between the nuclear power and other powers is similar to that between the aircraft and the automobile, that is, the aircraft is essentially much safer than the automobile, but being worried more than the auto. Therefore, it’s important to enhance the nuclear power promotion and establish positive image of nuclear power to the public. As the nuclear power runs safely and stably for more than twenty years, the positive nuclear image is gradually restored. It’s certainly that the nuclear brand shall be maintained by every nuclear power plant.

      ②QUALITY. The nuclear power is advantageous to keep long-term stable operation, but with the defects of poor peak regulation capacity and being difficult to adjust the power level, therefore, in case of power shortage in the market, the nuclear is better than the thermal power and the hydropower on quality, while in case of excessive market power, the nuclear is worse than the thermal power and the hydropower on peak regulation, which is clearly shown in Table 1, besides, the utilization hours of nuclear power generation is much higher than that of other powers (also with the case that the thermal utilization hours is influenced due to price competition of the coal and electricity). Due to power shortage of China in recent years, the nuclear power has made tremendous contributions for the economic development.

      ③PRICE. As a common commodity used by everyone, the power price fluctuation is sensitive to the public, while the price competitiveness is based on the advantages of low cost, so it’s unquestionable that the cost plays an important even decisive role in competition.

2 Introduction of the Cycle Cost of Nuclear Fuel

2.1 Concept of nuclear fuel cycle

      The fuel for nuclear reactors in the nuclear power plant cannot be exhausted at one time, and must be discharged periodically from the reactor, processed (called reprocessing), enriched, made into fuel element and then replaced into the reactor for recycling. If the nuclear power generation runs for certain period, the fuel element has to be discharged from the reactor and replaced with new fuels regardless of the remained considerable amount of fissile fuel when the excess reactivity is nearly disappeared due to fuel consumption and the poisonous effect of fission product produced and accumulated during the running. The fuel element discharged is called as spent fuel, which contains a large amount of fissile nuclides and convertible nuclides such as 235U (U-235) and 239PU (PU-239), including the original ones not burnt up and the converted ones generated during the operation cycle, all belonging to the precious energy resources. Reprocessing is required to separate the fission products and recycle the fissile nuclide and the convertible nuclide, thus make the fuel element available again for reuse in the reactor, achieving the fuel cycle. The whole process of nuclear fuel cycle includes the following steps:
  • ①Uranium exploration;
  • ②Uranium ore mining;
  • ③Extraction and refinement of uranium;
  • ④Chemical conversion of uranium;
  • ⑤Enrichment of U-235 (separation of uranium isotopes);
  • ⑥Fabrication of fuel elements;

             - The steps above is called the front end of fuel cycle

  • ⑦Reactor use (burnup);
  • ⑧Intermediate storage of spent fuel;

             - The steps below is called the back end of fuel cycle

  • ⑨Transport of spent fuel;
  • ⑩Reprocessing of spent fuel;
  • ⑾ Radioactive waste treatment and final disposal.

     Among the above, the spent fuel disposal plant is the one of the must steps for recycling of uranium and plutonium resources.


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