Fusion Energy

In principle, nuclear fusion49 could offer a virtually unlimited supply of energy with significantly reduced (and shorter-lived) quantities of radioactive waste. Over the last 50 years, many countries (the United States, Russia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and others) have investigated the concept of controlled fusion for electricity production (NRC, 2004). There is a multinational effort under way to develop a “burning plasma”50 machine, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), by 2025.51 ITER is intended to provide the information needed to assess the practicality and cost of a fusion reactor. If successful, fusion reactors would be unlikely to be ready for commercial deployment until after 2050, absent some major breakthrough.


The cost of uprating an existing nuclear plant to increase its power output can be reasonably well estimated; however, the costs of new nuclear technologies are uncertain. There has been recent interest in building evolutionary nuclear plants, for example, but companies’ estimates of costs for construction vary widely. And the costs of alternative plants and fuel cycles are even less clear at this point. These cost issues are discussed in the following sections.

Costs of Improvements to Current Plants

Improving current nuclear plants for the purpose of increasing power output or extending operating lifetimes is significantly less expensive per kilowatt of capacity than constructing a new plant. Depending on the type of uprate, plant uprates can cost from hundreds of dollars to about $2000 per added kilowatt of capacity, while new plants could cost as much as $6000/kW (overnight cost), as noted in the section to follow. For a plant license extension to 60 years, there is the expense of developing the associated documentation (approximately $50–60 million), and


In a fusion reaction, two light atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus. In doing so, energy is released that can be used to produce electricity.


“The plasma is said to be burning when alpha particles from the fusion reactions provide the dominant heating of the plasma” (NRC, 2004, p. 1).


This date may slip as the program moves beyond concept to construction.

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