This week will see a steady stream of advocacy for nuclear power. Many advocates are well-informed. But nuclear has already lost to solar photovoltaic power.
Why are solar and nuclear on such different trajectories? Is it just a matter of regulatory inefficiency? Or is there a deeper reason? Solar power is competitive because it’s cheap, easy, safe with low-skilled labor, and not a proliferation risk. Nuclear plants today can be made to high standards of safety, but solar power is safe by default—and it’s cheap because it’s simple. It doesn’t require X-ray weld inspection of stainless-steel containment vessels or comprehensive background checks for operators. Just a generic foundation and an electrical plug.
But this neglects the most important reason why solar power is crushing nuclear power. After all, a much simpler and cheaper nuclear plant could be invented tomorrow. The reason solar power and batteries are winning is because the manufacturing technology can be iterated every six months, so the learning curve is much faster. Nuclear power plant technology iterates about every 25 years, or twice in the 50-year life of a nuclear power plant. Many first-generation plants are still operating, but few third-generation plants have been commissioned and fourth-generation plants are still in the planning stage. Even if every nuclear design iteration was ten times better than the last, solar power wins, because solar iterates 50 times faster. It wins with just a five percent improvement per iteration. Is each nuclear design ten times better than its predecessor? Obviously not. Meanwhile, solar PV panels have already been through hundreds of design generations, driving a 10 percent price decrease every year.