So, we hear it all the time: "Solar power is waaaay better than nuclear." Why is that so? Nuclear power is simply not properly balanced in its current form. I'd like to first establish the main reasons for solar being better, why nuclear is not sustainable, and then give my proposals as to what might allow nuclear to compete mid- to late-game. Because I'm sure we all want to actually have fun with nuclear power.
What makes solar better?
Solar power is a strange beast, and it's a bit broken all on its own. Solar produces massive amounts of energy per tile to the point where you have to suspend your disbelief to use it. Yes, this is an acceptable break from reality since it's a video game, and not many people in Factorio find true joy in slaving away at placing hundreds of thousands of solar panels down by hand. So, it's not likely that nerfing solar would be a good solution.
What else makes solar energy so powerful? Updates per second. Late-game, solar has a negligible UPS cost for its size. This is great, but it also means that by late-game, nuclear simply is not viable by comparison. This has to be by far the number one reason why nobody... and I mean NOBODY... uses nuclear for their megabase.
Why does nuclear power suck?
Aside from the UPS issues, nuclear power is actually quite underwhelming. In real life, one light-water reactor plant produces about 1GW of power. On average, these plants have 4 reactors each, meaning the raw output of each reactor is something like ~250MW. In Factorio, one plant of 4 reactors produces under 500MW, counting the magic adjacency bonus with maximum steam turbines. So, to get the same power output, twice the amount of reactors are needed. Using the Factorio Cheat Sheet as a reference reveals that adding more reactors just gives diminishing returns to the power output ratio as well.
In addition to this, nuclear power setups use tons of water. Taking water in by train is less than ideal in most cases since so much water is consumed. In fact, some friends and I were jokingly talking about units of consumed water in wagons/second. If you can't take the water in by train, you need to find water nearby to run pipes to your heat exchangers. Having enough offshore pumps can be difficult in many cases where heat exchangers have to be tightly packed to make the most efficient use of the heat coming off the reactor. Also, any pipes between heat exchangers and/or turbines means that you're limiting the throughput of steam to your turbines due to the current state of the fluid mechanics. 1 heat exchanger to 1.67 turbines is not a very clean ratio for maximizing efficiency, either.
The reactors themselves do not lend themselves any extra utility besides generating heat. There is no way to directly control the reactor's state using the circuit network. You can use the circuit network right up until the final inserter where the fuel cell is put in, but without a way to read contents, the best way to ration your fuel is to either count how many fuel cells you're putting in or time it accordingly. Too many fuel cells means eating through more of that hard-earned U-235 if consumption is not properly limited. Now, I don't have a problem with the warm-up and cool-down times of the reactor since it adds an extra layer of challenge to making a waste-free reactor, but not having direct control of the reactor's consumption through the circuit network just feels wrong when basically every other production building can jack in.
Nuclear power takes a lot of setup for such an underwhelming payoff. This extra setup is simply something that people tend to avoid unless they really want to do nuclear power. I personally love nuclear power, but I have to set it up myself all the time when playing with friends because it's such a hassle that nobody else wants to bother with. I don't really have a problem with the extra time and effort that goes into getting nuclear mining and processing done since I personally find it fun. The problem is really just how expensive it is when you hardly benefit from it, especially with the other players mindlessly spamming solar energy. Nuclear needs a huge buff to stay relevant in the current meta.
Alright, nuclear power needs a buff. How can it be improved?
The way I see it, we have several options:
- Flat increase to power generation from turbines (multiply output by a large amount, possibly x4 or x8)
- Better effective ratio of heat exchangers to turbines (the same as regular Steam, 1-2 vs. the current 1-1.67)
- Better ratios of pumps to heat exchangers with by greatly reducing water consumption (1-24 or 1-48 vs. the current 1-12)
- Overall optimizations to UPS to make nuclear power as a whole more viable in the endgame
- Better integration of nuclear power structures into the circuit network
- ^ All of the above!
I really, really love nuclear power. I don't see any legitimate reason to keep it the way it is in its current state, especially since nobody is screaming that it's OP, and I don't think anyone would throw a fit if it was buffed a bit more. I think in a game like Factorio, nuclear power just fits very well. Although it's been marvelously implemented, it just needs some tweaks to get it in a better state of affairs.
This is my love letter to nuclear power in Factorio. Glorious developers, hear my rallying cry and bring out the best of your greatest content addition since trains. Make nuclear power great again!