The Problem with Nuclear Power

Nuclear power currently supplies about 20 percent of the electricity generated in the US and 52 percent of the carbon-free electricity. Hence, adding nuclear plants could certainly help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The typical nuclear plant contributes a gigawatt of electricity to the power grid per year. To equal that amount would require the construction of three or four solar or wind farms. Unfortunately, since 2013, 10 nuclear power plants have closed with more shut-downs scheduled. If trends continue, by 2040 nuclear power will supply only eight percent of the nation’s electricity.

Why has this occurred? Cheap natural gas along with falling prices of wind and solar are commonly cited reasons. Just as important, the cost of constructing nuclear plants has risen to the point that few utilities would seriously consider building one. In Georgia, the cost of completing two new reactors has soared to $28 billion—twice the original estimates. The South Carolina utility SCG&E canceled construction of two reactors but not before spending nearly $10 billion. Construction delays are one of the reasons for these cost overruns. Only one nuclear plant has been completed in 25 years, so construction firms lack the hands-on experience needed to do their work efficiently. Westinghouse, the lead contractor for both projects, declared bankruptcy, while four company officials were charged with fraud for attempting to cover up billions in losses in South Carolina.

But why has only one nuclear plant gone online in the last 25 years? Certainly, the events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have not helped. More important is an issue which has haunted the nuclear industry for decades—what are they to do with the spent nuclear fuel, which will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years? Although many alternatives have been considered over the years including launching the waste into outer space, underground burial is usually thought to be the best option. Approximately $15 billion has been spent to construct an underground repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However, vehement opposition from the state of Nevada has halted construction. The Trump administration did propose new funding for Yucca Mountain in its 2017 budget proposal, but it was eventually removed. Currently, the spent fuel is being stored on-site either in swimming pools which are now filled, and more recently in cement and lead casks.

For years on-site storage was considered unacceptable since nuclear plants are often located near large population centers and accidents could have serious consequences. Today, one hears fewer concerns expressed about on-site storage, which would not have been the case 25 years ago. What changed? Some environmentalists now favor nuclear power because it’s carbon-free. Others realize that if additional nuclear plants are dependent upon an underground repository, they may never be built. Holtec International has proposed constructing a temporary storage facility for the nuclear waste in south-eastern New Mexico. Not surprisingly, the project has encountered strong opposition in the New Mexico state legislature making its future highly uncertain.

The waste issue is also associated with another problem, which has plagued nuclear power from the beginning—the rush to develop and commercialize the technology. It’s easy to forget that before there was a space race, there was something of a nuclear power race between the United States and the USSR. Politicians and other government officials spoke of the need to outdo the Soviets by building nuclear plants as quickly as possible. It was assumed that the spent fuel problem would eventually be resolved.

Besides achieving nuclear superiority, competition between General Electric and Westinghouse to sell reactors also rushed the technology into operation. Both companies hoped to make substantial profits from nuclear power beginning in the 1950s, but the nuclear business was slow to develop. The country faced no energy shortages, environmental concerns about burning fossil fuels had not yet surfaced, and questions remained about the costs of a nuclear plant. In an attempt to arouse interest, General Electric agreed to construct a nuclear plant at Oyster Creek, New Jersey, in 1963 for a fixed cost of $66 million. The plant became known as a “turnkey plant” since the utility would simply walk in and begin to operate the reactor. Westinghouse felt compelled to match General Electric’s generous offer.

In all, 13 turnkeys were built and both companies lost money on them. Neither company ever revealed the extent of their losses, but estimates put the figure at $1 billion. The turnkeys gave the impression that costs of constructing a nuclear facility were reasonable and had the desired effect. In 1966–67 alone, utilities placed orders for 49 reactors, but now with cost-plus contracts. Making matters worse, utilities ordered plants that were much larger than any operating reactor to take advantage of economies of scale. Construction firms had little experience with building these scaled-up plants and costs skyrocketed aided by increasing levels of regulatory complexity.

By 1975, 50 reactors were operating but none ordered after 1968 had come online. Utilities then began to cancel orders. During the 1970s and ’80s, more than 100 reactors were cancelled. For the plants that were completed, construction costs averaged $800 million over original estimates, which triggered a severe decline from which the nuclear industry has never recovered. According to Forbes, all of this amounted to “the largest managerial disaster in business history.”

Could a large government-funded program to build nuclear plants be the answer to reviving the technology and helping to combat global warming? A robust federally funded program is something that Congressional Democrats have pushed for since the 1950s but it has never come to fruition. In today’s polarized environment, winning Congressional support for such a venture would be a long-shot. Any substantial government initiative would quickly be labeled as socialist, and there is no evidence to suggest that government reactors would be any cheaper to build than private sector ones. Indeed, the recent financial disasters in Georgia and South Carolina have probably spelled the end for constructing any large-scale nuclear plants in this country.

However, the president’s infrastructure bill does include funds for developing the “next generation” of reactors. NuScale, a company based in Portland, Oregon, has developed a 60-megawatt small modular reactor or SMR (existing commercial reactors are usually around 1,000mw) using both private and government funds. According to the company’s website, the goal is to offer cleaner, safer, and cost-competitive energy, something the nuclear industry has been promising since the 1950s. NuScale maintains that due to its small size (fewer pumps, motors valves etc.) the reactor will be safer. The system will be delivered to a site ready to operate, avoiding large up-front construction costs. As envisioned, a single reactor could provide electricity for a small community, or reactors could be grouped together to provide power for a larger city.

Some have suggested that these reactors could replace coal-fired plants that have closed. Although environmental groups have already labeled SMRs as “too expensive, too risky, and too uncertain,” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given its initial approval, and the company hopes to begin selling reactors by 2029. More recently, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which supplies electricity to seven states, announced that it will construct an SMR in Oak Ridge Tennessee. The hope is that the project will stay on schedule and on budget and that this will convince the nation’s utilities that SMRs can help meet the goal of zero-carbon emissions by 2035.

Another project, partly funded by Bill Gates, has recently drawn some attention. The reactor, called a natrium reactor, is to be constructed in Wyoming and supply electricity for 250,000 homes at cost of $4 billion with half the costs being picked up by the federal government. Due to its more simplistic design (it uses 80 percent less concrete), construction time and costs will be greatly reduced. The hope is to have the plant up and running in a couple of years and be ready for widespread commercial adoption by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, such promises have often been made about nuclear power and they have usually turned out to be wishful thinking. At any rate, if these reactors are going to have any impact, widespread adoption would have to occur quickly, and if present trends continue, only eight percent of the nation’s electricity will be generated by nuclear power by 2040.

Currently, the most feasible option is to keep all 93 commercial reactors (down from 104 in 2013) in the US operating. Reactors are typically licensed to operate for 40 years and most US reactors are approaching that age. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will usually extend a plant’s operating license for another 20 years provided the necessary updates and improvements are made. The problem is that natural gas and renewables are now cheaper than nuclear power and utilities will usually choose the most economical option. To keep the existing reactors up and running, a number of states including Illinois, New York, and Ohio have instituted ratepayer subsidies. The Biden administration has also implemented the Civil Nuclear Credit Program to keep these reactors operating. Unfortunately, even if all the plants stay open, the status quo will not be maintained, since demand for electricity is projected to increase by 38 percent by 2050, largely due to increasing use of electric cars.

James Hansen, the climatologist who first warned about the dangers of climate change in the 1980s, has stated that there is no workable solution to fight global warning without nuclear power playing a substantial role. And there is little doubt the technology could make a difference. But at this point, at least in the US, it’s hard to imagine nuclear power playing anything more than a minimal role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which makes any of the projected goals for 2030 and beyond extremely difficult to achieve.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/31/the-problem-with-nuclear-power/

The Forbes article, like many such, does not deal with the issue that wind and solar are not always available when electricity demand occurs: there is a recurrent phenomenon known as ‘night’ which affects solar (as do clouds, snow, etc), and there are also periods of low wind, some of which can be pretty protracted.

Electricity storage is expensive, and while a few hours’ worth may be achievable (and the cost should be added in to those LCOE numbers), it’s not going to be economically feasible to build enough to maintain continuity of service during prolonged periods of low solar/wind output. So the capital cost of fossil fuel backup needs to be included…even if it is only used a small % of the hours in a typical year…or the probability of sustained outages needs to be admitted.

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Well, France has done a pretty good job of building and maintaining nukes. Let’s contract with them to do it.

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The problems with nuclear power come down to one thing: liberals. Whether you are talking about liberal environmentalists that hype the dangers of nuclear power, the liberal environmentalists that hype the dangers of nuclear fuel disposal. Then there is the nuclear regulatory fiefdom full of liberal administrative lifers texting with their pals in the environmental activism world. And then there are the liberal activists that need something to peacefully protest against, and even the dullest activist-in-training can figure that nukes is a great way to scare people. Because Hiroshima.

Gosh. The US Navy has been doing nuclear power for half a century. I wonder if a couple of transgender admirals could help out. Not that a gubmint solution would help.

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re SMRs…the GE-Hitachi nuclear joint venture has also developed and is marketing an SMR, the BWRX-300, which is rated at 300 MW.

The NuScale Power reactors are now rated at 77 MW, and are intended to normally be sold in clusters of 4,6, or 12.

I wrote about the current status of nuclear, with particular focus on SMRs, about a month ago: Nuclear Power: Has the Time Finally Come?

Could a large government-funded program to build nuclear plants be the answer to reviving the technology and helping to combat global warming?

Sure, it’s well known that anytime you want to cut costs in a particular industry, the best way to do it is have the federal government start a program to underwrite it.

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It’s true that nukes are now quite safe and the products are rather easily handled (NIMBY obstacles noted), but they are much more expensive to site and build than fossil fuel plants - mostly because of NIMBY litigations and obstructions. Add to that the potential for misuse, sabotage, hacking, and the like, and the only reason to use them is the spurious climate change notions.
These statements have never been refuted:

  1. CO2 at this time at these levels is not in control of climate.
  2. We are not in control of CO2.
    Note the word is refuted, not disputed.
    There is good historical and even theoretical evidence for those statements, and nothing to the contrary except misplaced prudence which is almost medieval in its appeal.
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My local nuclear plant in southwest Michigan (Palisades) shut down last week. There’s also talk of shutting down the coal plant to the north (Port Shelton).

Also last week, there was an announcement that we should expect rolling blackouts in the midwest this summer.

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This article has no depth.

It did not deal with the massive trash heaps that spent panels, batteries, and turbines will produce? Much of this equipment is non-recyclable. Arguably we may not know how to handle the tiny amount of nuclear waste we produce, but can anyone assure us that renewables won’t cause even worse waste problems?

We don’t allow reprocessing as do the French which yields more energy from spent U235 and less dangerous end products.

How about the rare-earth minerals required to make renewable components, little of which is mined in the U.S., but are mined by children and slave labor often in countries that are not our friends? What about the environmentalists that rabidly prevent mining such materials here in the U.S.? Vast tonnages of copper, lead, rare-earths and other materials will have to be mined. These don’t come out of the ground in pure form and the tonnage of waste from mining will be substantial.

SMRs can replace existing generation plants. This is less the case for renewables that have to be placed where wind and sun permit and require new and expensive transmission lines.

How about a balanced article?

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What frustrates me about this article is that it simply describes two problems and does not go into much about why the problem exists. Saying that cost overruns and delays are problematic to nuclear because no one builds nuclear is not a reason to cease building nuclear. Also, the article does not go into any other reasons that hamper nuclear like onerous regulation. Sure, lack of experience and the regulatory environment make it take a while to build a reactor, but why is the answer not to borrow expertise from France or Japan or to lobby for a lighter regulatory touch?

Then the author talks about the waste as if it is a foregone conclusion that waste is on its own, an unsolvable problem. The truth is that much about nuclear waste is an image problem. Few people know that sitting in a cinder block basement exposes you to more radiation than being close to a nuclear reactor. But also, isn’t capturing the waste the exact point of nuclear? Instead of the waste entering the environment it is there, in the reactor. Put it in concrete, put it in glass, revitalize it and use it for more energy, but the waste from nuclear is not that much more terrible than the waste from spent solar panels that will sit in landfills, toxic and useless.

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One wonders how much of the monomaniacal focus on wind and solar on the part of Dark Green climate activists is rooted in the hopes that it will force ‘degrowth’. The translation of degrowth is the deliberate impoverishment of people, both in the Western World, but more importantly in the Developing World. The childish answer in their worldview is to share out capital more evenly- in a word ‘equity’. But paper money or one’s and zero’s are meaningless when your society is producing only a fraction of the food, housing, clothes and other basic goods- less to go around.

Perhaps the prime example of this is in agriculture, when Dark Green types want to see a return to more traditional methods of farming. Do we really want to see 30% of our working population returned to the land, when previously only 1% to 2% were required, and it was difficult enough to find labour willing to perform this often brutally demanding type of work? They seem to think that the pre-industrial period of agriculture was like something out of Lark Rise to Candleford. The reality was that most died young, and few possessed their teeth beyond 25 because of malnutrition. Traditional farming is subsistence farming.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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“Reduction is greenhouse emissions”

is not an important requirement for nuclear power. Providing plentiful, reliable electricity is. Because “greenhouse emissions” don’t cause “climate change”. All modern climate change that counts is due to changing global cloud cover.
More clouds = cooler climates.
Fewer clouds = warmer climates.
Global cloud cover can vary by over 6% over decades; and it has.

Michael Jonas, 2022: article, paper
John McLean, 2014: article: Late Twentieth-Century Warming and Variations in Cloud Cover
Charles Blaisdell, 2022: “Where have all the Clouds gone and why care?”
Kenneth Richard, 2021 (after Feldman et al.) “In A Few Days Clouds Affect Earth’s Radiation Budget By More Than CO2 Does In 270 Years”
Feldman et al. 2015
Kenneth Richard: “In 6 New Studies Scientists Agree Clouds Play A ‘Central Role’ In Regulating The Earth’s Climate”

← A complete and utter waste of money because USA never needed an underground repository for used nuclear fuel. Used fuel and waste is perfectly safe where it is - at the plant that made it. It presents no risk to pollution, nor from terrorism.

Except that every power plant is decommissioned eventually.

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It’s still not the huge deal it’s portrayed as. The fuel is solid ceramic pellets. After a cooling down period, they are placed in long term dry storage. 95% of the material is useful uranium, that could be recycled if Carter hadn’t stopped all recycling in the us (for technically invalid reasons). Yes, it’s radioactive for thousands of years, but the actual level of radiation falls steadily. The elements with very long half lives have long lives because they are barely ticking over enough to be dangerous. The stuff we need to worry about has half lives in the 30-180 day range.

I know for a fact, all the used fuel ever pulled out of my local reactor in 40 years of operation, is stored, in it’s bulky concrete containers, in a room the size of a basketball court- And the room is not full yet. It sounds like a lot by weight, but this stuff os much denser than lead. The volumes are pretty small.

This from a Government quick fact page-

2. The U.S. generates about 2,000 metric tons of used fuel each year

This number may sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite small. In fact, the U.S. has produced roughly 83,000 metrics tons of used fuel since the 1950s—and all of it could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards.

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Fully agree - there is no mention of the extreme cost burdens created by the NRC’s regulatory program, which imposes radiation exposure standards that are based on 1940s-era science. There is also no mention of Molten Salt Reactors, a technology that has been in development for decades, that is able to consume spent nuclear fuel, that has no meltdown risk and that both the Chinese and Russians are actively developing.

It seems crazy not to.

My understanding is that it’s not radiation exposure per se that’s the problem, but ingestion. One can safely walk down the street in Pripyat, but you are in trouble if you inhale any dust. Seems to me it’s just prudent to put all that stuff in a safe place. I like deep sea burial.

Then it’s brain dead not to do that.

From what I’ve read, Carter had this idea that the US should set an example for the world, and not reprocess our fuel because it contains Plutonium, Crazy thing is, after 3+ years in a reactor, the Plutonium created in the fuel has gained another neutron and become PU-240, which is not bomb material. To make weapon grade PU-239, you have to cycle the fuel through the reactor very quickly. We built graphite piles at Hanover to do this, but no commercial power reactor does.

As an ex nuclear navy officer, Carter really should have known this. Every other nuclear power in the world recycles. We had a large, state of the art facility at Savanna River that processed one test batch before it was shut down.

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There’s a lot of irrationality on the subject, that’s for sure. I myself have no axe to grind, I have no tribal loyalties on the subject I’d just like the sensible thing to happen. Actually … no, that’s not quite true, I’ve always been very mildly pro-nuke. But safety first please. I like the French attitude, from what I’ve heard of it.

Funny how the heavier nucleus is more stable isn’t it tho? That’s not the general rule. But I guess it’s a deep dive into nuclear physics to explain why. And the Scotsman in me wants to recycle everything on principal. Why threw it awah when ye ken reuuse it laddie?

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