By Nancy Spannaus
May 5, 2022—A series of recent developments on the national, international, and state levels, have given reason for some optimism that the world, including the United States, will halt its ongoing withdrawal from nuclear fission power, the cleanest and most efficient energy source available today. Therein lies the hope that our country will return to the vision of the FDR and JFK eras, when nuclear was seen as the promising technology it is for improving the quality of life for Americans and the world.
Should this trend be continued in the U.S., our nation would be back on track on one of the crucial elements of the American System of Economics. That approach, initiated by First Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, called for Federal government support for technological progress and infrastructure development on behalf of the “general welfare.” The provision of abundant, cheap electric power for the entire population is clearly a critical, even life-saving, component of that mandate today.
A U.S. shift toward aggressive nuclear power development would also immeasurably aid more rapid progress internationally, especially in underdeveloped areas such as Africa. One immediate target would be to lift the ban on the financing of nuclear power plants by such agencies as the World Bank.
It is well known that the leaders in development of advanced nuclear fission reactors today are China and Russia. China is building the majority of the nuclear plants under construction in the world; Russia has pioneered in floating nuclear plants and has begun commercial production of small nuclear reactors, widely seen as the key to the industry’s future until thermonuclear fusion power is finally developed.
Even those nations which have been leaders in the nuclear industry experienced setbacks in the wake of the Fukushima tsunami, which set off an hysterical campaign against the technology. But in recent months, that trend has begun to turn around.
In Europe, the epicenter of anti-nuclear activism globally, the European Union made a formal decision to include nuclear power in its list of “renewable” (non-carbon producing) energy sources in January. While this decision has not yet affected Germany or Sweden in a practical way, there have been significant moves by other nations. French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans for a “renaissance” of nuclear power in February, reversing his previous decision to reduce the country’s reliance of that energy source for electricity from 70% to 50%. Six plants are scheduled to be commissioned right away, and up to 14 are planned by 2050. Belgium, which was well on its way to closing its reactors, decided to keep two of them operating for the time being. And Finland opened a new plant in March.
Britain is no longer subject to EU restrictions but says it is also about to move aggressively to expand its reliance on nuclear power. Boris Johnson has announced plans to build eight new reactors, which the goal of generating 25% of Britain’s electricity by nuclear by 2050.
In Asia, Japan, South Korea, and India have recently begun to move forward with their nuclear fission industry as well. Ten of Japan’s nuclear plants have been restarted, and popular support for opening the rest of its 54 plants rapidly is growing, especially in the face of potential power shortages this summer. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is speaking out on the need to speed up the reopening of idled plants without changing the safety standards. “We’ll promote the utilization of nuclear power,” he recently announced to a meeting of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives.
The new president in South Korea has declared his intent to reverse his predecessor’s anti-nuclear policy; South Korea gets 30% of its power from nuclear plants and is a major exporter of the technology as well.
India, long a leader in nuclear technological development, is moving forward with a plan to construct 10 indigenously developed reactors. The 2017 decision to approve 10 at a time is intended to reduce costs and speed up construction time. (Indeed, one of the reasons the cost of plant construction in the United States is higher than in the rest of the world, is the practice to constructing one plant at a time—a method analogous to auto production before the assembly line.)
A National Commitment?
The most significant positive development in the United States was the announcement by the Biden Administration on April 19 that it was providing a $6 billion credit line to companies seeking to keep open existing nuclear plants now threatened with shutdown for economic reasons. Despite the unparalleled reliability, safety, and profitability of the U.S.’s nuclear plants, the nuclear companies have been unable to compete with the heavily subsidized “renewables” and cheap natural gas. Twelve plants have been closed since 2013, most of them for financial reasons, and seven more are slated to shut by 2025 without financial support.
The Federal nuclear support program was a line item in the infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year. While it is a stop-gap measure, it is clearly vital to maintain a stable, affordable flow of electricity to the U.S. population—in addition to the fact that nuclear energy comprises the bulk of non-carbon-producing energy sourcing.
What’s needed is a crash program of nuclear plant construction, heavily weighted toward the production of small modular reactors (SMR). SMRs hold the great promise of potentially being able to be mass-produced, in addition to being flexible in placement and equipped with more advanced safety features. They will, however, produce a third or less power than traditional reactors. The United States has been moving forward with approvals of the NuScale design and on April 25, the company announced an agreement to go ahead with production of forging materials for that design. Construction of the first reactor is scheduled to be completed by 2027.
But progress is painfully slow compared to the need. Streamlining of the approval process is possible and necessary, along with acceleration of the programs for development of even cleaner, more efficient thermonuclear fusion energy.
The most momentous action in the state-by-state fight around nuclear power, of course, was that by California Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom announced on April 29 that the state would seek support from the U.S. Department of Energy for possibly keeping open the state’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon. That plant, which supplied 6% of the state’s overall electric power last year, but provides 15% of its carbon-free energy, is currently slated to close in 2025.
Newsom did not announce a change in his understanding of nuclear power’s value, and still wants to close the plant, but any delay in this action will provide precious time – both for providing the needed electricity and for dispelling the misinformation on nuclear power. Opinion polls show a positive change in attitude among Californians toward nuclear power.
The other notable change in policy toward nuclear power in the states was the decision by West Virginia in February to lift the ban on nuclear plants. Thirteen states still retain such a ban, but there has been a decided movement in the direction of approving nuclear power over recent years.
More Fundamental Shift Needed
The last 50 years of lying propaganda against nuclear power have taken their toll, so much remains to be done to prepare the way for a real nuclear renaissance. Many of the actions being taken to save nuclear plants are being taken grudgingly, and motivated as stopgaps until totally inefficient, wasteful so-called renewables like solar and wind power come online. The fallacies being used to sell those power sources, and the willingness to deface millions of acres of the country with toxic solar panels and bird-killing windmills, while removing life-giving vegetation, remain alive and well.
What’s needed is the kind of visionary leadership shown by President Kennedy some 60 years ago, where he anticipated nuclear power providing the lion’s share of our electricity, and the country moving by leaps and bounds into the nuclear age. Only such a shift can provide the quantum leap in electricity production needed to bring the world out of poverty, upgrading communications through high-speed rail and broadband, and further cleaning the air and water required for our health and welfare.
To accomplish that objective, we will not only need an educational campaign, but a huge mobilization to upgrade our engineering skills and hollowed-out manufacturing base. There are also lessons to be learned from nations such as France and South Korea to make large-scale plant construction less expensive. Cooperation with Russia and China, which have been making significant technological advances, should also be restarted.
History is rife with examples of people doing the right things for the wrong reasons. While being grateful for, and further fighting for, the saving of the current nuclear fleet, and its expansion, we need to keep our eyes on the goal of a nuclear-based future which will lift the condition of all mankind for the better.