Needed: A Nuclear Power Renaissance

By Nancy Spannaus

October 17, 2022—Advocates for nuclear energy are in a celebratory mood these days, as several diehard opponents of the life-saving energy source have been forced to revise their plans to shut down nuclear plants. The decision by California Governor Gavin Newsom (confirmed by the legislature) to extend the lifespan of the state’s last remaining nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, combined with Germany’s grudging decision to keep two plants alive to meet a supply emergency, have led to a wave of optimism in the nuclear community.

Needed: A Nuclear Energy Renaissance
The first Japanese nuclear plant to reopen after Fukushima. The re-opening is part of a wave of recent good news for nuclear power.

While the primary “selling point” would appear to be nuclear’s low carbon emissions, the real superiority of nuclear power in terms of efficiency (nearly 8000 times more than fossil fuels) and capacity factor (92.5% vs. 35 and 24% respectively for wind and solar) are even being acknowledged.[1]

There have been other positive measures besides those in California and Germany taken in promotion of not only saving, but expanding nuclear production since I last addressed this issue back in May. They will be described in the rest of this post.

But before doing that, we should put the current fight for nuclear power in perspective.

Where did the optimism go?

From the launching of the development of peaceful nuclear energy in 1954, when the plant at Shippingport, Pa. was inaugurated by President Eisenhower, to the end of the 1970s, the United States embarked on an ambitious program of nuclear plant construction. This was complementary to President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program, also announced in the early 1950s, which began to spread this technology to nations around the world. Over this period, 132 reactors have been licensed in the United States, although only 93 are operative today.

The expansion of nuclear power construction was based on a surge of technological optimism for solving problems of poverty and underdevelopment worldwide. Perhaps the height of that optimism came with the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who took seriously the view of the Atomic Energy Commission that nuclear power represented an essential contribution to promoting the general welfare of the nation. In a speech at Hanford, Washington in 1962, Kennedy anticipated the United States getting half its electric power from nuclear reactors by 2000.

The Three Mile Island nuclear site.

The outlook toward massive construction of nuclear power plants continued up to 1973, when President Nixon declared the goal of building 1000 plants by the end of the century. That vision came to a screeching halt following the election of Jimmy Carter, capped by the massively hyped Three Mile Island accident in 1979, and accompanied by the surge of zero-growth, post-industrial ideology which has taken ever deeper root in the U.S. population. The way had actually been paved back in 1970 with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which soon began to be used as a means of slowing and the halting construction and advances in nuclear technology.[2]

Since 1996, only one new nuclear plant has come online in the U.S. Instead of investing in ever-new generations of nuclear fission (and fusion), we have foolishly implemented policies of deregulation and support for inefficient, unreliable renewable energy sources, and allowed dozens of perfectly good plants to be shut down. The result has been a disastrous hodge-podge of an electric grid, and the catastrophic decline in the training of a scientific workforce capable of both sustaining and expanding the nuclear sector. This is combined with a deconstruction of our industrial sector to the point where we hardly have the capacity to produce any plants at all, much less the number we need.

Today, it would appear that sanity is reasserting itself. Irrational fears of nuclear plants becoming nuclear bombs are subsiding and the reality of the stellar safety, environmentally friendly, and efficiency record of the nuclear industry is becoming recognized. Technological innovations are being funded and are on the horizon, as the following report will indicate.

But, I would argue, we still have a long way to go. A real nuclear renaissance can’t occur in an economy dominated by the likes of Wall Street gamblers and the cultural pessimism as we have today. It will require a re-orientation of our national mindset toward the core principles of the American System of economics: Federal support for technological progress, a clampdown on speculative finance, massive modernization of our infrastructure, and revamping of our educational system toward mastering scientific knowledge (not just feeling good and getting along with others).

Some Positive Developments in the U.S.

That said, now to the recent developments.

In the United States, perhaps most promising was the passage of the provisions for nuclear power in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act. As summarized by the pro-nuclear lobbyist group Nuclear Matters, this bill supports the nuclear industry by

  • Supporting a nuclear production tax credit for existing nuclear plants
  • Financing support through expanded loan guarantee authority
  • Funding for domestic high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) production
  • Production and investment tax credits for new clean electricity technologies, including nuclear energy
  • Production tax credit for clean hydrogen production

Such measures should certainly help halt the ongoing process of shutting down our current nuclear fleet.

And what about expanding nuclear capacity? Here the progress basically can be seen in the push for the development of small modular reactors. That momentum is fed largely by cost considerations, which have bedeviled the recent attempts to build large-scale reactors.[3]

A recent two-year study by a group of scientists led by Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, came to some bracing conclusions about the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. and western Europe. They found that “without cost reductions, nuclear energy will not play a significant role” in decarbonizing the power sector.  “In the West, the nuclear industry has substantially lost its ability to build large plants,” Buongiorno wrote, pointing to Southern Company’s effort to add two new reactors to Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Georgia. They have been under construction since 2013, are now billions of dollars over budget—the cost has more than doubled—and years behind schedule. In France, ranked second after the U.S. in nuclear generation, a new reactor in Flamanville is a decade late and more than three times over budget.

Needed: A Nuclear Energy Renaissance
The Vogtle nuclear plant, under construction in Georgia, is the only plant being built in the U.S.

“We have clearly lost the know-how to build traditional gigawatt-scale nuclear power plants,” Buongiorno says. Because no new plants were built in the U.S. for decades, he and his colleagues found, the teams working on a project like Vogtle haven’t had the learning experiences needed to do the job efficiently. That leads to construction delays that drive up costs.

Hence the push for SMRs, which, due to their reduced size and improved safety characteristics, may be more flexibly sited closer to small population centers in the future, increasing the potential for advanced nuclear power to serve urban heating needs in towns or small communities. Multiple reactors at a site allow for additional cost savings from shared infrastructure, such as transmission, operations, facilities, and workforce. This advantage is well understood with existing large conventional power plants, and multi-reactor sites have remained more economical than single-unit sites.

Another important consideration for the small modular reactors will be the appropriate scaling of upstream factory manufacturing capacity. Factories can operate more efficiently and cost-effectively when optimally designed to meet the needed level of demand from the industry at large. While a sequenced reactor construction approach can reduce project-level risk, parallel projects reduce the risk of lag or downtime. To achieve cost reductions in key areas for advanced nuclear power, the industry will need to successfully develop a factory-scale construction program. In other words, we must utilize our expertise of building ‘airplanes’ and not that of ‘airports’.

A comparison of the size of SMRs with a traditional nuclear power plant. (Idaho labs)

On Sep 17, small modular reactors got a boost when Estonia’s Fermi-Energia released a tender to three leading developers for SMRs. Bids with comprehensive technical documentation needed to estimate the construction cost are expected by the end of the year. The three firms are NuScale, GE-Hitachi, and Rolls-Royce.

Another approach to reducing the cost of producing new plants surfaced in mid-September. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a report showing that hundreds of U.S. coal power plant sites could convert to nuclear power plant sites, adding new jobs, increasing economic benefit, and significantly improving environmental conditions. This coal-to-nuclear transition could add a substantial amount of clean electricity to the grid, helping the U.S. reach its net-zero emissions goals by 2050.

The re-use of coal infrastructure for advanced nuclear reactors could also reduce costs for developing new nuclear technology, saving from 15% to 35% in construction costs, the report said.  This is possible by reusing the coal plant’s electrical equipment (e.g., transmission lines, switchyards), cooling ponds or towers, and civil infrastructure such as roads and office buildings.

Needed: A Nuclear Energy Renaissance
This abandoned coal plant’s infrastructure could be used to cheapen the cost of new nuclear plants.

Nuclear engineers believe the site development and civil works that the reuse of an abandoned coal-fired power plant could save about $ 2 billion for a 1000MWe nuclear plant. This number is variable for many reasons related to a specific site.

A Broader Perspective

It would obviously be a mistake to hinge the prospects for a nuclear renaissance on the United States and Western Europe. Fifty-three reactors are currently under construction worldwide, with the bulk being constructed in Asia (China-15, India-8, and South Korea-4) There is also an active pursuit of peaceful nuclear technology in the world’s lesser-developed regions, such as Africa. For obvious reasons, these nations are looking to nuclear producers such as China, South Korea, and Russia for their plants.

Yet, even with this growth in construction, and the emphatic emphasis by the International Atomic Energy Association on the need for expanding nuclear power to meet the “climate crisis,” completion of these plants will by no means meet the demand for abundant, clean electric power output. The world needs the most industrialized (or once most-industrialized) countries to join in a global nuclear renaissance.

Slums like these in Kenya have no electricity.

Estimates of the number of people worldwide who lack electricity range from 750 million to a billion.[4] This is likely an underestimate, given the erratic nature of electric production in many regions (including in the United States). The cost of this deficit can be translated into lives lost to disease, famine, contamination, and malnutrition, as well as the deprivation of opportunities for education and economic development.

Given the current state of warmongering on the planet, and loose talk about a possible nuclear war, it might seem that the prospect for such a positive international effort is a pipedream. Yet one must not exclude the possibility that sane leadership will emerge to take the right path. Despair is not an option.

[1] These figures come from a report by experienced nuclear engineer Ramtanu Maitra.

[2] Besides applying often-insanely restrictive environmental standards to evaluate projects (think “zero radiation”), NEPA permitted citizen suits which were used to block, slow down, or drive up the cost of nuclear projects on an incompetent basis.

[3] The following report has been provided to me by nuclear engineer Maitra, who monitors developments in the field regularly.

[4] See https://www.statista.com/statistics/829803/number-of-people-without-access-to-electricity-by-region/