End of a dream as the nuclear power industry dies

Summary: After decades of promises about its potential, the window of opportunity is closing for nuclear power. Hated by the Left despite its carbon-free generation of electricity, their opposition plus decades of utilities’ screw-ups have weakened it. New energy tech — renewables and fracking — appears to be finishing it off.

Atomic Power

The prediction of “too cheap to meter” electrical power

Articles about nuclear power often start with a myth, as does this oddly named article by Michael Rose at the HuffPo: “The top ten myths of nuclear power“: “Nuclear power was sold in the US as being “too cheap too meter.” The quote is accurate. The statement is false. Here is the famous quote.

"Too Cheap to Meter" speech

“Transmutation of the elements – unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered – these and a host of other results all in 15 short years. It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter – will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history – will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds – and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast for an age of peace.”

— Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in a speech at the Founder Day Dinner of the National Association of Science Writers, 16 September 1954.

His audience included some impressive people, including 5 Nobel Prize winners. At the head table with him. Strauss is sixth from left. Glenn Seaborg is first on left (1951 Nobel for Chemistry, chairman of the AEC from 1961 to 1971). Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (1937 Nobel for Medicine) is third from the left. Irving Langmuir (1932 Nobel for Chemistry) is sixth from the right. Edward C. Kendall (1959 Nobel for Medicine) is fourth from the right.

The website of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission tells the story. Strauss’ optimism was not shared by many other experts at the time. This article gives more quotes by contemporary experts who were far more cautious about the future of nuclear power. Many of these look prescient today. There is no reason to consider Strauss’ statement the benchmark against which to compare the history of nuclear power.

Events have not followed Strauss’ prediction. But late does not mean wrong. Who knows what energy sources await us in the future.

Illustration from 1955 Progress Report, Atomic Power Development Associates, March 1956.
From the March 1956 Progress Report of Atomic Power Development Associates,.

Flash forward to 2017

“It is estimated that nuclear power will provide more than one-quarter of this country’s electrical production by 1985, and over half by the year 2000.”

— President Richard Nixon’s special message to Congress on 18 April 1973. Despite the claims, Nixon’s Project Independence did not propose building 1,000 nuclear power plants by 2000. Today the US has 99 reactors in its 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants. They generate 20% of America’s electricity.

Nuclear power is dying in the United States. By now the causes are obvious. High among them are…

  • Incompetent government licensing. Until recently, in the US companies received construction permits based on incomplete plans. Then applied for an operating license, often leading to rebuilding and long delays.
  • Incompetent construction by firms with little experience on project so large and complex.
  • Too many accidents (in the US and around the world).
  • Every-changing government policy, often highly adverse.
  • Development of cheaper and more flexible energy sources.

Things looked dark in 2016 for nuclear power in America

“Most operating coal plants were built prior to 1980, and a significant portion of U.S. hydroelectric capacity is even older — the oldest hydro plant still operating was built in 1891. Most of the natural gas fleet and almost all wind and solar capacity has been built since 2000.” Most nukes were built in the 1970s. {EIA, February 2017.}

The US keeps shutting down nuclear power plants and replacing them with coal or gas.”
By Brad Plumer at VOX, November 2016.

“America’s largest source of zero-carbon power is in serious trouble …nuclear power, which still provides about 19% of the nation’s electricity. Since 2013, the United States has lost five nuclear power plants, retired before the end of their natural lifespan for economic reasons: Crystal River in Florida, Kewaunee in Wisconsin, San Onofre in California, Vermont Yankee, and, just at the end of October, Fort Calhoun in Nebraska. They’ve generally fallen victim to cheap natural gas, unfavorable market policies, and/or local opposition.

“That’s a huge chunk of emissions-free power — gone. Those five plants alone produced nearly as much electricity as all of America’s solar panels last year. That’s not a knock on solar at all; it just shows the scale of what’s being lost here. And, according to a new analysis by the Energy Information Administration, when those reactors get retired, utilities usually end up replacing the lost electricity by burning more coal or natural gas. We’re basically taking a step backward on climate change …

“The details behind each reactor closure differ. Crystal River needed billion-dollar repairs to its containment wall that didn’t make financial sense for its owner when electricity prices were so low due to cheap natural gas. San Onofre also needed costly repairs and probably could’ve survived if it had been allowed to operate at part-capacity, but regulatory delays made it unprofitable for the utility to keep the plant open.

“But the big picture is pretty simple. There are lots of reactors around the country that are already built and technically capable of providing carbon-free electricity for years to come, but are getting crushed by circumstance. Unless we decide to change energy policies so as to properly value nuclear’s carbon-free contribution (and see here for ideas on that score), those plants will keep vanishing, largely replaced by fossil fuels.

“So what does that future look like? A new report by Whitney Herndon and John Larsen of the Rhodium Group notes that 24 gigawatts of nuclear power are at risk of being retired between now and 2030 without major policy changes. That includes seven reactors currently scheduled to be shut down, like the two large units at California’s Diablo Canyon, as well as others that could face financial woes in the coming years.

“If all these plants close, the Rhodium Group estimates, about 75% of that lost power will likely be replaced by natural gas, and greenhouse-gas emissions will be higher than they otherwise would be.”

See this typically excellent backgrouder in the NYT: “The Murky Future of Nuclear Power in the United States” by Diane Cardwell, February 2017.  It quickly proved far too optimistic.

Projection on Borssele Nuclear Power Station
Greenpeace projects an image based on Munch’s ‘The Scream’ onto the Borssele nuclear power station in the Netherlands, 27 March 2011. © Greenpeace/Bas Beentjes.

The news in 2017 has been even worse for nuclear power.

Cuomo Confirms Deal to Close Indian Point Nuclear Plant.”
By Patrick McGeehan in the NYT, January 2017.

“Mr. Cuomo announced on Monday that the state had reached an agreement with the plant’s operator, Entergy, to shut it down by April 2021. …In his State of the State address in Lower Manhattan, Mr. Cuomo characterized the deal as a hard bargain he had driven to rid the region of a ‘ticking time bomb’ less than 30 miles from Midtown. He said the state would bear no costs in the shutdown or decommissioning of the plant’s two operating nuclear reactors. ‘I have personally been trying to close it down for 15 years,’ said Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat. He added that the proposed closing ‘eliminates a major risk, provides welcome relief, and New Yorkers can sleep a little better.’ …

“Bill Mohl, the president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, said …said the company had spent $200 million over the past decade battling New York State over the renewal of licenses to operate the reactors. The state’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, and Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group, joined the governor’s office in challenging the renewals and permits that Entergy needed to keep the Indian Point running.”

In another sign of the end of nuclear power, shutdown looms for Three Mile Island.”
By Michael Hiltzik at the LAT, May 2017.

“Exelon, announced Tuesday that it will permanently shut down the unit in September 2019. Exelon said a week ago that the plant hasn’t been profitable in five years. The company will take a charge of as much as $110 million this year related to the operation and planned shutdown. …nuclear power hasn’t received favorable treatment as a renewable energy source in the state’s energy policy as have solar, wind and hydro power. …Three Mile Island is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate through 2034, so the shutdown would come 15 years early.

“Still, the company had to acknowledge that nuclear power just isn’t competitive with other renewables or with natural gas generating plants. Three Mile Island was unable to sell its output into the regional electric grid in recent power auctions. “TMI remains economically challenged as a result of continued low wholesale power prices and the lack of federal or Pennsylvania energy policies that value zero-emissions nuclear energy,” Exelon says.

“That underscores a chronic malady of American nukes — they’re too hard to operate and simply not competitive. It’s that mismatch of cost that helps account for recent shutdown decisions such as the pending closure in California of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and the 2013 abandonment of San Onofre by Southern California Edison after a botched upgrade.”

In July the project to build two reactors in South Carolina was abandoned.  The NYT tells the story. Here’s the bottom line…

“Originally scheduled to come online by 2018, the V.C. Summer nuclear project in South Carolina had been plagued by disputes with regulators and numerous construction problems. This year, utility officials estimated that the reactors would not begin generating electricity before 2021 and could cost as much as $25 billion — more than twice the initial $11.5 billion estimate.”

Some good news for nukes: “Georgia gives Southern Co go-ahead to finish nuclear power project” — Approval to finish the 2 reactors at Plant Vogtle, years behind schedule and 35% over budget. These might be the last two built in the US for a long time.

Enthusiasm for nuclear power fading around the world

Enthusiasm for nuclear power is fading even in nations with more rational regulatory regimes and more competent construction and electric utility companies. Even the nations with enthusiastic governments appear to be building white elephants.

Hinkley Point: the ‘dreadful deal’ behind the world’s most expensive power plant.
At The Guardian, 21 December 2017.

“Hinkley Point, on the Somerset coast, is the biggest building site in Europe. Here, on 430 acres of muddy fields scattered with towering cranes and bright yellow diggers, the first new nuclear power station in the UK since 1995 is slowly taking shape. When it is finally completed, Hinkley Point C will be the most expensive power station in the world. But to reach that stage, it will need to overcome an extraordinary tangle of financial, political and technical difficulties. The project was first proposed almost four decades ago, and its progress has been glacial, having faced relentless opposition from politicians, academics and economists every step of the way.

“Some critics of the project have questioned whether Hinkley Point C’s nuclear reactor will even work. It is a new and controversial design, which has been dogged by construction problems and has yet to start functioning anywhere in the world. Some experts believe it could actually prove impossible to build. ‘It’s three times over cost and three times over time where it’s been built in Finland and France,’ says Paul Dorfman, from the UCL Energy Institute. ‘This is a failed and failing reactor.’ …”

Industry Meltdown: Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End?
By Fred Pearce at Yale Environment 360, May 2017.

“From Europe to Japan to the U.S., nuclear power is in retreat, as plants are being shuttered, governments move toward renewables, and key companies face financial troubles. Even some of the industry’s biggest boosters believe nuclear is on the way out.”

“Is the nuclear power industry in its death throes? Even some nuclear enthusiasts believe so. With the exception of China, most nations are moving away from nuclear — existing power plants across the United States are being shut early; new reactor designs are falling foul of regulators, and public support remains in free fall. Now come the bankruptcies.

“In an astonishing hammer blow to a global industry in late March, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse — the original developer of the workhorse of the global nuclear industry, the pressurized-water reactor (PWR), and for many decades the world’s largest provider of nuclear technology — filed for bankruptcy after hitting big problems with its latest reactor design, the AP1000. Largely as a result, its parent company, the Japanese nuclear engineering giant Toshiba, is also in dire financial straits and admits there is “substantial doubt” about its ability to continue as a going concern.

“Meanwhile, France’s state-owned Électricité de France (EDF), Europe’s biggest builder and operator of nuclear power plants, is deep in debt thanks to its own technical missteps and could become a victim of the economic and energy policies of incoming President Emmanuel Macron.

Those three companies account for more than half of all nuclear power generation worldwide. Their ‘looming insolvency … has set off a chain reaction of events that threatens the existence of nuclear power in the West,’ says Michael Shellenberger, president of the pro-nuclear NGO, Environmental Progress. ‘The nuclear industry as we have known it is coming to an end,’ says Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, a California eco-modernist think tank that advocates for nuclear power. …

“Meanwhile across the country, utilities are shutting existing plants from California to Wisconsin to Vermont, often long before the end of their design life, because they cannot compete with cheap fracked gas or, increasingly, with wind and solar power. Six power reactors have shut since 2012, and plans have been announced to close seven others. This is no short-term trend.  While gas and renewables get cheaper, the price of nuclear power only rises. This is in large part to meet safety concerns linked to past reactor disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima and to post-9/11 security worries, and also a result of utilities factoring in the costs of decommissioning their aging reactors.

“Westinghouse’s downfall was partly caused by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission wanting, as Gregory Jaczko, its chairman from 2009 to 2012, put it, ‘to ensure [the AP1000 design] could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials.’ A 9/11 clause, in other words.

“The fallout from the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima plant following the 2011 tsunami has had an even more chilling effect than regulatory actions. …After the accident, Japan — which at the time relied on nuclear power for 30% of its electricity — shut all its 48 operational nuclear reactors for safety checks. Six years on, only five are back online. In many parts of the country, local politicians are refusing point-blank to allow resumption. …

Fukushima also proved to be the tipping point in Germany’s long-running and bitter nuclear debate. The accident persuaded the conservative and previously pro-nuclear Chancellor Angela Merkel to call time. Within weeks of the accident, she set a deadline of 2022 for shutting down the country’s reactors, which at the time generated 22% of German electricity.  The finality of Germany’s decision was confirmed when engineering giants such as Siemens announced their exit from the reactor-building business.

France has long been Europe’s most enthusiastic nuclear nation. But it too is getting cold feet. In the wake of Fukushima, President Francois Hollande committed to cutting nuclear’s share of energy generation from 75% to 50% by 2025, with the gap to be filled by renewables. …The majority of France’s power reactors — mostly of Westinghouse PWR design, and built by EDF — were commissioned in the 1970s. Their average age is now well past 30 years. Their 40-year design lives could be extended if a safety review due next year finds in their favor. But large-scale construction to replace them seems increasingly unlikely. EDF’s latest power-plant design …has been beset by teething troubles. The prototype, being built at Flamanville in northern France, is six years behind schedule, and its cost has tripled to more than $10 billion.  …

“Late last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations body, said Asia had become the “driver” of global nuclear development. …South Korea has 25 working reactors delivering power. China is constructing new reactors at the rate of eight a year. And both countries are increasingly eyeing the export opportunities created by the collapse of the old order in the U.S., France and Japan. …A beaten and bankrupt industry built on high-cost, bespoke construction could be ripe for annexation by companies that have learned to mass-produce reactors based on old Westinghouse PWR designs and that have replaced nuclear scientists with engineers and experimentation with replication.

“But the invasion still may not come. Even in South Korea, nuclear companies are operating in the face of a political headwind, blowing from across the Sea of Japan. Wary of public concerns after Fukushima, South Korea’s newly elected president Moon Jae-in called during campaigning for a switch in the country’s energy mix from nuclear to renewables.”

 

Looking back at some who accurately predicted the future?

The Next Big Future website provides reminders to skeptically read exciting articles about new technology.

  1. Nuclear power will be added faster than wind power“, August 2008.
  2. Breeder Reactors, Uranium from Phosphate and Near Term Thorium usage“, September 2008

On the other hand, experts’ analysis are more reliable, as seen in the bottom line from “The Future of Nuclear Power“, an interdisciplinary MIT study published in June 2003.

“The nuclear option should be retained precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of power. …But the prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited, the report finds, by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.”

Also see this presentation by a realistic voice during the last boom, by Paul L. Joskow (Professor of Economics, MIT): “The Economics of Investment in New Nuclear Power Plants in the US“, 12 April 2005, Twelve years later this looks brilliant.

  1. “Nuclear industry has a poor historical record on construction cost estimation, realization and time to build.
  2. Few recent plants built and limited information on recent actual construction cost experience.
  3. Nuclear industry has put forward very optimistic construction cost estimates but there is no experience to verify them.
  4. Nobody has ever {overestimated} the construction cost of a nuclear power plant at the pre-construction stage.”

Conclusions

Nuclear power looks like a dying technology for the foreseeable future. Cost overruns, accidents, incompetence  — the nuclear industry died mostly from self-inflicted wounds.

For more information

Here are two recent books by James Mahaffey. He has a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and three decades experience in the industry.

  1. Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (2015).
  2. Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder: A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science (2017).

Ideas! For Holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about energy sources, and especially these…

  1. Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war),
  2. Lessons from the hysteria about peak oil (2005-2013).
  3. Stratfor gives us good news, showing when renewables will replace fossil fuels.
  4. Good news: here’s why we won’t run out of minerals (including oil).

Interesting new books about nuclear power.

Here are two recent books by James Mahaffey. He has a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. During a 25-year career there he worked on or directed projects for government and private organizations. He designed and installed a safety system Georgia Power’s Plant Hatch after Three Mile Island. Later he was Head of Advanced Research at Nanoventions Inc., and then Director of Technology for AIR2. He has appeared on major media and lectured around the world.

  1. Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (2015).
  2. Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder: A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science (2017).
Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
Available at Amazon.
Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder: A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science
Available at Amazon.

 

41 thoughts on “End of a dream as the nuclear power industry dies

  1. Typo? I think “Nobody has ever underestimated the construction cost of a nuclear power plant at the pre-construction stage.” should be “Nobody has ever OVERestimated the construction cost of a nuclear power plant at the pre-construction stage.”

    1. P.S. – I dropped a little something in the tip jar, the FM webpage is always worth looking at and is usually useful. Happy Holidays!

    2. Pluto,

      That is always greatly appreciated. These posts take bizarrely long to prepare. The fact-checking just starts the process!

      Also, providing non-tribal news and insights is not a smart business in America today. But, I think, it’s valuable. So all support is helpful!

    3. Pluto,

      That’s a great catch. I wonder if anyone has caught that. I’ll note a change.

  2. Yes, that parrot is definitely deceased. At one time I thought that a desire for low carbon energy might revive the nuclear industry, and maybe even spur research into fusion, but that’s not how it’s worked out. If at some point in the future circumstances were to change, if maybe fossil fuels run low or we decide that maybe we do want to reduce our carbon footprint so badly that the problems of fission have to be addressed, how difficult would it be to revive the industry? Is there an experience base in nuclear construction and operation that we’re going to lose?

    1. The Man,

      ” even spur research into fusion”

      Fusion development continues to advance. It’s hit the breakthrough point at which it attracts private capital. Tri Alpha Energy (now TAE Technologies) reportedly has raised $150 million in capital. Their power unit recently passed a major milestone on its long road to commercialization. See the Wikipedia entry and their website.

      “how difficult would it be to revive the industry?”

      Who can say? Much engineering knowledge and experience would eventually be lost. On the other hand, restarting fission programs in 20 years probably would be done with vastly superior tech.

  3. Please read “Energy and Climate Myths Destroyed” at http://renewable.50webs.com/myths.html

    The bottom line is that “renewable” energy is an Earth starving, economy destroying hoax and scam, Fission nuclear power is too dangerous and costly, and our only real hope is a breakthrough in clean nuclear fusion technology. There is every reason to be optimistic that an affordable fusion solution will be found in the next 20 years.

    As a scientific theory, man made climate change due to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels has as many loopholes as a rodeo, and is about as accurate as astrology. It has succeeded in the marketplace of ideas only because it makes such a compelling story, a new age doomsday religion that puts Mother Nature on the Cross instead of Jesus. Can you imagine Albert Einstein throwing a tantrum and branding anyone who does not believe in his theories “traitors,” “heretics,” and “deniers”? If we don’t do what the high priests of climate change say, we will all burn in the hell of global warming. A hysterical witch hunt against carbon dioxide equals mass suicide through starvation, because all life on Earth, our own bodies, and our food supply are all made of CO2.

    1. Calder,

      Thank you for expressing your opinion, and for the link. Let’s stay on topic here, however, looking at nuclear power.

      “The bottom line is that “renewable” energy is an Earth starving, economy destroying hoax and scam”

      Perhaps the entire industry and all their customers are wrong. I’ll continue to assume otherwise, however.

      “As a scientific theory, man made climate change due to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels has as many loopholes”

      I’ll stick with the opinion of scientists on that issue.

    2. Jim.

      Some smart people have invested $150 million in TriAlpha Energy (now TAE Technologies), betting that its very smart people will prove you wrong.

      Perhaps you are overconfident in your ability to forecast technology. I suggest reading “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” by the great (late) Arthur C. Clarke.

  4. How much of the cost of operating nuclear plants (and which would significantly affect their design and construction costs) is dealing with the perceived risks from the myriad low level radiation sources?

    There was a wallchart put together by xkcd. that rated all radiation sources in terms of bananas. https://xkcd.com/radiation/ that put just how low the radiation is. when compared to “natural” sources. Everything should be rated in Banana Equivalent Doses to put things in perspective. The industry joke in UK was they could never build a reactor in Cornwall because the background radiation was higher than the levels they could expose their workers to. Though they were major reactor failures that showed up significant design flaws, how many people did Three Mile Island and Fukushima actually kill? I would hazard a guess that it is a lot less than the numbers of deaths from solar panel installers.
    The death of nukes can be partially put down to the scare tactics of the anti-nuclear lobby who emphasis on ridiculously low radiation levels following precautionary principles were accepted by regulatory authorities who are swayed by PR, not science. They are following up their success there with similar tactics against other technologies and no regulator will call them out.

    1. Chrism,

      “How much of the cost of operating nuclear plants (and which would significantly affect their design and construction costs) is dealing with the perceived risks from the myriad low level radiation sources? ”

      Very little, from what I’ve read. The large scale costs have come from measures to retro-fix existing plants (or those under construction) to current safety standards after the 1971 Calvert Cliffs court decision (see this article and this one).

      Another wave came after 1979’s Three Mile Island, to prevent disastrous accidents.

      “The death of nukes can be partially put down to the scare tactics of the anti-nuclear lobby who emphasis on ridiculously low radiation levels”

      I doubt that. The long series of nuclear accidents had far greater effect. The partial meltdown at Fermi I in 1966. Three Mile Island in 1979. Chernobyl in 1986. Fukushima in 2011. Plus many many others. See a list of accidents in the US and in the world.

  5. Very informative post. Thank you Larry. As someone who was once arrested during a sit-in, with hundreds of other activists, at a site outside of Tulsa where a nuclear power plant was in the early stages of construction (and never completed) I am biased against nuclear power. Why?

    1. The potential for disastrous consequences if something goes wrong, either because of human error, technical glitches, or terrorist action. A lot of potentially dangerous technology to boil water. Fukushima will be with us for decades. The worst may yet to come.

    2. As an Atlanta ratepayer I am not pleased to be shelling out $100 or more every year for a product that won’t be delivered until 2021 or later, five years behind schedule and $3 billion over budget. Termed Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery, thanks to a Georgia Power inspired legislative act in 2009, it’s the old socialize the costs, privatize the profits scheme that seems so common in today’s America.

    3. The nuclear industry has never figured out how to handle its ever growing fuel (rods) waste challenge. I suspect if a plan is eventually developed taxpayers will be on the hook in a big way. Decommissioning the old plants will likely cost taxpayers a pretty penny as well.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on nuclear power. I have read the new generation power plants are much better designed and safer than earlier models. I don’t doubt it. Too little, too late.

    I do know that Americans are incredibly wasteful in using electricity. We live in a nation with oversized houses, corporate buildings that keep their lights on all night long, and energy sucking electronics even in sleep mode. Jimmy Carter was the last president as far as I know who encouraged Americans to scale back their use of electricity and other forms of energy usage. Sad.

    1. Louis,

      I certainly agree with numbers one and two. The dangers should be manageable, but nukes safety record is unimpressive. The cost of new nukes is bizarrely high.

      But #3 is quite false. The fuel rod storage problem isn’t even difficult. Public fears prevent rational solutions, typical of America’s worsening response to technical challenges.

      Also, decommissioning commercial reactors will not “cost taxpayers a pretty penny as well.” 29 reactors have been decommissioned with few problems. Before an operating licence is granted, the operator must establish a decommissioning mechanism — and certify its adequacy every two years (details here).

      “I do know that Americans are incredibly wasteful in using electricity.”

      People often make that criticism about free-market systems. Oddly, a century of experience has proven that socialist and communist systems are far less efficient in almost every way — yet get a pass from believers. We allocate resources by price vs. supply vs. demand. Tinkering with that process seldom works well, except for externalities (e.g., crime, pollution).

  6. Larry

    Thank you for your response and new links – unfortunately the first one doesn’t seem to work for me. And thanks for the background of the “too cheap to meter” quote in the original article.

    In the referenced Wikipedia lists of nuclear accidents, many did not breach the reactor vessel (even the SL-1 failure which killed three operators didn’t) or were plant shutdowns, One of the listed “nuclear” accidents was just a leak of non-radioactive ultra pure water! For a number of the others that released radiation, there is no numbers on what the release actually was in Curies or Sieverts. That would let one know whether the failure was significant or not. It is concerning that many of the Wikipedia sources seem to be newspaper or TV articles and reporting thirdhand at best.

    Part of the problem with the nukes is the industry won’t accept a cookie cutter approach – making a good standardized design, and then building a reasonable number. Everything seems to be bespoke. That in itself is a major risk. Many of the non- US nukes like the French have a standardized block approach which reduces the costs and build times. http://euanmearns.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-build-a-nuclear-power-plant/ It does look as though the lack of flexibility is being addressed in the UK at least, by a design that will two-shift. http://euanmearns.com/an-overview-of-the-kepco-apr1400/#more-20461

    There has been a lot of operational stuffups and stupid design decisions made on nukes – the same as what happens on many conventional boiler plant. The latter are a lot more lightly regulated and kill numerous people (here is one http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/boiler-explodes-in-ntpc-unchahar-plant/article19961812.ece and another http://www.ecmweb.com/content/series-preventable-events-leads-power- -plant-explosion) , but just get accepted as an operating cost.

    But you are correct in your central tenet, the nuclear power generation industry in the US is dying. History will tell if that is a good or bad thing.

    1. Chrism,

      Yes, that first link went dead since I used it in 2008!

      “In the referenced Wikipedia lists of nuclear accidents, many did not breach the reactor vessel ”

      That’s missing the point. After all, saying that we should build nukes until they destroy a few destroy cities is imprudent. Rather, consider the list of accidents as points on a distribution – a kind of bell curve. From this we can estimate the probability of severe and catastrophic accidents. That’s been done many times during the 65 years of nuclear power — and the consistent answer is “too high.”

      Chernobyl is an illustration of consequences of a severe accident, even if the cause is improbable in a western built and operated reactor. But Fukushima was recent, by a respected operator in a developed nation — showing the vulnerability of reactors to natural events. Nobody has good solutions for the reactors on earthquake faults or coasts, let alone to a 9/11-type attack from the sky.

      The long history of “operational stuffups and stupid design decisions” is also a good reason to bring down the curtain after 65 years. Loss of public trust is often terminal in such matters.

  7. Larry,

    I have great respect for you so please provide a link(s) to assure me that the fuel rod storage issue is not a problem. This is great news and we need to share it. I was under the impression that many nuclear plants were stuck with these god awful monstrosities and with the problem of what to do with plants that need to be taken down. Maybe nuclear energy is viable after all. Go figure. Keep up the good work. Personally I am glad I don’t live anywhere near one.

    1. Louis,

      “please provide a link(s) to assure me that the fuel rod storage issue is not a problem.”

      I didn’t say that there was no problem. Here is what I said, with two words inserted for more clarity: “The fuel rod storage problem isn’t even difficult {to solve}. Public fears prevent rational solutions, typical of America’s worsening response to technical challenges.” Yucca Mountain is adequate by any rational standards, but has been held up for the usual business-as-usual reasons — irrational fears, as a way to stop use of nukes, and NIMBY. Similar sites could be built elsewhere.

      “Maybe nuclear energy is viable after all.”

      Perhaps, but I doubt it — with our current technology and (equally important) social engineering. That is, probably perfect people in a perfect society could safely use nukes — perhaps even economically (I’m skeptical about the latter point). But we have neither, so we need systems that are robust and fail with acceptable costs. Hoover Dam is a robust “system”, whose failure would be a temporary catastrophe — but that would be mostly forgotten in 100 years (see a “what-if” here). That is unlikely to be so for Fukushima and Chernobyl. And they are not worst-case accidents.

  8. This is great–because I’m part of several groups where hundreds of people are getting excited about nuclear! I also love how this totally looks over all the good that nuclear power provides, and the incredible safety record–better than any other industry in the world. Excellent work picking just the limited amount of information that supports your viewpoint rather than having a balanced and informative discussion.

    1. Jordan,

      “love how this totally looks over all the good that nuclear power provides,”

      You are confused. As the title and summary show, this looks at the future of nuclear power. It is not an evaluation of nuclear power, or determination of what should be it’s future. It’s just reporting.

      “the incredible safety record – better than any other industry in the world.”

      That’s quite delusional.

      “Excellent work picking just the limited amount of information that supports your viewpoint”

      At 3400 words, it is 10x the length of an average blog post on the internet. It provides excerpts from and links to a wide range of authoritative sources.

      I’d love to see your analysis!

    2. Info,

      (1) “He is probably citing the lack of deaths per capita”

      I think you mean per kilowatt hour, not per capita. Also, “Our World in Data” is a fun source for data surfing — but not reliable. That article cites a single study in the Nov 2007 The Lancet: “Electricity generation and health” by Anil Markandya and Paul Wilkinson. It’s a very broad article, that has one line about nuclear deaths. As evidence it cites two old papers. One 1995, one 2006. Both before Fukushima.

      Also, this approach is statistical junk. The probability curve for nuclear disasters is not like that from a dam failure. Unlike dams, nukes can create massive long-lasting disasters, affecting large regions. The more reactors, the higher the risk. The long-term risk of nukes is best calcuated by using that risk.

      “some proponents have attempted a debunk of the fact that nuclear energy may be dead:”

      I suggest you pay more attention to experts and institutions actually making such billion-dollar decisions, rather than advocacy groups making YouTube videos. Such groups probably still will be making those long after the last reactor is built in the developed world. Perhaps after the last reactor is decommissioned. Enthusiasts are like that.

  9. With so many things wrong with nuclear power why do you think Georgia just voted to continue forward with building the new plant there?

    1. Shaved,

      Many factors kept the George plant alive while the South Carolina plant was cancelled. The Reuters article mentions two of them: an owner with deep pockets (Southern is 5x+ larger than SCANA) and a large settlement from Westinghouse:

      “What kept the Georgia project afloat after V.C. Summer was canceled was the presence of Southern to back the project, along with a $3.68 billion settlement with Toshiba Corp, which owns Westinghouse.”

      The third and fourth factors: calculations of whether to cancel or continue involve how to treat the “sunk costs” — Southern has invested $6 billion in the plant so far — and getting favorable treatment from the State regulators.

      “In comments Wednesday during a conference call with investors, Southern CEO Tom Fanning indicated he leans toward recommending that construction keep going. ‘From a lot of scenarios, going forward with nuclear may make sense,’ Fanning said during the call to discuss Southern’s quarterly earnings. He said the expanded nuclear plant would provide carbon-free power, maintain fuel diversity and play better politically with state regulators and lawmakers. ‘When you abandon, you have nothing to show for the money you spent. If you go forward, you have a nuclear plant that serves you for decades,’ he said. …

      “Scuttling the project wouldn’t be cost-free. Southern estimates it would incur shutdown costs of $400 million on top of the nearly $6 billion that its subsidiary Georgia Power has invested so far.

      “Customers of Georgia Power, which operates Vogtle and is the main partner in its expansion, already are being assessed for financing costs on the Vogtle project, with the levy adding $100 a year to a typical residential bill. The PSC will eventually decide how much they pay toward construction.” {From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  10. I submit that nuclear energy was killed with the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974.

    In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s coal was losing market share as railroad locomotives switched from coal to diesel, home heating switched from coal to gas, and electricity generation switched from coal to nuclear. In 15 or 20 years the U.S. built almost 100 reactors that robbed coal of a huge portion of its market. At that time coal was the only significant opponent to nuclear. Not even the Sierra Club was opposed to nuclear.

    But coal had a powerful lobby so it went to congress for help. Congress bowed to its masters and passed the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 which created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC’s role to maximize safety was a pathway to over regulation that would drive the price of nuclear power plants sky high. It worked like a charm as orders for nuclear power plants were canceled and some plants under construction were abandoned. In the NRC’s 40 year history not a single nuclear power plant has been built from conception to completion. Coal was saved.

    By contrast the military was exempt from oversight by the NRC. The military today continues to build nuclear reactors for its aircraft carriers and submarines. It even has a successful waste management site for geologic burial in a deep salt deposit in New Mexico.

    1. Jerry,

      That’s an interesting theory. It is testable. Were the NRC’s commissioners people with a history of opposition to nuclear power? Did the nuke industry opposite the Act? The staffing and actions of the NRC?

      As for the success of nuclear power used by the US Navy — one word: Rickover (see Wikipedia). His “obsessive fixation on safety and quality control” is the opposite of the US utility industry. Of course, the Navy program was run with an almost open-ended budget. What was his opinion about nuclear power?

      “I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. …Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years.” (testimony before the Joint Economic Committee in 1982).

    2. Larry,

      How is your proposed test supposed to work? The pro-nuke folks would judge the NRC and its commissioners to be anti-nuke and the anti-nuke folks would judge the commissioners to be pro-nuke. All we can say is that the commissioners are political appointees sworn to uphold the mission of the NRC. I’m a first time visitor to your blog but I now realize it is an anti-nuke blog. With me it’s not so much that I am pro-nuclear as I am anti-global warming. I’ve studied solutions to global warming and the math tells me there is no solution to global warming without nuclear power.

    3. Jerry,

      “The pro-nuke folks would judge the NRC and its commissioners to be anti-nuke and the anti-nuke folks would judge the commissioners to be pro-nuke.”

      That strikes me as quite unlikely.

  11. Thing is, there is no alternative. Nuclear will be the dominant source of electricity sooner or later. Solar can’t. Wind is snakeoil, doing far more harm than can be justified. Oil and gas will eventually become too expensive. Nuclear fission will become dominant before fusion. Fusion is inevitable, but is likely a century away. Pain is the ultimate persuader. When everything else hurts too much, we will return to fission.

    1. Lonnie,

      “Thing is, there is no alternative.”

      I would love to know the error rate of such confident long-term forecasts. My guess is “very high.”

      “Nuclear will be the dominant source of electricity sooner or later.”

      There is often not a “dominant” primary source of energy. In the past societies often relied on various animals, man- and woman- power, water power, wood, solar (for drying), and other substances (e.g., peat). The future might similarly rely on a diverse mix of sources. Hand-waving that away is a bit much.

      “Wind is snakeoil”

      Send a note about that to Denmark, for whom it is a major source of electrical power.

      “Fusion is inevitable, but is likely a century away”

      Some very smart people are working at TriAlpha Energy (now TAE Technologies), and they have persuaded some other smart people to invest $150 million in venture capital. VC’s want fast progress. I suggest that your forecasts are somewhat overconfident.

    1. Mike,

      Why is that “an entirely different perspective”?

      The expectation is that nukes will follow coal. Coal;s share dropped 2010-2016, replaced by natural gas and renewables.

      Look at US electricity sources in 2010:

      Natural gas.24%
      Coal……..48%
      Nukes…….20%
      Renewables..04% (excluding hydro)

      And in 2016.

      Natural gas:.34%
      Coal:……..30%
      Nukes:…….20%
      Renewables…08% (excluding hydro)

      Of that:
      Wind………05.6%
      Bionass……01.5%
      Solar……..00.9%
      Geothermal…00.4%

    2. Mike,

      That’s missing the point. My post had nothing whatsoever to do with “Powering the Nation With Renewable Energy.” So it is not necessary to read the 30,000 words to conclude that it does not provide an “entirely different perspective.” As I explained with considerable detail in my reply.

  12. There is a nuclear power downside that typically isn’t mentioned in discussions such as these: government finances. CANDUs typically get 220 thermal MWh per kilogram of natural (i.e. isotopically unenriched) uranium. The recent uxc.com price, $24.15 per pound natural U3O8, translates into $62.80 per kg U.

    220 thermal MWh is, says Google, 750 MMBTU.

    $62.80/750 MMBTU is 8.36 cents per MMBTU.

    Switching from coal-or-nuclear — and yes, I hate that concatenation, but it’s very significant — to gas amounts to issuing a new, ~50-cent-per-MMBTU rice bowl, because government typically takes about 20 percent of the price paid for natural gas, and gas costs $2.68/MMBTU.

    Wind turbines and natgas share the job 40/60 or 30/70, so switching to gas-plus-occasional-wind, with only the wind being mentioned, amounts to issuing an only slightly smaller new rice bowl.

    Coal and nuclear, poles apart by the criteria we care about, are essentially the same from a gas tax revenue lover’s point of view. And it is this point of view, not the larger public interest, that policymakers must be suspected of taking.

    1. Grlcowan,

      I don’t understand what you are saying.

      “because government typically takes about 20% of the price paid for natural gas, and gas costs $2.68/MMBTU.”

      How do they take that 20%? What nations are your describing? Iran? Canada? US?

      Why is this a “rice bowl?”

  13. The end of the nuclear industry? The nuclear industry has been dead for the past 40 years…they have just kept building new plants. The “dead” nuclear industry has started 34 new reactors since 2013 now, if Rostov 4 and Tianwan 3 are included(both have gone critical but not yet been connected to the grid.) Just as reference the “alive and well industry” managed to start only 32 new plants between 2000-2009. 50 Reactors have been started started since 2010-now globally. Just as a reference 56 were started in the 1990’s. As for Westinghouse and Areva, those companies have together started construction on 9 new reactors in the past 25 years. Last nuclear plant WEC built themselves was Sizwell B in the UK in 1995, since Sizewell 103 nuclear plants have been started. 2 are Westinghouse reactors, both Watts Bar units that the utility TVA built.

    As for Hinkley Point C, that is 2 reactors of 57 under contruction and 25 others that waiting aproval to get built around the world. China alone has 15 plants awaiting permission. Russia will start construction 9 new reactors in the coming 2 years: Kursk 2-1, Paks 2-1, Kudankulam-4, Akkuyu-1, Rooppur-2, Hanhikivi-1. Bushehr-2, Beloyarsk-5 and the BREST-300 project a GEN-IV closed cycle reactor that the anti nuclear movement is saying dosen’t exist. Ontop of that IN 2017 Russia alone started Rostov-4, Tianwan-3 and Leningrad 2-1. Plus started contruction on Kudankulam-3 and Rooppur-1. That means that Russia alone has started more reactors in one year than WEC and Areva put together and started cotruction work on more porjects in a 2 year period than WEC and Areva put together in the past 25 years. KEPCO alone will build 4 units in the UAE, thats the same as WEC, ad the the dometic projetcts and they have beaten Areva and WEC.

    The nuclear industry is not dead, there are sheriff’s in town that will dominate the market and keep building. As for the UK, then there is Moorside with KEPCO onboard, Bradwell and the Chinese and Wylfa with Hitachi. That is 9 reactors that are not HPC. Poland is looking at nuclear to get rid of coal, Saudi arabia launched a tender fo 2 units. Korea is still building domestic projects. France threw out their 50% nuclear share law. Argentina wills tart building Atucha 3 in 2018, another dead project.

    Nuclear is dead…its just growing. The anti nukers favoritr bible the WNISR said in 2009 that by 2020 there will only be 320 nuclear plants in operation….the 2017 report says 420+ depending on Japanese restarts. Pretty dead industry to to grow while it is dying.

    1. Hans,

      “The nuclear industry has been dead for the past 40 years…”

      That’s quite false.

      “they have just kept building new plants”

      Please read more carefully. There are two sections to this. One begins: “Nuclear power is dying in the United States.” The second says…

      “Enthusiasm for nuclear power is fading even in nations with more rational regulatory regimes and more competent construction and electric utility companies.”

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