The nuclear renaissance dies, forgotten and bankrupt

Unless you were paying very close attention, you probably haven’t seen the news that construction of two Westinghouse AP-1000 nuclear reactors at the Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina has been abandoned, following the bankruptcy of Westinghouse earlier this year. There are two more AP-1000 reactors under construction at the Vogtle site in Georgia, which are also likely to be scrapped. Either way, this seems the right moment to mark the end of the nuclear renaissance which offered high hopes in the early 2000s. The biggest remaining carbon capture and storage project, the Kemper plant in the US, was also abandoned a month ago.

So, at this point, there is no alternative to the combination of renewables, storage and energy efficiency. This would be a good moment for those environmentalists who accepted and promoted the nuclear story to recognise that any further efforts in this direction can only harm the prospects for a low-carbon future.

More soon on this, I hope

24 thoughts on “The nuclear renaissance dies, forgotten and bankrupt

  1. Thanks John for this message of sanity.

    Though a scientist it drives me nuts how so many ’eminent scientists’ dont get this is an instant where market forces have done us a service but keep pushing the nuclear bandwagon without understanding the broader environmental impacts and economic constraints not to mention the planning and management issues which are unresolved or even unscoped.

    They are like throwbacks to the 1960s when Harold Wilson spruiked his “White Heat of Science” line and the older generation brought up on Flash Gordon just lapped it up, flying cars hovercraft Concorde and all.

    Locally we have the *&$# Barry Brook who styles himself as an environmental scientist and has garnered signatures of support from dozens of highly qualified scientists who unfortunately are venturing outside the areas of expertise in lending their moral support…..shades of the climate expert problem.

    And soon to be visiting we have the dreaded superstar Brian Cox. Maybe he has changed his tune now, but in 2006 he fronted an Horizon program on the even more problematic Fusion approach to energy too cheap to meter, that made my blood boil with its starry eyed cornucopianism . Needless to say his subsequently being touted as the BBC replacement for David Attenborough depressed me terribly.

  2. Color me unsurprised.

    I don’t think nuclear power technology is necessarily dead forever, but it’s completely irrelevant to the Australian domestic energy discussion in 2017.

    At some point, maybe somebody will come up with a viable factory-built SMR. There’s no physical reason why they couldn’t be built, and engineering gets easier, not harder, over time. But, frankly, it’s hard to see who would bother to put up the R&D money, and there’s much more development left in the renewables basket that doesn’t face the same regulatory headwinds.

  3. @bjb

    It’s largely accurate; multiple studies have come up with similar estimates.

    But it’s also largely irrelevant in terms of persuading anyone of the relative merits of nuclear power. Nobody cares about air pollution – including successive Australian governments that have dragged their feet on introducing new motor vehicle pollution regulations at the behest of the domestic car manufacturers and oil refineries.

  4. @Robert Merkel
    “Engineering gets easier, not harder, over time”. Civilian nuclear power provides an interesting counterexample. Arnulf Grübler famously documented its negative learning curve. Is nuclear unique? There are reasons why Concorde had no successor, and the costs of the F-35 fighter are out of control.

  5. @Robert Merkel
    “Accurate”? “Safest”?

    These blanket words/phrases remind me of Huff, D. (2010). How to lie with statistics: WW Norton & Company. The danger with sites like this ourworlddata is they attempt to reduce complex problems to sets of magic numbers designed more to support a preset narrative rather than providing balanced input for decision support.

    The site creates an artificial distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Historically the two though go hand in hand directly as well as via from skill transferability and sustain the production of weapons. In the UK the Magnox systems were designed as much with bomb material production as for energy. Here in Oz the plan until McMahon scotched it on economic grounds was to build a UK designed model at Jervis Bay which could also be used for producing sufficient plutonium for about half a dozen devices per year. A more recent example is this – Bergeron, K. (2001). While no one was looking. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 57(2), 42-49. Essentially the US military was running short of Tritium, essential for efficient nuclear weapons, because it decays, and they had shut down their old production facilities. So they adapted a civilian power plant to keep their arsenal functional. Now one may argue that even if we added the 100-200K deaths from Japan, nuclear power would still be safest. But would it past a rational person’s laugh test.

    Another complication is the matter of resource size – credible Uranium reserves stand at ca 5 million tonnes or about 50,000 tonnes of U235 plus some fissionable plutonium produced in the reactor. Now the energy content by weight is about 22 x 10^9 kWh/t totalling about 10^15 kWh. This is a lot. Unfortunately global energy consumption is at ca 150 TWh/a. In short the Uranium supply is only sufficient for about 6 years of global energy given the technology these safety stats are based on. The current technology is no solution.

    This means that nuclear power is a dead end without going to Thorium or Uranium breeders, the so called Gen IV options whose development is being massively subsidized by government yet again. There has been some earlier experience with breeders the overall result seems to be a bunch of dangerous duds . And of course breeders are even more of a worry due again to the proliferation problem.

    In short these stats are nice but its not clear how sustainable they are or how the weapons issue is to be dealt with, without which these stats which mostly concern coal and oil technologies which need to end for other reasons than safety.

  6. It hasn’t helped nuclear that it’s largest base of ongoing “support” is politically aligned with climate science deniers – and unable to be mobilised in any effective manner for fear of upsetting the Fossil Fuel interests by revealing any actual acceptance of climate science. Accepting climate science would lead to a requirement to commit to doing something – yet not even with their faith in nuclear have they been able to commit to a clear course of action on climate. I’m doubtful it would have been a successful course that would have delivered the results, yet just the absence of climate science denial and less of a messy mire around the issue would have been a powerful message. Ironic that consistent downplaying of the seriousness of the climate issue by people who support nuclear meant support for nuclear diminished in line with lack of support by conservatives for climate action.

    Climate science denial is the gift that keeps on taking and taking. Truly the decision of leading conservatives to tolerate and encourage misinformation and misunderstanding about climate change as their primary response to this global problem should rate as one of the most dangerous and irresponsible ones ever; the consequences – apart from being very bad for nuclear, which may not turn out that bad – include thoroughly entrenching opposition to climate action in their own support base, such that pulling back and repositioning in line with reality has become a difficult, vote losing exercise.

  7. I wonder if there is any connection with the appearance in Australia a few weeks ago of some spokesperson for some group or other promoting small modular nuclear reactors? (I heard her being interviewed by Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast.) I was surprised because small modular nuclear used to get a lot of attention in the media and on science/tech blogs, but it has not had much attention for a year or two now, I reckon.

    I know JQ believes there is no hope for that type of nuclear either, but it would seem that some companies might still be hoping that they can sell it.

  8. Ken Fabian has at least got the politics right – it wasn’t the greenies but the paleoconservatives that indirectly did the most damage to nuclear power.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, these things are path dependent – we’ll never know if with broad political support and consequent massive research funding with lots of international competition nuclear power would ever have become cheap enough to be a better replacement for coal than solar PV. But history took a different course.

  9. @derrida derider

    Back in the day, it was the left who would die in a ditch against nuclear power – Helen Caldicott, the young Peter Garrett, leave uranium in the ground and all that. The Labor Party tore itself a new one on uranium exports. They never could quite explain how social democratic Sweden and other admirable places were happy to make electricity with nukes. And of course Sweden to this day supplies Denmark with radio-active electricity when the wind isn’t blowing.

    It doesn’t matter now. Even if nuclear power was cost effective, the approvals process would take from now until the end of time.

  10. Nuclear energy should by all rights be sitting under a triple-glass bell jar next to the meter and kilogram at the Pavillon de Breteuil as the reference tribal issue.

  11. @hc

    From your link “In the USA there are plans for five new reactors, beyond the four under construction now. It is expected that some of the new reactors will be online by 2020.”

    Apart from the fact that there are only two now under construction, the “plans” consist of applications for licenses from the NRC. There are no actual proposals to start construction and no likelihood of anything being built before 2030 at the very earliest. You should apply the same discount to the rest of the statements in the document.

  12. @Smith
    My point wasn’t about intent but capacity – paleocons in general liked nuclear power, but their climate denialism in practice hobbled it, as they always had more power (being rich) than greenies.

  13. @derrida derider

    But they weren’t the only ones who liked nuclear power. The French, Finnish and Swedes, none of them paleocons, some of them socialists, also liked nuclear power. They still do.

  14. I guess the question now is how much will be wasted on Hinkley C reactors in the UK before they are abandoned?

  15. derrida derider :
    As I’ve said elsewhere, these things are path dependent – we’ll never know if with broad political support and consequent massive research funding with lots of international competition nuclear power would ever have become cheap enough to be a better replacement for coal than solar PV. But history took a different course.

    It’s precisely _because_ they’re path-dependent that we can predict these things: the technology with the easiest and thus most-likely pathway is the technology with the lowest fixed cost, because the lowest-fixed-cost technology is the one that’s easiest to roll out in small chunks, and that means the cheap technology builds synergies and ecosystems and what-have-you.

    Although I think we didn’t really know this properly until ten years back.

  16. Nuclear and coal power are both methods of doing the same thing, which is boil water to make steam. But while coal plants need conveyor belts to bring coal into the reaction chamber:

    C + O2 = energy + CO2

    And smokestacks to let stuff out, nuclear power has the added complication of never being able to let anything out of its reaction chambers except in a very controlled fashion. Having it go through the roof in an uncontrolled way was tried at Chernobyl and it was not a good idea on account of how the reaction for nuclear power is something along the lines of:

    U + Satan’s power = energy + all of Satan’s little wizards

    The need for incredible precision in the design and construction of nuclear power plants and multiple layers of safety, makes me think nuclear power operating on currently known principles could never be cheaper than coal power.

    If coal power had to pay for all its externalities or coal became incredibly expensive this would change, but in a world where wind and solar power exist this will not help nuclear power become competitive.

  17. A mere ten years ago solar and wind hadn’t crossed the price barrier. In terms of markets, nothing is the same once that happens. Nor politically.

    I recall – before Fukushima and before wind and solar being competitive – a real but reluctant acceptance that we may require nuclear from many commenters on this site and others in the face of the climate problem – from people who would identify as leaning left. I think distrust of nuclear has been more widespread than truly committed opposition, and it not so deeply held that it could not change in the face of the consistent messaging that emphasises a clear need.

    Yet even then, in the face of clear evidence that climate concerns were capable of changing voter attitudes to nuclear there was no apparent effort to capitalise on that and make further use of those concerns by our LNP to promote this supposed “better” low emissions pathway. Or at least not in Australia. So, I think there is no option but conclude that support for nuclear within the LNP was weak at best, support for strong climate action not so much weak as negative and the real commitment – as was probably obvious all along – was to the long term future of coal. Which commitment was best served by promoting climate science denial and encouraging alarmist economic fears of shifting away from fossil fuels.

  18. @Ken Fabian

    You’re right Ken. I was amongst those on the left who rather fancied the idea of adding nuclear to the mix on a variety of grounds, though this was largely a function of the relatively high cost of ‘firming’ intermittent sources of energy harvest and of the infrastructure costs associated with joining energy harvest sites with load centres. Since then, battery costs and functionality have improved non-trivially, we’re closer to mass rollout of possibly mass-grid-tied EVs AND install costs fro RE have fallen. In Europe, offshore wind costs have declined very considerably and nee means for anchoring in deep water have emerged, potentially lowering costs and complexity yet further.

    I suspect the main problem for the right wasn’t the cost of nuclear — but the lack of enthusiasm within business for internalising a cost they’d previously been able to 100% completely externalise. Why should they pay up at all? Denialism was thus ‘de rigueur’.

    Nuclear was never raised by the right as a serious option. It was merely a cultural bogeyman to wave under the noses of environmentalists to induce us to embrace coal as the lesser harm. Bob Brown after all once took that view in relation to the Franklin Dam project. It was cynical wedge politics because they knew that hardly anyone on that side would embrace nuclear and not enough on the right would embrace the subsidies or the placement of plants. In short, perfect for coal, which was what they wanted.

    Ronald: Despite being on your side here, you have been a little sneaky here IMO. Steam from a nuclear stack is fine. Particulate from a fire in the reactor is not. They aren’t the same thing. Only plant failure produces the latter whereas fossil thermal produces the latter as part of normal operation.

    I suspect that in pure cost terms, you’re right. The engineering costs will always be too high to compete with more forgiving technologies for energy harvest. If storage and harvest from RE were a lot more expensive and we wanted a clean atmosphere, which we should, then we’d wear the cost. We don’t have to wear that cost, or the politico-cultural hazards of the expanded national security state that would need to attend it however.

  19. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyed reading your work. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” pleasme let me know via email.


  20. @Autumn Cote Your courteous question raises the netiquette point whether such permission is required. Blog posts are subject to copyright. But as a blogger, I consider my writing to be in the public domain, apart from my moral right to be identified as the author. Fair use doctrine allows quotation, but the fairest reuse is integral republication, not selective. JQ’s mileage may vary.

  21. I publish under a Creative Commons license, allowing free non-commercial copying with attribution. It was on the page, but seems to have got lost.

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