The Big Problem With Small Nuclear Reactors

Yves here. There’s enough NIMBY-ism in the US and I would assume most advanced economies that it’s hard to see an increase in nuclear capacity getting all that far, separate from the issues described below.

By Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based writer who covers energy and climate topics. Originally published at Undark

In recent years, the nuclear power lobby and its advocates have begun to sing a new song. They have bailed on the monstrous reactors of the 20th century — not because of safety or toxic waste concerns, but because of the reactors’ exorbitant expense and ponderous rollout schedules. And they have switched their allegiance to a next generation nuclear fission technology: small modular reactors, which they claim will help rescue our warming planet, as well as the nuclear power industry— once they exist.

Respected thinkers such as former U.S. president Barack Obama, French president Emmanuel Macron, and Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates have toasted the idea of small modular reactors, or SMRs, as a potentially reliable, almost-emissions-free backup to intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Advocates claimthat because SMRs will be smaller than the giants that currently dominate horizons, they will be safer, cheaper, and quicker to build. Although SMRs will have only a fraction of the power-generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors, proponents envision that they will, one day, be assembled in factories and transported as a unit to sites — like Sears’ mail-order Modern Homes of the early 1900s.

Currently, half of the states in the EU, both major political parties in the U.S, and the five BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — have indicated that they want to split atoms for the purpose of generating energy. U.S. President Joe Biden included billions of dollars in tax credits for nuclear energy in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Gates has gone so far as to invest a chunk of his fortune in a firm he founded, TerraPower, a leading nuclear innovation company. But despite the prodigious chatter, the endeavor to blanket the Earth with SMRs is a Hail Mary pass that’s very unlikely to succeed.

Granted, it is certainly a step in the right direction that most observers now see the postwar, giga-watt-scale water-cooled reactors as obsolete. When constructed new, these behemoths generate electricity at up to nine times the cost of large-scale solar and onshore wind facilities, and can take well over a decade to get up and running. Perhaps for this reason, there has been one, and only one, new nuclear power project initiated in the U.S. since construction began on the last one 50 years ago: a two-reactor expansion of the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. The first of the reactors came online this yearseven years behind schedule. The staggering $35 billion cost for the pair is more than twice the original projection.

But SMRs are just as likely to face similar delays and cost overruns. Currently, there are just two existing advanced SMR facilities in the world that could be reasonably described as SMRs: a pilot reactor in China and Russia’s diminutive Akademik Lomonosov. More small reactors are under construction in China, Russia, and Argentina, but all of them are proving even more expensive per kilowatt than traditional reactors.

It’s worth noting that in the U.S., and everywhere else in the world, nuclear policy relies heavily on subsidies to be economically competitive. Starting next year, utilities operating nuclear facilities in the U.S. can qualify for a tax credit of $15 per megawatt-hour — a break that could be worth up to $30 billion for the industry as a whole. However, even these giveaways won’t reduce the projected costs of SMR-generated electricity to anywhere near the going prices of wind and solar power.

In the U.S., the only SMR developer with a design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is NuScale, which plans to deploy six modules at one site in Idaho that will together generate less electricity than a smallish standard nuclear reactor. So far, however, NuScale has yet to lay a single brick. Its biggest win to date is securing $4 billion in federal tax subsidies. In January of this year, NuScale announced plans to sell electricity not at $58 per megawatt-hour, as originally pledged, but at $89 per megawatt-hour, citing higher than anticipated construction costs. The new projection is nearly twice the average global cost of utility-scale solar and onshore wind, according to calculations by BloombergNEF. And without the government subsidies, NuScale’s price tag would be that much higher.

In fact, there’s a fair chance that not a single NuScale SMR will ever be built: The company has said it will not begin construction until 80 percent of its expected generation capacity is subscribed, and currently buyers have signed up for less than a quarter of the plant’s capacity.

Gates’s TerraPower has an even longer way to go, although it too is cashing in on subsidies. The U.S. Department of Energy has pledged up to $2 billion in matching funds to construct a demonstration plant in Wyoming. Yet TerraPower recently announced it’s facing delays of at least two years because of difficulties securing uranium fuel from its lone supplier: Russia.

Even if the unlikely rollout of SMRs eventually happens, it will unfold too late to curb the climate crisis. And the reactors will face many of the same safety and radioactive waste concerns that plagued their larger counterparts, if only at smaller scales. Meanwhile, the siren song of nuclear energy is diverting critical resources from the urgent task of building out clean technologies. And the idea that nuclear reactors would serve as “backups” for wind and solar is misguided because the reactors can’t be ramped up and down quickly.

One is left to wonder why it is that intelligent people like Gates and Obama are running down this rabbit hole?

I think it’s because they understand the chilling imperative of the climate crisis, and its scope. They’re panicked, and rightly so. In nuclear energy, they see a miracle-like, low-carbon power source that they know, and that can serve a million customers at a time. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, they don’t trust renewables and smart energy systems to get the job done.

But that is where they err. The technology of the future is already here. Clean wind and solar energy — coupled with updated smart grids, expanded storage capacity, hydrogen technology, virtual power plants, and demand responsestrategies — can work. Our energy systems of the future will look like a patchwork quilt, with diverse energy sources kicking in at different times during the day, and with the mix differing from one day to the next.

Bill Gates and like-minded innovators should put their minds and fortunes to work on this futuristic project of the present — and leave the 20th century relic that is nuclear power in the past, where it belongs.

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  1. Andrew DeWit

    Too bad the author appears totally unaware of (or uninterested in) Chinese, South Korean etc work on both large and small nuclear reactors. They also deliver power far more cheaply than US projects, which are encumbered by onerous regulatory issues and poor capacity due to years of not building projects. Canada is another good contrast, as they undertook refurbishment of Ontario’s CANDU reactors (which powered the province past coal in 2014), and hence have maintained skilled people and supply chains.

    1. Michaelmas

      The OP’s author also claims: ‘And the reactors will face many of the same safety and radioactive waste concerns that plagued their larger counterparts, if only at smaller scales.’

      I don’t know if they were being deliberately dishonest or were just too lazy/stupid to do their research. But the specific aim of SMR builders such as this one —

      is to use only so-called ‘nuclear waste’ — i.e. 3-7% partially-used nuclear fuel — and ‘recycle’ it, which is to say use it fully.

      The following is a conservative account of what’s possible on this score —

      “…fourth-generation fast neutron reactors will change the outlook dramatically, and mean that not only used fuel from today’s reactors but also the large stockpiles of depleted uranium (from enrichment plants, about 1.2 million tonnes end 2018) become a fuel source. Uranium mining will become much less significant.

      “Another major change relates to wastes. In the last decade interest has grown in recovering all long-lived actinides* together (i.e. with plutonium) so as to recycle them in fast reactors so that they end up as short-lived fission products. This policy is driven by two factors: reducing the long-term radioactivity in high-level wastes, and reducing the possibility of plutonium being diverted from civil use – thereby increasing proliferation resistance of the fuel cycle.

      * Actinides are elements 89 to 103, actinium to lawrencium, including thorium, protactinium and uranium as well as transuranics, notably neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium and californium. The minor actinides in used fuel are all except uranium and plutonium.

      ‘Reprocessing used fuela to recover uranium (as reprocessed uranium, or RepU) and plutonium (Pu) avoids the wastage of a valuable resource. Most of it – about 96% – is uranium, of which less than 1% is the fissile U-235 (often 0.4-0.8%); and up to 1% is plutonium. Both can be recycled as fresh fuel, saving up to 30% of the natural uranium otherwise required.”

      1. Susan the other

        So maybe they can clean up Hanford and the infamous kitty litter cave (Carlsbad?) in NewMexico, and etc.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        Vast resources over the past half century have been pushed into trying to develop reactors which use waste – either existing reactors or new designs such as pebble bed reactors. They have all failed, mostly because it proved impossible to maintain the steady internal temperatures required with mixed fuels. The only viable reactors use carefully modulated virgin materials. But the nuclear industry keeps on pushing them for a very simple reason. They can claim that their waste is a future energy source.

        The Oklo reactor you link to is just another unicorn. It failed to get a license because they couldn’t supply basic information to the NRC.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            The Candu reactor can use MOX, this is a mix of usually natural uranium along with plutonium from old nuclear weapons. Its not really the same thing as reducing ‘waste’ in the sense of using mixed waste materials from operating reactors.

    2. Simon Girty

      “encumbered by onerous regulatory issues”

      We hear:

      PASC-indentured essentials, red-lined into Cancer Valley, Frackistan NS, Von Roll WTI, XTO & Shell sacrifice zones

      “skilled people and supply chains.”

      THEY replaced those who TRIED to do our job, with H-1B, 1099 suck-ups; terrified to say no. Escaping deputies, skip-tracers, repo-men, ex-spousrs, PO, in a race to the bottom…

      It’s a matter of perspective, seldom presented by libertarian idealogues? Google’s simply SEO’d away ALL web pages, of inconvenient contradictory fact. So it’s academic: Gates, Bezos & Bloomberg will jam us amongst ethane & fracking brine spewing well pads, crackers, burning rail-bit wrecks, Rooski built reactors & boondoggle, slapped-together power stations, next to toxic waste incinerators (where most of us grew up & learned while we earned). We’ve few illusions and Professor Pangloss selfom visits? Bitumen-fired peaking plant, fracked reservoir, fission atop fracked ethane wells? Bring ’em, we’ll sign-off on anything?

      1. Dr.Connor

        Not one mention of the words “liability insurance” anywhere.

        Wall Street knows a risk when they see one, that’s why we taxpayers are financing the only Soviet Style Economic model in the U.S. The Price Anderson Act.

        ” Forbes Magazine in 1985 called nuclear power “the greatest managerial disaster in business history…only the blind, or the biased, can now think that most of the money [$265 billion by 1990] has been well spent.””

        Here’s Newsom’s biggest donor’s major liability:

    3. PlutoniumKun

      There is zero evidence that Chinese or South Korean reactors produce energy significantly cheaper than US or French equivalents when you balance out all the hidden costs and subsidies. Both have settled for reactor designs that are essentially updated versions of long established LWR designs. The Chinese in particular are very good at large scale concrete laying which has allowed them cut costs domestically, but they’ve had little success selling them abroad. The South Koreans have had more success as they have simplified some design elements, but even then, their success has been fairly limited. The reality is that nuclear power is more expensive than almost all the alternatives in most grids and can only be viable for quite limited circumstances.

    4. Jay Francis

      Wait… Does the author of this article really think that Solar and wind aren’t subsidised..? Who is this person, and do they want to buy a bridge? No, seriously, I get it: they are just being dishonest.

      Also, weird to talk about SMR and not mention the system closest to wide deployment- Rolls Royces.

  2. disillusionized

    We really need to stop indulging the anti-nuclear ideologues.
    The reality is that in 2022 Solar was 4.5% of global electricity production, and wind was 7.5%.
    More pertinently Coal and Natural gas was 56% – Add in the other fossil sources and it’s almost 60%.
    Hydro is 15% and Nuclear is 9% – other renewables is about 3%.
    We need more of everything that’s carbon reducing, and Hydro isn’t really an option (there aren’t any meaningful rivers left to dam in this context) leaving only Solar, Wind, and Nuclear. Anyone who professes to be against Climate Change but is against Nuclear is an idiot.

    Then we consider the fact that as Solar and Wind in particular gain ‘market share’ they inherently make their product less valuable as their production maxima overlap, which means falling margins, and more importantly, introducing the greater challenge of storage, which is neither technically solved, nor of course rolled out.
    And that’s overlooking the fact that any geographically constrained production (as wind is, and solar to a degree) necessarily has falling margins as the best sites are used first.

    Then there is the material intensity, Nuclear power is simply a lot more resource efficient, using less cement, steel, copper, REMs and so forth – Everything needed to accomplish other important goals like de-carbonizing the vehicle fleet F.E – And of course not having the electricity storage problem in the first place.

    Put simply anyone complaining about Nuclear in regards to cost, typically ignore large parts of Renewables costs, and more importantly the consideration that there might not be enough raw materials to make it work at all. The most important consideration is of course the fact that after decades of work, Renewables have had their production costs cut, whereas after decades of opposition, Nuclear’s costs have risen (in the west!). This both highlights the idiocy of the opposition, and what could be achieved.

    It’s also risible for people who otherwise pretend money is no consideration for any green project, to suddenly become stridently ordo-liberal when regarding Nuclear projects. Or those same people often being rather vague about democratic consent (The plebs don’t know what’s good for them) suddenly insists that local opposition (in some cases, with no local members at all) must be Listened too!
    (except if they complain about Wind Turbines, then they are evil egotistical people who won’t let the wise man engage in resource extraction of rural areas against the wishes of the locals on behalf of people who live in cities).

    1. vao

      Then there is the material intensity, Nuclear power is simply a lot more resource efficient, using less cement, steel, copper, REMs and so forth

      I no longer remember the precise arguments founded on physics and engineering, but, for a given energy output, a large power plant — whether coal, gas, or atomic fission — is inherently more efficient than several smaller ones, i.e. a large installation consumes less materials and fuel relative to a small one.

      If energy and materials efficiency is a paramount objective in the brave new world of raw materials scarcity and energy sobriety, then this means that those Small Modular Reactors are an engineering and economic absurdity.

      But then that leaves the large plants — which exhibit the wee problems that building them is way too expensive and takes way too long, and requires a know-how that seems to be disappearing (see how the French are faring, for instance, and how many countries and firms have abandoned the sector).

      1. Polar Socialist

        Large plants are also enormous heat engines that require enormous cooling systems – preferably enormous amounts of relatively cool fresh water – to operate and not blow up.

        Already years ago I read that many countries are running out of naturally suitable places for big energy plants – which means extremely large construction project to create artificially the required environment (for example see Kakhovka dam and ZNPP). Naturally, the Climate Change is doing it’s part by drying and/or heating up the remaining reservoirs.

        1. vao

          That is also my understanding.

          Thermal plants are intrinsically more efficient the larger they are, but then one has to scale the inputs correspondingly: cooling water, fuel (e.g. enormous amounts of coal near-by in the case of coal plants, well-dimensioned dedicated pipelines for gas/oil powered plants, large parks of pools for cooling spent fuel in the case of nuclear power plants), not to mention the high-power lines.

        2. Lex

          Cooling and the large quantities needed for the steam, which has to be purified so it doesn’t leave mineral deposits in/on all the internal components. Especially the turbine fins.

        3. Dr.Connor

          Coal, gas, wind, solar does not irradiate even the toughest materials and make them useless, as does nuclear radiation.

          1. Jay Francis

            You are using Hysterical Childspeak instead of being truthful. Yes, radiation can shorten the life of structural components, meaning you need to beef them up a little . No, it doesn’t make “the toughest materials useless” – if this was true, there would be no nuclear reactors for you to make ridiculous claims about…

      2. disillusionized

        I no longer remember the precise arguments founded on physics and engineering, but, for a given energy output, a large power plant — whether coal, gas, or atomic fission — is inherently more efficient than several smaller ones, i.e. a large installation consumes less materials and fuel relative to a small one.

        That is completely true – How many Wind turbines does it take to equal a SMR?
        Because that was my point, not SMRs Vs regular reactors, because both consume orders of magnitude less materials per MWH.

      3. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, very large thermal plants are inherently more efficient than smaller ones. This is why almost all thermal plants go for scale and why its very difficult to apply modular approaches to construction unless you are building at a truly epic scale. The various SMR’s based on scaled down LWR’s were proposed on a fantasy idea that somehow modularising them would overcome these basic power rules. But now that the costs have become more open, its pretty clear that they don’t work.

        this is hardly a surprise to anyone who has looked at the history of LWR reactors. There have been small ones built since the 1950’s – this is what nuclear subs and aircraft carriers use. Every nuclear power – US, Russia, France, China, UK, Japan, has tried to make them cost effective. They’ve failed. Notably, the Chinese aren’t even bothering to make them for their new large aircraft carries, and increasingly they are falling out of favour in submarine designs as batteries become far more powerful and cost effective.

        1. Jay Francis

          > increasingly they are falling out of favour in submarine designs as batteries become far more powerful and cost effective

          This is a lie or complete ignorance. Look at the aukus deal: the Australians switched to nuclear power despite high political costs exactly because battery subs are crippled compared to nuclear boats. None of the nuclear navies have contemplated replacing their fleets with battery subs.

          As for the Chinese carriers, making a carrier nuclear powered is questionable- you still need oil for escorts and avgas, so why bother?

          I think you’re clutching at facts – and outright lies – without any attempt to verify or understand them, as long as you try to use them to support the conclusion you want. This isn’t a morally or intellectually adequate approach to argument.

          1. Henry Moon Pie

            I think you’re insulting one of the more respected members of this community. You’re not helping your credibility.

          2. PlutoniumKun

            Leaving aside your tone, the Australians have a particular (if questionable) need for extreme endurance for their submarines. That deal is so wrapped up in politics there is little rational behind the choice of sub.

            The rest of your post makes very little sense. Try reading up a little on naval history and development and the logistics involved in oil and nuke power subs. Nuke power ships have enormous logistical benefits over gas/diesel turbines, and yet despite decades of development they have never gone beyond niche uses or ‘money no object’ carriers. The obvious reason is cost and complexity.

            As for your point about the Chinese navy, if they had efficient modular reactors they’d be using them for their carriers, frigates and large support vessels too. If they were cost comparable to conventional turbines there would literally be no good reason otherwise not to use them.

            1. Jay Francis

              This is a better argument but it doesn’t excuse your lies before. Yes, fossil fuel powered surface warships are much cost effective than nuclear powered ones. But so what? We are not disputing the costs of fossil fuel based electricity vs nuclear. We have ruled fossil fuels out because of global warming. That is the freaking point.

              Following your “logic” we should write solar off because no one builds solar powered destroyers. Of course you didn’t realise that because you were being deliberately dishonest- so logical consistency was the last thing on your mind.

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                I don’t know how this comment got through but you are on a very fast track to being blacklisted with that nasty personal attack. If you don’t apologize, your days here are over. No one gets to address commentors that way.

                1. Jay

                  Ok: this person claimed that nuclear subs are being widely replaced by non nuclear ones because of improvements in battery technology. Show me evidence that this is not a lie and I will apologise and donate $500.

                  Or is it your policy to allow people you like to lie and then ban people who call them on their lies? Apparently, yes.

                  No one, no one, is replacing nuclear subs this way. These battery improvements do not exist: he simply invented claims. This. Is. Lying. Why aren’t you asking him for a source and warning him?

                  1. Yves Smith Post author

                    You didn’t even spend one minute on Google. So ignorant and nasty about it too.

                    Battery operated subs are becoming more popular:


                    And the Chinese are planning to make more use of lithium ion batteries for subs:


                    And you straw manned what PlutoniumKun originally said which was that battery designs for subs were becoming more popular.

                    So you were COMPLETELY out of line and doubled down.

                    I trust you will find your happiness on the Internet. Elsewhere. And maybe learn some manners too.

    2. Acacia

      anyone complaining about Nuclear in regards to cost…

      Out of curiosity, how would you factor in the costs of waste processing, and the costs of cleanup operations after nuclear accidents like Fukushima? Also, how should we account for the costs to famers and fishermen who lost their livelihoods due to extensive contamination?

      There will be more such accidents, of course.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Totally agree. As it is, when they calculate the cost of constructing a nuclear power plant they are only thinking of actual construction costs. But at the end of it’s lifespan, you have to also take account of the costs of de-commissioning anything to do with it which takes decades and costs billions of dollars by itself. And as you point out, in case of an accident it is the government that picks up the tab for a clean-uup which amounts to an open cheque book over decades of time. Fukushima blew way back in 2011 and the meter is still running on trying to deal with that one.

        1. Lex

          I’m not advocating for nuclear or SMR reactor tech, but one of the selling points is that the whole reactor system is built inside a concrete cask that’s transportable. These would be more like industrial scale nuclear batteries than the type of plant we’re used to. And the cask is the containment. Reducing the complexity of managing a continuous reaction and also the risk of accident.

          1. synoia

            What is the protocol to secure and clean up a dropped SMR reactor?

            Anything that is moveable can be damaged and broken.

        2. EssCetera

          How do you calculate the cost of a bunch of crazed Ukro-Nazis wanting to blow up your reactor and the United States providing support for that mission, meanwhile wanting to use such a deliberately induced incident for casus belli? Meanwhile, a bunch of US politicians are arguing the US would surely survive a nuclear holocaust so don’t worry about it. Also meanwhile, a top Russian MAD scholar is arguing in public that really the only best way to achieve true MAD deterrence is to nuke a bunch of cities, and at least a portion of the Russian public agrees… When the scientists calculate risk, do they factor such things at all? Is “Human Stupidity” anywhere in their calculations? Especially given they did NOT factor that a diesel generator providing backup power to Fukushima might develop problems such being taken offline due to flooding. Apparently, “loss of backup power due to unforeseen circumstances” was not on the checklist.

          1. Jay Francis

            Re. Fukushima, no, “they” did realise it was possible. Westinghouse warned the Japanese not to build the reactor there. And like a lot of people who get hysterical about nuclear power, you don’t realise that reactors are much safer than many other things you accept. Chemical plants and warehouses full of fertiliser are vastly more dangerous – a hundred times more people died at Bhopal than Chernobyl.

            1. EssCetera

              With respect, you do know that Fukushima was a level 7 incident, right? Consider that with the 410 nuclear reactors worldwide we’ve already had Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Kyshtim, Chalk River….

              That ratio is NOT a good safety record.

              1. UserFriendlyyy

                Yeah and the combined death toll from all of those accidents sparing Chernobyl is 1. More people die per kW generated from falling off roofs installing solar.

                1. EssCetera

                  Not sure that’s accurate, Fukushima related deaths are at 2313 according to World Nuclear Association, and radiation death toll is long term, cancers take time to manifest, but even it were accurate that the total deaths for Fukushima is exactly one person, note the discussion is around costs/impacts and it would appear that you’re disregarding economic impact and environmental cost, if for you the only thing that matters is number of deaths.

                  Bottom line, if it were a construciton site, chemical warehouse or factory, this kind of safety record would be very concerning, companies would be fined, tendering contracts withdrawn.

                  1. UserFriendlyyy

                    From the World Nuclear Association’s website:

                    There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes as a preventative measure. Government nervousness has delayed the return of many.
                    Official figures show that there have been 2313 disaster-related deaths among evacuees from Fukushima prefecture. Disaster-related deaths are in addition to the about 19,500 that were killed by the earthquake or tsunami.


                    Bottom line, if it were a construction site, chemical warehouse or factory, this kind of safety record would be very concerning, companies would be fined, tendering contracts withdrawn.

                    You’re right, I’m so glad that we stopped using Oil after exxon-Valdez, the BP gulf spill or take your pick of the millions of other accidents caused by the improper use of petroleum, and stopped killing millions of people via air pollution by their proper use.

                    Also so glad we stopped using EV’s because of the “artisanal cobalt’ mines in Congo, or the shit hole we are going to turn the lithium rich parts of south america into.

                    Even in Bhopal, widely considered the world’s worst industrial disaster, (over 500,000 people in the small towns around the plant were exposed to the highly toxic gas methyl isocyanate with at least a few thousand deaths. there was no world wide ban. If there was you wouldn’t have heard of polyurethane.

                    Obviously accidents are tragic and should be minimized. But thanks to various propaganda efforts nuclear has an incredibly irrational hatred among just enough people to ensure we kept boiling the planet with CO2.

      2. XXYY

        This is one of the scariest and most objectionable things about nuclear power, and which seems to get very little mention. If you have nuclear power plants, you need a huge logistical system for mining uranium, refining it, disposing of the refinery waste, transporting the refined fuel to the plant or plants, extracting the spent fuel from the plant, storing it, and then disposing of it or rendering it harmless (we are still trying to figure out how to do this last part and it’s likely impossible). Nuclear proponents always erase this inconvenient reality, and talk as if the refined fuel will magically appear in the power plant and then magically disappear when spent.

        The whole nuclear fuel cycle is littered with Superfund sites, radioactive dumps, and sacrifice zones, and I don’t see this changing much in upcoming years no matter how much we talk about different technologies for the power plants themselves. For a planet already sinking under multiple global crises, we need to run, not walk, away from nuclear power.

        1. Jay Francis

          This is mind boggling. You haven’t realised that the rare earths used in solar require vast mining and transport effort and that they are some of the most toxic chemicals known, and that we are storing up a vast disposal problem…? Ok…

          1. Jams O'Donnell

            The logical conclusion is that industrial civilisation as we currently understand it, is unsustainable. There are not enough minerals in the Earth to allow the projected maximum population to have an electric car for each family, (and each family will want one, if others have them), not to mention the required power supplies and infrastructure, especially as these minerals are (currently) also needed for solar cells, chips, etc. Similarly for many other aspects of present ‘civilisation’.

            We really need to be planning for a post-industrial society, using organic materials as much as possible, and recycling all mineral products (if we will still be able to build the energy resources to do that!)

            1. Jay Francis

              And that would work just fine if you genocide about half the world’s population and put the rest under a dictatorship. Maybe. Because food production only supports the current population because of vast inputs of synthetic fertiliser and long distance transport of cereal crops.

              More sanely, perhaps we could get people to use public transportation more?

              1. Ridgewood Dickens

                That sounds extreme. Perhaps the advertising industry could stop convincing people that the ‘western lifestyle ‘ is desirable?

                These folks argue differently.



                •Population is often mistakenly blamed as the main driver of biodiversity loss.

                •However such arguments actually mis-apportion blame and hinder progress.

                •Consumption patterns, largely from developed economies is a major driver of biodiversity loss.

                •Maintaining global biodiversity will require reducing imported impacts.

                •Sustainable supply chains and diets are crucial to counter current trends.


              2. Jams O'Donnell

                You badly under estimate the scale of this problem – “using public transportation more’ won’t even put a dent in it. And I’m not advocating genocide – I’m advocating massive but managed de-industrialisation in the industrialised countries for non-essential goods such as cars, televisions – anything not necessary for survival. The alternative is chaos – mass movements of people under the impact of rising sea levels, loss of fertile soils, extinction of fish stocks, starvation, global heat waves, fires, flooding etc.

                We can either plan for this, or not plan. It will happen anyway

            2. Ridgewood NJ

              So much this. One gets the feeling sometimes the climate crisis is being used as a red herring, given the scope of the Anthropocene.

    3. UserFriendlyyy

      Amen! Just on air pollution alone antinuclear activists have a body count on par with Hitler. But Yves is right There is too many NIMBYS for any nuclear in the US. There are also too many NIMB’Y’s for the kind and amount of mining / locating (to say nothing of the non-existence or even realistic possibility of recycling) that the Wind, PV, and Storage people keep confidently asserting that we are on our way to already.about. I don’t expect anything to get better for anyone for much longer. I also don’t intend on sticking around long enough to find out.

    4. PlutoniumKun

      Then we consider the fact that as Solar and Wind in particular gain ‘market share’ they inherently make their product less valuable as their production maxima overlap, which means falling margins, and more importantly, introducing the greater challenge of storage, which is neither technically solved, nor of course rolled out.

      The exact same applies to nuclear. Nuclear can only efficiently produce power for baseline demand, so a nuclear heavy grid has to overbuild, or mix nuclear with storage. This makes nuclear far more expensive per unit of power produced once the power generated reaches (depending on grid size) around 30-40% of demand.

      And that’s overlooking the fact that any geographically constrained production (as wind is, and solar to a degree) necessarily has falling margins as the best sites are used first.

      Untrue. Nuclear plants are far more constrained locationally, mostly due to the need for reliable access to cooling water. Most wind investment is now going off-shore, where there are minimal constraints and solar arrays can be integrated with other land uses in a way unthinkable for other types.

      Renewables have had their production costs cut, whereas after decades of opposition, Nuclear’s costs have risen (in the west!).

      Another myth promoted by the nuclear industry. Nuclear has struggled financially in China and Russia, hardly known for their strict regulatory requirements. In reality, wind has been far more tightly constrained through regulatory pressures. Almost all nuclear countries have gone out of their way to streamline nuclear consents – including in the UK and France. The cost issues with nuclear are very well known, and are directly related to the extreme scale and complexity of the designs that are known to be cost effective.

      Then there is the material intensity, Nuclear power is simply a lot more resource efficient, using less cement, steel, copper, REMs and so forth – Everything needed to accomplish other important goals like de-carbonizing the vehicle fleet F.E – And of course not having the electricity storage problem in the first place.

      yes, nuclear requires significantly less per watt of materials input, although its nowhere near negligible, especially when you add in the requirement for fuel. However, your last line indicates that you don’t know how grids work. Nuclear can only supply baseline power efficiently, which is usually around 30-40% of total annual power. Once you go beyond this you either have to massively overbuild, which leads to cost cannibalisation, or you have to… guess what… invest massively in storage.

      1. Kouros

        “Nuclear can only supply baseline power efficiently” and I suspect reliably also, which cannot be stated about wind or solar. Which is more pertinent at northern latitudes (above 45 parallel) where the day is short in the winter, the wind might not blow that much. That is a big conundrum.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          It depends on what you mean by ‘reliable’. Nuclear power plants are maybe 98% reliable, but in a small grid, if you have, say, a grid unit has 2 plants to provide your baseline, then that means regular blackouts unless you have a lot of backup power or storage. The problem with very large plants is that if they do go down unexpectedly – and this is not uncommon even with the very best plants – then you have a very big problem to fill. And even worse with nuclear is that the plants tend to go down at the same time – for example, if there is a drought affecting coolant water, or mass jellyfish attacks. Last summer there were many unexpected closures of nuclear plants throughout Europe for reasons which were never adequately explained – probably spare part supply issues due to covid.

          Renewables are, of course ‘intermittent’, but they are also very robust (a few turbines going down in a storm isn’t that significant), and the intermittency is predictable to a few days in advance. So its a different type of unreliability to a nuclear or coal plant. But solar and wind are highly robust – vastly more robust than any other system due to their modular nature and decentralised location.

          So with grid design you chose your poison and you make sure you have plenty of backup. This applies to all energy sources.

        1. The Rev Kev

          @ José Freitas
          Up until about half their fleet of nuclear power stations were all offline due to maintenance or other problems. And that was only last year.

      2. UserFriendlyyy

        Actually, no, you don’t need water as a coolant, no you can’t only use it as baseline. Those are just the the most efficient cases for it. It is absolutely technically possible to build a reactor cooled by Helium that,can be ramped up or down ito load follow wind/pv, deliverer thermal or eclectic energy to industry,have zero meltdown risk, and zero and zero long term waste problem. In fact this company expects to have them operational in 3 years. Don’t worry, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for you to change your mind.
        It is cute how you took a page from the GOP to swift boat Nuclear though. At least you are finally acknowledging the inherent overbuild problem with wind/pv/storage.. It only took 4 years from when I submitted a video to Yves on it for you to somehow make it an attack on nuclear.

    5. Piotr Berman

      Specs from wiki, El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant i
      Construction began July 20, 2022
      Commission date 2026 (expected) <- 1st unit, in similar project, 1 more year for each other unit
      Construction cost US$28.75 billion[3]
      Owner(s) Nuclear Power Plants Authority
      Nuclear power station
      Reactor type VVER-1200
      Reactor supplier Rosatom
      Cooling source Mediterranean Sea <- fresh water in close circuit
      Power generation
      Units planned 1 × 1,200 MW
      Units under const. 3 × 1,200 MW[4]
      Nameplate capacity 4,800 MW

      The price per W (7 USD) is higher than in Belarus and Turkey, but the financing more favorable. Extra complexity with additional cooling circuit (sea water cooling "exhaust" of turbines that touch purified water only) could be one reason for Korean participation, additionally, Korean steam generators are a bit more efficient and it is a potentially promising model of combining state of the art technologies.

      Note that the cost per kWh strongly depends to the time value of money. Here, financing has zero real interest rate (if we project USD inflation at 3%) or 1%, so the capital cost per kWh is roughly 5c, or 50 USD/MWh. Not bad for a power source that does not depend on weather. Because huge energy markets are "nearby", Alexandria and Cairo, scaling down from 1200 MW is unnecessary.

      Egypt also plans solar power projects, but the bulk of power comes from domestic natural gas. Subtropical deserts are good for locating reliable solar power, but there may be sandstorms etc., and daily power rhytm of solar differs from economic one. Until non-carbon sources will provide the majority of energy, no scheme for storage is necessary, 20 years down the road (if continued!), state of the art of the day can be selected.

      From what I understand, reducing scale from 1200 MW to 440 MW does not change unit costs much, and so far, bulk of electricity from carbon-based power comes from plants of that size or larger, so most of electricity demand does not require "small nuclear power". That said, small nuclear power can be practical in ocean shipping, potentially huge application replacing carbon-based fuel.

  3. Henry Moon Pie

    First of all, this appears to be an argument among Eco-modernists. Sort of “tastes great” versus “less filling.” Neither is right because their solutions cannot keep up with current levels of growth in power consumption. Jevon’s paradox has already been demonstrated as the gain in renewable generating capacity has already been more than soaked up by increases i consumption.

    Second, it’s hard to understand how anyone can advocate for any nuclear power after seeing what’s been happening in Ukraine. As we continue to descend into the Age of Chaos, every nuke site will be a target for terrorists and nation-state enemies. (I see South Korea mentioned above. LOL. Real smart place to build a nuke. Kim Jong Il thanks you.) The amount of destruction that can be wrought using a nuke plant of any size is beyond comprehension.

    Degrowth is the only thing that will succeed in bringing us back from Overshoot. Sadly, in this country, with “leaders” like Obama and Gates, the option to initiate a planned degrowth that would target affluent waste and overindulgence, recognizing that 50% of the carbon emissions come from the world’s richest 10%, will never come about. Instead, we’re going to get unplanned degrowth as the stresses from the impacts of Overshoot break down systems and societies.

    Planned degrowth that would prioritize making sure everyone’s needs are met could protect the most vulnerable in society, but that would be un-American. We’re a YOYO society right to the end, so all we can do is prepare for such a harsh world.

    1. Carla

      Good morning, Henry Moon Pie — have you read one of my favorite books, “Degrowth” by Jason Hickel? You know everything that’s in it, I’m sure, but I think Hickel writes beautifully and persuasively for a general audience (a rare quality these days) and would love to hear your opinion of the book.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        I checked out Less is More yesterday. My introduction to the concept was Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. I also recommend anything on Nate Hagens’s podcast The Great Simplification. The William Rees and Kate Raworth interviews are great. So is Doug Rushkoff.

    2. Jay Francis

      > As we continue to descend into the Age of Chaos, every nuke site will be a target for terrorists and nation-state enemies. (I see South Korea mentioned above. LOL. Real smart place to build a nuke. Kim Jong Il thanks you.) The amount of destruction that can be wrought using a nuke plant of any size is beyond comprehension.

      This might be more due to your lack of skill in comprehending than anything else, however…

      Honestly, if a terrorist organisation is well enough equipped to take out a western nuclear reactor, with a containment vessel that can survive an impact by a freaking airliner, then there are better targets for them.

      As for Korea, *Kim has the freaking H bomb, genius.* The worst case from dozens of reactors wouldn’t compete with one of those going off.

      Perhaps try to apply more common sense and less hysteria???

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        I guess we’ve all been concerned about nothing as the threats and predictions of a false flag at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have flown around. Nothing to see here, etc. I’ll sleep so much better now that you’ve straightened me out.

        I also see that throwing “ignorant,” etc. is your standard mode of attacking opponents of nuclear power. How lucky we are to have you here to set us all straight.

  4. britzklieg

    Can not take seriously any author who names Gates, Macron and Obama as “respected thinkers.”

    …legends in their own minds…

    1. XXYY

      Whenever I hear Gates talk or read something he’s written, I’m struck by the average-seeming level of intellect and knowledge he seems to possess. Not saying he’s a moron or anything, but at the same time he does seem to be a pretty average PMC-type person, who gets his information from the corporate media and has conventional thoughts about most things.

      Indeed, it seems the only thing that’s remarkable about Gates besides his bank account is the level of media access he seems to have, which is truly astonishing. His most inane utterances seem to yield wall to wall news coverage.

      1. RonR

        One could argue that those with high IQ’s live in a world of their own, and are incapable of reasonable thought.

  5. Retired Carpenter

    re:”Respected thinkers such as former U.S. president Barack Obama, French president Emmanuel Macron, and Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates have toasted the idea of small modular reactors”

    Two points:
    1- Are the people named above truly ‘Respected thinkers’? I would have classified them among the worst of the globalist PMC cabal. Just add Hillary Clinton to get a four flush.
    2-I cannot reconcile this sentence with “One is left to wonder why it is that intelligent people like Gates and Obama are running down this rabbit hole?”
    ‘Tis a puzzle.

    Retired Carpenter

    1. semper loquitur

      Respected thinkers to the NYTs and WaPo reader, CNMSNBC, the lucrative speaker’s circuit, the publishers of patently banal literature, Noahopinion, the list goes on.

      1. BeliTsari

        We’ve seen this elsewhere, on each & every policy decision they’ve bothered to notify us, we HAVE to believe was decided to benefit or enrich “people like us,” or TRUMP will unleash heavily armed, tattooed MAGA insurrectionists & uppity essentials will loot, riot & STRIKE… if our iPhone 14Pro SEOs us to The Atlantic, WaPo or Colbert’s guest, we don’t recognize from Shrub’s cabinet or Koch think-tank rip & reads Hill+Knowlton agitprop from 1979, verbatim; it’s being done by OUR kleptocracts, for OUR side’s good? Or would you prefer PUTIN’s reactors, cheaper cleaner gas & Chinese PV, EV & smart grids emasculate your S&P portfolio like last year?

  6. Jason

    Agree with the other commentors that this piece sells short the promise of SMR rather unfairly. Given that solar and wind have their own supply bottlenecks downstream, and recent revelations that dams create a lot of methane from rotting matter, one cannot shut away the use of nuclear energy. Moreover, cost overruns for brand new technology (SMR) should not be confused with routine cost overruns of mature technology (traditional reactors). There are plenty of places in the world that could use SMR’s.

  7. MicaT

    I noticed the part about nuclear being heavily subsidized.
    You mean more than the 40% that renewables are now subsidized with?

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      And unbelievably, we’re still heavily subsidizing oil at around $20 billion annually from the feds and state government.

      And that’s just cash subsidy. We’re ignoring the externalities of oil to the tune of trillions.

      Since we’ve begun using that concentrated, stored sunlight, we’ve only charged what it costs to take it out of the ground and refine it. We’ve ignored the externalities and the fact that this is not a renewable resource. If any sort of civilization survives, they will curse us for taking all the easy-to-retrieve oil out of the ground when they need it for something for which there is no substitute.they’ll curse us for lots of other stuff too, but this should be added to the list.

      Two generations from now, they will have switched from ancestor worship to ancestor cursing, and with good reason.

      1. micaT

        Currently solar has tax break of 30% from the ITC and there is a new additional 10% if some % , not sure how much, of the product with US origins.
        Then solar has a 5 year accelerated depreciation schedule.
        this also can be applied to batteries, not in cars but in utility scale or home scale systems.

        Wind can use this or they can use a production credit.

  8. gf

    I think that the wind and solar route also requires the continuation of the West’s Imperial project.
    If not, other parts of the world would want the resources for their own development.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The Linglong reactor is not commercial – its a prototype, although it is plugged into the grid. The Linglong is essentially the same basic design as the NuScale one discussed in the article above. There is no reason to think that the Chinese will be any better than the US in making them work. Its not the first Chinese SMR – they have also built similar scaled pebble bed reactors, but they have been quietly shelved (they bought the design off the South Africans who in turn had bought it off the Germans). Presumably they couldn’t overcome the problem that caused the Germans to abandon it – an inability to control temperature fluctuations within the ‘pebbles’.

  9. jefemt

    Everything old is new again.

    Remember the well-hidden Simi Valley California nuke accident and disaster.

    Small salt reactors are not at all that which they are ‘cracked up’ to be.,the%20Three%20Mile%20Island%20meltdown%20did%20in%201979

    If Gates is involved, be immediately suspicious.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Gates is the man who considers himself qualified to redesign the Earth with bio- and geo-engineering but never managed to produce a reliable operating system for a microcomputer. Let Gates redesign Nature and watch the whole thing go blue screen.

      1. BeliTsari

        Shear-waved & read radiographs at former Dravo, B&W & Koppel plants (where, I’d driven in in a Japanese truck or bicycled, not trusting US QA/QC. It’s FAR worse & yeah, let’s see some citations from non-industry, non-K Steet libertarian think-tank echo-chambers about how WELL these revolutionized existing reactors, cut costs and cut emissions, improved dependability & safety over the 44 years since, ah, er…

  10. DC

    SMRs would eventually become cheaper due to economies of scale if the industry grew. Wind and solar are cheaper, but become significantly more expensive the larger the proportion of energy they produce for the grid. This is due to the cost of energy storage. The cost of energy storage is coming down however, and next gen technologies could easily solve much of this. The other problem that could exist for both technologies is the need to revamp the grid. Shortages of experienced engineers and electrical workers as well as the cost of equipment and the sheer volume of work will be a massive hurdle.

    1. Piotr Berman

      Discussion nuclear power with decades of delays, cost overruns etc. ignores the experience of RosAtom, by far the largest exporter of nuclear projects. Concerning wind power comparison, I would need to watch again RosAtom video on THEIR project, a single tower uses 1000 t of material, but there was also foundation… I am not sure if it was 1 MW or 2.5 MW. The biggest issue I see are lengthy period with small wind that vary from year to year. No problem if wind (or solar) is balanced by thermal power, but…

      My conclusion is that nuclear power can be incompatible with the variety of capitalism that currently exists in collective West, but a viable solution for developing countries with large state power projects and a provider that is a state own company with a very long horizon for research and development. And no pure solution is perfect. In the case of Egypt, a location of one of mega-projects, combination of solar and nuclear can nicely fit daily demand, Sun in Sahara providing reliable energy during peak air-conditioning demand (and other diurnal demand), with nuclear providing 24/7 supply.

      In Bangladesh, they have no convenient desert to produce gigawatts of electricity, so purely nuclear solution, perhaps with pumped hydro (nearby mountains) may be better.

      RosAtom develops small reactors to be used in Arctic, and there are many places where it could be practical, e.g. islands of Indonesia. Their principle is to offer solutions after 6 years of domestic experience…

      1. PlutoniumKun

        You cannot mix nuclear and solar to any meaningful degree, as one or the other will cannibalise each other during baseline peak production. Above a fairly low level of production you really have to have one or the other, along with hydro, storage and/or fossil fuels for demand peaks. Realistically speaking, under current costs and grid technology both solar and nuclear has to be balanced with gas generation, both for peaks and for downtime (yes, nuclear power is very reliable, but it still has downtimes and you need backup power – a lot of it – for unplanned outages).

        In desert countries solar can quite easily provide reliable year round power if you mix in CSP with PV’s. However, its proved stubbornly difficult to reduce the cost of CSP to a level where it can compete with PV plus batteries or other forms of storage. In reality, the cost of batteries is dropping so fast it is outstripping almost every other option. At some stage we’ll hit a basement price, but so far we are nowhere close, and now that sodium batteries are commercial its possible that grid batteries will get even cheaper.

        1. Polar Socialist

          To my (diminutive) understanding that it one of big issues of the future energy generation mix – nuclear doesn’t work well with intermittent energy like wind and solar due to it’s slow start-up/shut-down cycle.

          Nuclear energy generation is not agile, in any sense of the word. It really can’t follow the demand and supply of energy like the open-cycle gas-turbines that can react in minutes or combined cycle gas-turbines that can react in tens of minutes.

          And agile is kinda what you need if you want majority of your energy from renewable sources.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Yes, thats pretty much it in a nutshell. The input mix into a grid is not a matter of just adding up watts. Each power source has its particular combination of strengths and weaknesses in terms of capital cost, operating cost, robustness, reliability and dispatchability. And this isn’t ‘fixed’ – much depends on the nature of the grid and countless other variables. Some power sources just don’t work together very well. This is one reason why gas was so overwhelmingly popular despite its high energy cost – CCGT plants are very complementary to a wide variety of other power sources.

            This is why arguing about nuclear power is to me such a huge distraction. Nuclear power had its chance – a few decades ago – and proved too expensive in most contexts. And the Gen V designs have been a disaster – hence the ‘back to the past’ move to revamped older designs that we’ve seen in China, South Korea and France. But a new Gen VI of reactors will take decades to prove and we don’t have the time. Solar and wind are now going exponential and the collapse in costs is truly amazing (just look at even the most optimistic projections of 10 years ago, none anticipated the drops we’ve seen) and batteries are rapidly following suit. There is really only one game in town right now, anything else is just a distraction. There is literally nothing else that can provide the huge cuts in CO2 we need in the necessary timeframe. Arguing about these mythical modular reactor designs is like sitting in the middle of a housefire searching Amazon for fire extinguishers when there is a bucket full of water right beside you.

            1. Some Guy

              Yes, you are right, and to some extent the distraction is intentional, right wing whataboutism to own the libs more than any real commitment or desire for low carbon power, but the argument is more than just a distraction. There are jurisdictions (e.g. Ontario/Canada for one) putting big resources into SMR development, and those are resources that aren’t available elsewhere

          2. Piotr Berman

            ” nuclear doesn’t work well with intermittent energy like wind and solar due to it’s slow start-up/shut-down cycle”

            What type of power “works well” together with intermittent energy? ANY type of power requires temporary storage. Canada is blessed with large hydro projects that can be adapted to “agile balancing” function using current technologies at reasonable cost, I guess (cheapest: release water according to demand balance, then there is pumped storage, mature technology). And it would make no particular difference if it balances tidal, wind, solar or nuclear that does not match demand cycle.

            “Cannibalizing” is an artifact of “free electricity market”, a moronic method that wrecks rational economic calculations of producers and consumers.

  11. p fitzsimon

    As if wind and solar are not subsidized by government. Here in New England we’ve been waiting 22 years for a wind farm originally planned for Nantucket sound. Now it will be located 20 miles South of Nantucket with turbines located a mile apart. But it’s still being protested. It only took 15 years to get a nuclear plant going. And everyone loves cheap solar when you can put it on free real estate (rooftops) and have it built by slave labour in a fossil fuel powered factory.

  12. Lex

    The author concentrated a lot on the costs of nuclear (either variety) and then approached the wind-solar solution that requires huge costs to manage storage and transmission flippantly. As if rebuilding the US grid will be cheap and not suffer from the long planning, cost overruns and engineering difficulties.

    There are a lot of issues with any restructuring of our energy generation and distribution. There are a lot of issues with our current system. I was privy to a potential transmission line installation (of the sort that could replace a 5 unit coal plant) and the cost to traverse 178 miles was $1B (a decade ago). There won’t be A solution. There will need to be a myriad of interlocking solutions designed for local conditions. Which means we won’t get any solutions because our political-economic system can’t handle complexity or accepting communal costs without immediate, private profit.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      One of the wild cards in grid design at the moment is that for around the last 4 decades expanding grids has usually been the most cost effective means of addressing imbalances in supply and demand. This is one reason that pump storage hydro fell out of favour from the late 1970’s, despite being a proven technology. But the precipitous drop in costs for batteries has upended this in many areas. At current pricing, its actually cheaper to build lots of battery storage than extend grids in many areas. I can’t find it right now, but I was reading a report a while back indicating that for California, batteries are now a better alternative than the old solution of extending the grid eastwards.

  13. TheCrimsonCap

    No mention of Admiral Rickover, or his famous description of what he called “academic reactors”?

    An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

    On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, exactly. People act as if SMR’s are some sort of new thing. Countless billions of dollars, roubles, RMB, francs, pounds, yen and DM’s have been thrown at SMR design by all the major powers since the 1950’s, and we now have nearly 70 years of experience of running them (i.e. nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers). They are no closer now to being viable than they were in the 1950’s. But they are a very good way to extract money off credulous venture capitalists and politicians.

      There is only one viable design for commercial nuclear power – the Light Water Reactor. We have decades of intense investment and research and practical use to prove this. But at best, they are very marginally useful in certain grid configurations and will always be an expensive and slow option.

    2. Alex Cox

      Let’s add 9) it leaves behind immense amounts of toxic waste which no one knows what to do with, and 10) it is uninsurable.

  14. Some Guy

    I think with nuclear, we are seeing an effect whereby ‘serious’ conservatives realize that climate change is a big problem, and have latched onto nuclear as a solution that ‘greenies’ don’t like, so they promote nuclear as a way to tackle climate change and ‘own the libs’ at the same time.

    The article above by Paul Hockenos makes some good points that the primary factor limiting nuclear development right now is not ideology or safety but simply cost and project overrun concerns. At the same time, its review is a bit simplistic and one-sided in favour of renewables and against nuclear, in my opinion, leading to some of the objections raised in the comments above.

    CleanTechnica had a good article on this topic earlier this year, “The Nuclear Fallacy: Why SMRs Can’t Compete with Renewable Energy” which I felt has a more in-depth and balanced discussion of when nuclear can be cost effective and when it can’t.

    One of the points it makes, covered in a comment by ‘vao’ above, is that the reason most existing nuclear power plants are so large is that there are significant economies of scale in the construction of a reactor. So, even if SMR’s do benefit from a more assembly-line like, predictable, consistent construction, that benefit needs to be quite large just to overcome the loss of scale in reactor size, and only once that gap is overcome with there be overall cost savings vs. ‘traditional’ nuclear reactors.

    Ontario is currently working on construction of a single (incredibly subsidized, even before any cost or schedule overruns) SMR reactor, and plans to build a few more after that one, and as Ontario has significant experience with nuclear power development, this will be a good test case of the financial feasibility of this approach. Even with the large subsidy, the opposition to the plan generally came down to concerns about cost, both for the build and for maintenance over the long term.

    With nuclear, there are two discussions going on. An ongoing (and valid) discussion about safety, and proliferation of weapons, and risks during war and so on, and a separate discussion around cost and financial feasibility. The almost complete absence of nuclear construction in the West over the past few decades is primarily down to cost, and if SMRs fail to deliver on the promise to reduce costs to a reasonable level, then the discussion around safety may end up being a moot point.

    More broadly, ‘the West’ is seeing an explosion in costs of construction of almost everything large, from nuclear power plants, to hydro dams, to highways, to transit lines, to bridges and so on. The right will blame this on red tape, and the left will blame it on the right preventing public taxation and investment from reaching the necessary level and I do think there is some truth to both of these perspectives, however I think the broader underlying issue is that described in Joseph Tainter’s, ‘Collapse of Complex Societies’- we seem to be reaching a point where our lack of new or better energy sources is colliding with the ever increasing complexity of our society, and the result is that we are increasing incapable of doing ‘big’ (as in physically big – requiring the movement of large amount of heavy materials’ projects), and even increasingly struggling with complex projects of any kind (eg changeover of IT systems after a bank takeover).

    Which brings us back to Henry Moon Pie’s comment above. We are in overshoot, not just from a resource consumption perspective, but in all kinds of other ways too, such as institutional and regulatory complexity. The U.S. with one of the most complex government structures, struggles just to keep the lights on in Washington at times, while countries with older or simpler government structures remain more capable of taking government action but it is a matter of degree, as every western country struggles with overshoot.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      That’s an excellent point about the role of “serious” conservatives in this discussion.

      Just one thing about Overshoot: it’s not only about resource consumption but also the Earth’s ability to absorb pollutants. Your tying that to societal complexity is something that must be considered as well.

    2. JBird4049

      I have not read Joseph Tainter’s book, but I do think a significant cause of dysfunction and collapse is corruption siphoning all the resources, whatever they are, to themselves, often by throwing sand into the gears of a society. One of the reasons a society or a civilization collapses, or at least gets into strife threatening it, is because all the wealth via laws, corruption, and naked violence is funneled to the top 10%, then the 1%, and then to an even smaller amount; this eventually cause a collapse when internal or external events can not be dealt with as the ruling class no longer has any support.

      The United States and the West still has significant resources, but can anyone think that California and the United States could build the Golden Gate Bridge again? Steel is still available, and the technology is still used at least some, but what is the block? It is not strictly due to resource constraints, but more to the grifting operations that our construction companies have become. Or compare American and French construction costs especially for public works. There is a significant difference in costs because the American projects are always partially grifting operations and the French ones are not, or at least not nearly to the same level. Whatever the other problems, and they may be fatal, corruption of all kinds are the true killers. I can also point to the disastrous pandemic responses particular in the United States. The means of dealing successfully with a pandemic has been know for a few centuries and yet we couldn’t do as it is still ongoing. Even with an endemic disease there would be ways to greatly reduce the suffering.

      1. Jams O'Donnell

        Your comparison between US and French construction would be more pointed if it was between US and Chinese. But I’m not sure if ‘corruption’ is the critical point. There are plenty of stories of both French and Chinese corruption too. I imagine that the brand of ‘FIRE’ capitalism practised in the US is more pertinent, and which has led to the hollowing out of education, engineering and professional management skills etc.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          In the international comparisons I’ve seen (mostly in high speed rail), the French consistently rank higher than the Chinese, although comparisons can be very difficult. In a past working life I worked with US and French engineering companies in HSR and the difference in culture was quite stark. Both had terrific engineers, but there was definitely a different attitude in approaching the same problems.

          But as you suggest, the problems are not really about the quality of engineering, but the dominance of FIRE in the Anglosphere. US engineers (and project managers) are still among the best in the world at building big and fast and high quality, the problem is that the incentives are now built in to extract maximum value from each project without reference to actually completing the structure. Hence an army of consultants making a fortune from HSR in the US without actually building a single yard of line. Its all about incentives.

  15. Henry Moon Pie

    Not related to nukes but very relevant to the discussion about energy density, this is Nate Hagens’s interview of geologist Arthur Berman who spent 40 years in the oil business. Berman has researched and graphed just where our supposed current U. S. production of 100 million barrels comes from. It was surprising to me to learn that “oil” as calculated by our government and international agencies includes ethanol from corn and natural gas liquids like ethane, propane and butane that come along with methane. The natural gas liquids alone comprise 40% of America’s “oil” production. All these other components of “oil” production are substantially lower in energy density, so the real energy content of American production is lower than in 2018 and declining.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes indeed – the energy costs of producing oil and gas is one of the big uncounted issues, and it is rising at a very fast pace now that the easy to access oil and gas is mostly gone.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        Thanks for your comments above. Nice to have you around.

        One thing that Mr. Berman’s graph did not show was the breakdown for conventional oil among primary, secondary and tertiary recovery. That would tell us something further about EROI of our current production mix and give us an idea about the future of these sources from what it would tell us about the age of the fields.

          1. Henry Moon Pie

            Is that like “novel?” It’s never a good sign when a judge begins with, “That’s a very novel argument, Mr. Pie.” That’s usually not a preamble to good news. :)

            1. PlutoniumKun

              Haha not really. I find your perspective really interesting and thoughtful even though I have issues problems with the degrowth argument, but thats really getting into the weeds. Back in the 1980s and 90’s I spent far more time than I should have reading and arguing with people over various philosophical aspects of eco-socialism and capitalism and so on. I never really resolved my own contradictory thoughts on the various arguments.

              I was, incidentally, back then considered a bit ‘out there’ because…. I was generally pro-nuclear. I didn’t see any way out of the conundrum of allowing poorer countries to develop with the then very poor performance of anything that wasn’t fossil fuel. But time and technology has moved on. Unfortunately, so has planetary breakdown.

    1. JTMcPhee

      All that’s needed is a PMC-MBA Committee to figure out a way to monetize the reduction in demand for legacy grid sources. Otherwise conservation is DOA.

      Hey, us middle Floridians are “paying” for a reactor the utility broke, and one that will never be built. So it should be a snap.

  16. Cat Burglar

    You could look at small reactors as a way to avoid the complexity and expense of large-plant construction.

    Back in the 1970s, the five big Washington Public Power Supply projects had myriad construction delays (“schedule slippage”) and huge cost overruns, like the recent Georgia pair. Internal documents showed regulatory delays amounted to about 10 percent of delays and cost increases — architect-engineering and construction management problems were the largest single cause of slippage and new expense, at around 30%. (I always wonder what the origin of the “onerous regulation” charge is, since it is usually presented without any basis. )

    I knew workers on one of the WPPSS sites, and they used to just shake their heads at the management and design mess. On one plant a structural wall was built and demolished five times due to redesign and management problems.

    I can see why smaller scale would be an appealing way to get around the problem, but what if the trouble does not just come from scale, but from the limitations of the institutions of management? From an engineering point of view, the concepts might look great, but does the capability to manage translating it into physical reality exist in the contemporary financialized corporation?

  17. Jorge

    It has become quite clear that the organization realities required to safely build, operate, and decommission are rare, and will become rarer. The science and engineering parts don’t matter; the people part is not reliable enough.

    Fukushima was built below the tsunami stone markers which were left there by the last tsunami. Now, it is held together by freezing water in the ground, with the freezers powered often by generators.

  18. aikenhd

    Cooling water not essential – there are air cooled reactors, as in inland China (some loss in efficiency) .

    Time from greenfield site to grid connect is typically 5.5 years in China.

    Very many reactor types and reactor designs are being explored in China to establish those most suite for particular purposes and sites.

    An interesting side issue of the replacement of thermal power plants by wind & solar occurs in those places (many in Europe) which decades ago made the smart decision to use the “waste” heat from those plants for district heating in winter. Hard to imagine Europeans following the Chinese example of substituting purpose build nuclear reactors to supply district heating.

    A lot of sound and fury on this topic. How Europe fairs in coming decades is an open question, but that region will certainly be viewing a well equipped China with all energy bases covered – max solar, max wind and well on the way with nuclear.

  19. Felix_47

    Great discussion. I did not see much about the degree legal systems are involved in cost overruns. I do some work in site acquisition for solar and wind and the costs are exploding. Plaintiff attorneys get to the local residents and make all sorts of promises and describe all sorts of terrible things that are going to happen if a solar project is in their area. They vote them down unless we bribe them essentially. Our job is to get to the local residents first, if possible, to prepare the psychological ground so to speak. I read somewhere that the Chinese are building 22 nuclear plants this year and they have some 40 or 50 for next year. I assume they do not have a US style plaintiff bar tied into the political parties. If nuclear is so uneconomic I wonder why they are doing it. HSR is another example….the Chinese seem to find it cost effective but the US does not? Why? Anyway thank you Plutonium. I learned a lot.

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