Author’s note: I usually write shorter articles, but this one went quite long. I am passionate about following facts, and especially combating hysterical, irrational positions that fly in the face of reality. The anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. is one of those buzzing flies that I wish I could swat once and for all. Thank you for reading and I hope you read the whole thing and share it widely.
Americans have been fed 50 years of slanted propaganda opposing nuclear power. The effects of this “no nukes” campaign, from films to protests are now evident in the tremendous suffering in Texas. Since Texas is a closed energy market, with many variable-rate wholesalers, a large number of electric subscribers are going to get socked with enormous bills based on the shortages during the unprecedented winter cold and storms.
The effect of decades of “no nukes” is also evident in the wildly fluctuating price of energy based on who inhabits the White House. With Trump as president, energy markets could look to cheap and flowing shale oil, natural gas, and coal. President Biden’s green initiatives and plans to hike corporate tax rates will necessarily increase the cost of electricity across the nation.
Biden’s carbon tax proposal is a gift (or grift) to large companies, which simply pass the cost on to consumers, and buy corporate carbon credits in deals like the ones Tesla has been selling for years. No such corporate welfare exists for the nuclear industry, despite its history of being the safest, most reliable, and most energy-dense method of generating electricity.
In fact, while the government is giddily handing out cash to fund solar, wind and other renewable forms of energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stands athwart commercial nuclear development like a giant stop sign. The NRC acknowledges on its own website that in 50 years, just 126 permits have been granted, of which 103 are operating.
Of these, 103 are currently operating, 1 is temporarily closed, and 22 have been shut down after operating and are in various stages of decommissioning. In addition, four plants have NRC-issued permits that would allow them to complete construction. About 100 additional plants began the licensing process but did not complete it for various reasons.
A 50% success rate for power plants is an awful record for a regulator. Regarding new plant licenses, of the 14 licenses approved by the NRC in the last decade, six have been voluntarily terminated by the license holders, while the other eight, representing five sites, continue to bleed cash and construction overruns.
For example, Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4, owned primarily by the Southern Company and Oglethorpe Power, in southeast (Waynesboro) Georgia, have been licensed since 2012. The project began development in 2006, with an initial cost estimate for the two additional reactors of $14.3 billion. By 2013, the project had suffered overruns of 8.4%, nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars.
In 2017, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy, crushed by the incomplete projects using its delay-beset AP1000 reactor design. The AP1000 was supposed to reinvigorate the moribund commercial nuclear industry by standardizing parts and shipping sections completed off-site to reactor plant locations. Instead, it sent the NRC into rabid dog mode, incentivized cover-ups by subcontractors, and killed all but two projects using the new design, taking Westinghouse with it.
For instance, before the NRC would issue the utilities an operating license for the Georgia plant, it demanded changes to the design of the shield building, which protects against radiation leaks. The regulator said the shield needed to be strengthened to withstand a crash by a commercial jet, a safety measure arising from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The NRC issued the new standard in 2009, seven years after Westinghouse had applied for approval of its design. The company, in bankruptcy court filings, said the NRC’s demand created unanticipated engineering challenges.
An example: “Westinghouse changed its design to protect against a jet crash, but at that point the NRC questioned whether the new design could withstand tornadoes and earthquakes.”
If ERCOT, which regulates Texas energy producers, required wind, solar, and natural gas plants to comply with infinitesimal risk factors, like a once-in-a-never statewide freeze-over and ice storm, occurring just at the time most plants ask for shutdown time for maintenance, electric customers would be marching on Austin demanding sanity.
This Twitter thread by an individual intimately familiar with ERCOT beautifully explains the cost/benefit problem that energy producers faced, and continue to face. Except, imagine ERCOT required all Texas energy producers to be able to deal with every possible contingency, and to ignore consumer rates.
But take a look at the Texas energy production chart cited by Gomes and also by Erick Erickson.
See that red band at the bottom of the chart? That’s nuclear. Normally, it’s solid as a rock, unlike the wildly oscillating green wind production, and the little snow caps of yellow solar. But even nuclear was hit by the freeze, when operating safety limits were tripped by freezing water in turbine plumbing. Even the NRC couldn’t foresee the deep freeze in Texas.
Yet, in southeast Georgia and in the Carolinas, the NRC wanted to ensure a nuclear pressure vessel and reactor design could withstand earthquakes and tornadoes in areas where they occur about as often as a deep freeze in Texas.
The reasoning, or I should say, hysterical unreasoning, behind this kind of hyper overkill is the NRC’s sensitivity to groups like the Clamshell Alliance, “Citizens United to End Nuclear Power.” This group began in the mid 70s to stop construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. I know them. I grew up in Seabrook, and experienced their multiple giant protests which brought police from all over New England, and even the National Guard.
They oppose nuclear power for no reason other than they decided to oppose it, and they make up reasons as they go. Facts dictate different conclusions. Nuclear power has been around since the 1950s, and statistically, is the safest form of power generation. And not just by a little: nuclear is nearly twice as safe as wind, five times safer than solar, 15 times safer than hydro, 44 times safer than gas, 400 times safer than oil, and over 1100 times safer than coal, in terms of deaths per Terawatt-hour generated.
The facts stand for themselves. The U.S. Navy operates between 102 and 160 nuclear reactors, which is more than the entire commercial nuclear power plant industry in the U.S. Quoting the late Sen. John McCain, “My friends, the U.S. Navy has sailed ships around the world for 60 years with nuclear power plants on them and we've never had an accident.” He continued, “That's because we have well-trained and capable people.”
The Navy’s nuclear reactors are run by nineteen-year-old sailors, supervised by thirty-something-year-old NCOs and officers. They are very well trained, and there’s lot of them around after they leave the Navy to help run commercial reactors. This simply proves that it’s possible to run nuclear reactors, at sea, even under the sea, in very tough conditions, and have a 100% safety record.
Nuclear energy is safe if it’s properly designed and maintained. Note that in Texas, though one one reactor dropped offline, it did not melt down or fail. In fact, the reactor itself was never in danger, it was the turbine powerhouse that needed to shut down (and therefore, reactor power had to be reduced) due to the loss of feedwater that froze in pipes. The reactor was disconnected from the grid for less than 72 hours.
It’s not like the movies, where a swarm of bees can make a reactor explode like a bomb (and more proof that Michael Caine will take any role for money). In 1978, at the height of the “no nukes” movement, Irwin Allen terribly scripted the intersection between killer bees and nuclear energy’s inherent dangers. This is how the NRC operates even today.
Nuclear power is not only safe, it’s also green, far greener than wind. For example, did you know that each wind turbine, which, when the wind is blowing, produces about 1.5MW of power, using 100+ yard blades with tip speeds exceeding 200mph, needs around 60 gallons of lubricating oil in its gearbox? Wind turbines are also large scale mechanical devices; each turbine is a power plant in itself.
Any engineer would tell you that a well-built wind farm is an enormous project, that requires hundreds of metric tons of steel, silicon dioxide, fiberglass, resins (“resins begin with ethylene derived from light hydrocarbons, most commonly the products of naphtha cracking, liquefied petroleum gas, or the ethane in natural gas”), and a whole bill of materials worth of supplies, consumables, transportation, and labor.
The final fiber-reinforced composite embodies on the order of 170 GJ/t. Therefore, to get 2.5 TW of installed wind power by 2030, we would need an aggregate rotor mass of about 23 million metric tons, incorporating the equivalent of about 90 million metric tons of crude oil. And when all is in place, the entire structure must be waterproofed with resins whose synthesis starts with ethylene. Another required oil product is lubricant, for the turbine gearboxes, which has to be changed periodically during the machine’s two-decade lifetime.
A nuclear plant is also an enormous project. But it typically has a forty year operating life, versus twenty years for wind turbines. During its operating life, a typical nuclear plant needs to be refueled [edit: “refit” is a better term; refueling typically occurs every year or two] one time. The Department of Energy’s website acknowledges: “the U.S. has produced roughly 83,000 metrics tons of used fuel since the 1950s—and all of it could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards.” For now, because of NIMBY and the political football of the Yucca Mountain disposal project, all waste is stored securely onsite at each nuclear plant, and can be for many years in the future.
Wind turbines, on the other hand, end up in a giant landfill in Casper, Wyoming and in other places like Lake Mills, Iowa, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where they sit for—forever.
“The wind turbine blade will be there, ultimately, forever,” said Bob Cappadona, chief operating officer for the North American unit of Paris-based Veolia Environnement SA, which is searching for better ways to deal with the massive waste. “Most landfills are considered a dry tomb.”
If the NRC ran the wind industry, there would never be a single new turbine approved, anywhere, ever.
If we look at another aspect of nuclear energy, we see the enormous advantage of using it. Uranium fission offers the greatest energy density available to man using current technology, and it’s so unbelievably off the charts that no sane scientist would dispute it.
The main issue facing the nuclear industry isn’t that it doesn’t work, or it isn’t green, or that it’s not generally safe. The main issue is public perception. How does the industry make a fail-safe reactor that’s not subject to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukushima-type problems?
Avoiding Chernobyl is easy: don’t build half-assed, badly designed, poorly maintained reactors. In other words, don’t be the Soviet Union. Avoiding Three Mile Island and Fukushima is more of a challenge. There are two ways to do it. Either let the NRC run unchained through every possible threat until the industry is dead, or address reactor design from the ground up.
Fukushima, in hindsight, is easily solved. Don’t depend on grid power to run emergency pumps that are designed to operate when the primary pumps fail because the reactor is in a state of emergency. Assume that a state of emergency exists and the grid is probably offline for the same reason the plant is not working correctly. The myopia of some clipboard-wielding regulators and plant constructors is evident in the failures that brought Westinghouse down. Every time Westinghouse fixed one issue, the NRC would come up with ten more to fix, and its subcontractors, under enormous pressure to deliver or face financial penalties, would take every shortcut, pencil-whipping through safety and quality standards, or covering up shortfalls.
It’s this regulatory hell that produced the AP1000 and nearly killed 7,000 megawatts of clean, green power (and flushed billions down the toilet that Georgia and Alabama power consumers have to pay for). It’s this green-but-not-nuclear, 50 years of lying, that brought Texas to its knees because wind and solar aren’t required to be nearly as reliable, or as regulated, as gas or nuclear.
The climate crisis activist Union of Concerned Scientists believes in nuclear power, properly designed and regulated. Their primary worry is that water-cooled nuclear reactors are subject to various threats, including terrorism. Of course, no U.S. nuclear plant has suffered a terrorist attack, and the federal and local authorities consider these plants to be among the most critical to protect. But the water cooled aspect of nuclear power can be addressed by existing (even old) technology.
Thorium molten salt reactors, like the one built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1967, don’t use high pressure water for cooling. They use a “pot” design with a helium-cooled “freeze valve” plug at the bottom. If the reactor begins to overheat, it melts the plug, and the radioactive fuel salt drains into the drain tank.
The passive cooling process is sabotage-resistant, requiring neither operator intervention nor outside power. The can is cooled by thermal radiation to the silo cold wall, consisting of two concentric steel cylinders. Water in the void space is naturally circulated to a cooling tower, condensed, and returned. While the reactor has black start capability, that is, it restores power without an external transmission network, the can is designed to remain safe if left unattended for one year.
This reactor exists. It has up to an 80-year life span. It’s made by ThorCon, which signed an MOU to develop a 50MW (one tenth scale from the ultimate 500MW design) plant for Indonesia. Good for developing countries to have commercial nuclear generation, because Indonesia wants to develop these technologies.
Under the Trump administration the Department of Energy has been working with the Southern Company and TerraPower to develop a molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR). The $20 billion test facility is expected to begin this year. The Biden administration is reviewing everything the Trump administration did in the last four years, and surely this project is being carefully eyed.
The Clamshell Alliance types that populate the politically high positions in Biden’s cabinet probably would love to kill that project, along with every other green, safe, nuclear energy plant in development. They don’t care about the rock sold red ribbon at the bottom of the Texas energy production chart. They don’t care about thousands of acres of used wind turbine blades, or thousands of gallons of fossil-fuel-based lubricants that need to be changed three times a year for turbine gearboxes. They don’t care about using less oil, as long as it’s not used to actually heat your home.
They do care about the 50 years of hysterical lies and the strident warnings from anti-nuclear scientists that nuclear power is not the answer, because of reasons and swarms of bees and “creating a worldwide chain of nuclear danger zones—a planetary system of potential self-annihilation.” They say the fear of this is rational, but it’s not.
Fifty-plus years of experience with nuclear power says its not. But like all hysterical narrative followers, Biden’s policy makers will likely follow the wrong road and continue the NRC’s anti-nuclear stance. If they do, say goodbye to reliable, cheap, safe, green power, and say hello to a new Texas disaster every year, and say hello to giant power bills for less reliable, less safe, and less green electricity.
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