Why has nuclear power not scaled as a clean energy source for climate change?

My friend Max recently asked why nuclear power, which seemed to him to be the obvious scalable answer as a clean energy source to fight climate change, had not taken off. Here’s the email I wrote him:

“Hey Max,

It was great catching up today! Just wanted to share what I know about what’s blocking nuclear energy as a climate solution…

My main source is Jim Hansen in http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2019/20191211_Fire.pdf, with _Oil, Power and War_ as an interesting history of nuclear in the late 20th century. I found Hansen’s writing very insightful and recommend reading it in full but I recognize it is quite long, so I’ve summarized the major points below with quoted passages if you’re interested. Below that is a passage of interesting history of the expansion of nuclear in the late 20th century.


1. Many environmentalists oppose nuclear power: “[W]hen I was hosted by other environmental groups, I heard comments that put coal and nuclear in the same category, both highly undesirable. Some environmentalists advocated lawsuits against nuclear power plants, with the aim to drag out construction times, to make nuclear power more expensive… Amory Lovins advises governments worldwide (Fig. 3) and is the most effective energy adviser in the world. Indeed, Amory was energy adviser to Bill Clinton, when Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. After Clinton was elected President, in his first State of the Union address in early 1993, he announced ‘We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.’ This was consistent with Lovins’ opinion… When Gore’s next book came out, the section on nuclear power looked as though it could have been written by Amory Lovins.” Another quote: “Antipathy of philanthropy toward nuclear power is understandable. Many of the principals [of philanthropic organizations] came of age in the 1970s, a time of activism against nuclear power. A view of 200,000 people cheering at an anti-nuclear rally in New York City captures the spirit of the activism that succeeded earlier protests against the Viet Nam war. Nukes were government’s latest misdeed… Environmental organizations such as National Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace are almost uniformly and deeply anti-nuclear, so it is no wonder that philanthropy follows their lead… [Steve Kirsch] reported that he was given three reasons why NRDC could not change its position on nuclear power. Numbers 1 and 2 were such-and-such. Number 3: NRDC would lose a significant fraction of their major donors…  It seemed to me that [Obama] listened to Al Gore and Democrats in Congress, including John Kerry. They were advocates of cap-and-trade, heavy subsidies of renewables, RPSs, and neglect of nuclear power, if not outright hostility to it. But where did they get advice? I already mentioned the guru Amory Lovins. However, I believe that Big Green, the large environmental organizations, were even more influential. Al Gore went to Kyoto in 1997 carrying the cap-and-trade policy advocated by Environmental Defense. Although well-designed for national sulfur emission trading among U.S. utilities, cap-and-trade is cumbersome and ineffectual for trading among 200 nations. NRDC had a major role in constructing the President’s Clean Power Plan. The New York Times had a photo of NRDC lawyers sitting around a table making the plans… The problem is at the top of these [environmental] organizations, in my opinion. Their leadership seems unable to take a global view.”

2. Maybe because of this, there has been loss of government and other support for nuclear power: “Rapid replacement of old technology imposes costs. Strong government support was needed to drive down renewable costs rapidly. In contrast, cost of nuclear power rose, as government support of nuclear RD&D dropped, nuclear power was excluded from RPSs and excluded as a Clean Development Mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol, and nuclear power was successfully targeted by the Big Green environmental groups that emerged in the ‘boomer’ generation…” **Hansen advocates for “high priority RD&D20 for advanced [4th] generation nuclear power.”**

3: Maybe because of environmental opposition, there is regulatory opposition to nukes, which I believe is key because my impression is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives the go-ahead for nuclear power plants: “the Head of [Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which I believe gives the go-ahead for new nuclear capacity] was a political appointee and Democratic presidents appointed NRC Heads who were more-or-less anti-nuclear. Anti-nukes heading NRC? What a strange situation, if true!… According to George Stanford, NRC Chairs appointed by Democrats tended to be subtly antinuclear. Over time, approval of a new nuclear power plant got longer and more expensive. This was consistent with the aim of many environmentalists, expressed to me, that it was best to stop construction of new nuclear power plants and phase out existing ones. However, note that the NRC deserves credit for safe operation of all U.S. nuclear power plants for over 50 years. There was nothing subtle about Jaczko. He delayed the startup of a new nuclear plant by sitting on the paperwork for several months, thus increasing costs and time-to-build record. The NRC Inspector General accused Jaczko of “strategically” withholding information from his colleagues in an effort to keep plans for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository from advancing. When the Fukushima accident occurred, Jaczko went into overdrive, advising the Japanese government to evacuate a huge area. This increased the accident’s cost and more than 1000 people died, essentially because of heartbreak and stress from abandoning their homes. No people died from radiation released at Fukushima, but many will die because of reactions to the accident. Worldwide shuttering of plans to use nuclear power increases fossil fuel pollution.”

4. On cost reduction and further technological developments for nuclear to succeed: “The primary challenge for future nuclear power is to drive down the cost, and there are good reasons to believe that it can be competitive with all other energy sources. In its early days the cost of nuclear power did decline with learning as expected (Fig. 16). The costs moved in the opposite direction as the power plants became larger, took longer to build, and encountered strong opposition from environmentalists. Examination suggests that the industry and government share in the blame for rising costs, but there is limited value in that debate. Nuclear fuel is inexpensive, about $6 per MWe-hr including all costs (natural uranium, enrichment, fabrication, Nuclear Waste Fund fee), which translates to $0.56 per MMBtu. Today we consider gas at $6 per MMBtu to be very cheap. Gas could not compete with nuclear, if we built and operated nuclear plants at the same cost as fossil plants. Construction and operating costs of nuclear plants are several times greater than equivalently complex non-nuclear facilities. There are no physics that require nuclear plant construction and operation to be more expensive than fossil plants, which is the reason to support innovation. Standardized modular reactors produced in a factory have potential for great cost reduction… Our workshop paper39 published in Science shows that nuclear power has been the fastest way to build carbon-free power. With modular mass-manufacturing, future construction could be even faster, especially if there is technical cooperation between our nations. In the four years since our workshop, the rate of addition of renewable energies has increased markedly in many countries, but five of the six fastest cases of power addition are still those for nuclear power. Facts matter. The argument of renewable advocates that nuclear construction is slow compared to renewables is false. Renewables and nuclear power are both needed. The most recent UN deep decarbonization scenarios all include major contributions from both renewables and nuclear power. They see no prospect of rapidly phasing down emissions without both energy sources. Modern nuclear power did not obtain R&D support equivalent to the RPSs and subsidies that renewables enjoyed, yet much progress has been made. Large reduction of cost and construction time likely requires mass manufacture, analogous to ship and aircraft construction, which lends itself to product-type licensing. Passive safety features allow reactor shutdown and cooling without external power or operator intervention. Innovative designs use fuel more efficiently and produce less nuclear waste, directly supply heat for industrial processes, can reduce or eliminate cooling-water requirements, and can be ordered in a range of scales. Deep decarbonization needed in China and India by midcentury can be accelerated by these innovative developments. Recent progress in the U.S. has been entrepreneurially driven, including small modular light-water, molten salt, gas-cooled and liquid-metal-cooled reactors. China has made major investments in several nuclear innovation projects.”

5. Max, your questions on training people in nuclear engineering (what others were there?) also seem very salient.

_Oil, Power and War_:

“Oil, by far the main overall energy source in 1973, was only the second source of electricity: On a global level, oil-fired electrical plants provided a little less current than coal did, but more than hydroelectric dams.17 The oil crisis facilitated the gradual emergence of natural gas and gave a boost to coal. But it also marked the rapid emergence of civilian nuclear power. Starting in the late 1940s, the development of the first uranium nuclear reactors remained an ancillary phenomenon, in large part entwined with efforts to develop atomic weapons… With Herculean industrial efforts, the energy generated in the world thanks to the atom quadrupled between 1973 and 1980, to reach the equivalent of 160 million tons of oil; this represented a modest 5 percent of crude oil consumption in the same year.18 In January 1975, in a State of the Union speech, President Gerald Ford put forth a grandiose plan to construct two hundred nuclear power plants over the following ten years. A little more than sixty were eventually built, making the United States by far the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy. Among the countries most dependent on Arab oil, France and Japan made the most radical choice in favor of the atom. In 1973, in each of these countries, fuel oil was the main energy source feeding the electric power plants’ turbines.19… In spite of the emergence of civilian nuclear power, the expansion of natural gas and the resurgence of coal, oil was not ousted.”