Friday, February 4, 2011

The Nuclear Lull:

What Does it Mean?

The news in recent months has been full of discussions about the "lull" in the nuclear renaissance. As the articles indicate, a lot of factors are involved, so it may be hard to figure out the true meaning of the lull.

However, many of us have been skeptical of the most optimistic claims from the outset, both domestically and globally. Over the last few years, a strong bandwagon effect developed, and it seemed no one wanted to be left out. In fact, the joke in some circles was that, in the US, everyone wanted to be second. To be first would leave them too exposed. To be at the end of the queue would cut them out of expected government support to the first few plants. But to be second...ah, that was the sweet spot.

Other pressures to sign on early affected both domestic and foreign electricity suppliers. The concern over the limited global capability to supply large forgings made everyone feel they needed to get in line fast.

Those who looked a little deeper into some of the nuclear "plans" found little or no plan at all, and in some cases in emerging countries, it was clear that the lack of planning extends across the entire infrastructure that would be needed for the operation of nuclear power plants in the country.

Thus, in the best of times, people were privately saying that, at best, they expected to see 1/3 or 1/4 of the new nuclear power plant plans realized. Given the history of nuclear power development in recent decades, even that would be a very positive achievement, but I feared that, measured against the expectations, it would look like failure.

Now, we have the added factors of the economy and low natural gas prices, issues that have dampened new development plans in the past as well. Marv Fertel, head of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has proposed a more realistic goal for the United States of 4 to 8 new reactors starting up by 2020, far short of the 22 under active review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

I do not think we should regard the reduced goal as a failure. Despite the efforts of the anti-nuclear folks to characterize the time it takes to build nuclear power plants as "proof" that nuclear power cannot grow fast enough to have an impact on carbon emissions in the time frame said to be needed, the inconvenient truth is that no source of energy can grow that quickly. While the number of windmills that can be built may look impressive, if you look at the amount of electricity they can supply, the prospects for wind to have a major impact quickly dim.

Rather, we should use this time to make a solid start on a handful of new nuclear plants, and to systematically lay the groundwork, both in government actions and industry development, in anticipation of a continued ramp-up and a long-term effort.



  1. Americans should be deeply ashamed of their country, that can only build 5 Gw's of nukes by 2020, when a third world country China can build 100 GW in the same time frame.

    We should be deeply ashamed of an America that abandons the work of its forefathers who developed the MSR and IFR nuke technologies, 100% surefire bets to power the world for 1000 years without mining another pound of uranium, to third world India and China.

    We should be deeply ashamed of an America that compares so badly to the 1940's "Git 'er done" culture where 10 times the steel and concrete required to build the 2500 GW of mass produced nukes that would completely convert the US from fossils to nukes was used to built aircraft, ships and tanks 1000's of times more complex than nuke plants. This from an America with ten times the 1940's industrial capacity 20% of it now idle that was available to our "git 'er done" forefathers.

    We should be deeply ashamed of the America that spends without question $700B a year on the biggest bestest military the world has ever seen that produces absolutely nothing, but can't build a high speed rail line from LA to SanFran without a business case while third world China builds thousands of kilometers.

    We should be deeply ashamed of an America that can spend $trillions in worthless overseas wars killing millions of foreign citizens for no reason at all, enough money to convert the US off fossil fuels forever with nuclear power but can't come up with more than $4B to spend on energy research that would make that military and foreign adventures mostly redundant.

    We should be deeply ashamed of an America that cares nothing for the annual 30 thousand of its citizens slaughtered by fossil fuel air pollution and the hundreds of thousands sickened, that could easily be saved by converting to nuclear power over a ten period.

    We should be deeply ashamed of an America, politically represented 99% by attorneys, that is too stupid to understand that replacing American's $700B fossil fuel bill and $100B in air pollution related health expenses with $2500B in mass produced nukes is a really good investment.

    Today American's rather than shame are proud of creating the most massively destructive military force in world history, sustained by expenditures greater than all the rest of the world militaries put together, balanced off with leading the world in the production of televisions shows like American Idol where today's "Idol" is a gifted Karaoke singer.

  2. This might be too pessimistic. All of the designs that are predicted to make up the bulk of the world fleet in the years to come (AP1000, VVER1200, EPR, APR1400, ESBWR(?), ...) are still at the stage of building the first units. Once a few are built, the supply chain is geared up, and people are just doing the same thing over and over, you will see costs come down and the rate of building go up rapidly.

  3. The National Defense University has just published a new article on small modular reactors. This piece looks at the potential for small nuclear reactors to solve DOD’s dependence on fragile power grids and their potential for operational use in the field.
    Here’s the link: