There’s no such thing as a new nuclear golden age–just old industry hands trying to make a buck

By Stephanie Cooke
Nuclear is enjoying its highest level of public support since 2010–the year before the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
BEHROUZ MEHRI – AFP – Getty Images

Since the turn of the millennium, at least $50 billion has been spent on a frantic effort to create a new Golden Age for nuclear energy in the U.S. Billions more are being lavished on an even more desperate effort to launch small reactors as supposedly safer, cheaper alternatives to yesteryear’s elephant-sized versions. Most of the money comes from ratepayers and taxpayers, accompanied by an avalanche of public relations that rivals the 1950s “Atoms for Peace” campaign with its claims of “too cheap to meter” electricity.  

So far, the effort has produced little in tangible assets: roughly one gigawatt of capacity from the Watts Bar-2 reactor completed after decades of on-and-off-again construction and the promise of 2 GW from the long-delayed Plant Vogtle in Georgia. So far, not a single molecule of CO2 emissions has been avoided by a new reactor, and the primary beneficiaries are not the people who paid but publicly-owned utilities, reactor design companies, and PR and law firms. They are part of a chorus of advocacy groups and government agencies, led by the Department of Energy (DOE), advancing the idea that low-carbon nuclear is essential to any long-term climate change solution.

The story is selling well but the push for more and more money—in direct subsidies, ratepayer financing, and government grants or loans–has a dark side. To cite just a few examples, former state officials and utility executives in Illinois and Ohio face lengthy prison terms for bribery schemes linked to subsidies for unprofitable nuclear plants. In South Carolina, two former Scana executives received prison sentences after pleading guilty to criminal charges in 2020 and 2021 over a nuclear project that ultimately collapsed. Two Westinghouse executives also charged are facing a similar fate, with one still awaiting trial in October.

When it comes to costs and schedules, the lack of honesty surrounding nuclear projects is often breathtaking. In Georgia, where two Westinghouse reactors at Vogtle have been under construction since 2009, only one is completed and is now struggling to achieve commercial operation after multiple unplanned reactor and turbine trips, according to recent Georgia Public Service Commission staff testimony. That testimony also included allegations that utility executives have been providing “materially inaccurate” cost estimates over the project’s life. Vogtle’s estimated total $33 billion cost, as outlined in the testimony, versus $13.3 billion originally estimated makes it the most expensive power plant ever built in the United States. Most of the tab is being footed by ratepayers, with the US taxpayer, via DOE, providing $12 billion in loans.

And still, the messaging that nuclear is a must for reducing emissions goes on at a fever pitch. But the message is distorted: The industry cannot deliver what is needed. The U.S. lost its industrial base, including heavy forging capacity, decades ago–and the costs of a major nuclear buildout could now be in the trillions.

Moreover, the billions currently being spent on nuclear are crowding out viable, less costly solutions for decarbonizing the power sector (not only renewables such as wind and power but also high-voltage direct current transmission lines to deliver them to where they’re needed), thus slowing the transition. A surfeit of renewables projects is seeking grid access, enough to meet 90% of the Biden administration’s goal of a carbon-free power sector by 2035, according to a Berkeley Lab report, but the country’s Balkanized electricity market system, monopolistic utilities, and lack of adequate transmission capacity will likely prevent most of it from succeeding.   

The transmission capacity needed for renewables will require anywhere from $30 billion to $90 billion to meet demand by 2030, with the figures rising to $200 billion to $600 billion between 2030 and 2050, according to a study by the Brattle Group. Squandering such sums on nuclear should be out of the question.

Our current fleet of 92 reactors generates about a fifth of the nation’s electricity, but most of the plants are slated for permanent closure by 2050, assuming they operate well beyond their 40-year design life. The DOE admits that such “life extensions” put operators in uncharted waters because there is no actual experience to support 60- or 80-year reactor lifetimes.

The problem of where to put used nuclear fuel (radioactive waste) remains after funding was withdrawn for an estimated $100 billion underground repository project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Proposed privately-owned interim storage sites in New Mexico and Texas, though licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, face intense local and state opposition as well as political obstacles at the federal level.

Industry officials privately acknowledge these challenges. Even so, nuclear is receiving the most favorable media coverage since the 1950s, and the latest annual Gallup poll on nuclear, released in April, showed the highest level of support in a decade for nuclear power among the American public–at 55%. Nuclear opponents in Congress are now silent on the issue or even hinting at changed views, and bipartisan support in Congress has over the past couple of years resulted in billions in tax incentives and other forms of support for both existing and planned nuclear plants.

But public opinion is fickle–and no guarantee for the future. Since Gallup began polling on nuclear in 1994, support peaked at 62% in 2010, a year before the triple meltdowns at Fukushima. After that, it went steadily down, to a low of 44% in 2016. Nor is popular opinion an indicator of whether nuclear’s formidable technical, financial, environmental, and geopolitical challenges can be overcome.

The primary aims of today’s promoters are to prevent aging, uneconomic reactors from closing, and to secure funding for small modular reactors (SMRs) and “advanced” reactors (and associated fuels).

The push for smaller reactors appears to have been an act of desperation by a nuclear-centric energy agency–the DOE (which also oversees the country’s nuclear weapons programs)—after its failed attempt to create a nuclear “renaissance” in the early 2000s. Although that project generated interest (utilities filed plans for 28 large-scale reactors), only the two at Vogtle were ever built.

The Renaissance was already failing when the Fukushima disaster occurred in March 2011. Two years later the DOE began pushing the concept of SMRs (with factory-built modules) based on conventional light-water cooling technology as a safer alternative. So-called advanced reactors based on long-shelved old designs were resuscitated even though they too pose safety and proliferation risks, and like SMRs cost far more than conventional designs on a per-megawatt basis because they lack the benefits of scaling.

While the PR focused on small reactors, the struggle to build–or complete–the white elephants continued in South Carolina and Georgia. The Tennessee Valley Authority finally completed Watts Bar-2 in Tennessee, at a cost of $4.7 billion (not counting what had been spent since the project was launched in 1971).  

For Westinghouse, things weren’t going swimmingly. Its bankruptcy in 2017 took the South Carolina project (along with its majority owner, SCE&G) with it, leading to the eventual prison sentences, and a $9 to $10 billion tab. Another $3 billion was spent trying to save two plants in Florida, which ultimately failed. Including conservative industry estimates of $1 billion spent on “renaissance” reactor project applications that went nowhere, and the $33 billion estimate for Vogtle, the tab for saving nuclear approaches $50 billion–and counting.

“We don’t have a narrative, a story,” complained nuclear engineer turned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ray Rothrock at a 2018 DOE meeting. “Right now we are selling Vogtle and Summer. If we try to sell this idea of nuclear to somebody, it will be a hard sell. We need a new story.”

The small reactor paradigm became the “new story” that Rothrock and others were looking for, advertised as flexible, light-on-its feet space age technology. In 2020 the DOE announced plans to spend almost $5 billion in cost-share awards for its three lead projects–one SMR and two advanced reactors.

An Atlantic article in March this year advanced these concepts as new thinking by clever “newcomers” to nuclear, who, in fact, are mostly old industry hands. Forbes, in a February article, describes SMRs as a potential “go-to energy source” with “enormous” growth potential. “By 2030, there will be five or 10. By 2035 or 2040, there will be a real hockey stick in terms of growth. The financing will be a lot easier because there will be a reference project,” Holtec International senior vice president Rick Springman told Forbes.

But this push for smaller reactors depends on prototypes being built and successfully operated by 2030 and follow-on orders for hundreds more. That doesn’t seem likely. Contrary to its own hype, the DOE understands this. In March the agency admitted in a report that only large reactors (1 GW or more) have a shot at making an impact on decarbonization. But they would have to be built en masse–200 to 300 by 2050–which is roughly double or triple the number ever built in this country. While SMRs and advanced reactors could still play a role, to its credit, the DOE report warned that “waiting until the mid-2030s to deploy at scale could lead to missing decarbonization targets and/or significant supply chain overbuild.”

Based on Vogtle’s price tag the cost to the nation would be somewhere between $3 trillion and $5 trillion–or more. “They just don’t seem to be tethered to reality,” a prominent nuclear industry CEO said of the proposal. “That’s a lot of [expletive deleted] money and I’m not sure where it all comes from.” As for advanced reactors “that have been around since the 1960s,” he added, “Doesn’t anybody [in the industry] but me think there will be multiple technical revolutions in competing energy production techniques?”

It’s hard to see how any of the nuclear hype becomes real unless Congress is ready to ignore market signals, nationalize the electricity sector, and rebuild an industrial infrastructure that disappeared decades ago.

Stephanie Cooke is the former editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly and author of In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.

This article was published 28, 2023 at Fortune. (The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.)

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