Can the US bring nuclear power back? – HotAir

There are a couple of good articles out this week about efforts to make nuclear power a realistic alternative in the United States once again. If you’re a regular reader you already know the background to these stories. The US has been shutting down more nuclear power plants than it builds for the past four decades even as environmentalists have been pressuring the fossil fuel industry to “keep it in the ground.”

Now there’s some renewed hope that nuclear could return for a couple of reasons. First, there are some new reactor designs that promise to be a lot easier and cheaper to build. And second, some of the traditional enemies of nuclear power on the left are coming around to the idea that they can have “No Nukes” or they can have an economy less dependent on fossil fuels. What they can’t have anytime in the foreseeable future is both.

But the two articles published this week both suggest we’re still a long way off from a revival of the nuclear industry. Both articles suggest the problem isn’t a matter of engineering so much as it is one of economics. The Atlantic piece is titled “The Real Obstacle to Nuclear Power.” Author Jonathan Rauch says the real obstacle is not what he thought it was when he set out to write about it.

When I started reporting this article, I imagined it might be a diatribe against the environmental movement’s resistance to nuclear power. For a generation or more, the United States has been fighting climate change—and all the other ills that result from fossil fuels—with one hand tied behind its back. Bruce Babbitt, a former secretary of the interior and governor of Arizona, was on a presidential commission to evaluate nuclear power after the Three Mile Island plant’s partial meltdown in 1979, the U.S. industry’s worst accident. Though no one died or was even injured—and the accident led to new protocols and training under which the plant’s second, intact reactor operated uneventfully until 2019—the accident hardened the public and environmentalists against nuclear energy. After that, as Babbitt told me, “opposition in the environmental community was near unanimous. The position was ‘No new nuclear plants, and we should phase out the existing nuclear base.’ ” Which was the road the U.S. took. Today legacy nuclear power supplies about 20 percent of American electricity, but the country has fired up only one new power reactor since 1996…

…environmentalists, I thought, were betraying the environment by stigmatizing nuclear power. But I had to revise my view. Even without green opposition, nuclear power as we knew it would have fizzled—today’s environmentalists are not the main obstacle to its wide adoption.

As Rauch sees it, the problem isn’t environmentalists it’s economics.

The U.S. has two big commercial reactors under construction, both at the same site in Georgia. The licensing process for them began in 2008; construction began in 2012, with a projected price of $14 billion and start-up planned for 2017 at the latest. As of February 2022, the projected cost had mushroomed to $30 billion, and the reactors still aren’t open. (Hopefully in 2023, the sponsoring utility says.)

No one who knows the industry is surprised. In the United States, construction delays on the Georgia reactors and others drove Westinghouse, the company building them, into bankruptcy. France started building a new reactor at its Flamanville plant in 2007, planning to open it in five years; as of this writing, it is still not ready. Britain approved a major plant in 2008 and probably won’t turn it on until 2027, and the project is 50 percent over budget. Delays and cost overruns are so routine that they are simply assumed. “Nuclear as it exists today,” Mike Laufer, a co-founder and the CEO of Kairos Power, told me, “is clean, it’s reliable, it’s safe. But it’s not affordable”—at least when it comes to building new plants—“and this is what’s holding nuclear back from a much bigger role in fighting climate change.”…

“We got bogged down,” Kairos’s Peterson explained. “As we made plants bigger, we also made them unconstructable.” The creativity of the ’60s gave way to an industry that became, as John Muratore, the Kairos engineer, told me, “very formal, very bureaucratic, very slow, driven by safety concerns.” Meanwhile, as plants became ever more expensive, the relative cost of fossil fuels was declining and renewables were coming online—and, after the accident at Three Mile Island, public hostility became a problem, too.

This strikes me, as someone who lived through some of the anti-nuclear militancy of the 1970s and 1980s as an extremely misleading description of why we are where we are with regard to nuclear power. Yes, it’s true there was public hostility but the flames of that fear were constantly fanned and capitalized on by major environmental organizations with help from Hollywood and the media. If the public was scared that’s partly because they were told they should be. If the industry lost momentum and good people that’s because so many people were trying to kill the industry off. If it became sclerotic and safety obsessed instead of making new and better designs that’s at least partly because the entire industry had a millstone around its neck.

The other article at City Journal is a bit more realistic about this.

Over the past decade, nuclear plants have been allowed—or forced—to close in many regions that now struggle to supply enough power to consumers. In addition to New York’s Indian Point, nuclear plants have been prematurely shuttered in states including Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and, most recently, Michigan.

In the past, green activists and left-leaning politicians cheered such shutdowns. Both Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former New York governor Andrew Cuomo claimed nuclear closures in their states were victories for “clean energy” (though nuclear retirements invariably lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions). Today, however, such default anti-nuclear sentiments are fading, even on the left…

…hopes for a revival of nuclear power would seem to be bright. But reversing the headwinds that have battered nuclear energy for nearly five decades will be a challenge. Until very recently, the nuclear industry faced a unique combination of cultural demonization, political opposition, regulatory obstructions, and economic underinvestment. Many of those obstacles are shrinking, but they haven’t disappeared. So while the prospect of a nuclear comeback in the U.S. looks better than even supporters could have imagined five years ago, the outlook remains mixed.

The biggest obstacle as author James Meigs sees it is the regulatory hurdle, the calcified remnant of decades of nuclear status quo which even now refuses to change:

Early last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suddenly denied the California startup Oklo’s application to construct a demonstration version of its 1.5 MW reactor. The company’s leaders were stunned. Oklo has since moved forward with a new application, but the setback exposed an enormous challenge facing next-gen startups.

The NRC’s massive regulatory apparatus was designed for conventional reactors: enormous machines with intricate plumbing and layers of redundancy. But new designs from Oklo, TerraPower, and other startups are an order of magnitude simpler than legacy designs. They don’t require elaborate cooling systems because, if anything goes wrong, they automatically shut off and cool down without the operators having to do a thing. Backers describe these designs as “walk-away safe.”

Nonetheless, the NRC has demanded that advanced-reactor startups follow the same tortuous regulatory path that full-size plants like Georgia’s Vogtle have been forced to navigate. It’s as if an agency tried to regulate electric scooters using a rulebook designed for tractor-trailers.

In its 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, Congress anticipated this problem. It required the NRC to create a new, simpler regulatory pathway geared to today’s safer and less intricate reactor designs. Instead, the agency recently came back with a new, even longer and more complex rule book. Ted Nordhaus and Adam Stein of the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute write that the new rules simply perpetuate the status quo at an agency “which has for decades been plodding, hidebound and allergic to innovation.”

The nuclear industry is trying to come back but it can only move as fast as the bureaucrats will let them. So far the approach seems to be to keep things moving but only at a snail’s pace.

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