Wall Street Journal Debates: Does Nuclear Power Have a Future?

February 9, 2018

Incoming in 5,…4,…3,…

YES: It’s Competitive and Necessary

By Rich Powell

Rich Powell

Rich Powell PHOTO: CLEARPATH
The future of U.S. nuclear power is bright—and nonnegotiable.

A robust civilian nuclear sector is mandatory for the U.S. to remain a major geopolitical, economic, military and environmental leader. After decades of policy neglect, Washington is finally addressing what is both a national and global necessity and a tremendous opportunity.

Bipartisan political support is growing to reform new reactor licensing and improve tax incentives for new nuclear facilities, led in Congress by clean-energy advocates as well as national-security and energy-reliability hawks.

The Trump administration has taken bold action to support nuclear energy, including expanding federal financing for the two reactors being built in Georgia and proposing that regulators change the way electricity is priced so that nuclear and coal-fired plants can earn more based on plant resiliency.

Market pricing reform would be an important step in helping to restructure power markets and bring an end to the closures of reactors seen in recent years. Current markets undervalue the greater reliability of nuclear energy in the face of natural disasters—true resilience likely comes with greater capital cost. New plants would also be tremendously aided by proposals for improved tax incentives backed by the White House that would benefit deployment of nearly 4 gigawatts of advanced nuclear power.

Some don’t believe in a nuclear future because of the low cost of natural gas. Gas is certainly cheap right now, but most vertically integrated utilities don’t want to rely on a single fuel source, especially one with historically significant price swings. There is also nothing fundamentally expensive about nuclear. Much of the current additional capital cost is due to years of inactivity and resulting lack of experience and standardization—gaps that deny projects the kinds of knowledge transfer than can lower costs through repeated construction of the same design. China and South Korea have been able to drive out costs through scale and repeated construction experience.

Skeptics also point to falling renewable costs and stalled growth in demand for electricity as an argument against investing in nuclear. But wind and solar, because of their intermittent character, require grid-scale energy storage, and that is expensive. And despite low electricity growth, there will be need in the generation market to replace many kinds of retiring plants in the coming years. In fact, this just opens the door for advanced technologies, particularly smaller reactor designs.

Several U.S. entrepreneurs are developing advanced nuclear-energy technologies that are smaller, more nimble and even have the potential to be cost-competitive with natural gas. One of these, a startup called Oklo Inc., is designing a microreactor it says could operate for 10 to 20 years at a time with low overhead. It’s less than 1% the size of a traditional reactor and could be perfect for quick deployment to areas such as Puerto Rico, which saw its grid devastated by a hurricane.

Bill Gates -backed TerraPower also has potential. It is working with Southern Co. to develop TerraPower’s Molten Chloride Fast Reactor, a design that potentially has significant cost benefits compared with conventional generators. There is also NuScale Power LLC and its small modular nuclear reactor, which can be scaled anywhere from 50 megawatts to 600 megawatts of capacity and which will likely be operating commercially by 2026.

The goal for each of these companies is to export its technologies. With forecasts of as much as $10 trillion in global investment in low-emissions power technology over the coming decades, major investors and technology developers are paying attention.

The Energy Department recently announced that it will target advanced nuclear technologies for funding with the same highly successful approach it has used through its research program known as Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.

While the nuclear-energy industry has suffered setbacks over the past few years, the promise of advanced reactors and the importance of nuclear energy to our national security will attract the financial resources, the political clout and the policy reforms necessary to win out in the long term.

A thriving U.S. nuclear industry isn’t a “nice-to-have.” It’s a must-have. And it will happen again.

Mr. Powell is executive director of the ClearPath Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes conservative clean-energy solutions. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

NO: It Is Up Against Too Many Forces

By Jason Bordoff

Jason Bordoff

Jason Bordoff

A decade ago, nuclear power appeared to be on the verge of a renaissance in the U.S. The Energy Information Administration projected U.S. nuclear power generation would grow 13% from 2005 to 2020. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was preparing to receive dozens of applications to build new reactors, the first in decades. Toshiba bought Westinghouse for $5.4 billion and had plans to install 45 new reactors world-wide by 2030.

I believe a strong nuclear-power sector would benefit the U.S. But the truth is, the industry is in crisis—and the signs don’t look good for it turning around. In the past five years, six reactors (at five plants) have been closed, and operators have announced plans to shut down several more. The list is likely to grow, as more than half of America’s nuclear plants are reportedly losing money.

Moreover, all plans to build new reactors have been scrapped, save for two in Georgia, and their future is uncertain without major federal support. Westinghouse, the designer of the reactors there, is in bankruptcy proceedings. And the Energy Information Administration now projects the share of nuclear in our electricity mix to fall by nearly half through 2050, to 11% from a current 20%. Even that outlook may be optimistic. China, meanwhile, has several dozen nuclear plants in development.

What happened? First, and most important, the shale revolution has delivered natural-gas prices far below what had been expected, undermining the competitiveness of nuclear power in deregulated markets. Second, electricity demand, which back in 2005 had been expected to grow nearly 2% a year, instead has been roughly stagnant, a result of increased efficiency and slower economic growth. Third, renewable-energy costs have fallen far more steeply than most projected. Fourth, the lack of a meaningful price on carbon means that the cost of power from fossil fuels doesn’t reflect its full cost to society. Finally, public support of nuclear power has waned.

Building new reactors is made even more challenging by the very costly and complex regulatory approval process. Even plants with new reactor designs intended to be safer and less expensive to operate—like the one in Georgia, and one abandoned in South Carolina—have run into unexpected problems and large cost overruns. U.S. firms lack the equipment and expertise to build nuclear plants after not doing so for decades. And the U.S. nuclear industry lacks standardization of designs and equipment, further escalating costs.

While small, modular reactors hold promise to bring down costs and address safety and proliferation concerns, the Trump administration proposes slashing government investment in energy R&D. Meanwhile, shale-gas production is set to outstrip demand, keeping prices low, and renewable costs keep falling.

The prospects for government policies that could support nuclear, from a carbon tax to a long-term waste-disposal solution, seem remote. New legislation may be in the works, but passage seems unlikely at present given congressional dysfunction and opposition.

Federal financing is a necessary condition to revive U.S. nuclear power, but even with increased federal support, it is far from certain the plant in Georgia will be built. The project is only about one-third complete, costs have skyrocketed, and the planned start date has been pushed back many years.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent order to the Federal Regulatory Commission to consider guaranteeing recovery of costs to struggling coal and nuclear plants would prop up those industries, but it faces numerous hurdles at FERC, in the courts and with a long list of stakeholders who have filed comments in opposition.

The decline of nuclear is cause for concern. Nuclear is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the U.S., but retiring plants are mostly replaced by gas and coal. Additionally, a robust nuclear-energy sector promotes U.S. leadership in international nonproliferation efforts, supports our national defense requirements, and facilitates the expansion of nuclear globally with high safety, security and environmental standards. Left to market forces alone, however, the outlook for U.S. nuclear power is grim.

Mr. Bordoff is a former senior director with the National Security Council and special assistant to President Barack Obama. He is now a professor in international and public affairs and the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com

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43 Responses to “Wall Street Journal Debates: Does Nuclear Power Have a Future?”

  1. PeterVermont Says:

    I know this thread is gettign long in the tooth but wished to mention two promising corporations utilizing aneutronic fusion.

    The first is LPPFusion, formerly, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics heaced by Dr. Eric Lerner. They have a dense plasma focus device.

    They recently published in AIP Physics of Plasmas about creatign a peak ion energy of 240keV which is equivalent to 2.5 billion degrees. They note “Technical note on ion energy and temperature. Researchers use the term “mean ion energy” to describe how hot fusion plasma are. To physicists, the term “temperature” only applies to objects near equilibrium, which does not always describe rapidly-changing fusion plasmas. However, a mean ion energy of 1 keV is equivalent to a temperature of 11 million degrees C.”

    LPPFusion is currently doing crowdfunding equity investment: https://wefunder.com/lppfusion

    A second promising company is Unified Gravity Corporation, http://www.unifiedgravity.com/, which report lithium-proton aneutronic fusion. They have dumbed down their website to not have much information because they are trying to keep a low profile but their patent, granted in March 2017, is very interesting and easy to read: https://patents.google.com/patent/EP3000112B1/en?q=unifiedgravity&oq=unifiedgravity

    The patent reports a Q value (ratio of energy out to input) in the THOUSANDS. They purport to have found an very low energy frequency that allows protons to fuse with lithium — only 226eV.

    I personally think that Unified Gravity Corporation is more likely to have stumbled upon highly efficient Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) (sanitized successor to Cold Fusion) since many LENR reactions involve lithium.

    An older, more informative version of their website can be found on the web.archive.org: https://web.archive.org/web/20170717204854/http://www.unifiedgravity.com:80/

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    “, more people die in one day from air pollution in China than have died from all the nuclear accidents that have ever occurred since the beginning.”

    Nuclear accidents kill only a few thousand people quickly. 4000 for Chernobyl. But according to this source, 985,000 can be laid to rest upon that altar:

    https://www.globalresearch.ca/new-book-concludes-chernobyl-death-toll-985-000-mostly-from-cancer/20908

    But whether nuclear is supposedly safer than air pollution is the wrong question. The better question is how does its safety compare to solar and wind. And there is no comparison, surely.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Uh, GB? Maybe you never heard of the Center for Research on Globalization or Global Research, but they are not among the most reliable and unbiased folks from which to seek enlightenment. Some cut-and-paste just from the little blurbs you get with google “hits”:

    “The Centre for Research on Globalization, also known as the Centre for Global Research and Mondialisation.ca is a fascist/Kremlin-funded propaganda outlet that defames and slanders their targeted groups such as Jews, Ukrainians, the United States, and other western countries”.

    “Globalresearch is an “anti-Western” website that can’t distinguish between serious analysis and discreditable junk — and so publishes both. It’s basically the moonbat equivalent to Infowars or WND”

    In actuality, the most deadly nuclear accident ever (Chernobyl, and Tussia may have covered up some that were a bit worse) killed only a few handfuls of people “quickly” and a few more after time. Fukushima killed NO ONE from radiation, and the deaths that occurred can be blamed on the tsunami (remember the one in SE Asia in 2004 that killed ~250,000?).

    This 985,000 figure is WAY at the top end of a range of figures that have been put forth over the years—-do some googling and get educated—-here’s a quick start:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/04/chernobyl_death_toll_how_many_cancer_cases_are_caused_by_low_level_radiation.html

    “And there is no comparison, surely?” You suffer from a bit of cognitive dissonance here—-The number of deaths that can be attributed to the TOTALITY of the wind and solar industries (including externalities) is more than those who have died from nuclear power (including those who fall off roofs installing solar panels).

    https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/deaths-per-twh-for-all-energy-sources.html


    • Attribution is the key here.
      We had a friend who was skiing in Switzerland at the time of Chernobyl. Within a couple of years with no history of Cancer in her family she came down with Leukemia, managed to fight it for a few years, but it took her out at 32, she was a beautiful person inside and out and very talented.
      Of course cannot prove due to Chernobyl, so not counted in the lists, how many others like her.
      The same with Fukishima, plants are growing and wild animals appear to be thriving, however those who monitor and research note high death rates amongst the animals along with high birth rates , greatly increased mutations in plants and animals and tumours etc. Yet on the surface the videos and pictures look great

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    Sorry about your friend, who sounded like she deserved a longer life and would have put it to good use, but attribution-causation-correlation is indeed the problem with blaming cancers on nuclear accidents.

    Can we be sure that more deaths will occur than would have if Chernobyl and Fukushima hadn’t occurred? Most probably. Can we link all of them to the radiation released? Not likely. It’s a numbers game, and the 985,000 figure is at the top end—-the estimate of ~4000 so far and some unknown tens of thousands is more believable.

    PS You didn’t say where your friend lived. Other European countries got way more radiation than Switzerland—-if she lived in one of them, she may have gotten a bigger dose at home than while skiing—-the fallout DID occur over a period of days.


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