New Video: A Nuanced Discussion on Small Nuclear

September 14, 2021

I realized a few months ago that I’d been talking to a sampling of the smartest engineers and energy experts on the planet, and that they all had something to say about the prospect for small nuclear reactors to be part of the climate solution. Nothing like nuclear to start a food fight at a climate science conference.

The thing is, there is a somewhat nuanced conversation to be had about nuclear. Most important thing to understand is that, no matter your position, the obstacles to new nuclear development are real and substantial.

Importantly, if the first small nukes come on line in the late 2020s, and then take a few years to prove themselves – with the price drops and accelerating buildout of wind, solar, and batteries – will there still be a place for them in the mix?

Biggest issue that no one brought up – proliferation of nuclear weapons.

36 Responses to “New Video: A Nuanced Discussion on Small Nuclear”

  1. Martin Smith Says:

    We have had small nuclear reactors powering navy ships for decades. Why can’t these small reactors be used for power generation?

    • jfon Says:

      That’s pretty much what Rolls Royce is planning – they’ve been building reactors for the British navy for fifty years, and propose to make a bigger power version, and mass produce them.

    • John Kane Says:

      The Russian Federation is building some on barges and has at least one is operation. They seem to be niche market reactors.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      the big power reactors of the 70s were basically scaled-up versions of the naval reactors – which is one thing that lead to a lot of the problems they had.
      Newer reactors would hopefully take advantage of lessons learned, but history shows that has not always been the case in the nuclear industry.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. The way I understand it, reactors got big because smaller ones could no longer compete with fracked gas (one set of externalities replacing another) then wind & solar came along and have gone so low in price gas is also uncompetitive, even where corruption tries to keep it going. And the nuke industry seems to think going back to small is going to… what exactly?

        Permitting etc. will be just as long & complicated, I would think, or even longer given that it’s a new technology*…unless they do so many they can work with ALEC to force through state laws “simplifying” the process, ie, turning it into a rubber stamp in every jurisdiction. Maybe they think “smaller reactors, smaller bribes” since the $30 million one in Ohio was caught. (Is anyone doing time for the giving end of that, btw?)

        Hinkley Point, a monster gift to the French and Chinese by… the British government? is an incredible boondoggle, a turkey with huge cost overruns and long delays but if it ever gets built, with a contract to get paid more for its electricity than wind and solar are getting already. They’ll continue to drop, so by the time Hinkley is built, if ever, its electricity will be ridiculously overpriced, meaning the cost overruns will continue for decades. Rumor has it the reason for such a terrible deal is that the Brits wanted it as a back door to military nukes—submarines, eg. The continued desire to control and the impulse to conceal are strong evidence the people involved not only haven’t learned anything, they’re more addicted than ever to both aspects of ‘power’, a dangerous combination.

        * Yes it’s been around for a while but it would be a new enough application that a lot of testing and a thorough approval process would be necessary.

        • jfon Says:

          Reactors were up at about a gigawatt before fracked gas came along, and wind and solar certainly aren’t pushing gas out of the market. Three huge gas plants were built in expectation of the two Indian Point reactors being shut down ( yes, corruption was involved, at least on the part of Governor Cuomo’s staff.) The gas for them is being fracked from the Marcellus shale, and will fill about 90% of the hole left in NYC’s generation mix.
          Hinkley Point hasn’t been looking like such a turkey after all, lately – gas prices in Europe have been spiking, with concerns about whether supplies will be enough for the winter. Wind is proving as dependable as usual – 25 gigawatts installed is currently producing 0.8 GW of electricity. Nor is Britain famous for the amount of sunshine they receive. They’ve been forced to put some coal plants back into action.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            “There won’t be more natural gas burned for electricity in New York after the second reactor closes than there was the year before the closure agreement,” said Riverkeeper’s Paul Gallay. “We’ve been busy dropping demand — and yes, we are using some of those savings to make the region safer.”


            And for their next trick the nook boosters will use the old weaponized projective identification gambit: “We wouldn’t let you build it so now we get to pretend it’s the fault of clean safe renewable energy that there’s not more of it.” But the obvious answer to not having enough of something you need is to 1, reduce the need for it, and 2, create more of it.

            More than 99.7% of new US power capacity in the 9 months from Oct. 2020-June 2021 came from wind and solar power, not including rooftop solar, data from FERC shows. This continues a trend…from recent years.”


            Of course this isn’t just in the US; more than 80% of all new electrical generation capacity added globally last year was renewable, with solar and wind accounting for 91% of new renewables. Even the nonstans in Central Asia are getting in on the act. (To be fair, most of them are already far beyond the US in uncarbonized grids.)


            So yes, obviously wind & solar are pushing gas out.
            How can one possibly not know that?
            Oh, yeah, it’s jfon, who knows nothing inconvenient to his or her ideology.
            No matter how many times s/he’s told.

            All future-stranded-asset-fossil/fissile-fuel-infrastructure built now is entirely due to corruption & insanity. Although even they are inexcusably slow, California and New York are leading the way to banning gas in buildings in the US, & if civilization is to survive, one thing we’ll have to do is massively electrify buildings & transport over the next 5-7 years.

            And of course if gas can’t compete against wind and solar—and it can’t—it doesn’t matter what its price is compared to nuclear, which also can’t compete. (Except for that corruption, which pays no attention to price—that’s exactly the point. So again, conservatives forced to choose between their market religion & their bigmanlymachine bias will choose the bmmb every time, revealing in yet another way that their true motivation is not “freedom” or supplying power or anything like that, but to dominate.) Britain’s future lies in offshore wind, which is also coming down in price and now has a larger capacity factor than gas or coal in much of the world. The UK has among the best offshore wind resources in the world so it certainly does there. To the extent that closures of nukes, coal burners and gas bags are met with more gas bags, the lunatic right wing is to blame, people like jfon perpetuating the fossil-fueled right wing’s lies about well, everything, really, but especially about clean safe renewable energy.

            So yes, of course corruption was involved. That should be nuff said but of course isn’t, since corruption is what’s keeping both fossil & fissile fuels walking dead, and it’s a 3-way, mutual stroking relationship. And yes, I meant that to sound creepy. It IS creepy. And disgusting. And threatens civilization & nature. And its military connection is only one reason.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            Germany, with roughly comparable solar resources to the UK, not only provides about 11% of its energy with PV so far, Germany (47% RE) & Denmark (47% wind) have the 2 most democratic and reliable grids in the world. But to get to 100% clean safe renewable energy they’re likely to have to connect better to the Iberian grid & maybe to MENA, which they may have to bribe &/or bully into building S&W. Solar of course was the last of the so-far big 3 renewables (#4 geothermal is coming along) to reach a price at which our psychopathic economic system would consider using it to avoid the end of civilization and most of nature, so it’s only been a few years that it’s been more widely built into the hocketed clean safe renewable energy system of the 21st century. It’s increasing exponentially now and despite a momentary supply chain plateau will join wind, batteries, & geothermal again as they all keep dropping in price & increasing in capacity & output.

            There’s no reason to believe anything jfon says but the purpose of distributed generation is to make up for temporary local lows. The answer is to build more & connect it better across wide areas, and numerous studies show it can be done with electricity cheaper than it is now. More nukes are just more problems, with mass casualties virtually inevitable if we try to expand it to any significant part of our energy.

          • jfon Says:

            Germany may have more wind turbines than Britain, but it invariably has much higher emissions per kwh, as well – mainly because it’s using coal instead of gas, but also because it’s halved its nuclear fleet, whereas Britain kept the nukes, as well as building gas and solar. At the moment, wind in Britain and Germany is still only making about four percent of nameplate, and has been for most of the last week. Solar in both countries is zero, but even at noon today was only making about a third of nameplate in Britain and just over a quarter in Germany. I haven’t been tracking Spain much, but today it varied between four and eleven percent of nameplate, and solar was (very briefly) at 29%. If you think it would be easy to build enough capacity, both in turbines, solar panels, and power lines, to run western Europe with North African juice, tell me why it’s taking so long just to build enough transmission to bring North German offshore wind power down to Bavaria, where it’s needed? Likewise, good luck building batteries to power five hundred million people in Europe for a week of low wind, when the world’s largest battery could only power 1.8 million people in South Australia for about twenty minutes. Don’t keep assuming I’m some kind of crazed nuclear loon, just look at some evidence –
            Note that your W&S hero, Germany, is putting out nearly ten times the CO2 per kwh France does. Denmark is faring better, but mainly because about half its juice is coming from Norway and Sweden, where hydro and nuclear cut coal and gas use to near zero. In North America, California, the mandatory solar exemplar, is doing rather better just now – only 174 g/kwh carbon dioxide, thanks to getting half its power from solar, whereas Ontario, with about half nuclear and some hydro, is getting 98g. But for most of the time between sunset and sunrise, California was still using nearly as much power, and making nearly ten times the emissions of Ontario. Remember, the climate doesn’t care that for one glorious moment you ran most of your grid on renewables – it just responds to total greenhouse gas tonnage. If you think nuclear is too dangerous and awful, Ukraine is making 65% of its power from nuclear, getting half the emissions per kwh of Germany despite having far less money to throw at its generation assets, and even straight after Chernobyl, was getting less cancers from a one-off, readily preventable accident than Germany does every year from coal fumes.

  2. indy222 Says:

    The real problems with nuclear costs are political,the foot-dragging in approval from the NRC, and the loan costs during the years and decades when they sit in limbo, and the fact that technology improves and yet they can’t afford to change for the better because it means starting the whole NRC glacial progress over again.

    Fix the politics, and nuclear will be shown to be much less environmentally damaging than utility scale solar vast thousands of square miles on our desert eco systems and our coast eco systems dealing with off-shore wind.

    12 acres of land at Diablo Canyon produces the same power – and always on – as 33 square miles of solar PV panels, and that doesn’t include the storage needed to make that PV really equivalent, nor the losses going into/out of storage.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I’ve always like wind and solar for reasons other than carbon reduction: They’re waterless, can fit in odd spaces and odd places, fail cleanly and safely, and have lower skills training. Even independent of GHG emissions, fossil fuel production is dangerous, dirty, poisons people with combustion products and leads to oppression to control the resource around the world.

      I’ll watch China, which I consider to be playing on the lowest difficulty setting, to see if nuclear power can succeed and at what time scale.

      • jfon Says:

        China has just fired up its first pebble-bed reactor, using helium coolant instead of water. The theory is that they could run hot enough to replace coal – coal plant turbines use supercritical steam, hotter than ordinary light water reactors can safely handle. I’m a bit sceptical – the pressure vessel is as big as one for a thousand megawatt light water reactor, but only makes a tenth as much power. It shows they’re not afraid to try things, though.

  3. redskylite Says:

    Danish company Seaborg are aiming for 2025 to put “compact Molten Salt Reactors” in service. Should help the toolbox of alternatives to fossils.


    “Seaborg said its goal is to execute a rapid worldwide deployment of the CMSR Power barge via shipyard serial production. The ambitious plan is to bring the first CMSR Power barge into service in 2025. The company was issued a feasibility statement in 2020 for the CMSR reactor by the American Bureau of Shipping. Seaborg is utilising the maritime New Technology Qualification process as a cornerstone in the regulatory licensing process.”

    • redskylite Says:

      Just to add more complexity to the technical issues…


      “Should an MSR be built, it will also saddle society with the challenge of dealing with the radioactive waste it will produce. This is especially difficult for MSRs because the waste is in chemical forms that are “not known to occur in nature” and it is unclear “which, if any, disposal environment could accommodate this high-level waste.” The Union of Concerned Scientists has also detailed the safety and security risks associated with MSR designs. ”

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Nuke waste management is also a furphy. All waste has difficulties. With nukes it is prevention of solutions, to prevent proliferation, Not technical difficulties. Note that Yukka mountain is ready and empty.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          The only question I have about Yucca Mountain is the aquifers (the seismic activity doesn’t seem prohibitive).

          “All waste has difficulties” is a stupid argument, since the difficulties—and the cost to overcome them—vary so greatly.

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            Not a stupid argument as the difficulties, and costs are overblown. Their purpose is to prevent nuclear power being built!
            As for Yucca Mt aquifers,what aquifers. A solid rock in a desert. A good example of the BS squawked about whenever nukes are mentioned. BTW, aquifers move very slowly. After 1000 years, any material extracted will have moved a few kilometres, safe underground with all the natural level of radioactives, with all the dangerous nuclides long degraded.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          BTW, aquifers move very slowly.

          That’s a gross misapplication of hydrogeology calculations.

          When assessing aquifers for water supply, they’re modeled under Darcy’s Law as propagating through homogeneous rock as a steady rate. This is perfectly fine as all water molecules are the same to us, so showing water moving through the system as a “square pulse” is adequate.

          As our hydrogeology professor kept telling us: Fractures rule.
          The real-life measurement for how fast a traceable material can move through an aquifer shows that fluids don’t move like a block through a perfect matrix. The calculation for how fast the added volume from an up-head rain event makes its way to, say, the town’s well, is useful in the real world. Introducing a tracer material at that same spot shows that some of the pulse arrives much sooner than the rest and some comes through as a lagging tail..

          If you want to see how fast a substance moves through groundwater (as with gasoline from a leaking in-ground tank), only an explicit tracer study can give you the rate for the leading edge.

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            Meanwhile, the non existent Yukka aquifers, which don’t affect the town well, are used as an excuse to not solve the storage system of nuke residue. Ergo. a madie uppie problem for nukes. Any part of this statement incorrect?
            Yep, aquifers are complicated.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Meanwhile, the non existent Yukka aquifers, which don’t affect the town well, are used as an excuse to not solve the storage system of nuke residue.

          FWIW, from the Wikipedia page:

          The aquifer of Yucca Mountain drains to Amargosa Valley, home to over 1400 people and a number of endangered species.

          I agree that these 1400 people don’t amount to a hill of beans in the big picture, but aquifers in deserts do exist, and they represent the only water that doesn’t quickly evaporate from the dry heat. It looks in this case like the Amargosa River is a “blind creek” (water flow continues underneath the streambed after the river subsides and is no longer visible at the surface).

          Ironically, it looks as if the ongoing megadrought (aggravated by climate change) might even wipe out what little water source there is.

    • redskylite Says:

      The second unit of a four unit Nuclear plant build by a South Korea led consortium has just come online and well on the way to full power in the U.A.E emirate of Abu Dhabi. The plant is expected to last 60+ years, the U.A.E is developing a used fuel storage plan, they do have a few sparsely populated rocky mountainous areas.

      In 60+ years time I expect there to be more carbon-free options available, who knows even nuclear fusion may be available by then, if the U.A.E is still wealthy enough to afford it. The climate is projected to become even more inhospitable in the future and indeed uninhabitable in some regions before the year 2100, a reliable power supply will be super critical for the nation to survive.

      Solar is also being increasingly employed (In 2020 the 2 GW Al Dhafra Solar project was announced by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority.)

      The country has very sparse rainfall and has around 35 desalination stations of power.

      Survival is the driver, proliferation of nuclear weapons – I think U.S, China, Russia and a few others have enough of the satanical weapons already, last thing U.A.E would want to play with.

  4. Anthony William O'brien Says:

    Could have had modular off the shelf nuclear reactors decades ago, but no everyone wants the bespoke custom designed version. Modular design would cut down the design costs, manufacturing costs and should cut down the approval process costs. Design once, get it right, build and repeat. Training can be done for one and all of the same design, not a completely new training process for each reactor.

    The only modular ones were US Navy, operated in a more difficult environment with far fewer problems than the massively expensive power generators. Yes they are smaller, but two or three of them would still be way cheaper than a bespoke design.

    Cost wise they have probably left their run too late, renewables are now too cheap to compete. Renewables are far preferable in any case.

    But nuclear is preferable to coal. Coal is so very damaging even without the climate impacts. Radioactive waste, there is radioactive waste coming from coal mines and coal fired power plants.

    • jfon Says:

      ‘Renewables are far preferable in any case.’
      ‘Renewables are far preferable in any case.’ Nuclear lasts two to three times as long as solar or wind. It produces three to five times as much power per installed watt. It can run with no backup other than the twin reactor next to it.
      Dan Kammen says ‘ large nuclear doesn’t play well’ with renewables. The only thing that does, apart from hydro, is gas, and there isn’t enough hydro to keep everybody’s lights on every time the wind stops. ( Mark Jacobsen claimed that you could just add extra turbines to existing hydro to ramp up for the lulls, but there are certain problems with putting ten extra plugholes in your nation’s bathtub.)
      I don’t think Small Modular Reactors will be the main part of the solution, though. Climate change is a massive problem, and needs massive solutions. In the seventies, faced with the then problem of oil prices quadrupling, Ontario built twenty large reactors in twenty years, France built fifty in twenty years, Sweden built twelve in thirteen years. They do need solid backing from the government. Hinkley Point in the UK is paying nine percent interest during construction, when wind farms only pay about 2.5%. Interest will make up 70% of the final cost. Whitehall dithered for twenty years about building it, and is now doing the same about the next two reactors, at Sizewell, which should be capitalising on the experienced workforce from the first two. Meanwhile capital is being thrown at wind farms which will be junk long before the nukes have reached midlife, and which are currently running at 4% of nameplate capacity.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        “Nuclear lasts two to three times as long as solar or wind. ”

        Not so sure about that.

        Wind turbines are now expected to last 40 years.

        Modern PV panels have a degradation rate indicating many decades of useful life. A few years ago, Sunpower guaranteed a degradation rate of 0.25% per annum, which is eighty years until only 80% output. Their actual degradation rate was 0.20% per annum which works out to 100 years. There are panels from the 1970’s still operating at nearly full faceplate today. I don’t think anyone actually knows how long modern PV panels will work, but they appear to be at least as long as a nuclear power plant.

        • jfon Says:

          ‘Wind turbines are now expected to last 40 years.’
          That’s still half as long as nuclear – the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now licensing reactors to eighty years, and Rosatom, the Russian nuclear company, has developed a method of annealing the neutron damage out of a pressure vessel, so that it’s good to a hundred years. They’ve just done the one that provides a third of Armenia’s power.
          As for still getting 80% of nameplate at a century, many reactors have been upgraded to give 20% or more power increases over the original setting, mainly due to better computer models of the neutronics. They’re getting more full power hours in a year, too, thanks to more streamlined refuelling outages and fewer unplanned stoppages. Cloud, night, and dirt still cut solar output, and always will.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Right now a lot of the problems with current nuclear power stations are related to water, with respect to temperature, flooding and drought. French reactors had to shut down during the high demand that comes with lasting heat waves because their cooling water was too warm, rain-bombs make flood-proofing along streams more of a cost, large lakes are becoming less reliable, and Turkey Point is…on Turkey Point.

          • jfon Says:

            Those problems apply to much of the other infrastructure we rely on, but in the case of nuclear, since it’s such a compact energy source, they’re easier to mitigate. Japan had 325 km of railway track, 23 stations, numerous bridges, and seven trains swept away by the 2011 tsunami, in addition to all the flooded towns. Walling off the five nuclear plants on the exposed coast is comparatively simple, and had in fact been done well enough for four of them.

  5. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Nuclear proliferation is a Red Herring. The risk exists, but anyone that wants to build a bomb can do it regardless. IF they wanted they COULD do it. The world WILL cook, not IF and COULD.
    One. Nuke plant is Not required to make a uranium bomb,
    Two. Ignoring #1, 30 countries already have nuke power so can build more with ‘no’ risk. Also include half the worlds population, most of its CO2 emissions and increase nuke power will not increase bomb risk. They already make them.
    When, if and where renewbles can take the load, good, do it. Otherwise it is a Dangerous fantasy. Look for solutions!

    • jimbills Says:

      On proliferation, two things: one, the countries to really worry about either already have them or are already developing them. Two, a lot of the current nuclear being built is being produced and supplied by a handful of companies from nations that have had nuclear weapons for a long time – like France and China. They’re the ones building new plants in other countries. Only the rogue nations these days try to build their own, and those countries either already have or are currently building them. It’s possible some new threat will emerge, like Yemen or some place, but it’s a pretty easy thing there – if they try to build their own, they’re suspect.

      On nuclear as a whole, it’s very likely at some point that newer forms of nuclear will emerge as real possibilities – the smaller versions, or breeders, or even fusion – maybe not in a decade, but what about in the next 20-30 years? Plus, I have real doubts about the entire global economy’s energy being supplied, with the resources needed to do it, by just solar and wind plus storage. That will be a more significant topic as nations start to realize this as they build more and more renewables. Also, I think we’ll start to get more open to nuclear as we realize we’re not replacing FF quickly enough. The whole conversation about nuclear can change over the next 10-20 years – I think it’s been likely it will.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      While dirty bombs are a clear issue, people have learned to use “conventional” weapons quite effectively, along with cyberwarfare, biowarfare and disinformation campaigns. I think if we stick to the costs, siting issues, time delays and the chaos that is utility/investor/grid relationship and that’s enough.

  6. Paul Whyte Says:

    A good conversation.

    What I’ve not seen in the discussion about small 4th Gen nuclear is the first few months of operation makes the plutonium in the core unusable for simple level bomb making due to pollution of short life daughter products.

    The small reactors are very energy dense and very radioactive. Moving that material out of a small reactor apart from the designed process would be lethal to any but the most expert.

    Bomb making Plutonium is more pure than reactor grade. But given the level of expertise needed for bombs. By comparison a high level of expertise is also needed for chemical explosives or biological weapons.

    Look at the explosives made with acetone and peroxide, called “mother of satin” due to the number of terrorists sent to their maker by accident. These simple ingredients can alway be obtained in an industrial setting with purification being high school level chemistry.

    Not using acetone or peroxide due to bomb making is not how the risk is controlled.

  7. Scott Adams has declared the anti-nuclear cause lost!

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