Former NRC Chair: Nuclear Not a Climate Solution

October 6, 2021

Gregory Jaczko in The Hill:

The only advanced nuclear technologies close to realization are called small modular reactors. These reactors are smaller than traditional reactors and are self-contained. These features allow companies to manufacture most of the reactor in a factory and ship it to a plant site. This concept evokes images of smart phones rolling out of factories by the billions — each design identical and mass produced. Their small size reduces the amount of radiation that can be released to the environment, greatly reducing — but not eliminating — safety to a plant’s community. And their modular nature promises operation that adapts to fluctuating power demands, addressing some grid flexibility concerns.

Yet the economic competitiveness of small modular reactors appears weak. Shrinking the size of a traditional reactor and splitting it among many modules increases the cost of the electricity it produces. It is the same reason airlines fly large capacity jets instead of private jets. You maximize the revenue per area of the aircraft hull. Proponents argue mass production will overcome this problem with fleet-wide economies of scale and construction efficiencies. Only wide scale adoption of the technology would deliver those benefits and there is no obvious market to support that today.  

Moreover, the nuclear industry always promises better, faster and cheaper yet it fails to deliver. A case in point: two traditional reactors currently under construction in Georgia are five years behind schedule and more than $10 billion over budget, even though they promised to do better. A “twin” reactor project in South Carolina failed before completion, leaving ratepayers holding the bag for billions in wasted costs.

Small modular designs are only promising to be cheaper than traditional reactors. Current estimates show they are more expensive than renewables, like wind and solar, even with storage and without subsidies. Small reactors have a long way to go to be competitive. Dramatic cost decreases for high-volume energy storage, which address the intermittency of some renewables, make the competitive case for any form of nuclear even tougher.

Even if everything else was lined up perfectly, nuclear has little time to catch up. After reentering the Paris Agreement, the U.S. will again strive to achieve drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) within the next 10 years. Even in the most optimistic scenario, we won’t see even a handful of small modular nuclear reactors in the U.S. until 2029 or 2030, which means a large-scale impact would come far after the climate tipping point.

18 Responses to “Former NRC Chair: Nuclear Not a Climate Solution”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I don’t know if this applies anywhere at the moment, but there’s definitely a good case to be made for not shutting down nuclear plants early unless they’re displaced by something cheaper and cleaner to run (i.e., don’t shut down an otherwise functional* nuke while there are coal plants still operating in its grid). In the US (and probably elsewhere in the world), once-reliable hydro might go off the grid due to CC-aggravated drought and aridification.
    *Some nukes might become nonviable due to cooling water issues.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Theoretically that might make sense if every nuke weren’t a trillion-dollar million-death disaster-in-waiting. But as has been said, while theoretically there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.

      Keeping nukes going provides an excuse for not building alternatives. It’s a terrible, flimsy, transparently blatantly dishonest excuse, for sure, but hell, if it’s good enough for the oligarchic media, the right wing, the fossil & fissile fuel industries…

      We know that the fossil-fueled right wing is using nukes as an excuse, and a way to divide and conquer the climate movement. The Ohio corruption scandal is a perfect example of anti-renewable and anti-efficiency collusion between the F&FF industries. We have to schedule an “American” Energiewende (Cambio de modelo energetico de Estadounidense), and carry it out—shut down both fossil fuels and nukes on an emergency schedule according to how fast each can be replaced with efficiency, wiser lives, and clean safe renewable energy, and how unsafe each one is. The whole job needs to be done in the next 9 years and we have to pay attention to the long-tail risks, which with nukes are incalculable. Staggeringly enormous. Inconceivable.

      As inconceivable as the idea that people support them knowing clean safe renewable energy is able to do the whole job cheaper, safer, more ecologically, more democratically, better in every way. It’s disturbing that 45% of people in the US are either subject to such bigmanlymachine bias, such psychopathic need to dominate even atoms, or are so completely hoodwinked by those who are, that they’re willing to even consider nukes. About 90% want solar and wind and more government support for them, so it’s only the power of the oligarchy and its lies that keep us mired in this moronic, paralyzing argument over the psychological health of conservatives.

  2. jimbills Says:

    Haven’t we gone over Jaczko repeatedly here? He’s an anti-nuke activist who was a political appointee to the NRC post. It’s just like how a Michael Shellenberger article should be treated – as a biased source only linked as reliable because of motivated reasoning – good for one’s own confirmation bias, but little else. Jaczko is Patrick Moore with a different agenda – an agenda that might be liked here, but it should be treated as the biased source it is.

    It seems to me the focus should be on building all sorts of FF replacements as soon as possible instead of engaging in an endless ‘just renewables’ or ‘just nuclear’ purity debate.

    On the ground, the nuclear industry is getting its arse handed to it right now. There are very few to no projects on the boards. It’s expensive, regulations make it difficult, and the past disasters like Fukushima have dealt it a crippling PR blow. It might be that’s the way the future will go, or some new breakthrough will happen, or some shift in the public debate might happen, but in the meantime, we’re replacing FF at far too slow a pace – bottom line. Will that change in the near future? If not, will people like Jaczko be happy to have at least worked to prevent nuclear from happening?

    • J4Zonian Says:

      We absolutely ARE replacing fossil fuels too slowly. And nukes are being used to do it–slow the building of the only set of solutions that can work–efficiency, wiser lives, clean safe renewable energy. That’s all nukes can do, suck

      up money, materials, labor, expertise, attention, hopes… that should be going to the real solutions opposed by the fossil & fissile fuel industries with lies, funded by their tens of billions of dollars and aiding and abetting right wing criminals in taking over through violent coups, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and of course, more lies.

      The nuke industry uses that money not just to lie about renewables but to lie in wait in the tall grass after each industry-killing accident and revelation of corruption–Ohio, Illinois, Texas, VC Summer, Vogtle, water-related shut downs, Hinckey, Flamanville, AREVA, S. Korea, Fukushima, Chernobyl, Kyshtym, Tokaimura, dozens of other processing accidents… laying low for a while then starting up with the usual army of PR firms and bought politicians, with a PR Renaissance to beat the band

      of activists trying to get people to understand that the philosophy behind efficiency, wiser lives, and clean safe renewables, is diametrically opposite the mentally disturbed ideology that keeps fossil and fissile fuels zombieing on. It’s nearly impossible for society to prioritize 2 such conflictual directions without sabotaging both, and more.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      It doesn’t matter if someone is an advocate; it only matters if they’re telling the truth and educating. The difference between Jaczko and Shellenberger is Shellenberger lies.

  3. He talks about dramatic cost decreases for high-volume energy storage and links to a piece in IEEE Spectrum:

    Here’s a couple of quote from it:

    … Chiang, professor of energy studies Jessika Trancik, and others have determined that energy storage would have to cost roughly US $20 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for the grid to be 100 percent powered by a wind-solar mix. …

    That’s an intimidating stretch for lithium-ion batteries, which dipped to $175/kWh in 2018. But things look up if you loosen the constraints on renewable energy, the researchers say. Then, storage technologies that meet the cost target are within reach.

    I’d like to know what kind of constraints have to be loosened to go from $175/kWh to $20/kWh?

    Energy storage would have to cost $10 to $20/kWh for a wind-solar mix with storage to be competitive with a nuclear power plant providing baseload electricity. And competing with a natural gas peaker plant would require energy storage costs to fall to $5/kWh.

    Sounds to me like nuclear is competitive with storage by a wide margin.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Mike, aka canman, really should take a course in logic. His is terrible way too often. Or maybe getting into therapy would help him stop lying. Whichever. He should do both.

      Lithium batteries are down to $135/KWh or below and continue to drop fast. And at least one type of iron batteries are very likely on the verge of being commercially available at $24. To go down from there. But in any case, the accepted cut-off I’ve been reading—for years—for EVs to have a purchase price lower than supposedly comparable ICEVs (which are actually inferior to EVs in every way) is $100. (They’re already cheaper over their lifetime.) Once that happens, EV purchases will accelerate dramatically worldwide, bringing battery prices down even faster and stimulating even more and faster investment and work in even better, cheaper alternative chemistries. We’ll be able to pile batteries sky-high by the time we need them, and they’ll be cheaper, safer, and more ecological than what we have now, which are cheaper and better than gas, which is cheaper than coal, which is cheaper than nukes. Fuels are in a death spiral and it’s time everyone yielded to reality.

      We aren’t anywhere near 100% clean safe renewable energy so don’t need significant amounts of storage anywhere in the US yet. And there are numerous other ways to hocket energy sources to provide all we need. When it gets out of moderation in about a week, see:

      “Baseload” is a hindrance in today’s grids, inflexible and ponderous.

      Fast, nimble, almost infinitely incremental, clean safe renewable energy sources are much more attuned and able to provide what we need.

      Wind and solar with storage, without subsidies, are cheaper than nukes—now.. They have been for a while and keep getting cheaper. The idea that nukes are competitive is just complete bullshit. As the price of WSB continues to drop and nukes’ continue to rise, as they have been for half a century, how is that likely to change?
      (Don’t talk to me about technologies that don’t exist, and aren’t going to until after this crisis is resolved one way or another. Fantasies about small reactors competing when reactors got big to try unsuccessfully to compete is ludicrous. The spent fuel rods should give up the lies and nonsense and find something useful to do.)

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Li+ batteries are not (nor ever should have been) the solution for grid storage. Their energy density and light weight make them most appropriate for EVs and e-toys. Grid batteries sit on slabs for which weight isn’t much of a consideration, and we can use much cheaper battery tech.

      Anybody who uses the cost of Li+ batteries as a reference for grid storage feasibility is either grossly misinformed or deliberately lying to support an anti-grid storage position.

      Let’s have a race to see which can produce 500GW of new generation first:
      wind/solar/storage or nuclear power plants

      Or maybe we can just race to see which produces the most added generation inside of five years.

      Care to wager on either bet?

      • I suspect the reason that light weight LI-ion batteries are used for powerwalls and big grid batteries is that they probably offer higher power ratings and other power related characteristics. Li-ion grid batteries are actually used to smooth out minute to minute or hour to hour fluctuations rather than for anything like day to week storage. look at a graph of someplace like South Australia Batteries barely show up:

        More nuclear would make more battery resources available for EVs and the like and help keep battery prices down.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          EVs and grid storage have different battery requirements. While Elon Musk seems to like lithium in everything, grid storage being developed by everyone else does not depend on the world lithium supply.

          Nuclear power would not noticeably affect the need for lithium in the world.

          Grid storage (AKA time-shifting and price-shifting energy) will be a money-maker for a lot of people.

  4. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    The world cooks whilst ideologues pontificate with excuses!

  5. Paul Whyte Says:

    There are more batteries than Lithium.

    When I read about the ideas of Hansen et al. It’s not about the price of Nuclear but it is about the ability to make a lot of power so that coal can be shut down sooner.

    The proposal from Hansen was to use small modular Nukes to power developing countries not the developed countries as the cost of the lawyers is too high.

    While finding the cheapest power is interesting, the rapid shut down of fossils is the main game for the climate.

    Not fighting about a favourite non carbon energy looks important.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      That 2015 article describes a scenario that’s great in theory but leaves out things like (1) who builds them (2) who pays for them (3) how France’s most recent attempts at building nukes had the same delays and cost overruns as everybody else. These nuclear plants would have to be put on the same grids as existing coal power plants in order to have the limiting effect on FF combustion.

      For example, a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.

      Again, I consider China the country playing at the lowest difficulty setting when it comes to building nukes, besides having a lot of the nasty coal power plants we need to replace first.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      If the idea is to build as much generation into the grid as fast as possible then nukes are the absolutely worst idea of all.

      Clean safe renewable energy is much cheaper so more can be built for the same money.

      It’s much faster so more can be built in the same time.

      It’s much safer so—besides the thing about you know, being safer—all the security and health externalities can be avoided so more resources can be turned to building clean safe renewable energy.

      If using the least amount of land is the idea, clean safe renewable energy is the solution, because of, among other things, the exclusion zones we already have around Chernobyl and Fukushima, the ones we don’t have but should for Kyshtym and other disaster sites, and the ones we’ll have in the future (that may also kill millions of people). In fact if we try to provide a significant part of our energy with nukes (if we could) for a long time, it would be almost certain. If equivalent amounts of land or ocean in appropriate places were given over to clean safe renewable energy for all that time, it would power the world.

      What’s more important than not fighting about energy sources is choosing the one(s) that can do the job and not choosing the one(s) that make doing the job impossible. The more nukes we build or even fantasize building, the less chance there is for civilization and nature to survive.

      Some people who used to know better have given up and said they would no longer object to nukes because they think it’s a way to bribe the right wing into doing something—anything—on climate. They’re being naive; decades of experience with the lunatic psychopathic nihilists on the far right should have taught all of us that everything they do is about domination—oppressing women and other races, defeating the left, crushing the climate activists, lying about things so obviously true that by making the lies at least the topic of conversation, even better, society’s official truth, they demonstrate their dominance. Burning things in big buildings for energy (the bigmanlymachine bias) also does it, and finally, most of all, dominating nuclear forces themselves.

      They usually defeat the left by presenting some dilemma that splits us—Julian Assange, anything racist, hope for some allegedly conservative-friendly alleged solution to climate catastrophe—carbon price or carbon capture or… nukes. Fossil fuel and related industries—ICEVs, rail, industrial ag, banking, etc. dominate the right’s funding and personnel so it seems likely, given everything, those industries and their owned politicians have no intention of dooming themselves; they’re only doing what they’ve been doing for decades with denial, anti-renewable fanaticism, carbon prices, CCS, hydrogen, the Sinemanch’s vs Biden-Pelosi show, and so many other things. They’re just holding nukes out as bait for half the left as another delaying tactic.

  6. indy222 Says:

    It’s like a murderer claiming the victim was “a loser”; not nimble enough to dodge his bullet.

    Nuclear costs are heavily weighted toward the interest and insurance costs charged on loans while the project sits in limbo because the NRC can’t find a legit reason to cancel, but doesn’t want the political heat of passing them along to completion. It’s a disgrace. China will beat us black and blue with molten salt thorium breeder reactors that WE designed early on, and then sat on because they didn’t produce the plutonium we wanted for weapons. China’s taking OUR research and turning it into THEIR power.

  7. ecoquant Says:

    … which means a large-scale impact would come far after the climate tipping point.

    Yes, I agree, nuclear energy as a future route has serious cost and schedule issues, as well as negative learning curve issues which are not explainable by imposed burdens of additional environmental reviews or nuclear waste disposal concerns.

    Still, keeping existing nuclear plants operating to help with transition makes a lot more sense than expanding the role of natural gas, which has been proposed by some serious students of energy transition, even if building additional nuclear generation capability seems foolhardy.

    But this reference to a “climate tipping point” of the kind stated is the worst kind of fanciful doom mongering. There is no magical point whereupon after nothing can be done to contain climate disruption. Even if such a point were to exist, we would not and cannot know precisely when it is. But it does not exist.

    What happens is that, as greenhouse gas emissions continue, the climate deteriorates more and more. Consequences of increased warming become more dramatic, ranging from more severe heat waves and droughts, punctuated and, in some places, dominated by recurring burst rainfalls. Coastline properties are compromised. Inland properties built upon filled or drained wetlands are lost to flooding. Calculations show that, if the will to zero greenhouse gas emissions is mustered and implemented, ten years after the climate will stop deteriorating, but it will not get better. That’s because 90+% of the forced heating goes into oceans and they retain this heat for tens of thousands of years. Yes, the atmosphere will be cleaner and healthier. Depending where we stop, oceans made or may not be protected from fatal acidification. But it won’t get cooler, even if we were to draw CO2 out from atmosphere.

    So, yes, the sooner we stop emitting the better. But if we don’t stop, what we’ll see is a gradual deterioration in climatic conditions, one which is practically irreversible. But wherever we decide to zero emissions, at that point it will stop from getting worse.

    I’m not suggesting that will be easy, particularly since 20% of the emissions that need to be zeroed come from growing crops in the modern ways, and that would all need to be dramatically changed. (These emissions exclude emissions from planting and harvesting vehicles, transport vehicles, and processing of foods.) We could start by selectively prohibiting certain fossil fuel emissions, but we won’t.

    Just don’t pretend to bolster any case for action that there is a cliff we’ll fall off. There is not one.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      No, there isn’t one tipping point, and I’ve never read anyone saying there is. Maybe you’re confusing this with so-called “runaway climate change”.

      Tipping points are times at which cumulative gradual change causes sudden, significant change in state. There are bunches of them, of all different kinds and sizes. There are internal tipping points in ice melt, where for example, warm water eats away at the bottom of a sea ice shelf (floating but attached to the land) while it also melts on top. So it gets lighter, making it rise. There’s topography under it, and at some point as you go inland it’s anchored on a ridge, which is stopping seawater from flowing inland past the ridge even though there’s a valley behind it. If it melts and floats so there’s now water flowing beyond the ridge, the ice there can suddenly start melting faster.
      It’s a gradual change, up to the point where it accelerates suddenly. It’s what Stephen Jay Gould called in evolution “punctuated equilibrium”, or gradual change leading to periods of sudden change.

      Other tipping points are the end of summer ice in the Arctic, (which we’ve nearly reached) the changing of a forest like the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source (which we passed recently), a significant uptick in melting permafrost and methane clathrates, the collapse of an ecosystem into a greatly simplified state (fewer individuals and/or species, wild population swings with frequent crashes, drastically lower carrying capacity, etc.) sudden shift in monsoons, desertification, gradual changes in thermohaline circulation (caused by changing temperature and salt concentration differences from Arctic and Greenland ice melt that could lead to a collapse of the AMOC–Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. That could lead to a sudden drastic cooling in northwestern Europe and even more heating at the equator.

      One point tipping may raise temperature enough to trigger others in a cascade. Some of them, at least, will be irreversible on anything shorter than a geological time-scale. Cascading tipping points and the “pipeline” of CO2 warming that continues getting worse for up to 40 years after it’s emitted, mean warming won’t stop when we stop emitting. It won’t go on getting worse forever, but we don’t have complete control over warming. And yes, if we start pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequestering it with forestry and permaculture, big enough and fast enough, it will get cooler, though with all the CO2 stored in the oceans it may take a long time.

      Human tipping points aren’t talked about but the shift of a country, say, in the Tropic of Chaos (Christian Parenti) into being a failed state like Somalia, Yemen, or the US, can suddenly end hope of any solutions being implemented there.

      • ecoquant Says:

        Yes, I know most of that. But the discussion was as if there was one, and it was well situated in time, to about 2030. That’s to what I was objecting.

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