Why Aren’t We Buildin’ More Nukyuler Plants?

May 10, 2023

Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) questioned Energy Department Deputy Secretary David Turk during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last week.
The Senator wanted to know why the US isn’t building a shit ton of “small modular” nuclear power plants.
It’s a question that comes up a lot in discussions of the energy future.

Oughta be easy. Just go to the nukyuler plant store and buy yew a nukyuler plant.
But it’s not that simple.

Very smart, very rich, Bill Gates has been working on his “Terrapower” small modular reactor design for 15 years, with the help of a whole lot of other very smart rich guys, smart rich foundations, and the federal government. He’s over-budget and 8 years behind schedule.
Below, in video from 2016, Gates describes his plan to have a working model by (checks notes..) 2022.
No shame in that. It’s hard to build a new kind of nuclear plant.


U.S. companies including TerraPower are trying to develop a new generation of small nuclear plants to help cut carbon emissions but only one firm sells the fuel it needs, and it is Russian. The fuel, called high assay low enriched uranium, or HALEU, is enriched up to 20%, much above the up to 5% level today’s reactors use.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused the only commercial source of HALEU fuel to no longer be a viable part of the supply chain for TerraPower, as well as for others in our industry,” said Chris Levesque, president and chief executive of TerraPower.

“TerraPower is anticipating a minimum of a two-year delay to being able to bring the Natrium reactor into operation,” he said. The 345-megawatt plant had been slated to open in 2028.


Nine out of the ten advanced reactor designs selected for funding under the U.S. government’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) will require advanced fuel, such as high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) and TRIstructural-ISOtropic (TRISO) particles, but there are no commercial suppliers of such fuels currently operating in the United States.

U.S. uranium enrichment capability has dwindled to nothing in recent decades as it leaned on other countries to supply the fuel.

Between 1985 to 2015, U.S. uranium enrichment capacity fell to zero from 27.3 million Separative Work Units a year, while Russia’s Tenex became a world leader, increasing production to 26.6 million SWU a year from just 3 million in the mid-eighties, according to figures by Centrus and U.S. Energy Information Administration. SWU measures the amount of work done to enrich uranium.

Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, advanced reactor manufacturers were likely to first look to Russia for supply.

Plans were in place to assure that U.S. supply would also be increased as demand climbed from demonstrations to commercial operations of the new generation of nuclear reactors, but since the invasion those plans have changed.

“[In December 2021], we saw demand beginning to form starting in 2024-25 and then really accelerating going into the next decade. These numbers were collected pre-Russian invasion, pre-spike in gas prices, and the climate conversation has gotten more serious,” says Senior Director of Fuel and Radiation Safety Programs at Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) Nima Ashkeboussi.

“If anything, we see a greater demand for nuclear, not just new nuclear but also the existing fleet and preserving the existing fleet in the United States and globally.”

The Department of Energy (DOE) projects the U.S. market alone will need more than 40 metric tons of HALEU for the new generation of reactors by the end of the decade, and with Russia under international embargoes much of that will need to come from domestic suppliers.

Building a domestic supply chain was under consideration before the invasion, but the industry’s sense of urgency jumped as Russian tanks rolled across the Ukraine border.

“I think we’re in a much better position than when we started the year [of 2022]. I think that industry would like to see things move a lot quicker, but they have started to move, and we have seen some meaningful actions taken,” says Ashkeboussi.

Last year, the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which has allocated over $350 billion in climate provisions, put aside an investment of $700 million to support the development of a domestic supply of HALEU, the DOE finalized a key HALEU production contract with a Centrus subsidiary, and BWX Technologies began TRISO fuel production for the Department of Defense (DoD).

Of that $700 million, $500 million will go toward making HALEU for the first advanced reactors and establish the HALEU consortium, $100 million will be to design and license HALEU transportation systems, and the remaining $100 million will support the availability of HALEU for research, development, demonstration, and commercial use.

For the record, Senator Hagerty, along with all other Republicans, voted against the Inflation Reduction Act and the included funding for HALEU production in the US.

That’s why, for any realistic prospect of meeting carbon goals, there is no scenario that does not include massively accelerating deployment of solar and wind in THIS decade.


29 Responses to “Why Aren’t We Buildin’ More Nukyuler Plants?”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    Go back to first principles.
    And to be informed about the choices, read:
    M.Z.Jacobson, DOI: 10.1017/9781108786713, especially chapter 3, and M.Z.Jacobson, 10.1017/9781008239553, section 8.5.

    Nuclear is an opportunity cost.

  2. mbrysonb Says:

    A sad story. I was a supporter of CANDU reactors a long time ago (I was an undergraduate at the time). I understood the physics- but I didn’t understand the engineering. The engineering, long, long term waste management and risks continue to be serious problems. The energy is there, but the price and the risks are too high. We have alternatives that are much less dangerous, can be built quickly at reasonable costs, and that leave no long-term waste problems behind when they retire. The reluctance to accept this and act on it now is very disappointing…

    • sailrick Says:

      In 2020, China installed 72 GW of wind and 48 GW of PV solar. Then in 2022, they installed another 37.6 GW of wind and 87.4 GW of solar.

      I used generating capacity factors to compare those with nuclear power plants on a level playing field. I think the numbers I used are generous to nuclear. 100% for nuclear, 18% for solar and 30% for wind.
      Here’s what I came up with.

      The 72 GW of wind is equivalent to building 21 single reactor nuclear plants of typical 1 GW generating capacity IN ONE YEAR.
      The 48 GW of solar is equivalent to building 8 such nuclear plants IN ONE YEAR,

      – Total equivalency of building 29 such nuclear plants IN ONE YEAR

      And, China installed 20.37 GW of PV solar in just January-February 2023.
      – equivalent to about 3.5 such nuclear plants built in TWO MONTHS

      China now has 341 GW installed solar and 366 GW installed wind energy. Total 707 GW
      The U.S, has about 140 GW of each.

      Let me know if the capacity factors I used for solar and wind sound fair. Obviously, nuclear is les than 100%.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        US nuclear capacity factor is 75% – 95%, generally said to be about 93%

        US solar CF is just under 25%

        US wind CF is about 36%

  3. mbrysonb Says:

    Not sure about the capacity question — but this fits with the view I’ve wound up with since those earlier days of nuclear hopes. (Incidentally, my father worked as the senior engineer for PEI’s early effort (during the oil embargo) to develop non-fossil fuel sources of energy. The Institute of Man and Resources was shut down a few years later, once middle-eastern oil began to flow freely again. A great opportunity that came to almost nothing.)

    • sailrick Says:

      I know that newer wind turbines that are well sited can now produce their nameplate generating capacity 40% of the time or more. I purposely tried to be generous to nuclear to avoid sniping from doubters.

  4. Jim Torson Says:

    When I see idiots like Sen. Bill Hagerty, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s clear his knowledge does not extend beyond the hype he has been given by the nuclear industry. Big sigh…


    Former Nuclear Leaders: Say ‘No’ to New Reactors
    The former heads of nuclear power regulation in the U.S., Germany, and France, along with the former secretary to the UK’s government radiation protection committee, have issued a joint statement that in part says, “Nuclear is just not part of any feasible strategy that could counter climate change.”
    The statement issued Jan. 25 [2022] notes the importance of global action to combat climate issues, but the four leaders say nuclear power is too costly, and too risky an investment, to be a viable strategy against climate change.

  5. John Oneill Says:

    Dr Dorfman stresses opportunities for carbon emission reductions by 2030. Likewise, opponents of nuclear power often compare the recent growth of wind and solar to the lack of growth in nuclear. The big rise in nuclear happened earlier, about 1970-1995, to around 20-30% of electricity production in many industrialised countries (USA, UK, Germany, Japan, Spain, Russia) and to 40-80% in a few (Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, Hungary, Belgium, Ontario, and especially France.) Growth then stalled, but most of those reactors should be good for another forty years. The exceptions are in the UK and Russia – which built graphite-moderated designs that are hard to life-extend – and in a number of places where political action led to closures – notably in Germany. Government decisions to abolish the industry have been taken in Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Belgium – and then reversed again in Sweden, South Korea, Japan, and just now, Italy.
    By 2030, nearly all the wind turbines built before 2010 will be junk. The reactors built in the 80s – and the hydro dams built from the 30s to the 60s – will mostly still be fully functional. They’ll also be much more dependable than their wind and solar competition.
    Jack Devanney has written an online book, ‘Why has nuclear been a flop ?’ His thesis is that two lies have derailed it. One is the arrogance of the industry itself, which claimed that accidents would never happen – citing probabilities of radiation release per reactor in one per tens of thousands of years, which is demonstrably untrue. The second is that such releases would be uniquely catastrophic, with doomsday scenarios of blighted land, like those of nuclear war horror stories. That is also clearly false. Radiation can kill you, but like other risks, it’s quantifiable. Is Chernobyl a death zone ? It was an industrial accident, comparable with the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro disaster in Russia in 2009, that killed about as many people. Now, the area is brimming with life – including the few stubborn peasants who defied government eviction orders, and moved back home. Will the tritium leak under a Michigan reactor harm a soul ? Not a chance, but it’s still costing a million dollars a day while they ferret it out.

    • Mark Mev Says:

      “Now, the area is brimming with life” Any effects on cancer rates or genetic mutations on the wildlife that moved in and flourished after humans moved out? How about increased cancer rates for those exposed to the radiation that spread from the plant across different parts of Europe? Or a more concrete question: Would you move your family (young kids especially) to an area like that now?

      • sailrick Says:

        There are also the issues of nuclear plants being possible terrorist targets, and nuclear weapons proliferation. The worries over the largest nuclear plant in Europe being damaged in the Ukraine war, and concerns about Iran’s nuclear energy program are examples.

        I’ve recently been learning about the big potential for geothermal in its many forms, clean baseload power. That even includes possibly using old oil and gas wells and coal mines. Now, there’s a way the oil & gas industry could actually help clean up the power grid.

      • John Oneill Says:

        A Danish scientist, Anders Moller, did a lot of work in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. He claimed that asymmetries in birds’ tail feathers were a proxy indicator of radiation damage, but other researchers, including his Ukrainian collaborators, disputed his results. Likewise, a reduction in numbers for some species, such as swallows, was more likely because these birds commonly choose habitat modified by human presence. (Moller was actually charged with scientific misconduct at one point, but I haven’t been able to find much about the case.)
        ‘..UNSCEAR 2000 report which said that “apart from this [thyroid cancer] increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 14 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.” There is little evidence of any increase in leukaemia, even among clean-up workers where it might be most expected. Radiation-induced leukemia has a latency period of 5-7 years, so any potential leukemia cases due to the accident would already have developed. A low number of the clean-up workers, who received the highest doses, may have a slightly increased risk of developing solid cancers in the long term. To date, however, there is no evidence of any such cancers having developed. Apart from these, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said: “The great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.”

        • John Oneill Says:

          Sorry, missed the link -https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Life can “thrive” under very nasty conditions that humans find unacceptable. If occasionally a doe drops a two-legged fawn, the fawn dies (predation, starvation, whatever) and that’s that. If vines twist differently, they might still survive. Trees which individually succumb are replaced by others in the newly opened area of light. The threats of radiation around Chernobyl have to be compared to the threat levels of everything else in the wild.

      “Now, the area is brimming with life…”

      What a stupid argument. A maggot-covered corpse is “brimming with life”.

      Don’t be an apologist for Chernobyl in your promotion of nuclear power. It’s a losing game.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      By 2030, nearly all the wind turbines built before 2010 will be junk.

      Nearly all of the early generation wind turbines will fail within 20 years? So what? My knickers get twisted when people compare a burgeoning new technology with mature tech. People yelled “Get a horse!” at the driver on the side of the road mechanically cranking his engine to restart it. There was no future in those stupid auto-mobiles.

      Guess what happens when those turbines fail? If the site’s cost-effective at producing energy, they’ll be replaced about as quickly as the initial ones were put up in the first place. If not, that means that they’ve been outrun by more productive energy sources after 20 years of pulling energy out of the sky.

      • John Oneill Says:

        The difference is that you can usually choose which ~8% of the time you don’t need the power. If you have two reactors, you shut one in spring, when demand’s low, a specialist team refuels it and does maintenance, a month later you restart it and the team goes to work on the other one. If you have two wind farms, if they’re near each other, they’ll likely both be becalmed. If you put them a thousand miles apart, they’re still more likely than not to be affected by the same weather system – plus you need to build transmission. And storage. China has built a lot of wind and solar out west, near the Gobi desert, where there’s sun, wind, and cheap land. Trouble is, most of the population lives near the east coast – which is where they’re building the reactors. The huge, ultra-high voltage DC lines they’re putting in to connect the renewables have also made it economical to build coal plants, using Mongolian coal, which power the lines whenever the weather’s not cooperating.
        Another advantage of nuclear is that China has been using their waste heat – nearly two thirds of the energy produced – to pipe hot water to district heating systems. They pioneered this with the American-designed AP1000 reactors they built on the Shandong peninsular. The coal smog that bedevils northern Chinese cities is exacerbated by the calm, misty weather common there in winter. They’ve been looking at using more gas for heating, since wind and solar are both knives at a gunfight, but a better alternative is small, low-pressure reactors just for district heating.

        • ecoquant Says:

          Need to build at synoptic scale and on oceans.

          • ecoquant Says:

            Wind that is.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            I expect financing and energy brokerage mechanisms will have a major influence on the diversity and siting of various power plants and grid storage.
            Any chronic local insufficiency would be addressed by the usual search for solutions at the individual, municipal and government level. I can see local private energy storage companies perfecting time-shifting arbitrage to maximize profit.

            Ocean wind farms are a different scale of operation from the flatland wind arrays embedded in farmland. Water-independent nukes would be more expensive but have much more flexible siting options. Some places need buried power cables. Solar is super cheap to build and maintain but is less powerful at higher latitudes. It’s an organic system, to be sure.

        • Mark Mev Says:

          Actual numbers on China’s building of solar, wind, hydro and nuclear:

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Inland water has become very unreliable (where it existed at all), so if the only NPPs they’re building are cool-water-dependent that automatically constricts their siting options (and AIUI their dry nuke program is floundering).

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          “The difference is that you can usually choose which ~8% of the time you don’t need the power.”
          Which has nothing to do with aging out of early generation (or even modern generation) wind turbines.

          “If you have two reactors…”
          which take forever to finance and build
          “…you shut one in spring, when demand’s low”
          Demand is low in the middle of the night, which is why utilities have implemented time-shifting programs (like getting commercial buildings to use the excess power to make ice for daytime cooling). Ice is a form of storage, you know.

          “…a specialist team refuels it and does maintenance…”
          Where do you buy this fuel? Is the maintenance part where if they find unexpected pipe cracks causing several months of delay?

          “…a month later you restart it and the team goes to work on the other one.”
          Wind turbine maintenance typically happens once every couple of years, with the other turbines on the farm continuing to run while each is individually inspected, cleaned and lubed. I guess the gearing lube is analogous to the reactor refueling. Also, the technicians for wind farms need to be physically fit.

          As for wind turbines, they have no usable waste heat.

          In case you haven’t noticed, China’s power grid is not balkanized into overlapping jurisdictions and utility companies. They can site power plants wherever they want (like the TVA displacing towns for last century’s dams and reservoirs, and any local authority the Chinese don’t like is readily dealt with. For them, building nukes is a different cost/benefit calculation.

      • John Oneill Says:

        ..you mean, 20 years of working 40% of the time. While Grandpa
        Nuke down the road is still chugging along at the same 90% plus he was getting when the wind farm was built.
        Actually, warranty problems are one reason the big European and US wind turbine manufacturers have been losing so many billions lately. (Goldwind, the Chinese wind giant, actually has a higher failure rate, but it hasn’t slowed them down much.) https://www.warrantyweek.com/archive/ww20230309.html

        • ecoquant Says:

          Yeah but as I wrote how much CO2 did Grandpa Nuke emit to get there?

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            “Grandpa nukes” have long ago met their carbon payback.

            The issue is the construction of new NPPs now, when we are in a race against time to pull down emissions. Solar and wind have construction carbon payback well within a year of operation and therefore quickly contribute to emission reduction.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          From that link:
          “The industry has been scaling on two fronts: number of wind farms, and turbine size and efficiency. More turbines are being produced and installed, and the machines themselves continue to get bigger. There is obvious appeal to producing larger, lighter, and more aerodynamic blades. They are much more cost-effective, contributing to the steep decrease in the cost of each unit of wind-produced electricity.

          Recently, one word in SDG 7 has been complicating things: reliable. This quick growth has left room for failure, with many questioning whether the industry has gotten ‘too big, too fast.'”

          I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few wind turbine companies go belly up (or be bought out) as the pioneers shake out. Still, the production volume and design turnaround times of wind turbines has me confident that the tech will evolve to be more resilient. What matters is they’re continuing to provide cheap energy out of thin air, and the industry as a whole will continue to grow.

  6. mbrysonb Says:

    The history of construction delays and “challenges” (maybe better called failures), safety concerns about operation, waste management and disposal, and the huge cost overruns of nuclear plants (not to mention the early, absurd promises of practically free electricity) leaves me in considerable doubt about nuclear energy.

    Replacing retiring windmills is certainly a lot easier to do than replacing retiring nuclear plants (along with the fuel waste worries)– and such projects are straightforward, with reliable timelines and costs, and

    There has been huge government investment in nuclear over long periods of time. New designs for small ‘modular’ plants may be a better path, but they too have seen serious development delays. The temptation of nuclear is obvious — immense amounts of energy from (comparatively) tiny amounts of ‘fuel’. But the project has a long history of cost over-run, promises of new designs continue to be kicked down the timeline and long term waste worries.

    I’m not an expert, but I am a long time observer…

    • ecoquant Says:

      Anyone seen a chart which gives $/kWh and kg-CO2/kWh including all construction cost factored by technology. I understand the attraction of nuclear but I also think once they are built and qualified (and waste is accounted for by burial or whatever) they have emitted a lot of the CO2 they were supposed to save, in truck and train exhaust and in cement production.

      • John Oneill Says:

        Electricity Maps gives the carbon footprint per kilowatt-hour for each power source, calculated for the circumstances of each particular grid. You can also easily check the average CO2/kWh over the last 30 days, year, or 5 years-
        The carbon footprint for nuclear has come down a lot since the seventies. France used to have three reactors working full time for the diffusion separators enriching uranium 235 out of natural uranium(99.3% U238) to power the other 53. Centrifuges are fifty times more efficient, so now one can do the job, during low demand times. Average capacity factors for US reactors have gone up from 70% in 1991, to over 90% 2001, and assumed life expectancy is now 80 years – that alone nearly halves the carbon footprint from a 40 year lifespan. A train wagon full of uranium fuel is enough to power a plant for a year and a half. Coal takes about a hundred train wagons a day for the same energy output.
        Wind takes about ten times as much concrete and steel per megawatt hour produced as nuclear. A reactor is massive, but it can match about 200x 5MW wind turbines – and that’s when the wind’s blowing its mammary glands off. Each turbine needs about nine hundred tonnes of steel, plus two thousand tonnes of concrete for its base mat. Overbuilding can help with the intermittency of wind and solar, to some extent, but that also means a lower average capacity factor – in an all-renewables scenario, a lot of power would be curtailed.

        • ecoquant Says:

          Table 3.5 of Jacobson (2021) indicates CO2 emissions for nuclear over 100 years are 9x to 37x larger than comparable land-based wind, pages 95-96.

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