Nuclear Power: Has the Time Finally Come?

Commercial nuclear power emerged in the mid-1950s, to great enthusiasm. The Eisenhower administration promoted it as a major part of its Atoms for Peace program.  There was talk about ‘electricity too cheap to meter,’ and about making the world’s deserts bloom via nuclear-powered desalination.

And quite a few commercial nuclear plants were indeed built and put into operation.  In the US, there are presently 93 commercial reactors with aggregate capacity of 95 gigawatts, accounting for about 20% of America’s electricity generation.  But overall, adoption of commercial nuclear power has not met early expectations.  Costs have been much higher than were  expected.  There have been great public concerns about safety, stemming originally from the association of nuclear power and nuclear weapons as well as by practical concerns and then supercharged by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and then by Chernobyl (1986) and the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  Permitting and construction times have been long and  unpredictable, driven by the public concerns as well as by the general growth of regulation and litigation in the US and the custom, one-off manner in which these plants have been constructed.

There are reasons to believe that the stalled state of nuclear power may be about to change.  Some factors are:

Concerns about CO2 emissions, combined with increasing realization of the intermittent nature of wind/solar energy, point to nuclear as a solution that could be both practical and politically acceptable.  Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas, the downside of which has been strongly pointed out by recent events, further builds the case for nuclear on that continent.  Politicians are feeling cornered between their promises of green-ness, the now-obvious dangers of energy dependency, and the need to not do too much economic damage if they want to get reelected.  Some will turn to nuclear.

The Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation are now a long way behind us–surely there are many fewer people who have nightmares about mushroom clouds than there were in, say, 1985.  (Although this point has been partially negated by Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling and by the battles around the Chernobyl area–still, I don’t believe nuclear fears are anywhere near the original-cold-war level)

The French experience with nuclear power, from which it generates about 70% of its electricity, helps build credibility for nuclear as a practical and safe energy source.  Also, the US Navy’s successful operation of nuclear submarines and other ships over several decades.

The downsides of wind and solar in terms of their very considerable land use as well as their fluctuating outputs, are being better understood as a result of experience.  Starry-eyed views of a new technology often become a little less starry-eyed following actual experience with its downsides.

New-generation nuclear plants which can be largely built in factories, substantially reducing the on-site construction time and effort required and potentially reducing the capital costs per kilowatt, are being developed.  The greater standardization, as compared with one-off construction, will hopefully also reduce licensing problems and delays.  Very importantly, most of the reactors are designed to avoid meltdown situations even if left unattended and without backup power.

Most of the new plant designs are of a type called Small Modular Reactors, although the definition of ‘small’ varies from case to case.  Companies in this space include the GE-Hitachi joint venture, a private company called NuScale (soon to go public via a SPAC), Rolls-Royce, the Canadian company ARC Energy, and a consortium of French companies developing a product to be called Nuwber.  I’ll discuss some of those SMR products in more detail later in this post.  There is also interesting work being done at Terra Power (Bill Gates is founder and chairman), which will probably merit a separate post, and on designs using thorium rather than uranium as a fuel.

The products which seem furthest along toward commercial adoption are the modular design from NuScale and the BWRX-300 from GE-Hitachi.

Some deals which are signed or in process:

–In Utah, NuScale plans to deploy their system for an organization called UAMPS (wholesale power services)

–In Romania, NuScale has a deal with SN Nuclearelectrica for a 6-module unit.

–In Canada, Ontario Power has picked the GE-Hitachi system for its first nuclear site–they ultimately plan to install up to 4 reactors there.

–In Poland, GEH has a letter of intent for up to 4 BWRX-300s to be installed by Synthos Green Energy.  Also in Poland, NuScale is working with KGHM, a leader in copper and silver production–sounds like this application is for industrial energy rather than for grid electricity.

–In Estonia,  Fermi Energia OÜ is moving toward deployment of a BWRX-300.

–The US Tennessee Valley Authority has embarked on a program to install several SMRs at its Clinch River site, starting with the BWRX-300.

The CEO of Duke Energy, Lynn Good, says that the company is talking to GE-Hitachi and NuScale as well as TerraPower and Holtec International about SMRs and advanced nuclear with storage capability.

Despite the traction, however, numerous challenges remain for nuclear.

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Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

A list of common cognitive biases

Formative experiences persist over long spans of time

The current status of artificial intelligence in medicine

Related: Limitations of neural networks   Also: Playing against AI can improve the abilities of human Go players.

The realities of energy storage.  I have observed that very few journalists comprehend the difference between a Kw and a Kwh–and why it matters.  (And this includes business and technology journalists.)

Paul Graham, at twitter:

Putin’s bungled invasion shows us that democracy’s greatest advantage, in the long term, is simply its “guarantee that leaders are regularly replaced.”  He was responding to this article.

Some people create or discover new things. Some enforce social norms. There is little overlap between the two.

Graham (who is one of the very few venture capitalists to have attended art school) also recommends this art history thread.

Heuristics for Ukraine (and other places)

NB: some of the following is from a recent videoconference that included our own Trent Telenko, who is very much the man of the hour, but some of it is more publicly available, not to mention common sense. First, though, as is my wont, a quadrant diagram to organize my presentation …

I. Theater “Hardware” (physical assets/consequences)

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Deliberate Disempowerment

Here’s the great French scientist Sadi Carnot, writing in 1824:

To take away England’s steam engines to-day would amount to robbing her of her iron and coal, to drying up her sources of wealth, to ruining her means of prosperity and destroying her great power. The destruction of her shipping, commonly regarded as her source of strength, would perhaps be less disastrous for her.

The wealth and power of a country are strongly related to its energy resources, whether those resources take the form of human slaves, steam engines, hydroelectric dams, oil and gas wells, or nuclear reactors.  The fact that Russia possesses energy resources on which many other countries depend has been an enormous factor in that country’s ability to invade Ukraine and in Putin’s belief that the world will let him get away with it.

Wealth and power are sought, in one form or another, by most people.  Showing James Boswell around the Boulton & Watt steam engine factory in 1776, Matthew Boulton summed up his business one simple phrase:

I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have–POWER.

Yet the leaders of the West have, with few exceptions, chosen to reduce the relative power of their countries through their opposition to fossil fuel production and use combined with hostility toward further development of nuclear energy—or even the continued operation of existing nuclear plants.  There has been little evidence of serious thinking about realistic limitations of intermittent power sources, even as countries have rushed to make themselves dependent on such sources…nor is there much evidence of serious thinking about the critical-mineral dependencies created by a large-scale switch to wind, solar, and batteries.

So what explains the choice of this path? Has mechanical power ceased to be an important factor in political power, in the destinies of nations?  Hardly, as the Russia/Ukraine example makes clear.  Or do we somehow have a generation of leaders who don’t care about political power?  That, clearly, is also not the case…at least as far as the personal political power of those leaders goes.

I think there are several factors at work:

First, there is the widespread scientific and technical ignorance among political leaders and influential media people.  I’ve noticed, for example, that American media coverage of energy storage projects almost always refers to kilowatts, megawatts, and gigawatts as if these terms indicate the storage capacity of a battery or other storage system. They do not.   (A 100 megawatt storage system may provide 1 hour, 4 hours, or 20 hours worth of 100-megawatt electricity depending on its megawatt-hour rating. Measuring electrical storage capacity in megawatts is like measuring the capacity of your car’s gas tank in horsepower.)   More generally, there is a widespread failure to comprehend just how difficult and expensive it is to store large quantities of electricity and an assumption that if we invest enough in wind and solar, the power will be available on winter nights and in the middle of prolonged snowstorms, ‘somehow’.

Second, there has been a general de-emphasis on the physical attributes of the economy under the belief that we are now in a ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’, or ‘post-industrial’ age. Enterprises and people dealing with physical things have lost political power relative to those that deal in words, images, and code. The Western leaders of 1950, or even 1970, would have been a lot more cautious about deliberately creating energy dependency on a likely-hostile power.

Third, many politicians–and many of the academics and other “experts” advising them–simply do not identify closely with their own nations and with the people and culture of those nations. This is also true of a high proportion of influential media figures.  There is a strong thread of belief in the U.S. Democratic Party that America is too wealthy, too powerful, too dangerous–that it is country that is “just downright mean,” in the words of a former First Lady. The same is true of much of the Left in other Western countries.  And if you think these things about a country and its people, you’re not likely to want to increase–or even sustain–its power.

That’s true especially if you decouple the power of your country from your own personal power and well-being. And I think “progressive” politicians, and many members of academic and even business elites, often do see themselves as inhabiting a transnational space in which their personal well-being is not strongly coupled to that of their countries.

Fourth, in a world in which organized religion has become increasingly marginal, there are a lot of people looking for causes in which to believe. ‘Green energy’ is such a cause, and the specter of Climate Change gives it apocalyptic power.  And when people believe they are facing the apocalypse—that the planet is soon going to burn—they’re not likely to look too carefully at those things advertised to avoid the burning.

Fifth, societies across the western world have become much more risk-averse.  The question of why this shift has occurred, and of its positive and negative attributes, merits a separate article—but it’s pretty obvious that it has happened.  And the consequences for energy development have been very significant, particularly in the case of nuclear energy.

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