The problem with nuclear
Why nuclear power will struggle to keep up with a rapid clean energy transition
Last week I explored the reasons behind my transition from being fiercely anti-nuclear to a supporter of the technology. It all boils down to the crucial role it plays in helping us move away from fossil fuels.
In this second installment of my four-part series on nuclear power, I’ll discuss what I perceive as its three main challenges:
Strong anti-nuclear sentiment
High capital costs and financing risks
Due to the reasons above, nuclear cannot scale quickly enough
What people think about nuclear
The top two concerns people cite about nuclear power are the risk of meltdowns and nuclear waste. I discussed the former extensively in my last post, and the latter will be the focus of an upcoming piece, so here I’d like to explore what we know about public perception.
Opinion polls can be unreliable, with responses varying significantly depending on how the question is posed. However, in terms of gauging public sentiment, that’s the best we have. As far as I can tell, public support for nuclear dipped worldwide after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 but has been increasing again as concerns about climate change become more mainstream.
In the United States, 51% are in support.
Britain appears more favorable, with 65% support.
Surprisingly, support in Japan has rebounded to 53%.
South Korea has slight favorability at 56%.
Germany saw a shift during last winter’s energy concerns, with 41% in support then.
Sweden has only 31% in support.
Canada has 59% support for reactors within one’s province, but the NIMBY (not in my backyard) force is strong there too.
Nigeria, soon joining the nuclear club, registers 56% support.
While public opinion seems mildly supportive, those are all small majorities. Anti-nuclear sentiment remains potent in many countries, especially among left-of-center voters who, crucially, are also the ones driving much of the climate policy worldwide.
The challenge of building big things
Constructing a nuclear power plant is an enormous project, and as anyone who has ever built a house or undertaken major renovations will tell you, large projects often suffer from delays and budget overruns.
For instance, the new Vogtle reactors in Georgia are the first to be built in the United States in over 30 years. Construction began in 2012, and they have recently started operating after a delay of 5 years and $30 billion in costs, double the original budget. Ouch.
However, the data tells a somewhat different story. Hannah Ritchie examined all available data for reactor construction times and determined that extremely long projects (>10 years) are the exception. Her detailed findings are worth a read:
Whether or not nuclear projects are plagued by lengthy delays, the reality is that the countries that led the nuclear build-out between the 1950s and 1980s are not constructing nearly enough reactors to replace their retiring fleets. The few exceptions, like Vogtle, end up grabbing headlines for billions in overruns, bankruptcies, government rescues, and before you know it, the markets lose confidence in financing new plants.
Where nuclear is being built today
Despite the troubles with mega-construction projects, nuclear power is growing.
Today, 10% of the world’s electricity is generated by around 420 nuclear reactors in 33 countries. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) lists 57 reactors under construction, two thirds of them located in China, India, Turkey, Russia, and South Korea. The nuclear club is growing further, with several countries in Africa, South Asia, and South America starting or re-starting their commercial programs. By 2050, the IAEA expects global nuclear generating capacity to more than double, with the share of electricity rising to 14%.
Where nuclear is not being built today is Europe and North America, with only a combined 4 reactors under construction. Additionally, most reactors in these two continents are aging, with some built as far back as the 1970s. They will need to be decommissioned soon and, with few new reactors planned, over the next two decades we will witness a large-scale phase-out of nuclear power in the West.
This is made evident by one of Ritchie’s charts. Observe how the distribution of new reactors shifts over time from North America and Europe to Asia, after project delays creep up in the mid 1980s.
Now, to illustrate an interesting case of nuclear power in decline, I want to talk about Germany.
The curious case of Germany
Germany was once at the forefront of the nuclear industry. In the 1990s, German-engineered reactors were supplying nearly 30% of domestic electricity needs, and the technology was a valuable export to many countries. However, strong anti-nuclear sentiment at home persisted since the early days of the technology, and in 2000, the government announced the intention to phase out nuclear power entirely, alongside an aggressive uptake in renewable energy.
Let’s give credit where it is due, though, and Germany deserves praise. Its groundbreaking Renewable Energy Sources Act gave rise to a rapid deployment of wind, solar, and biomass/biogas across the country. It was an ambitious clean energy plan at a time when most of the world was in still a state of climate change denial. The plan led to a precipitous drop in the global cost of solar power. Germany deserves a lot of credit for solar PV becoming the cheapest form of energy production in the world today (the other major contributor being China, responsible for scaling manufacturing.)
Despite that, Germany is facing challenges on the energy front. Let’s draw a comparison to France, a country broadly similar in geography, land size, population, GDP per capita, electricity needs, weather, and natural resources. But very different energy strategies:
Germany’s grid is 49% clean, including 6% from the three nuclear reactors still in operation (all scheduled for shutdown in April 2023.) Quite respectable, but the decision to end nuclear was also a decision to rely on Russian gas, increasingly exposing Germany’s baseload power to dicey geopolitics. Consequently, there was a recent increase in coal use from 23% to 31% of the energy mix (with support from the Green Party, no less) as Germans rush to make up for the loss in generating capacity and the sudden yet predictable cut of methane supply from Russia.
In contrast, France’s grid is 79% clean, despite a much slower adoption of renewables. France is also showing the world what the end of the coal era looks like: coal power has been at or below 5% for over twenty years and under 1% since 2019. Not to mention France’s energy independence compared to its neighbor to the northeast.
Overall, despite a high penetration of renewables in the grid, Germany emits nearly five times more CO2 per unit of electricity than France. Without nuclear or hydro as an option, Germany seems destined to either massively overbuild renewable capacity or continue to burn fossil fuels for a very long time.
What is next for nuclear power?
Despite my enthusiasm for nuclear fission as a clean, safe, reliable, scalable, and environmentally friendly source of energy that can underpin a large-scale rollout of renewables everywhere, I am skeptical that it will play a significant role in its present form of large, high-capacity reactors.
It is difficult to see how we can overcome the negative public sentiment and our inability to build big infrastructure. The world needs a lot more clean energy quickly, and I am not prepared to bank our climate future on mega-projects that risk decades-long delays and tens of billions of dollars in budget overruns.
Additionally, the risk of meltdowns, however small, cannot be ignored. If the entire world’s electricity mix were to follow France’s example, we would need something in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 reactors worldwide (assuming 1-gigawatt reactors providing ~65% of generating capacity, a total of 5 terawatts today and 10 terawatts in 2050.) In that scenario, low probability events like natural disasters and human or computer errors would pose a more frequent danger. If enough of them accumulate, we could be facing a human tragedy and a global pushback of a scale that could jeopardize the fight against climate change.
Thankfully, not even the most ardent nuclear enthusiasts desire such a future. As for me, I continue to see nuclear power as a valuable tool that can encourage more renewables and help eliminate fossil fuels from the grid.
How to make that happen? A new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) promises to spark a nuclear renaissance by eliminating risks of meltdown and fixing the economics through mass-production of reactors.
In the next article in this series I will discuss the hype and the reality of SMRs.
Radiate more knowledge
Just three videos today, all well worth your valuable time.
The best explanation I’ve found for why natural gas economics have such an advantage over nuclear, even when in the long run nuclear is significantly more profitable and generates cheaper electricity with infinitely less pollution. Did I mention that capitalism is screwed up?
This overview of the troubles building the new Vogtle reactors is a fascinating peek at the construction of a nuclear plant
The always excellent Kurzgesagt on whether nuclear is needed to solve climate change.
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