A powerful way to convince people of a policy, is to get them to believe they understand the policy’s disadvantages. People believe they understand the disadvantages of nuclear power: radioactive waste, and the possibility of catastrophe. Skeptical/sciencey people tend to think these disadvantages are small, because they know people often give too much weight to highly unlikely outcomes. But in fact, the main thing holding back nuclear power, is that it’s not economically competitive.
Public understanding of nuclear power is based on decades of political debate, with one side arguing that nuclear power is much cleaner than the alternatives, and the other side pointing to catastrophes like Chernobyl or Fukushima. I recall being taught these advantages and disadvantages in grade school science classes. They were also encoded into Sim City. But in the real world, the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources are not timeless. They depend on the details of the technology. It is not possible to understand a complex and ever-changing issue based on what you were taught in grade school.
If you take nothing else away, I would like to at least persuade you of this: a) you don’t understand the disadvantages of nuclear power as well as you thought, and b) your position of “more nuclear power” should be updated to “nuclear power is an option that experts should consider”. If you’d like to learn more, read on.
There are three main ways to invest in nuclear power. First, we can use existing nuclear power plants. Second, we can build new power plants. Third, we can invest in R&D to make better power plants. According to the paper, “US nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge“, existing nuclear power plants are slowly closing due to a failure to keep up with the market. New large nuclear power plants are unviable, and R&D is unlikely to change that in the near future. New small power plants are the most viable option, but the authors reluctantly conclude that they are not viable either. You can read all this in the abstract.
I found that paper via an article by the Environmental Working Group, “The Economic Viability of Nuclear Power Is Only Going Down“. The article also notes that renewable energy sources are now economically competitive, and even surpass nuclear power:
But unlike nuclear power, the costs of wind and solar have dropped dramatically, to the point where the cost of new, unsubsidized utility-scale wind and solar power investment can now compete with that of existing coal and nuclear power plants.
Here’s another source, a 2008 Time magazine article, “Is Nuclear Power Viable?” They cite Amory Lovins, a chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Lovins notes that the U.S. nuclear industry has received $100 billion in government subsidies over the past half-century, and that federal subsidies now worth up to $13 billion a plant — roughly how much it now costs to build one — still haven’t encouraged private industry to back the atomic revival. At the same time, the price of building a plant — all that concrete and steel — has risen dramatically in recent years, while the nuclear workforce has aged and shrunk. Nuclear supporters like Moore who argue that atomic plants are much cheaper than renewables tend to forget the sky-high capital costs, not to mention the huge liability risk of an accident — the insurance industry won’t cover a nuclear plant, so it’s up to government to do so.
You can read more of Lovins’ argument in his report, “The Nuclear Illusion“. It contains many technical details but the introduction at least is highly readable. Lovins says that the most favorable estimates for nuclear power are based on ignoring the capital costs of nuclear power, while including it in the cost estimate for alternatives.
The “capital cost” refers to the cost of building the power plants in the first place. A high capital cost implies a certain running cost, just based on interest rates (despite interest rates currently being at historic lows). And I’ll just say for all the socialists out there, capital costs are real, and not contingent on capitalism–labor used to build nuclear power plants is labor that could have been used to build or develop renewable energy sources.
I anticipate that readers will question my sources, which is fair–I’m not confident in my ability to vet energy researchers. But even in the worst case where you don’t believe a word of these sources, I hope you at least see that the main arguments are based on economic viability. It’s just out of date to think the argument is all about nuclear catastrophes.
consciousness razor says
Aren’t you saying though that its risks are a factor in what makes them less economically viable?
You mentioned that investors can’t depend on private insurance, and the various measures required to make them safe (in terms of security and the environment) definitely aren’t cheap either — by that I mean using existing technologies, doing R&D, regulatory actions, training, planning and assessment of the proposed sites, long-term waste storage/use, and so forth. I think the most irrational fears have died down since the early days. It’s easy to knock down the unhinged, ignorant hysteria from 50 odd years ago, but it doesn’t seem like much of an issue now, for the people actually making decisions about it.
So, sure, people shouldn’t be too scared of it in the abstract. But they shouldn’t be too worried only if it’s done right, which carries with it a significant cost. If somebody thinks they have a quick and dirty way to cut those costs, then we have reason to be very worried all over again.
Yes, I agree.
Jenora Feuer says
My understanding is that the regulatory environment is a good chunk of what makes nuclear power less viable. Not the actual safety issues so much as the fact that the regulations have outdated technology baked in to the specifications, and there’s no political will to fix the issue. New plants would have to be built with decades-old technology because that’s all that is allowed, and that (on top of the NIMBY issues) not only help make sure nobody even wants to build a new plant, but it keeps the ‘state of good repair’ costs for existing plants on an increasing spiral.
(I currently live in Ontario, which has a bit over half of its power provided by three nuclear power plants. All are old. I grew up in British Columbia, which has no nuclear power, a policy not to develop it, and relies primarily on hydro-electric generation, which works because the province is mostly mountains anyway.)
OK, i’m sure i’m not up to the minute on what sciencey people’s opinions of nuclear power are. but, if anyone’s feeling didactic um, why is it again that people, or maybe decision makers, should not be swayed by the issues of waste disposal and catastrophes?? Did we figure out how to dispose of or recycle radioactive waste? also, Fukushima Daiichi was pretty bad I think? or was it really an overblown media hysteria thing. it feels like such a loaded topic i’ve basically avoided reading up on it, very maturely.
(again, far from literate about these topics. I tend to think of energy in emotional terms, because lazy. and, fwiw i do tend to think of global warming as scarier than radioactive catastrophe, based on a couple books i’ve read or whatever. sorry i dont mean to flaunt my ignorance, but i’m genuinely interested in the underpinning argument here that waste and meltdowns are outdated concerns and i feel silly for being so surprised that it sounds like such a given in this article)
@Jenora Feuer #3,
From what I’ve read, nuclear power is declining all over the world, including in countries that are very friendly to nuclear, such as France.
If you think nuclear waste disposal and catastrophes are still important, don’t let me stop you from thinking that! However, I will say that it has to be compared to the negative effects of producing the same amount of energy with, say, oil. The effects of pollution from oil power might be less flashy than those from nuclear waste, but they’re still a big deal. But I haven’t done the research, so all I can say is, I hope the experts take it into consideration.
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
Yep, the one thing that Enlightenment Liberal is certainly correct about in these repeated debates is that the pollution from coal-fired plants kills thousands every year.
We, for some reason, seem to accept this as a society. My guess is that this is because of the obvious savings to life and health that come from widespread electrification. Electrification makes possible the use of innumerable tools – not least refrigeration – that aid health through improving food distribution and storage which both means less starvation and malnutrition and also the eating of less contaminated/spoiled food. Electrification of an area using coal-fired plants routinely coincided with mortality/morbidity drops in the local population. In other words, the quantifiable risks from coal were, at the time, more than justifiable for the advantages gained from electrification.
Moving forward, then, if the only options in an area are 1) replacing existing coal-fired electricity generation with nuclear plants, 2) continued use of coal-fired plants, or 3) elimination of electrical service, then obviously we should choose #1 and build nuclear plants.
However, those aren’t necessarily the only options. Removing coal-fired plants is a necessity for reducing damage to climate but also for simple human health: the particulates and sulfur-compounds are terrible for human health even apart from any issues associated with greenhouse gasses.
Given this, we probably would have been much better off as a society if we had continued researching and building nuclear power plants after the 3-Mile Island accident. This doesn’t mean that nuclear power would have caused no problems had it ramped up its share of caseload electrical power, but rather that it would have replaced the problems of coal with serious, but still small problems related to nuclear power.
The political, technological, economic, and literal environments, however, have continued to change. In this time there are a great many variables and a great many considerations. In the Canarias, for instance, the mountainous, volcanic geology, easy availability of wind-power, and heavy economic dependence on local ocean health made a wind-heavy mix of wind and solar power backed up by pumped hydro a natural choice.
These kinds of local decisions seem to require a great deal more expertise than I have, and if experts decided that the best project for maintaining a power grid or for new electrification in previously un-electrified territory was a nuke plant, I’d be very unlikely to oppose it.
But yes, also in line with the general argument of the OP, my understanding is that many locations have determined that nuclear power is unacceptable for economic reasons, rather than reasons of pollution, waste or other factors that we think of as unique to nuclear power.
I’m always going to be a hard sell on nuclear power since the only experience I’ve had with it is Rancho Seco, a lemon of a plant if there ever was one. It cost 2 billion to build and decommission (in 2018 dollars), and we got 14 years of service out of it – a little under six years if you consider it was only up and running about 40% of the time. Only three years after it went online we had the 3rd worst nuclear accident in US history, and there were radioactive steam releases and other mishaps after that. I don’t really think we got our money’s worth out of it.
Whatever improvements in technology have occurred since then, I just don’t see the people in this area ever being on board for nuclear again.
We’re also still cleaning up after Aerojet and two military bases, and while those don’t have anything to do with nuclear, it kinda leaves us pretty skeptical about the efficacy of government engineering and oversight when it comes to safety and environmental hazards.
The great damage caused by that and other games’ approach to nuclear plants is that they taught, or at least reinforced, the most erroneous anti-nuclear propaganda point: that nuclear reactors are capricious, and that it is a near inevitability that they will pop given time. It took a long time to see through that one.
What about Thorium reactors maybe?
To Crip Dyke
Excellent points. I agree with basically all of that except for the implicit/explicit(?) assertion that most of the world can do what the Canaries did.
One important correction: it’s not “thousands per year” dead from airborne particulates worldwide. It’s millions per year. 7 million per year. One out of every 8 deaths worldwide is directly attributable to airborne particulate pollution.
I’m not alone on many of these points. This is the expert consensus.
James Hansen, the famous climate scientist, said that believing that renewables could replace fossil fuels is like believing in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.
James Hansen has also said that the Green movement is quasi-religious.
James Hansen is right. The Green movement is a religious cult. The Greens are right about the dangers of global warming and ocean acidification, but the Green movement is wrong about basically everything else.
Leading climate scientist Kerry Emanuel has said “The anti-nuclear bias of this latest IPCC release is rather blatant, and reflects the ideology of the environmental movement. History may record that this was more of an impediment to decarbonization than climate denial”.
Several other preeminent climate scientists have also come out in favor of nuclear power: Dr James Hansen, Dr. Ken Caldeira, Dr. Kerry Emanuel, and Dr. Tom Wigley.
Dozens more scientists who are regularly cited by the IPCC have also come out publicly in favor of nuclear power.
The best survey that I can find of scientists show that there is a slim majority of scientists in favor of nuclear power.
It’s the renewables position that is fringe in the scientific community.
The problem is that most of the Green leadership seem, IMAO, to be more than ready to be “liars for Jesus”. Amory Lovins is one of the foremost “liars for Jesus”. Amory Lovins is a crank, just like the rest of the Green energy movement.
Here’s some quotes from Lovins:
In short, Amory Lovins subscribes to a wrong-headed notion that giving humanity more energy means that they will grow in population more quickly and also destroy the environment more quickly. It’s a Malthusian mindset.
It’s a scam. The Green energy movement is a scam, and it’s a scam that’s close to 50 years old. These same people have been telling the public that renewables are almost ready or already ready for close to 50 years now.
This is another lie that has been perpetuated by the Green movement cult. Nuclear is expensive because the Greens succeeded in their plan to make nuclear expensive.
Nuclear costs so much in the west in large part because of the needless safety regulations.
Nuclear is also expensive because of legal delaying tactics by Greens also drive up nuclear costs.
Nuclear is also less profitable in many current western countries because the markets have been carefully regulated in order to favor solar and wind and natural gas.
The net result? Nuclear in a country that does it propery, i.e. South Korea, is about 4x to 8x cheaper than nuclear in the west. This is also due to other differences, i.e. having the same people build the same design over and over again, to gain lurving curve cost reductions.
The link above is also important because it shows the massive 3x cost increase that happened right after The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island which happened mere days after the release of the film. Nuclear is expensive in countries that choose to make it expensive.
PS: I also forgot about the green target legislation in many US states and other countries that mandate a certain percentage of electricity be from non nuclear green sources. How can nuclear compete when it’s pit at such a huge lawful disadvantage. This ties in heavily with my article above concerning how the electricity markets have been carefully crafted to favor solar, wind, and natural gas, and disfavor nuclear.