Screwing The Pooch

For the last couple of days I’ve been doing some self-education about the current state of nuclear energy systems and deployment. I’m a bit grumpy about this topic, now, because I feel like I’ve been played: I made a good faith attempt to see what kind of great new, efficient, safe, stuff has been coming down the pike and I was disappointed to find out there’s a lot of aspirational press releases and a great deal of ongoing research. It’s impossible for me not to see the situation as similar to fusion energy or generalized artificial intelligence: we need more money and more time but we’re gonna kick this thing’s ass in 30 years. Assuming we still have a technological civilization in 30 years.


Atlanta-based Southern Co. has announced that completion of two new Georgia nuclear power reactors that were once promoted as the leading edge of what would be a torrent of new nuclear power plants in the United States has once again been delayed. The project has suffered from extended testing and inspections, poor construction, time spent redoing substandard work, and the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the company that designed the reactors.

When the concrete foundations were poured in 2009, it was estimated the Georgia reactors would cost $14 billion. One was scheduled to come on line in 2016, the other in 2017. Now, with the final cost expected to hit at least $28.5 billion, company officials say June 2022 and sometime in 2023 are the expected start-up dates. Every month’s delay costs $90 million in capital costs.

That doesn’t sound good, because it’s not. Having the company that is supposed to be building/delivering your extremely expensive ${thing} go bankrupt in the process is a gigantic neon red flag. They mustn’t be doing well at whatever it is they’re making, or the economics of the market have shifted, and that may indicate that the whole project is a bad idea. The F-35, of course, immediately leaps to mind – because that’s an F-35esque set of cost and schedule overruns.

I’ll also mention here that Westinghouse is the developer of the AP-1000, a next-generation nuclear reactor that was discussed in my recent posting [stderr] engaging GerrardOfTitanServer’s beliefs regarding the importance of nuclear energy for humanity’s future. I happen to agree with GerrardOfTitanServer, as does (apparently) most of the commentariat(tm) here that nuclear energy is going to be an important component of humanity’s response to its disastrous over-dependence on fossil fuels. The AP-1000 was mentioned (by GerrardOfTitanServer) as an example of existing next-generation reactor designs that are available, today.

As long as you’re not Georgia, and you don’t mind paying twice what you originally agreed to, and having a schedule overrun of 5 years (and counting). These are those “available” and ready to go AP-1000s that GerrardOfTitanServer asserts a) exist and b) should be compared as competitive to other renewable technologies such as solar, and wind. Since the reactors’ construction was started in 2009 (12 years ago) and they were supposed to be functional in 2016 (5 years ago) they have experienced a schedule overrun of 41%, which is definitely in F-35 territory.

In reading the sad story of the Georgia nukes, I noticed another thing: how they are financed. When a local energy company around here finances a new windmill, they raise money from investors or take a loan and build the windmill. That’s reasonable enough, because windmills don’t cost billions of dollars (point in favor of windmills) of course they don’t produce as much energy, or waste. It gets complicated to make head-to-hear cost/benefit comparisons, though, when the development cost/deployment time-line of one of the things you’re comparing is unrealized. I don’t think it’d be unfair for me to say that with these large-scale engineering projects, there is a risk factor that they may never succeed at all or that cost overruns may be unbounded. That’s … bad.

Unlike other reactors that have been custom-built on site, Westinghouse developed a modular design, built mostly offsite in a standard way. This, it was asserted, would allow a much faster buildout, make inspections easier, cost less than other nukes in the past, and spur previously reluctant investors to take on funding more nuclear power plants after the drought of new projects following the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. It has hardly worked out that way. Two more of the Westinghouse reactors being built in South Carolina were shuttered less than half-finished in 2017 after the owners had blown through $10 billion. South Carolina utility customers will be paying for this fiasco for years to come even though the reactors never generated a nanowatt of electricity.

Do you see that? The little thingie-majigg danging between the lines there? The utility’s customers are on the hook to pay for it. It’s the same in Georgia as in South Carolina: the state negotiated with Westinghouse then passed legislation allowing the power company to raise customer rates to pay down for the reactors as they were being built.

The modular design of the reactors – I don’t think you can call something “modular” when building it involves cubic acres of specialized concrete-pouring – does not appear to have kept the cost down or the deployment speed up. In principle, the idea sounds good but the reality sounds terrifyingly F-35-like: you have new features being added into the designs where possible, because the design is a moving target, and then backward compatibility and part availability for the retro designs becomes a problem. If you’re congress buying a bunch of new F-35s you just shrug and scrap the old ones (after all, taxpayers paid for them…) but you can’t do that with a reactor; you’re into the Land of Stepwise Refinement which, if you have any experience with engineering at all, looks a lot like Mordor and smells like a pig farm.

The grim and blasted land of Stepwise Refinement, with the Tower of Agile Development on the left and the Mountain of Burning Budget on the right

The cost of those reactors, for Georgia taxpayers, was an average addition of $10/month which means that, because public funding was used, the poor paid the same amount for the reactors as did the rich, more or less. It makes me wonder if the state of Georgia would have been more “on the ball” about cost containment if they hadn’t been able to pass all the risk of failure on to the taxpayers in advance of anything going wrong. When you spend huge amounts of money on a process that results in disasters spending more doesn’t reduce your likelihood of a disaster it just produces bigger, more expensive disasters.

What’s frustrating to me is, in all seriousness, the US needs those nukes. And the boffins at Westinghouse and the energy companies have failed horribly and shit the hot tub for nuclear power. That’s going to give everyone very pointed and important questions to ask every time anyone says “hey! let’s build a nuclear power-plant!” Yeah, but it’s gonna be modular. Oh come on, pull the other one it’s got bells on it.

Oh, yeah, according to [wik] those reactors also go $8bn in federal loan guarantees. So it wasn’t just Georgia taxpayers on the hook. But it’s a measly $8bn. The F-35 program laughs at puny cost overruns like $8bn. On the other hand, F-35s can actually fly and are invisible which is 2 things more than the Georgia nuclear reactors do, which so far is: nothing. The loan guarantees were to prop up Westinghouse, which – to be fair – went bankrupt over the fuckage cost overruns of the Georgia reactor project.

Comparing the financial fallout and developmental fallout of these “modular” AP-1000 reactors to, say, wind and solar, I can understand why the billionaire energy investors are steering toward more cost-containable options. Also, I have to add: options that don’t run any risk of leaking radiation. Windmills can fail spectacularly but it’s one windmill at a time and the damage is contained to that windmill. I won’t belabor the point, but all is not rosy in nuclear-land. Not at all rosy. [gw]

With bipartisan support, on March 21, 2018, the Georgia Legislature passed SB 355, which will sunset the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act of 2009 for any future nuclear plants after January 2018.

I don’t know what the sound of a stake being driven into a vampire’s heart is, but that’s it. Basically, the Georgia legislature is so sick of itself authorizing such bad decisions that it wrote a law telling itself that it can’t do that. You’ve got to admire representative democracy. If you ever see it, that is. I’d also like to add that if there’s one way to make sure that voters hate nuclear energy it’s to pass legislation putting them financially on the hook for extremely expensive failed nuclear energy projects. I used the term “shit the hot tub” earlier because it’s crude and a bit shocking, but that’s how crude and shocking the financial rake-over the citizens of Georgia experienced has been. There aren’t going to be just a few scattered “greens” yelling “no new nukes!” after this, it’s going to be anyone in their right mind. Besides, capitalists ought to have their feet held to the fire and do their own investing in the means of production, so that they can justify raking off the profits. In this scenario it sounds suspiciously like the people of Georgia paid in advance for something they don’t own that they would get to pay for again when it actually began to produce. Karl Marx where are you when we need you? It sounds like the Georgians are doing socialism all wrong.

What’s fascinating about this whole mess is that there actually are several AP-1000s in operation. As [wik] says: “six are in operation or under construction” which is to say that besides the 2 in Georgia there are 4 actually working in China. (The 2 in South Carolina don’t count because they are no longer “under construction” they are just eyesores for urban explorers) So, perhaps the way that the government of China finances reactors is more conducive to effective reactor-building? Perhaps the Chinese don’t allow “greens”? Or perhaps they aren’t as concerned about the quality of the concrete. Or perhaps they offered to shoot a few Westinghouse executives. I wish I knew. But the fact is that the Chinese got 4 reactors on their grid and working and the US south will just have to rise again another time.

The Wikipedia page on AP-1000s is a litany of F-35esque failure. [wik] And, it’s significant – like with the F-35 you’ve got various countries looking at it then passing out from sticker shock or canceling the project because it’s starting to look like Georgia all over again. I.e.:

United Kingdom

In December 2013, Toshiba, through its Westinghouse subsidiary, purchased a 60% share of NuGeneration, with the intention of building three AP1000s at Moorside near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in Cumbria, England, with a target first operation date of 2024.

On 28 March 2017, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR, UK) issued a Design Acceptance Confirmation for the AP1000 design, stating that 51 issues identified in 2011 had received an adequate response. However, the following day the designer, Westinghouse, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. because of $9 billion of losses from its nuclear reactor construction projects, mostly the construction of four AP1000 reactors in the U.S. In 2018, following an unsuccessful attempt to sell NuGeneration Toshiba decided to liquidate the company and abandon the project.

Oh, oops, never mind.


In June 2016, the US and India agreed to build six AP1000 reactors in India as part of civil nuclear deal signed by both countries. Westinghouse’s parent company Toshiba decided in 2017 to withdraw from the construction of nuclear power plants, following financial difficulties, leaving the proposed agreement in doubt. During a visit to India in February 2020 by U.S. President Donald Trump, Westinghouse was expected to sign a new agreement with state-run Nuclear Power Corporation of India for the supply of six nuclear reactors. However, because of disagreements over liability and layout, this did not take place.

Oh, oops, never mind.

I understand that there is substantial “green” activism against nuclear power systems but the folks who really ought to be getting up in arms are the financial analysts. Sure enough:

Interestingly, the stock appears to have cratered when investors found out that Westinghouse had won the Georgia deal, or something. I’m not sure, but I can read a stock chart and Westinghouse will never have the financial clout to finance anything. Notice how this:


31.08.2021 In the presence of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the head of SE NNEGC Energoatom Petro Kotin and the President and Chief Executive Officer of Westinghouse Patrick Fragman signed a Memorandum of Cooperation providing for the deployment of Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in Ukraine. The Memorandum envisages Westinghouse’s participation in the completion of the Khmelnytskyy NPP power unit 4 using AP1000 technology as well as four more power units of other nuclear power plants in Ukraine.

… didn’t even bump the needle. The capitalists are, basically, saying “don’t be fooled again.” Goodbye Westinghouse, you beat Edison and ripped off Nicola Tesla* but your goose is finally cooked. Unfortunately for everyone. I wonder if the reactors in the south were situated in flood zones, but it’s probably not worth looking now.

------ divider ------

(* Westinghouse paid the impoverished Tesla $10,000 for the patent rights to electric motors)



  1. says

    Tethys said this in the earlier thread:

    Seriously, it’s like listening to my Dad, who spent his civil engineer career building coal plants and dams for the federal government. Stuck in a 50s mindset and not actually interested in dealing with the dire results of building coal plants because he might experience remorse over that fact.

    If Gerrard is actually being sincere about his own opinions, then that’s exactly the position he’s in, with the life/emotional investment being in nuclear instead of coal. But at this point it’s obvious he isn’t being sincere. His pathological hatred of “greens,” and his equally pathological hatred of people who don’t support nuclear power as exclusively as he does, very strongly indicate he’s a Republican hatemonger doing his bit to attack and undermine all progressive movements, and keep the majority divided and paralyzed. They’re blaming black people for racism, so why not blame environmental activists for environmental disasters while they’re at it?

    Also, Gerrard’s endless unstoppable walls o’ text are him following the first rule of a false prophet or charlatan: never stop talking! A dedicated con-artist never shuts up, never acknowledges anyone else’s rebuttals, and never changes his story. “You die with the lie,” as one of Will Smith’s movie characters said. Gerrard is a con-artist, and a major part of his shtick is posting endless masses of text to bury and obscure the blatant dishonesty and appeals to partisan hatred. We all need to recognize that this is part of a larger Republican strategy, and call it out and push back against it as such.

  2. StonedRanger says

    Or we could just refrain from giving Gerrard the attention they so desperately crave by ignoring them. Whatever.

  3. cvoinescu says

    What’s with this “next generation” megaproject overconfidence and hubris? We built the previous generation at the limit of our capabilities, give or take a bit. The more ambitious projects were, on average, less successful than the less ambitious ones (AGR, I’m looking at you). Why not crank out more of the ones we got right? They may not be the most efficient we can think of, but, if we’re honest about the risks, they may actually be, on the whole, the best option.

  4. Who Cares says

    Ugh. The sad thing is that we have an example of that it can be done on time (and close to budget).
    The French built 56 reactors in 15 years (granted the master plan was something like 170 reactors in 26 years, a goal that was never reached).

  5. Who Cares says

    The reason for newer designs is safety. Most of it in the form of passive safety systems instead of the active ones in the older designs. And then the reasoning is you might as well toss in efficiency, improved maintainability, cost reduction (*snort*) measures, etc..

  6. says

    The Chinese AP1000 reactors have not been exactly trouble-free. One required a replacement main pump which cost some ridiculous amount of time and effort since those are hardly off the shelf components.

  7. Dunc says

    Extra credit assignments:

    1: Look up the Washington Public Power Supply System bond default. (It’s the largest municipal bond default in history )
    2: Try and figure out how much the TMI incident actually cost, including capital write-offs, liabilities, and (most importantly) loss of anticipated future revenues, and compare that to what you could have earned on the same capital investment if you’d just put it all in T-bills and spent the rest of your life on the beach.

    It’s not a coincidence that the only countries with successful nuclear power programmes basically have the entire sector run by the state. As I’ve tried to argue extensively in the past, it’s not the greens that are the problem (nobody who matters gives the least shit what they think anyway), it’s capitalism.

    All those safely regulations introduced after TMI are about protecting the one really important thing: investors money. Nobody much cares if people die, as long as there’s money being made. From that perspective, it would have been better for the industry if TMI had killed a couple of thousand people, but kept operating for its design lifetime. You pay out the settlements and write it off as a cost of doing business, then keep counting your money.

  8. tuatara says

    Raging Bee at #1.

    That arsehole will soon enough hijack this thread himself. No need to bring him into it straigh away.

    And by the way, he so readily railed against me for living in a country with modern infrastructure and what would I know about living without clean water and electricity (which he doubled down on when I told him that I grew up in Kiribati without clean water or electricity!) and it turns out that he lives in California!

    He can, to put it politely, go and fuck himself.

    For what little my opinion is worth I find It very strange that a small fission reactor is so difficult and expensive to build when several countries have managed it for their subs and surface vessels. I guess it is all about priorities.

  9. cvoinescu says

    Who Cares @ #5:
    The reason for newer designs is safety. Most of it in the form of passive safety systems instead of the active ones in the older designs. And then the reasoning is you might as well toss in efficiency, improved maintainability, cost reduction (*snort*) measures, etc..

    I know. That’s how you get second-system effect. It’s not a surprise that it happens. The name for this problem is almost fifty years old; the original “second system” is 57 years old (IBM OS/360). Why are we pretending it no longer happens? We’re not doing anything fundamentally different.

  10. says

    Steve Morrison@#10:
    I just read about the Air Force planning to build a micro-reactor in Alaska. (Saw it originally on Slashdot.)

    Are you referring to the secret underground ice base that was powered by an RTG?
    The reactor was removed in 1965 and the base was closed because it turned out the glacier (even then) was unstable.

    From 1960 until 1963, the electricity supply was provided by means of the world’s first mobile/portable nuclear reactor, designated PM-2A and designed by Alco for the U.S. Army

    The US seems to have/have had plenty of smallish RTGs. I guess they’re not profitable for power companies. [I did read your link; sounds like it’s the military trying to figure out how to break their dependence on oil. Good. Good-ish anyway. This is the Air Force – if there’s a way to fuck this up, they’ll do it twice.]

    I bet that getting into Camp Century would be a hell of a brag for an urban explorer:

  11. Tethys says

    Submarines and aircraft carriers use the heat energy of their nuke to power steam generators for propulsion, and possibly some lights via battery. They need to be in motion through water to dissipate the heat, and must power down the reactor when they come to shore.

    They don’t produce quite enough power to be economically feasible, is my understanding of why submarine sized reactors aren’t used in small nuclear power plants.

  12. Tethys says

    Project iceworm? I know it’s the military, but it never ceases to amaze me how often they forget basic logic. Sticking a heat source in a glacier made the ice melt? Really, who could have predicted such a thing!?

  13. says

    Submarines and aircraft carriers use the heat energy of their nuke to power steam generators for propulsion, and possibly some lights via battery. They need to be in motion through water to dissipate the heat, and must power down the reactor when they come to shore.

    Richard Feynman (in Los Alamos From Below) talks about when Los Alamos decided to file for patents on a bunch of nuclear tech that had been invented there. They sent around a lawyer to interview the team leads and Feynman supposedly suggested nuclear submarines, nuclear ships, and nuclear aircraft. Supposedly he wound up with a patent on nuclear submarines, though his idea was to jet-propel the sub, rather than use steam to drive turbines.

    There are some excellent biographies of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the brains behind the nuclear navy, and apparently he was not the kind of person to accept cost overruns or bad engineering, which is why he was eventually forced out. A friend of mine worked out at Idaho National Labs, where the navy’s training submarine propulsion reactor is. Speaking of nuclear accidents, there was a spectacular instance of murder/suicide by reactor, but I shouldn’t digress. Anyhow, according to this friend, there is a nuclear submarine buried underground out there – it’s what you do your learning in. And, if you fuck up, you’d better be able to get out before you die. Rickover used to personally watch over the reactor start-up and shutdown of each new vessel, and would also accompany on the qualification voyage. There are many stories about what a complete butthead he was, but in a good way. Apparently defense contractors were utterly terrified by him – the first thing he’d do when someone told him about a new ${doodad} was to ask to see it in operation. If it was small enough, he’d ask them to bring ${doodad} to his office for a formal presentation. When the ${doodad} arrived, Rickover would grab it, walk over to the cast iron radiator, and begin beating it against the radiator. If it dented, or pieces fell off, he would throw it as far as he could and run up to whoever brought it and scream in their face for a while. Naturally, people who were familiar with Rickover didn’t warn their peers who weren’t expecting such treatment. He was finally forced out of office by a very poorly contrived corruption scandal, which basically broke his heart; he withdrew from public life and died. His graduate engineering thesis was an analysis of the explosion of the battleship Maine (causus belli of the American/Spanish war) and he determined it was static buildup on the door to one of the powder magazines. Anyhow…

    They don’t produce quite enough power to be economically feasible, is my understanding of why submarine sized reactors aren’t used in small nuclear power plants.

    That’s also my understanding. But it’s old(ish) tech that we in the public know about. I believe aircraft carriers have 2 reactors in them; they make a lot of power. Sure do wonder what the government researchers know about making small reactors that hasn’t been productized. :P

  14. Tethys says


    the fellow who was killed was so thoroughly smashed against the ceiling

    That sounds ghastly. My sons both served on submarines, so I know a bit about them. I got a tour of an active duty nuclear sub in Pearl Harbor. It’s very much a machine, with some walkways and small compartments for the crew among all the conduits. Apparently it’s also very hot in a sub when it is underway, despite the cold water outside.

  15. tuatara says

    Tethys @12

    Submarines and aircraft carriers use the heat energy of their nuke to power steam generators for propulsion, and possibly some lights via battery. They need to be in motion through water to dissipate the heat, and must power down the reactor when they come to shore.

    Thanks for the information. Of course, it makes sense that cooling a reactor would be a problem in such a confined environment as a sub or a ship. It seems enough of a problem on land.

    Still, as Marcus says…

    But it’s old(ish) tech that we in the public know about.


    Sure do wonder what the government researchers know about making small reactors that hasn’t been productized.

    Best to install solar panels for now.

  16. Ice Swimmer says

    Who Cares @ 4

    The French nowadays aren’t that good. Their EPR technology seems to have huge teething problems. Olkiluoto 3 in Finland and Flamanville 3 in France are both pathologically delayed (about 15 years and running, O3 should be online next year, but we’ll see) and if it weren’t for the EdF bailing out Areva, Olkiluoto 3 would have bankrupted it (the utility company that ordered the plant made a 2000 million € deal (fixed price) with Areva and the plant has already cost more than twice that to Areva).

    I still think that nuclear power should be used, but there need to be credible suppliers of nuclear power plants. Here in Finland, our recent experience suggests that for a while, the French Framatome (née Areva) and Russian Rosatom do not count as such. Rosatom is supposed to build a greenfield VVER-1200 reactor, but they seem to have difficulties in producing sufficient documentation for the regulatory authority to accurately describe how their tech is supposed to work and how it is made safe. This has already taken half a decade.

    New wind turbines are being erected all the time…

  17. Tethys says


    Still, as Marcus says…
    But it’s old(ish) tech that we in the public know about.
    Sure do wonder what the government researchers know about making small reactors that hasn’t been productized.
    Best to install solar panels for now.

    If the government had small reactors that could be scaled into cost effective floating nuclear plants, they would build them with their huge budgets. Cost effective is the key bottleneck, since it is very expensive to build and maintain nuclear reactors.

    There are two navy tenders with the generating capacity of an average municipal power plant. One is based in Guam, where son 2 was just stationed for 7 years. It can theoretically be used to provide emergency power and communications for disaster relief, but I don’t know if they actually used it for that purpose during their various rendering humanitarian aid activity during monsoon season.

    Using carriers as floating power plants has been done a few times, generally with a ship that was no longer seaworthy but still had its power plants in good working order.

    The electrical specs for ship to shore power generation at this link are detailed though of course the classified nuclear specs are couched in acronym speak.

  18. dangerousbeans says

    moral of the story to me is that we are all getting fucked by capitalism, and they are making us pay for the lube

  19. cvoinescu says

    You wouldn’t like government lube. It doesn’t work very well and costs a lot.

    Still better than communist government lube, which is free, only slightly better than no lube at all, and frequently out of stock (unless you know the right person and slip them a pack of imported cigarettes).

  20. says

    @14: Here’s another story I heard about Hyman Rickover, which I heard from my dad (who worked for the Dept. of the Navy in the ’60s): Rickover was the first Jew to graduate from wherever he graduated from (US Naval Academy?). All graduating seniors got full-page photo portraits in each year’s yearbook; but Rickover’s portrait was printed on a perforated page, so anyone who didn’t like seeing it could neatly rip it out of his yearbook and pretend it was never there. So, just guessing that may have contributed to his attitude…which, of course, would give the top brass an excuse to force him out if they wanted to…

  21. says

    Makes me wonder how much extra expense was involved in selectively perforating ONLY those pages, AND skipping those same pages in the page-numbering…

  22. says

    Raging Bee@#29:
    Makes me wonder how much extra expense was involved in selectively perforating ONLY those pages, AND skipping those same pages in the page-numbering…

    It sounds like the whole thing was a typical American shit-show. Rickover was not the only target of anti-semitism in the class, there were two others – one of whose picture was replaced with a nasty anti-semitic cartoon, etc.You know, typical US military sensitivity at the highest levels of command, circa 1922. I bet the guys behind it went on to become admirals, or something (no I have not looked)

  23. Tethys says

    There is a company in Oregon that has designed a SMR that they claim is far safer and cheaper than building a traditional large reactor.

    It is called NuScale. Their designs/proposals look very interesting on paper, and have been receiving support from the DOE to get through the licensing and development stages so a prototype can be built. Once again, cost is the major factor that is preventing that from happening.

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