andrew foss is a senior consultant at LucidCatalyst, an international consultancy specializing in clean energy and decarbonization.
Published January 23, 2020
Many energy specialists have long since written off nuclear power as an important alternative to fossil fuels, at least in America. Nuclear plants still supply about one-fifth of U.S. electricity, but several of them have been retired in recent years, additional retirement plans have been announced, and many others face the need for license extensions from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the next decade.
Meanwhile, the best thing going for nuclear — solid operating margins for capital cost recovery once the massive equipment is in service — is no longer a sure thing. The revenues of plants still operating have fallen as natural gas plants and the burgeoning landscape of solar and wind farms put downward pressure on wholesale power prices.
No surprise, then, that only two nuclear projects have been launched in the United States since the 1970s, and one of them was canceled at the halfway mark while the other has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays. Many workers in the industry are reaching retirement age along with the plants they manage, and young professionals with strong scientific and engineering skills are leery to commit careers to what is widely regarded as an industry in decline.
But that’s not the end of the story, in large part because one stubborn reality can’t be wished away: to avert climate catastrophe, the global economy must be weaned from carbon-emitting fossil fuels — and in short order. Although energy demand is increasing slowly in the United States and other OECD countries, developing countries are poised for rapid growth. If they continue to rely primarily on fossil fuels, the world will — sooner rather than later — face rising seas, more extreme weather and massive dislocation of people and food supplies.
In the United States, solar and wind could fill part of the void left by coal and natural gas in electricity production. But neither can be counted on to reliably deliver power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. And, to date, the cost of storing energy in batteries or heat sinks of one form or another is too high to be seen as the whole answer.
Don’t forget, either, there is little prospect for renewables to replace fossil fuels entirely in their disparate uses outside the electricity sector. Among other issues, a full transition to renewables would entail the use of huge tracts of land for solar panels and wind turbines, as well as major expansions of transmission lines and other energy infrastructure.
Hence the value of a second look at the potential role of nuclear energy alongside renewables, storage technologies and other sustainable strategies (including conservation). Here’s what you’ll find: contrary to the image of an industry facing unsolvable problems and inevitable decline, nuclear energy is in the midst of a technological renaissance that is attracting the attention of entrepreneurs, environmentalists and the federal government.
One reason nuclear may have a bright future: deployment of plants similar to those in the current inventory is only a small part of the grand vision. Instead of constructing gigantic one-off plants, the industry aims to shift toward a manufacturing model of lower-cost, high-volume production. Visionary billionaires including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have even caught the nuclear bug. Meanwhile, countries that aren’t held back by a legacy of bad experiences in nuclear — notably China — intend to secure first-mover advantages through extensive R&D programs.
Living With The Legacy
But back to the proverbial monkey hanging on our backs. In the first wave of U.S. nuclear plant construction during the 1960s and early ’70s, most projects went smoothly, and the industry seemed destined to dominate the power sector. Early projects in the U.K., Canada and France as well as the U.S. generally came in on time and on budget. But the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 proved to be a decisive stumble, leading to stricter regulatory oversight of nuclear construction in the United States and a far more wary stance on the part of investors.
Costs rose sharply in the 1980s, and the catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986 cast a very long shadow, even if everybody knew the Soviets were the poster children for sloppiness when it came to safety. Although more than 100 nuclear units in the United States have accumulated a long track record of safe operation, a combination of public concerns and often-justified financial fears on the part of investors prevented new construction for several decades.
Then, in 2013, another push: construction began on big units at the Vogtle plant in Georgia and the VC Summer plant in South Carolina, both using the advanced-generation Westinghouse AP1000 design with enhanced safety features. By 2017, though, cost and schedule overruns at VC Summer were so severe that state regulators stranded the project mid-construction. Construction at Vogtle continues, but costs have nearly doubled. And the construction time, initially planned for five years, has stretched to 10. Icing the bitter cake, Westinghouse went bankrupt in 2017, while its parent company Toshiba suffered acute financial strain as well.
Many U.S. nuclear plants from the earlier construction wave have recently encountered difficulties of their own. Fully nine units have been retired since 2013, and eight others are slated for retirement within the next few years. Some closures, such as Indian Point, north of New York City, have been driven primarily by political opposition and regulators’ skepticism, while others, such as Duane Arnold in Iowa, have been victims of low prices in wholesale power markets.
Operating margins have dropped into the red for many nuclear plants because natural gas power plants, which are often the price leaders in wholesale markets, are enjoying the fuel glut caused by the boom in extraction from shale formations. Meanwhile, renewables with minimal operating costs have proliferated. California occasionally must pay wholesalers to take excess solar power off their hands. Indeed, the economics of nuclear power have become so problematic that Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and Ohio have all created subsidies by another name to keep the plants operating.
Europe isn’t in a whole lot better shape. The two units being built in France and Finland have even worse cost and schedule overruns than Vogtle, and a more recently launched project in the U.K. using the same reactor model has had to announce slippages in cost and time line as well.
It’s all the more surprising, then, that projects in Asia and the Middle East are on target in terms of cost and schedule completion, with signs that future construction could be even cheaper as crews and managers gain experience.
Lower wages explain part of the advantage, but there’s more to it than that. Projects there have adhered to a set of best practices, such as completing detailed designs before beginning construction and maintaining close collaboration among all partners. Applying this sort of discipline in North America and Europe could make a big difference if the industry can regain momentum.
Are Nukes Really Needed?
One can argue — and many have — that there is a more certain path to carbon-emissions management via solar and wind, coupled with batteries and other forms of energy storage. But a closer look suggests that all paths to a quick phaseout of fossil fuels will require such radical economic transformation that all clean energy options deserve consideration.
Start with the reality that no conceivable penetration of wind and solar may suffice to achieve the necessary CO2 emission reductions by mid-century. The Japanese economist Yoichi Kaya pointed out in the 1990s that CO2 emissions are a product of four factors: population, GDP per capita, energy consumption per unit of GDP, and the CO2 emission rate per unit of energy generated. Outside the OECD countries, where 80 percent of Earth’s population lives, the first three factors are increasing much faster than the CO2 emission rate per unit of energy is decreasing.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the global population will grow by 26 percent between 2018 and 2050. Meanwhile, global GDP per capita will increase by 102 percent, global energy use by 47 percent and CO2 emissions by 22 percent — even with a lot more renewables in the energy mix. It is impossible to predict the climate impacts of this additional CO2 with precision, but this baseline scenario clearly puts the problem in grim perspective. As the first three factors in the Kaya relationship increase, the world must decrease the carbon content of energy very quickly to mitigate planetary disruption.
Nuclear energy holds immense promise in this regard for several reasons. Nuclear can provide large amounts of energy while requiring little land or other inputs besides fuel. Small nuclear plants — still at the concept stage — could also serve as a power source 24/7 in
remote communities without regional grid access. Note one other advantage: nuclear plants can operate continuously over long periods, and future plants could adjust their output, through ramping their reactors or storing their thermal energy, to satisfy fluctuating power demand without abrupt price swings.
To be sure, nuclear plants must continue to operate safely to be politically viable. By the same token, spent nuclear fuels must be reprocessed and stored securely to complete their long decay processes without adverse impact to people or the environment — no small achievement.
Nuclear plants, however, can substitute for fossil fuels to produce heat for industrial processes or climate control in buildings. And they can produce non-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen and ammonia, or net-neutral synthetic hydrocarbon fuels using carbon atoms extracted from the atmosphere or ocean. Although nuclear propulsion as a direct replacement for fossil fuels in ships, aircraft and other vehicles may seem far-fetched, nuclear naval vessels have plied the waters since the 1950s, and many other ideas for nuclear transportation have also been devised. Russia, for example, is building a fleet of nuclear icebreakers to manage trans-Arctic shipping routes.
Nuclear energy is currently undergoing a paradigm shift, not only in plant design but also in industry structure and market scope. In the old model, the main locus of nuclear R&D in the United States was the national laboratory system run by the Department of Energy. Many dedicated researchers at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Argonne and Idaho, along with government-funded university labs, have made key contributions to the field since the mid-20th century. But this system does not prioritize near-term commercial deployment. Consider, too, that the nuclear industry was from the beginning dominated by a small number of reactor vendors (including Westinghouse and GE) and a limited set of big construction companies (such as Bechtel) that built plants as one-off megaprojects, with profit incentives directly linked to engineering complexity and total expenditures.
In the new paradigm, bold entrepreneurship and market orientation are bringing sweeping changes. The large industry incumbents (including post-bankruptcy Westinghouse) continue to introduce new reactor models within their product lines, but the center of gravity has shifted toward start-ups and spin-offs.
There are now more than 40 companies in North America with a wide array of plant designs to split atoms (fission), and more than 20 companies are equally committed to harvesting energy from still-unproven but very exciting technologies for combining particles at incredibly high temperatures (nuclear fusion). NuScale Power, for example, has developed a smaller, simpler and allegedly safer fission plant package as an evolution from current “light-water” models. Companies pursuing more revolutionary fission concepts involving alternative reactors and fuels include Terrestrial Energy, X-energy, TerraPower, Moltex Energy, Kairos Power and ThorCon Power. Like small early mammals scurrying around the feet of the dinosaurs, they may have the versatility to thrive as circumstances evolve rapidly for the nuclear industry.
Fusion has a long and mostly disappointing history, in that the goal of positive net energy output remains elusive. But in a sign that the giant is stirring from its torpor, the International Atomic Energy Agency organized its first workshop for fusion entrepreneurs in 2018 in Santa Fe. Several of these start-ups are spin-offs from universities and national laboratories. Fusion researchers at MIT launched Commonwealth Fusion Systems to accelerate commercialization of breakthrough magnetic confinement strategies. Two ventures with hybrid magneto-inertial devices are General Fusion in British Columbia and TAE Technologies in California. Each of these three companies has raised over $100 million in private funds, and smaller fusion outfits are springing up around them.
The new generation of nuclear pioneers understands the imperative of economic viability. Against the backdrop of decreasing costs for renewables and energy storage, future nuclear plants must sidestep the pitfalls that have engulfed recent projects and must seize every opportunity to streamline construction. To this end, companies are redesigning plant components as modules for quick and easy installation. The modules would be manufactured offsite, perhaps in shipyards, for optimized productivity and routinized inspection.
Novel strategies to facilitate plant construction include specialized concrete, wearable technologies for site crews such as virtual reality devices and automation of repetitive tasks. Some plant concepts, inspired by nuclear warships, would operate offshore from barges or platforms to avoid earthquake and/or tsunami risks that caused the Fukushima tragedy. Offshore siting would also eliminate the concrete base mat that adds significantly to onshore costs and construction time. Another cost-cutting idea: repurpose obsolete coal plants, making it unnecessary to find new sites and potentially reducing community opposition.
Product markets outside the power sector, which must also decarbonize eventually, beckon as well. Nuclear energy, especially with high-temperature reactors, could provide services that begin as niche applications but may grow in coming decades to dwarf power production. Nuclear plants could send heat to industrial sites, such as refineries or chemical facilities, and to whole districts of commercial or residential buildings. Nuclear plants could produce large amounts of hydrogen through electrolysis or thermochemical cycles. The current global hydrogen market is already over $100 billion, and demand for this carbon-free fuel is rising rapidly.
Alternatively, the nuclear-produced hydrogen could be combined with nitrogen sources to create ammonia, a carbon-free option for engines, perhaps with oceangoing vessels as early adopters. If the world continues relying on vehicles and processes that consume hydrocarbons — the internal combustion engine is a marvelously efficient technology — nuclear-produced hydrogen could be combined with carbon atoms extracted from the environment to create net-neutral synthetic fuels. Collectively, these non-electricity markets could become huge by mid-century for fission and fusion plants alike.
Paying The Bill
Nuclear startups have received funding from prominent billionaires, who see their investments not only as socially beneficial but also financially promising in light of long-term global needs for clean energy. Bill Gates helped launch TerraPower in 2006. And Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which he established after the Paris climate conference with blue-ribbon partners, has invested in Commonwealth Fusion Systems.
General Fusion has secured support from Jeff Bezos, and Peter Thiel has invested in another fusion start-up, Helion Energy. Funds dedicated to nascent nuclear companies include Nucleation Capital, Strong Atomics and Verdigris Capital. Funding conferences with representatives from Wall Street are now held annually.
The industry is also learning to hold its own in public give and take. Generation Atomic was founded in 2016 by young people seeking to preserve existing nuclear plants against closure and support new deployment. The campaigners point out that when members of previous generations turned against nuclear energy in the late 20th century because of the perceived safety risks, their decisions have been contributing to climate change ever since.
The Titans of Nuclear podcast by Bret Kugelmass, with over 200 interviews across the full breadth of nuclear issues, has amassed tens of thousands of subscribers since launching in 2018. In addition to the long-established Nuclear Energy Institute, other active organizations in this field include Energy for Humanity, the Breakthrough Institute, Third Way, Nuclear Innovation Alliance, the Fusion Industry Association, Fusion Power Associates and the American Fusion Project.
Members of previous generations turned against nuclear energy because of the perceived safety risks; their decisions have been contributing to climate change ever since.
The U.S. government is responding to the new entrepreneurship and diversification of the nuclear industry by updating its policy mechanisms. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) offers grants to private nuclear developers to collaborate with seasoned researchers at the national laboratories. Other programs at ARPA-E support fission and fusion concepts based on detailed assessments of both technical and economic feasibility. The Department of Energy has just created the National Reactor Innovation Center at Idaho National Laboratory. The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, would commit the U.S. government to purchasing energy from the first advanced nuclear plants at pre-specified prices, preventing swings in energy markets from sinking the nuclear ship before it left the harbor.
Admittedly, champions of nuclear energy have stirred up expectations many times since nuclear power emerged on the stage in the mid-20th century as the purported electricity source that would be “too cheap to meter.” But the ongoing intensification of both pull factors (global energy growth, climate change, markets for non-electric applications) and push factors (enhanced safety features, cost reductions, alternative fission approaches, steady fusion advances, entrepreneurial dynamism) strongly suggests that the game is not over. If we’re lucky, nuclear energy will prove cheap and safe enough to play a central role in saving the planet from a hellish future.
Count the Ways
Before I began working in this field, my mental image of nuclear plants had essentially three elements: uranium goes in, electricity comes out and the reactor might melt down at any moment. And since all nuclear power plants were basically the same as far as I knew, nothing much other than vigilance and luck stood between us and the next Chernobyl or Fukushima. In fact, ways of extracting energy from taking apart atoms (fission) or putting them together (fusion) are myriad — and each approach has its own unique safety profile, construction process and cost drivers.
Current plants rely on fission, which draws energy from splitting uranium or other large atoms into smaller ones. The two main types in the United States both use “light water” (the same H2O we drink, which lacks neutrons in the hydrogen nuclei) as the moderator and coolant. In Canada, by contrast, the CANDU design uses “heavy water” (in which the hydrogen nucleus includes a neutron).
The first plants in the U.K. used air as the coolant instead of water. And a class of Russian reactors used graphite to moderate the fission reaction, an inherently less stable arrangement. Think, alas, of Chernobyl.
There are also several alternatives for sustaining fission reactions that have received less public notice — and little financial support. Some of these alternative reactors would begin the fuel cycle with thorium, a radioactive atom more abundant in the earth than uranium. Some would insert fuel into molten salt, eliminating the need for water as moderator and coolant. This design is passively safe because an abnormal rise in temperature would cause the molten salt to expand, increasing the distance between fuel particles and thereby preventing a runaway chain reaction.
The list goes on. Other options for fission plant coolant include sodium and lead. High-temperature gas-cooled reactors hold promise as sources of heat for industrial processes or other energy production. Some of the alternative approaches use “fast” neutrons rather than the “slow” end of the spectrum for current plants. “Breeder” reactors could consume radioactive materials from decommissioned warheads or from waste at nuclear plants.
Alongside this multitude of fission varieties is an even more diverse taxonomy of fusion reactions, which create energy from combining small atoms without risk of runaway reactions because of inherent repulsive forces between similarly charged particles. Overcoming these repulsive forces for fusion reactions, however, requires extraordinary temperature and pressure, replicating conditions at the center of the sun. The possible fuels for these reactions include hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium), helium, lithium, boron and individual protons.
The two conventional prongs of fusion research are magnetic confinement and inertial confinement. The former produces the necessary temperature and pressure conditions by squeezing a swirling plasma with immensely strong magnetic fields within a sealed chamber, which, in the archetypal design, is shaped like a donut. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France, a seven-party collaboration with a total budget above $20 billion and multi-decade time line, is the most prominent example. Inertial confinement, for its part, sparks instantaneous reactions with precisely controlled lasers. The largest U.S. experiments in this category are at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Rochester.
As in the fission community, creative fusion scientists are branching off from the traditional paths. Magneto-inertial confinement has emerged as a hybrid approach that squeezes targets with magnets before striking them with lasers or ion beams. Several intriguing concepts in this category could be scientifically proven at small scale and then either increased in size for commercial plants or produced as multiple modules. Indeed, the prospect of super-small “desktop fusion” has galvanized attention for these hybrid concepts, even as researchers in the more conventional fusion fields beaver forward.