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Another nuclear renaissance?
And did environmentalists kill the last one?
There has been a lot of talk lately about a revival of nuclear power, partly in response to the need to replace the energy previously supplied by Russia, and partly as a longer-term response to climate change. To the extent that this means avoiding premature closure of operational nuclear plants, while coal is still operating, this makes sense. But new nuclear power does not.
The misconception that nuclear makes economic sense remains widespread, but has been refuted many times. Less remarked on is the misconception is that the big obstacle to nuclear power is opposition from environmentalists.
Environmentalist opposition was a big factor in the decline of nuclear power in the late 20th century, but not since then in most places (Germany is the most important of these).
In the US, nuclear power has had bipartisan support at least since 2002 when GW Bush launched the (hopeless overoptimistic) Nuclear Power 2010 program https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_Power_2010_Program, giving rise to talk of a ‘nuclear renaissance’.
As it turned out, only two projects (each with two reactors) got off the ground under this program. One was abandoned with a loss of billions of dollars, and the other will supposedly be completed by 2023. As far as I can tell, there was no effective opposition to either project except from consumers objecting to the massive costs. The Obama Administration gave continued support to nuclear power, which has continued under Trump and Biden
Similar points may be made about the UK. A number of projects were proposed in the early 2000s. Most have been abandoned, and the only one to proceed so far (Hinkley C) is hugely expensive. Searching for protests against the project, I found that somewhere between 100 and 400 people blockaded the site for a couple of days in 2011, long before construction started. More interestingly, workers at the site staged in a sit-in in 2018, when they were sent home without pay because of snow It’s clear that environmentalist opposition was not a big problem
This is unsurprising.E nvironmentalists may not be keen on nuclear power, but are far more concerned about coal, oil and gas. But these aren’t the only energy sources that have been obstructed by protests. NIMBY objections have been a huge obstacle to wind power, effectively prevent onshore wind in the UK and (until recently) offshore wind in much of the US. Solar power has been obstructed by utilities concerned about the impact on profits, as well as being the subject of vitriolic attacks from the political right.
It’s arguable that concern about nuclear safety following the Three Mile Island meltdown resulted in higher costs. But in the light of the subsequent disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, it’s hard to make the case that safety standards should be relaxed.
Given all this, why are we seeing so many announcements of new nuclear power programs? My best guess is that is part of a political package which includes life extension for existing reactors and a general acceleration of permitting processes that have held up all kinds of energy developments. As with the last nuclear renaissance, I expect that the number of projects actually constructed will be tiny. The work of decarbonizing energy supply will be done almost entirely by the sun and the wind.
fn1. There are operating examples of small reactors, but these are made on a one-off basis and are expensive because they forgo size economies. The ‘modular’ idea is to counter this loss with the economic gains of high-volume production. So far, the required scale does not look achievable.