Nuclear Power Woes

One of the most unexpected developments in recent years is the number of environmentalists who have done a 180 degree turn and now support nuclear power. They are the realists who understand that modern civilization needs lots of baseload electricity that intermittent, land-hogging wind and solar power just can’t supply in requisite amounts, and hence nuclear power looks like the best source of carbon-free energy if you’re obsessed with climate change.

Not all environmentalists are on board. Much of the green advocacy community is stuck with a fundamentalist mindset that is worthy of the worst 7th century Islamist theocrat. But I’ve been surprised at the number of environmentalists who admit to me privately that opposing nuclear power 40 years ago was a huge mistake (because we built coal plants instead), and some figures in the activist organizations say they have changed their mind but can’t change their public position because their membership, on whom they are heavily dependent for direct mail contributions, would revolt.

But there’s another wrinkle to this story that tends not to be recognized.  The death of the American nuclear industry in the late 1970s has always tended to be explained as another part of the left’s self-congratulatory heroic narrative: Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden and other anti-nukers stopped nuclear power with their intense protests. There is something to this, as governments at various levels, responding to public agitation, added more regulatory layers that added to the cost and time delay of building and licensing nuclear plants. But the nuclear industry probably would have ground to a halt around then even if Jane Fonda had spent her time, as she should have, making endless sequels to Barbarella.  The reason was simple cost: nuclear plants always came in two or three times above cost estimates. Nukes just didn’t pencil out very well, even with government subsidies.

There are lots of reasons given for this market failure. One is that the industry proceeded with a technology that was not mature enough for the market. Just about every nuclear plant was a custom design, which ran up costs. But even as the U.S. was abandoning nuclear power, the French were adopting it wholesale, and built the bulk of its current nuclear capacity in the 1980s. As most people who study energy know, France now generates about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power (compared to about 20 percent in the U.S.). And France went with a standardized design. As one sage Frenchman put it to me once: “In the U.S., you have one kind of cheese and 100 different kinds of nuclear reactors; in France, we have 300 kinds of cheese, but one kind of nuclear reactor.” Though it should be mentioned that France’s nuclear power industry was heavily subsidized. (In contrast to the U.S., the French left mostly supported nuclear power, because its leftist trade unions liked the construction jobs. As my French friend put it, “Ah, your Communists opposed nuclear power, while our Communists supported it!”)

With the recent revival of interest in nuclear power, a lot of people have made the common sense suggestion that we adopt the French mode of having a Model T type reactor design. But the Wall Street Journal this morning reports the discouraging news that the nuclear renaissance is not working out very well:

Currently, 54 reactors are under construction in 13 nations, and 33 are badly delayed, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, an independent annual assessment. Blunders have afflicted projects regardless of location, reactor design or construction consortia.

To lower construction costs and speed erection times, Westinghouse and its competitors came up with cookie-cutter plant designs in which major sections would be built as modules in factories and then hauled to plant sites for final assembly. Gone was the customization that added expense.

But the strategy appears to have backfired. “Supply-chain issues just moved from the plant sites to the factories. It didn’t solve the basic issue of quality control,” said Mycle Schneider, a nuclear expert based in Paris. And cookie-cutter designs meant flaws got replicated.

The story goes on to report that Toshiba, which now owns Westinghouse, may be forced into bankruptcy because of the cost overruns of its nuclear construction projects.

Maybe these are the inevitable growing pains of the first movers of a next generation industry. But it could just as easily mean that nuclear power still isn’t ready for prime time.