More On: nuclear
'If the US nuclear industry had continued to expand at the same rate as it did in the 1960s and early 1970s, the US electrical grid would have ended its reliance on fossil fuels decades ago.'
Nuclear power has the potential to deliver infinite, safe energy for a glorious human future. It appeared at one point that it might soon usher in a revolution in human material circumstances. New nuclear power facilities were being ordered at a rate of two per month in the United States in the early 1970s. If this had been permitted to continue, the US would have decarbonized its electricity infrastructure by the 1990s, much like France, which was the only major Western country to do so.
However, political restraints, mismanagement, poor decisions, and outright sabotage have suffocated nuclear power's scientific revolution thus far. What can be done to improve the situation?
There are four areas that require attention. Regulatory reform, waste disposal, research and development support, and public awareness are among them.
Let's take a look at each one separately.
Regulatory reform is the most critical thing that needs to be done to give humanity with the benefits of nuclear power. Anti-nuclear campaigners lie when they argue that nuclear power is a failure because it is too expensive. In fact, by creating and exploiting a system of deceptive hyperregulation, it is the activists who have increased the costs of nuclear power. They're the equivalent of a poisoner on trial who claims his victim died of heart failure.
Nuclear reactor fuel is incredibly inexpensive in comparison to the energy it produces, accounting for only approximately 5% of total power expenses. The cost of nuclear power is dominated by plant financing and construction expenses. The time it takes to finish a plant construction project, which is limited by the regulatory procedure, is a major factor in these expenses.
Figure 3 displays the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) 32-step construction license process, which demonstrates the irrational nature of the nuclear power station construction process. I say "partially illustrated" since many of these procedures involve inputs from other local, state, and federal authorities' multi-step processes, most notably the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each of these hundreds of steps not only necessitates the participation of frequently slow-moving institutions, but it also leaves the door open to legal intervention by "the public," i.e., lawyers representing anti-plant groups. By taking the procedure to court, these lawyers take advantage of the numerous options afforded to them to both stall and greatly increase the cost of the process.
The Nuclear Power Plant Licensing Process
For example, the utility must first undertake an Environmental Assessment for the NRC in order to obtain its building license. This might take up to a year. The NRC will then prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the EPA to review, based on this data but requesting additional, as well as the same data updated or in a different form. The NRC is required by law to complete the EIS within two years. The NRC, on the other hand, acts as though it is unconstrained by legislation, taking an average of four years to write the EIS, and often much longer. The EPA, which is riddled with anti-nuclear campaigners, will next take its time assessing the EIS and issuing demands for additional information. These will cover both things that are theoretically linked to plants or public safety and those that are completely outside the EPA's scope. The EPA, for example, is not uncommon in demanding a full analysis supporting the plant's choice of nuclear power over all other options, such as gas, coal, oil, solar, wind, hydroelectric, cogeneration, or conservation.
Consider the following scenario: You purchase some land and intend to construct a log cabin on it. When you go to the local government to get a building permit, however, they ask for proof that a log cabin should be built on your property rather than an A-frame, chalet, ranch house, Cape Cod, barn, apartment building, candy store, gas station, zoo, antiballistic missile defense base, or nothing at all! Then, if you manage to satisfy the local authority with such proof, your lifetime foe challenges the legitimacy of that approval in court, causing you to hire a lawyer, endure three years of discovery motions, and then roll the dice in court to try to win the case. If you win, the opposing party will file an appeal, and you'll have to go back to court.
The regulatory process guiding the construction of a nuclear power plant is similar to this. In the 1970s, the anti-nuclear Carter administration devised this approach. Building a nuclear power facility in the United States took an average of four years in the early 1970s. By now, with advancements in technology and expertise, that period should have been reduced to two years. Instead, it now takes 16 years as a result of the odd procedure' implementation.
Building a nuclear power plant costs roughly proportional to the construction time squared, according to experience. This is because as the project progresses, it is subjected to increased requirements, technical modifications, and legal actions. The more hits a project takes, the slower it moves. The anti-nuclear regulatory procedure has increased the cost of nuclear electricity by two orders of magnitude by doubling the time it takes to build a nuclear power station.
But that's only the start. Following completion of construction, the plant must go through a similar procedure to get an operating license. If this cannot be achieved, or if it is put on hold by anti-nuclear politicians (like New York governor Mario Cuomo did with the $5 billion Shoreham nuclear reactor in the 1980s), the project will be a complete financial failure. The cost of financing nuclear power projects has risen dramatically as a result of this risk factor.
This process has not just harmed the nuclear power industry. Antinuclear campaigners have aided the cause of protecting other more expensive (and much more polluting) power sources by halting the construction of nuclear power facilities or dramatically increasing their costs. This is why such organizations have been paid to carry out their anti-nuclear propaganda efforts, with affluent contributors ranging from oil and coal businesses in the 1970s to "renewable energy" swindlers more recently. The public has suffered the increasing costs of power, not only directly through higher utility bills, but also, more importantly, indirectly through greater expenses incurred by industry, which raise the costs of all its products, reduce competitiveness, and reduce salaries and jobs.
There has also been a significant cost to the environment and public health. If the US nuclear industry had been permitted to grow at the same rate as it did in the 1960s and early 1970s, the American energy system would have been free of fossil fuels long ago (as did France's national grid, which gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power). Instead, the adoption of the deceptive aforementioned hyperregulation halted the industry's expansion completely. In other words, sweeping regulatory reform is essential.
Instead of the current ludicrous system, the utility could apply to the NRC for a combined construction and operation license. After that, the NRC would have two years to either issue the license, require corrections, or show grounds for denial. Following the NRC's final on-site plant safety inspection after the license is approved and the plant is built, operations should be authorized to begin. There should be no Environmental Impact Statement and no necessity that the utility explain why it did not choose another option. The EPA should be kept out of the permitting process entirely. Instead, it should be limited to holding utilities accountable if they emit any emissions into the environment. The "public," that is, outside lawyers seeking to derail the initiative, should be excluded from the process entirely.
Some may find the idea of limiting the EPA's responsibility to environmental enforcement rather than permitting controversial, but it is simply common sense. When planning a road trip, you are not required to go to the police station ahead of time and demonstrate that you will not speed. Instead, you simply drive, and if you speed, the cops will issue you a penalty. That is how rules should be implemented. That is, after all, how all laws should be enforced. People should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in any civilized society, and no one should be detained for a crime that has yet to be committed.
There should be no such thing as preventative arrest, but if there is, such enormous authority should not be placed in the hands of the accused's personal opponents. It is acceptable for someone to build a solar energy plant to compete with you if they believe Americans should use solar energy instead of the nuclear electricity you provide. They have no right to try to shut you down or prevent you from opening in the first place by using the government's regulatory authorities. Nonetheless, the NRC operates in this manner. That has to stop. Anyone found to be related to such outside interested groups should be kicked out of the NRC, and no one openly associated with them should be allowed to participate in the regulation process at any point.
Financing is a final issue related to regulation. Russia and China are currently cleaning up the American nuclear industry by aggressively funding nuclear power plant orders all over the world. The Export-Import Bank of the United States has the purpose of providing precisely this type of competitive financing to American enterprises looking to sell technology abroad. However, it does not offer this service to the nuclear power business. That should change. The World Bank has a rule prohibiting them from financing nuclear power plants in underdeveloped countries. That prohibition must also be lifted.
When the Sierra Club declared its opposition to nuclear power in 1974, it identified the safe disposal of nuclear waste as a crucial strategy for destabilizing the industry. Nuclear waste reprocessing, subseabed disposal, and land-based disposal have all been halted as a result of this malevolent campaign, requiring utilities to keep their radioactive waste on-site. This has increased the expenses of utilities' operations, which have been passed on to the public through higher rates and levies, as required by law, to compensate utilities for these expenditures. Furthermore, storing nuclear waste near major urban areas could expose the population to radioactive hazards that would be unlikely if the waste was housed in isolated places in worst-case scenarios like Fukushima. Nuclear waste processing (as the French undertake) and land-based disposal are both technically feasible (the US military has been storing its waste since 1999 in salt formations in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.)
Anti-nuclear activists are lying when they claim there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. The truth is that they have harmed the nuclear industry by preventing the safe disposal of nuclear waste. They have partially achieved their goal by passing legislation prohibiting the construction of new nuclear power stations "until a safe solution to dispose of the waste can be established."
Following the abandonment of nuclear waste reprocessing and subseabed disposal, the US Department of Energy concentrated its radioactive waste disposal efforts on the possibility of depositing the waste in a repository beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain. This option does not appeal to me since I believe that waste reprocessing followed by subseabed disposal would be a superior option. Nonetheless, storing nuclear waste behind a mountain in the desert would definitely be wiser and safer than in the suburbs of big towns. Despite their rhetoric about hypothetical concerns about what might happen in the desert in the future, the groups opposing the Nevada option are clearly not concerned about public safety. Rather, they are aiming to increase the threat, or perceived danger, that radioactive waste poses to the public in order to prevent nuclear power from being implemented.
Climate change, according to the Biden administration, is a "existential crisis." That means a crisis that poses a threat to humanity's survival. Despite claiming interest in nuclear power's possible role in resolving the situation, it has endorsed the environmentalist movement to oppose the Yucca Mountain project. Biden's Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, believes the DOE has no choice since the program faces too much resistance. Despite this, Biden's own party is organizing and leading the opposition.
Nuclear power cannot be expanded until safe nuclear waste disposal is provided. If the Democrats are serious about replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free energy sources, they should stop being so resistant to nuclear power implementation.
Research and development funding
Nuclear power has become fashionable in some circles in recent years, but only if we have more modern systems than the pressurized water reactors that have been the industry mainstay since Rickover introduced them in the 1950s.
This is a viewpoint with which I disagree. The PWRs were an overwhelming success. Despite the operation of nearly a thousand units on land and at sea for more than six decades, no one in the world has ever been seriously injured, let alone killed, by a radioactive discharge from a PWR. No other significant industrial or energy technology can compare to that level of safety.
Nonetheless, additional advancements in nuclear technology might be beneficial. Breeder reactors have the potential to 100-fold our nuclear fuel supply. Small modular reactors could open up new markets for massive PWRs and, by allowing mass assembly in factories, make reactors substantially cheaper. Molten salt thorium reactors and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors both have a lot of promise. For space uses, new types of fission reactors are required. The potential of thermonuclear fusion must be investigated and developed.
These possibilities must be realized, and it is only ethical and proper for the government to assist. To its credit, the Biden administration has continued the previous administration's goal to stimulate entrepreneurial development of advanced nuclear concepts by awarding a number of research and development contracts in the tens of millions of dollars range.
So far, everything has gone well. But it is facilities to test their plans, not capital, that the new entrepreneurial enterprises require, as well as regulatory reform to allow the reactors to be licensed and sold. If these are provided, money will be invested.
Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Livermore, Idaho National Lab, Hanford, the Nevada test site, and other federal government nuclear reservations have the necessary facilities. These should be made available to entrepreneurial fission enterprises at no cost. Furthermore, the DOE's national labs have extensive experience in nuclear technology, neutronics, and related subjects. Entrepreneurial nuclear enterprises should be able to hire such knowledge on reasonable commercial terms.
Fusion is the final step. In the 1980s, the US seriously harmed its fusion effort by withdrawing meaningful backing for all non-tokamak concepts, and then fully ended it in the 1990s by abandoning the development of any new major American tokamaks. Instead, the entire initiative was scrapped in favor of the slow-moving ITER project.
While the US should join in ITER, it also requires a robust national fusion program. The US magnetic fusion budget for FY 2021 was $675 million, or about 3% of NASA's budget and 0.01 percent of the overall government budget. The magnetic fusion budget should be increased at the very least. This would enable the United States to construct a tokamak (likely a spherical one) capable of reaching ignition, as well as provide healthy support for a variety of promising alternative concepts such as field-reversed configurations, spheromaks, and other advanced systems that take advantage of plasmas' collective self-organizing properties. Furthermore, adequate financing would enable the DOE to significantly support the expanding entrepreneurial fusion efforts by matching funds, research grants, and in-kind help from national labs.
Finally, the public's understanding is critical. This is an area in which you, dear reader, can actively participate.
Through a vicious and sustained campaign of disinformation, distortions, and terror, purported environmentalists have been able to impose a regulatory blockade against nuclear energy. They have denied humanity immense benefits by their lies, and if allowed to continue, they will bind the future. If they have their way, billions of people's expectations of escaping from abject poverty will be dashed in the name of a false compulsion to limit human aspirations in order to "save the earth."
These ignorant patrons must be confronted. They must be revealed for the frauds that they are. You must speak up now that you have learned the truth about these issues.