Is Nuclear Power Ever Coming Back?

Public fear, uncertainty, and doubt are still big issues for nuclear energy.


It was the winter of “Snowmaggedon” in Boston, and MIT grad students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie had just passed their qualifying exams in nuclear engineering. Suddenly, after months of nonstop test-prep work, they had the luxury of time. “We said, we’re no longer studying 16 hours a day,” Dewan recalled, “Let’s do something new and exciting!”

As February rolled by, the two began looking at ways to bring to market different types of nuclear reactors that could solve some of the problems—especially safety and waste issues—that have dogged the traditional light-water reactors that produce nearly all of the world’s nuclear power today. “We both considered ourselves to be environmentalists, and we felt that nuclear power is the best way to shift away from fossil fuels—and from coal in particular,” Dewan said.

It’s an increasingly common perspective. “Nuclear is a non-carbon-emitting resource and it has a contribution to play in greenhouse gas emissions avoidance,” said Dan Lipman, executive director of policy development and supplier programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbyist group. He echoes the sentiments of many across the nuclear industry who are hoping that a growing sense of urgency on climate issues could reinvigorate the market for their technology.

Critics are quick to refute these claims, citing cost, safety, waste management, and time-to-market as major barriers to the large-scale adoption of nuclear energy for baseload grid power. But are these truly insurmountable challenges? If nuclear is to play a significant role in a low-carbon energy future what will it take to make that happen?Some climate scientists and high-profile nonprofits are beginning to agree. Renewable energy is gaining ground, but it still makes up just over 13 percent of the total U.S. electric power mix. Concerns about resource intermittency, immature storage technologies, grid reliability, and land use haunt faster growth scenarios. As a result, achieving even the moderate carbon emissions reductions—pegged to a 30 percent reduction over 2005 levels by 2030—outlined by the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan [pdf] is expected to require both the development of new nuclear plants and extended lifespans for those that were built as far back as the 1970s.

The Promise: Innovation

These were the kinds of questions that Dewan and Massie asked themselves as well, and by summer 2010, they had decided that the “new and exciting” thing that would make nuclear a truly viable part of a low-carbon future wasn’t new at all. It was a molten salt reactor, developed and tested at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the 1950s and ’60s. Molten salt reactors (or MSRs, as they’re known in the acronym-heavy jargon of the nuclear industry) were just one of several proposed reactor designs emerging at the time. They were also one of the most promising.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory began work on molten salt reactor design in the 1950s.

In a 1964 progress report that laid the groundwork for ORNL’s Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE), program director R. Beecher Briggs extolled specific virtues of the system’s liquid-fuel design. Among them were low operating pressure, passive cooling design, continuous operation during refueling, and low fuel and operating costs, all of which translated into both lower capital costs and the need for less complex control and safety systems. Traditional light-water reactors can claim almost none of these benefits.

In short, molten salt reactors promised cheaper, safer nuclear energy.

Dewan and Massie spent several months examining the ORNL program’s research findings, studying the science, and concluded that although there were hard problems left to solve, the MSR branch of nuclear technology hadn’t been pruned because of insurmountable technical challenges. In 1973, when the program was defunded, it was (as ORNL put it) “in spite of the technical success of the MSRE.”

One of the main reasons funding for the project was stopped, according to Dewan and other supporters, is that the breeder reactor wasn’t a good source of plutonium, which was needed for use in a nuclear weapons program. Today, the lack of a weaponization potential is a selling point, not a showstopper. So, Dewan and Massie formed Transatomic Power in April 2011 and set out to solve some of the remaining challenges, tapping into about $1 million in angel investment to fund the work.

The Transatomic Power team—Mark Massie, Leslie Dewan, Russ Wilcox—in front of the used nuclear fuel storage casks at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station. (Transatomic Power)

“[We] changed around some of the materials to make it a lot more compact, power dense, and cheaper,” Dewan says. Furthermore, they identified another big opportunity: the proposed design can be powered by the nuclear waste produced by traditional reactors. In traditional nuclear reactors, just 4-5 percent of the energy is extracted from the solid fuel rods used to power them. “That is why nuclear waste is so dangerous; it has a lot of energy left in it,” says Dewan.

Transatomic Power intends to use spent fuel from other plants and recover the remaining energy (simultaneously reducing the amount and intensity of radioactivity in the final waste stream). Their vision has attracted plenty of attention, landing Dewan, as its eloquent spokeswoman, on three separate lists of young innovators in big-name publications.

For now, however, the potential is still just that: potential. Transatomic Power’s MSR is only in the initial design stage, which is done almost exclusively through computer modeling and simulation. The company’s Series A funding, which is likely to be announced later this summer, will move its ideas from the simulation stage into the lab.

However, Transatomic Power isn’t the only game in town. In fact, the nuclear industry is undergoing something of a renaissance with a new generation of entrepreneurs, scientists and advocates who say they’ve found promising opportunities to drive down the costs, while improving the safety and reliability of nuclear technologies. A handful of advanced reactor designs have been emerging from startups like NuScale and Bill Gates–backed TerraPower, as well as old-guard companies like Babcock & Wilcox (with its mPower design) and Holtec. Teenage TED sensation Taylor Wilson, who first drew attention at age 14 for his work on nuclear fusion, is also working on a MSR-type reactor. “There are similarly cool things going on all around the nuclear industry,” Dewan agreed. “People are developing and commercializing a lot of new technologies.”

The Elephant in the Room: Natural Gas

Not everyone is as enthusiastic, though about the industry’s prospects. “Their prospects are dwindling by the day,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) told me flatly. “Nuclear is on the brink.” UCS, founded in the late 1960s, has consistently voiced concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants, but that’s not the reason for Lyman’s dour perspective on the technology. Rather, he said, “the first challenge—the overarching challenge—for nuclear power, is how do you pay for it in the first place?”

If you want to understand the current state of the nuclear industry, this is the image I think sums things up best:

It’s a chart of the projected costs for new power plants, based on current trends. See the dark blue portion of the bars? That’s the upfront cost required to build new plants, and there’s a clear outlier: natural gas.

It’s dramatically cheaper to build a natural gas–fired power plant than it is to build any of the others. The boom in domestic natural gas production has also pushed U.S. gas prices down steeply, and as a result it’s become a supply resource utilities simply can’t refuse, especially in deregulated energy markets. These conditions present a significant headwind for nuclear power.

Solution: Cut Capital Costs with Smaller Reactors

Enter small modular reactors, or SMRs.

Supporters say they could break down the cost barrier that’s holding nuclear back. This new class of reactors turns the usual thinking about the economics of nuclear—big beefy plants that provide economies of scale—on its head. There are a variety of designs; some are modified versions of the ubiquitous light water reactor, and others more novel designs. What they all have in common is their diminutive size, by nuclear standards. At the low end, they may provide as little as 10 percent the capacity of conventional reactors. The goal is to enable utilities to add units a few at a time, allowing them to generate electricity (and revenue) more quickly with a lower upfront capital cost.

“If you go to build… a conventional light-water reactor, the capital cost is multiple billions of dollars,” said Kathryn McCarthy, Idaho National Laboratory Domestic Programs Director for Nuclear Science & Technology. “The smaller reactors, we can talk about hundreds of millions of dollars per unit; that’s a much lower cost up front.”

SMRs hang some of their promised cost savings on efficient, mass production of pre-fab components that can be manufactured and inspected at central factories. “I think of them as being IKEA reactors,” Dewan joked. It’s not a bad analogy, and if companies can deliver on their flat-pack-like promises, SMRs could draw the interest of utilities.

UCS’s Lyman disagreed. “The demand for small modular reactors is driven almost entirely by the vendors and a cadre of advocates, but the utilities are not interested,” he told me. Would-be innovators are “big talkers, but they’re detached from reality.” The technology, he said, is going nowhere fast. Still, the companies I spoke with remained committed to developing their technology. Most acknowledged the problem of weak customer demand and admitted that they cannot currently compete on cost in the U.S. market. But they also say that hasn’t deterred their efforts. Dewan, for one, said she believes natural gas prices will come back up and that will change the calculus around what it makes sense for utilities to build.

“As natural gas gets more expensive—which it has been over the past year or so—other energy sources are looking better, and utilities want a broad portfolio,” she said.

NEI’s Lipman agreed. A modest rise in gas prices, “changes the game to new nuclear deployment,” he said. In the meantime, TerraPower, the Bill Gates-backed startup, has opted to focus its attention abroad. “There are plenty of countries or regions that really are looking to nuclear as one of the ways to solve their energy needs without putting more carbon into the environment,” said Kevin Weaver, TerraPower’s director for technology integration. TerraPower is exploring opportunities to deploy its reactor design in Russia, China, India, Korea, France, where national energy policies are more supportive of nuclear power. “It’s all hands on deck for them,” he pointed out. “When the need is there, work gets done. You have policies that, from the market standpoint, help drive things.”

Solution: Make All Power Plants Manage Their Waste

One kind of policy Weaver refers to is a national-level priority on cutting carbon emissions from electricity. While none of the individuals interviewed for this story wanted to attribute their views to their companies, they were, as a group, the most aggressive supporters of putting a price on carbon that I’ve ever interviewed. But their point isn’t strictly a price competitiveness issue. It’s also a matter of fairness.

According to those in the business of generating nuclear energy, other power producers should have to pay full price for the risks associated with their waste products. The way they see it, they’ve made their plants safer by prohibiting the release of critical, planet-damaging byproducts, and others should too.

Most of the nuclear industry sources I spoke with see carbon as a pressing risk, and they would like to see it regulated as strenuously as their waste products. If other energy sources—especially coal and natural gas—were expected to account for the lifecycle impacts of their fuel sources, including carbon, it would make all the difference, Mike Cass, VP and General Council of American Nuclear Insurers told me. “When you put in all these costs, nuclear becomes viable," he said.

Of course, nuclear waste hasn’t been entirely managed. Thirty-nine U.S. states currently have 46,268 metric tons of used nuclear fuel sitting in limbo at nuclear plants, waiting for the federal government to locate and build a final resting place for the radioactive materials—an issue that (since the Yucca Mountain repository was canceled) seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

But nuclear advocates point out that other energy industries have left just as large of a cleanup problem with their waste -- it’s just less visible, because carbon, particulate matter, and other waste products go directly into the atmosphere or water, rather than being stored on site by the power producers.

“In some ways, we’re lucky to have our waste fuel,” McCarthy told me. “We have it. It doesn’t cause acid rain or smog. It isn’t putting pollution into big cities. It is an advantage that we have the fuel and we can do something with it.” Whether storing it, or using it as a fuel for newer reactors like those proposed by Transatomic Power, is a challenge still to be solved.

Solution: Use New Technology to Speed the R&D Process

A price on carbon was once advertised as the only way that renewables would ever reach grid parity. But in the past few years, solar and wind have become economically viable without it. A large part of that has happened thanks to a cluster of technological improvements and public policies that supported innovation in the industry as a whole. Certainly, well-targeted federal and state incentives, such as tax credits and loan guarantees, have helped fuel development by encouraging project finance firms get on board with “risky” new investments in renewables. But money isn’t the only factor at play.

Advances in technology outside the energy sector have played a role in accelerating the maturity and opportunities available for renewables. Take the example of wind power. New turbine designs and improved material science made turbines more efficient and cheaper, while better modeling and prediction tools have made siting, planning, and grid integration vastly easier.

Nuclear energy has been a beneficiary of public investment over several decades; an estimate cited by the Union of Concerned Scientists puts the total amount of public subsidies for nuclear at $300 billion. That dwarfs the amount of investment that has been put into renewables, which have shown more consistent growth over the past few years. Today, the nuclear industry says it's finding new opportunities to tap into the same technology trends that have spurred both renewable energy and the consumer electronics space to accelerate nuclear energy.

Advances in material science, manufacturing technology, and computational modeling are all chipping away at the problems that stalled technology development in the mid-20th century. “One of the things that I think is new compared with the development of nuclear energy in the ‘70s is our advanced computational tools,” said INL’s McCarthy. “Faster computers, better knowledge about how to solve equations, but also the development of a novel framework to solve a set of equations.”

INL has created the MOOSE framework—short for “multi-physics object oriented simulation environment"—that helps researchers integrate the huge range of variables that they must consider in assessing (for example) a new reactor design. Advanced simulation helps researchers identify potential issues and work out the kinks in their theories before they put them through real-world lab tests.

The MARMOT application runs on INL's MOOSE simulation platform and models microstructural changes in nuclear fuel during the fission process. (Idaho National Laboratory)

These aren’t incremental gains: In the case of fuels research, McCarthy estimated that a typical process from idea to commercial release can take 20-30 years. With MOOSE, “we believe that we can cut that time in half, at least," she said. "That’s really a big deal.”

Solution: Fix The Square-Peg-Round-Hole Policy Problem

In order for these gains to reach the real world, both new and improved reactor designs must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s a slow process, and the current challenge that innovators face is that there’s simply no supporting process in place for their new technology, at all. Smaller plants with novel fuels and unusual characteristics are a square peg for the NRC’s round hole.

For example, Transatomic Power's reactor operates at normal atmospheric pressure, eliminating the need for the heavy-duty containment structures that drive up the cost of building traditional plants. But under the current regulations, they wouldn’t be exempt from building those structures, and the additional cost would sink the company’s (theoretical) business plan.

Watchdog organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have cautioned against “relaxing” the standards for new reactor designs in the process, but without some significant effort to establish standards now, the NRC could become a bottleneck through which no new technology can pass. The NRC is reviewing designs and working to come up with a new licensing process that will accommodate a diversity of innovative approaches, but the clock is ticking.

Novel reactor designs, like that proposed by Transatomic Power, face challenges under the NRC's current certification process. (Transatomic Power)

The main challenge is how you provide the right level of safety without making the bad economics a whole lot worse,” said Lyman. “The central issue is that we’re talking about protecting nuclear power plants from very infrequent events, but unpredictable ones. You generally have to pay quite a bit of money to protect against something that will probably never affect your plants. That’s anathema to a utility.”

Solution: Keep Current Nuclear Plants Up and Running

In the short term, it’s not just new capacity that’s facing cost problems, though. The favorable economics of natural gas are even putting pressure on existing power plants. Aging nuclear (and coal) plants need maintenance, upgrades and repairs that no longer pencil out in the eyes of utilities, who are required to demonstrate strong quarterly financials for their investors. With slow demand growth for electricity, building inexpensive new capacity from natural gas is seen as a better investment.

In the case of coal, that’s a huge climate win: natural gas produces 40 percent less carbon pollution than coal. Not so for nuclear power. California’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is a case in point. Two years ago, the 2.2-gigawatt plant ceased operations after identifying defects in its steam generators that posed serious risks; after a review of the costs associated with fixing and re-licensing the facility, the plant’s owners announced that it would be permanently retired. The proposed plan for filling the energy supply gap targets 40 percent from “preferred sources” (renewables, conservation, storage, and efficiency). The remaining 60 percent is likely to come from natural gas.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was shuttered two years ago. (Southern California Edison)

That’s why the EPA’s Clean Power Plan includes targets for extending the life of existing nuclear capacity. This piece of the plan is based on the Energy Information Administration’s estimates that some 6 percent of the energy provided by nuclear plants today will come offline because of “‘continued economic challenges’ faced by the higher-cost nuclear units.” EPA estimates that keeping current nuclear plants online could avoid as much as 200-300 million metric tons of CO2.

In the first wave of nuclear construction, nuclear plants were licensed to operate for 40 years. But that decision was driven by economic and anti-trust concerns, “not based on a known technical limitation,” says McCarthy, who is also the director of the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Technical Integration Office for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy. As that 40-year threshold neared, Congress authorized a 20 year extension, and there is a current effort to extend those licenses by another 20 years.

“They have to be economic and safe,” says McCarthy. In addition to its efforts around new technology, INL has a program aimed at sustaining existing plants. “We are looking at technology that could help the current fleet to operate more efficiently.”

Solution: Wage War on Nuclear FUD

One of the best-known operating nuclear plants might surprise many readers: the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in central Pennsylvania.

Public fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD, in industry parlance) are big issues for nuclear energy, due in part to the technology’s complicated history within American politics. Untangling energy from the messy complications of nuclear proliferation, war, terrorism, and international politics isn’t easy. But the 1979 meltdown of the second reactor unit at Three Mile Island (TMI) was a landmark moment in the industry’s already complicated history. It turned the tide of U.S. public opinion on nuclear power, and halted the industry’s nascent growth.

The TMI accident—the only major episode in the U.S. to date—was the result of human error. In the weeks and months that followed the event, public anxiety about the accident didn’t abate. Instead, it was exacerbated by the utility’s attempts to hide information about the event from the public. The episode eroded public trust in nuclear energy, for better or worse. Even at its most recent height of popularity, before the Fukushima disaster, less than 60 percent of Americans approved of building more new nuclear plants. Today, the numbers have fallen to below 50 percent in a variety of polls.

But public attitudes don’t necessarily accurately reflect the real risk of nuclear power. Yes, the TMI incident was bad. But how bad?

The undamaged reactor at Three Mile Island today is still online and producing power. In 2013, the plant produced 6.68 million megwatt-hours of energy, enough to power 800,000 homes. Furthermore, the legal and scientific record of the site has found no clear adverse health effects from the accident.

A 2011 study of the population data between 1982 and 1995 found that “increased cancer risks from low-level radiation exposure within the TMI cohort were small and mostly statistically non-significant.” While the study recommended further exploration of the data around leukemia in men, its finding that there was no clear health impact of the accidents matches that of the vast majority of studies on the topic. (You can search NIH studies here.)

“It’s sort of interesting,” remarked McCarthy. “We as a society tolerate coal mining accidents and natural gas explosions. It shows up in the news, but then it goes away in a few days.” The story for nuclear is different. “Three Mile Island was a testament to a technology working well despite everyone’s mistakes—and yet…” she trailed off. “We lost the capital investment, but there were no adverse health effects. I try to understand the fear.”

Time and again, scientists and researchers and insurance companies pointed me to data that suggests that nuclear power plants are not the horror-filled risk machines many think they are. For example, did you know that radiation emitted from a nuclear plant is actually lower than that from a coal power plant? Or have you seen charts like this one (based on this one), which show that the number of deaths attributable to coal plants (including air pollution) far outstrips the number of deaths associated with nuclear energy?

Seth Godin

And even early studies (like this one) of the radiation exposures associated with the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan have been cautiously optimistic:

...this study at our educational institution located 57.8 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suggests radiation doses at levels having no impact on health for students leading a typical student life on campus.

If you want a source that puts its money where its mouth is, look no further than American Nuclear Insurers (ANI). ANI provides third-party liability insurance for nuclear power from the point uranium ore is enriched for use in a reactor all the way through its final resting place in a waste disposal facility. “As an insurance company, we think it’s a good technology, a safe technology,” Cass told me. “It’s an industrial operation, and for an industrial operation it's been incredibly safe. We insure facilities for health, and it's been a very good business." That’s especially interesting once you realize that ANI insured the Three Mile Island plant.

“I’m not advocating,” Cass said. “This is just clear data. ‘This happened, it released this amount.’ The science behind radiation is very well documented; it’s one of the best known and studied carcinogens in the world, so there’s a lot of scientific background that comes to bear on these claims.” In the case of Three Mile Island, Cass said there were very few claims paid, and they were related almost exclusively to lost opportunities and business interruptions related to the regional evacuation.

Today, the company is looking for more opportunities to issue policies on nuclear power; since the mid-2000s ANI has had more interest from investors than it has had from customers. “We wouldn’t insure it if we didn’t think it was worth doing,” said Cass.

Yes, But Should We?

Today, the future of nuclear is far from certain.

While there are many advocates who see possible paths forward—as I’ve described above—whether we can and should follow those paths is another question that will need to be solved through national debate and policy. The economics of the industry are still extremely challenging.

Natural gas prices are likely to rise, though how quickly and steadily is another question. Infrastructure development and growing concern about the local environmental impacts of extraction are putting pressure on the booming industry. That bodes well for low-carbon energy sources that compete with gas, including both renewables, storage, and (of course) nuclear.

But even if those trends continue, new nuclear capacity will likely not be prepared to fill the energy gap without further public investment into both R&D, loan guarantees, and tax incentives. Supporters and detractors of nuclear energy both agree on this point. They also agree that, today, a significant increase in nuclear-related investment from the federal government is unlikely.

“What you’re asking is, should there be a Manhattan project to create the perfect nuclear power plant?,” said Lyman, the UCS senior scientist. “Unfortunately, there is no appetite for that in the federal government. … The ship has sailed for massive government funded R&D program.”

Whether that should change is likely to be a major policy debate in the coming months and years. Things seem to be heating up. Just this week, the Government Accountability Office recommended that the DOE find a way forward with the deployment phase of its advanced reactor pilot program in order to prepare for compliance with the EPA’s carbon regulation plan. That comes on the heels of a report released last month, in which Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment, argues that “pursuing nuclear power as a focal point of climate policy diverts economic resources and policy development from critically important efforts to accelerate the deployment of solutions that are much more attractive – less costly, less risky, more environmentally benign.”

The impact of investing in nuclear, under Cooper’s analysis, would be to detract from investment in renewables and storage.

INL’s McCarthy disagreed. “What we’re talking about is nothing compared to our national defense budget,” she said. “We are a very rich country. Really, we are. It’s that we don’t have the will to do it.”

This article was produced by Climate Confidential and released for re-use under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.