Is Nuclear Power Ready At Last For Its ‘Model T’ Moment?

A picture taken on February 02, 2018 shows the Flamanville 3 reactor at the construction site of the … [+] third-generation European Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) in Flamanville, northwestern France. / AFP PHOTO / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Anyone who expresses optimism about nuclear power gets the automatic retort that ‘It was supposed to be too cheap to meter, instead it’s too expensive to build.’ There’s some truth to that, but it ignores the potential future of the industry. As Heroclitus said, all is in motion. (Okay, Yoda said that too.)

Matt Ridley, in his book How Innovation Works, argues that nuclear power suffers because the technology has not been allowed to advance by trial and error, the way so many others have done. Steam locomotives went through numerous innovations before they became commercially viable and continue to do so, indeed, up until the current day. However, there are no tinkerers working in garages trying out different models of nuclear reactors.

Except: well, the field actually has advanced substantially. The capacity factor in U.S. reactors has increased substantially over the years, so that nuclear power generation in the U.S. has grown by 40%—without new reactors. As the figure below shows, in 1990, when nearly every American reactor now operating had come online, the capacity factor was 66%; since 2000, it has consistently been about 90%. This was the result of operators studying best practices and evolutionary improvements.

Of course, opponents of nuclear power point to cases like Hinckley Point C plant, where costs have increased by about 25% from initial estimates. While it is proving expensive, this is not surprising for a new design, and it doesn’t say much about the longer term cost prospects for nuclear power. The IEA seems to have acknowledged this, projecting that capital costs for European nuclear power will decline to reach parity with U.S. by 2040—at a rate of 2% per year. (They are currently 30% higher than U.S. costs, presumably reflecting cost overruns at the two EPR plants in Finland and the U.K.)

But there is every possibility that nuclear power will experience the kinds of cost reductions seen in solar and wind. The costs of those came down with new designs and advanced materials, and the same now appears likely for nuclear power, especially with the investment in both small modular reactors (SMR) and pebble-bed reactors.

Objections that nuclear cannot become cheaper are simplistic. Solar tends to be expensive because of the low power density of sunlight, and while better manufacturing helped to bring costs down, that fundamental factor cannot be altered. For nuclear, however, the high costs are not inherent to the technology so much as the heavy and constantly evolving regulations in past decades. There is good reason to believe that will now change.

In the first place, the novelty of nuclear power in the 1970s meant that regulations evolved with experience and greater understanding of the operating circumstances of nuclear reactors. With upwards of ten thousand reactor-years of experience, the likelihood of major technical surprises seems very limited. Combined with a renewed effort to standardize designs—which helped the French reduce costs in their nuclear fleet—regulatory risk has declined substantially and should not be a major contributor to future cost inflation.

The other factor behind the high cost of nuclear power historically has been public opposition, which has added to delays (and thus expense) and increased regulatory changes. M.I.T.’s Michael Golay is one of many who have noted that new technologies often face opposition before they achieve acceptance, from railroads to automobiles. (The easy acceptance of electronics stands out.) In part, the technology improves over time: early locomotives and automobiles were nowhere near as safe as current models. But additionally, as people become accustomed to the technology, irrational opposition to new things declines and this translates into decreased political and regulatory risk.

There are still critics of the new designs, including those saying that small modular reactors might have “safety gaps” in their NRC certification, as a Union of Concerned Scientist expert warns,[i] but I would also point out that in 1977 the Union of Concerned Scientists predicted 14,400 additional cancer deaths by 2000 from nuclear power plant operations.[ii] Recent estimates are that the actual was about 1500 (from 1971 to 2009)[iii] so the UCS was only off by, um, 960%. The same study calculates that using nuclear power instead of fossil fuels saved about 1.8 million lives, demonstrating the importance of context.

Undoubtedly, reactor vessels won’t be turned out by production lines like Model T, at least not in similar numbers, but we seem to be much closer to seeing nuclear power production ramping up and costs falling. No doubt, the IEA will then be slammed for missing a tipping point in the energy transition.  

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