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Nuclear power, politics, and the odyssey of former US NRC chair Gregory Jaczko

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
John H. Perkins, PhD

Gregory Jaczko is probably not a familiar name to anyone except those deeply steeped in the convoluted and contentious politics of nuclear power in the United States. These politics began at the end of World War II, shortly after the newly discovered processes of nuclear fission powered the nuclear bombs exploded over Japan in 1945. From 1946 to 1975, the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) governed and promoted both weapons and the emerging technology of nuclear power amidst constant debates about both. Controversy over safety forced the dissolution of the AEC, and its regulatory functions were picked up by the newly formed US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1975. The theory behind NRC was that it would be divorced from the task of promoting nuclear power and serve strictly to regulate it. Nevertheless, the political squabbles over regulations moved directly from AEC to NRC and have endured to the present day.1

For some, Jaczko's involvement with the NRC may seem like ancient history. His appointment as a Commissioner on the NRC began in 2005, and President Obama elevated him to chairman of NRC in 2009. During Jaczko's tenure, many controversies over safety continued, exacerbated by the immense financial investments in the technology. In addition, Jaczko's personality and leadership style aggravated disagreements between him and the other four commissioners and between Jaczko and industrial and political forces committed to preserving and expanding nuclear power. He led NRC for three years before resigning under pressure in 2012.2

Now Dr. Jaczko has written a memoir telling his side of the story, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (2019),3 and the book provides one perspective about the future of energy and the global efforts to mitigate climate warming. These issues provide insights important for the strategic campaigns of anti-nuclear activists.

Jaczko's book can best be understood as two learning episodes. First, he had a tutorial under fire about the heated politics of nuclear power in Washington. Second, his conclusions about the safety of nuclear power (better put, the lack of safety) evolved during his service on the NRC.

Jaczko's political education in Washington

Jaczko realized as a graduate student in physics (University of Wisconsin, Madison) that he wanted to pursue a career different from an academic or research career in physics. He won a Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, sponsored by the American Institute of Physics and administered through the American Association for the Advancement of Science.4 These prestigious fellowships open the door for newly minted scientists to learn how to apply their academic expertise to real life political challenges by working for Members of Congress, and they often lead recipients to interesting careers in the policy and political worlds of Washington.

Jaczko arrived in Washington in August, 1999, but he did not arrive with anti-nuclear sentiments. He had never heard of the NRC,5 and his attitude towards nuclear power was one of marvel at the technological achievement of nuclear power but tempered by awareness of its safety issues.6

Jaczko first served on the staff of Representative Edward Markey (D, MA). Markey was a strong proponent of controlling nuclear arms and ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants.7 In March, 2001, he joined the staff of Senator Harry Reid (D, NV). Reid, the Democratic whip, later to become Senate Majority Leader, was focused on thwarting the 2002 law designating Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the repository for nuclear wastes.8 This law had ended a prolonged stalemate about exactly where the US would dispose of high level nuclear wastes and spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants, and it passed despite strong, formal opposition by the Governor of Nevada.

In 2003, Reid asked Jaczko to help find possible nominees for vacancies on the NRC, but then asked Jaczko if he, Jaczko, wanted to be a Commissioner. Confirmation of Jaczko's nomination took two years, and in 2005 he took his seat as one of the Democratic members of the NRC. His service on the staffs of Representative Markey and Senator Reid had marked him, in the eyes of the nuclear industry, as a potential problem, so he began his duties already known as potentially a different kind of Commissioner.9

Jaczko says very little about his service as a Commissioner from 2005 to 2009. Nevertheless, he describes this time as one of learning the supreme importance and power of the electric utility industry and other owners of nuclear power plants.10 Literally billions of dollars were invested in these machines, and their economic viability was at risk from regulatory changes issued by the NRC. Understandably, therefore, the nuclear industry wanted commissioners who believed in the industry and wanted nuclear power to be a commercial success.

The many companies comprising the industry had formed the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in 1994 by consolidating older organizations dating to 1953. NEI currently has hundreds of members and is the trade association lobbying for the nuclear industry, including owners and operators of nuclear reactors plus firms designing, building, and providing fuel. In addition, NEI members also include supporting institutions such as universities, government research laboratories, consulting firms, nuclear medical producers, law firms, and others.11 As of 2019, a 55-member Board of Directors, representing the broad membership, governs NEI.12

From Jaczko's point of view:13

". . . NEI members have a history of acting as one. This solidarity gives them tremendous influence with Congress. NEI also has a huge impact on the decisions of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. . . Killing regulations, or even modifying them slightly, can produce savings of millions of dollars per year in operating costs, equipment purchases, and technical analysis. . .NEI shapes every NRC regulation, guidance, and policy. . . In any given month, I could be visited by as many representatives of the industry as I would be by public interest groups across my entire seven and a half years on the commission."

Jaczko knew that the NEI did not want him as chairman of NRC, but his truly formative lesson on Washington politics came when he went to the White House for a final interview before his elevation to be chair of the NRC. His interview with President Obama's chief of staff showed just how contentious his appointment was, and he left the interview with firm understanding: nobody wanted him to be chair except Reid, and in blunt, colorful language Jaczko learned that he was not to make any problems for the President!

Obama's motives were multiple. He had come into office with two major goals, health care and climate change, and he saw nuclear power as an aid to his larger goal of reducing CO2 emissions.14 Moreover, Obama had been a Senator from Illinois, a state deriving about 61 percent of its electricity from nuclear power (May, 2019).15 Thus as a Senator, he was anything but anti-nuclear, and he had probably come to know the lobbyists from NEI.

For his part, Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader from 2007 to 2015, wanted Jaczko to be chair, probably based on Reid's perception that Jaczko would help oppose construction of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Reid had also maneuvered Obama into opposing the construction of the site, despite Obama's acceptance of nuclear power.16

Thus, from the very beginning of his tenure as chair, Jaczko was caught in a three-way pincer: NEI opposed him, Obama wanted nuclear electrical generation to continue, ignoring for the moment the dangerous spent fuel rods piling up at nuclear power plants. Reid, Jaczko's patron, did not want the waste repository in Nevada, period, so block construction at Yucca Mountain. How to deal with climate change and the debris from existing nuclear power plants were separate problems. Welcome to the competing interests and long knives of Washington, Dr. Jaczko, and good luck.

Jaczko's absorption of the political lessons of Washington were clear at the outset of his tenure as chairman of NRC, and Yucca Mountain quickly reinforced his understanding of exactly how treacherous nuclear politics could be. The US Department of Energy (DOE) owned the site, and during the George W. Bush administration had initiated the request for a license from NRC to dispose of spent fuel at Yucca Mountain. President Obama, however, honored his campaign promise and gave the orders to shut down construction, over the objections of his own DOE.

Legal issues at NRC tangled the request to withdraw the license request, and Jaczko emerged with scars based on his support for stopping NRC consideration of the project.17 Ultimately, the choice of continuing with the project was the responsibility of the Obama administration, but nevertheless Jaczko had engaged in the first of several battles and begun to acquire enemies who wished him out of his job. But even more ferocious battles were yet to come.

Jaczko's evolving views on safety and nuclear power

The second factor shaping of Jaczko's judgements about nuclear power began with the accident at a Japanese nuclear power plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, on 11 March 2011. On that fateful day, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck just off the east coast of Japan, west of Fukushima Prefecture and northeast of Tokyo. The four reactors operating at Dai-ichi automatically shut down, and electric power from the grid to the plant was also lost. Thus, the electric power that normally provides needed cooling water to the reactors was lost.

Emergency diesel engines automatically switched on to provide power to continue cooling the reactors and storage areas for spent fuel rods. About 40 minutes later, a 14-meter (45-feet) high tidal wave swept ashore, destroying towns, killing many, and disabling the emergency generators for units 1, 2, 3, and 4 at Dai-ichi. Secondary emergency generation kick in, but after about a day they were exhausted. Hydrogen built up inside units 1, 2, and 4, and they exploded a few days later.18 The accident was classified as a category 7 event, the most serious because it meant a major release of radioactive debris.19 The situations at Fukushima (2011) and Chernobyl (1986) are the only two accidents to date so categorized.

An ordinary commissioner on the NRC would have no special duties to deal with an accident in a foreign country, but the chair, as head of the agency and spokesperson for it, was immediately in the spotlight as an authoritative voice about the dangers to US citizens in Japan and in the United States. He was also responsible for assisting the Japanese as requested. Furthermore, the plants in Japan had been designed in the US and were very similar to many operating US reactors. After 2011, Jaczko spent a substantial amount of his time dealing with the aftermath of the events at Fukushima Dai-ichi,20 and his subsequent troubles stemmed from the ways his mind-set had been changed by events in Japan.

I'll return to the ways in which Fukushima led to Jaczko's departure from NRC in a moment, but it's important to realize that the fact of other accidents and near accidents also shaped his changing attitudes toward safety and nuclear power. In the book, he summarizes events at Browns Ferry (Tennessee, 1975), Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, 1979), Chernobyl (USSR, now Ukraine, 1986), and Davis-Besse (Ohio, 2002).21

Jaczko also devotes an entire chapter to the serious threats from natural disasters that threatened US nuclear plants but did not result in radiation releases. In Spring, 2011, floods on the Missouri River threatened Fort Calhoun (near Omaha, Nebraska), and in August of that year, an earthquake rocked North Anna (in Virginia, near Washington, DC). Fortunately, neither the earthquake nor the floods resulted in an accident, but Jaczko's discussion of them shows how he clearly believed "no accident" was more a sign of luck than intrinsic safety of the machines or the skill of operators in making their machines as safe as possible.22

Jaczko's discussion of safety planning at these two plants provided him the opportunity to explore the intricacies of two different engineering approaches that shaped the construction and operation of nuclear plants.23 Both Fort Calhoun (construction began 1966) and North Anna (construction began 1971) had been designed and built with engineering of safety based on deterministic methods. Under this concept, engineers predicted the hazards under both normal operations and under the most severe natural phenomena that could be imagined. They then designed the plant to more than withstand those threats. Deterministic methods could not provide a complete safety model of a plant, but they guided engineers to specific threats and remedies, and they were easier to explain to the public.

A method of safety analysis developed after these two plants were constructed, probabilistic risk assessment (PRA), started with a series of postulated events in the plant and then calculated the probability of the failure of safety equipment to control the event. One view of PRA was that it failed its primary purpose, which was to make a convincing, argument to the public that nuclear power was more than safe enough, even though PRA was an advance in understanding reactors and what could go wrong.24 Another view was that PRA was a technical success in opening new ways of managing nuclear reactors.25

Whatever the motivations for inventing PRA, the method entered NRC's regulatory schemes in 2004.26 PRA-based regulations could be more flexible than deterministic methods, but they also invited industry resistance to plant modifications. Managers could invoke cost-benefit considerations and ask why they had to make expensive changes based on accidents with extremely low calculated probabilities of occurrence.27 In addition, probabilistic methods were more difficult to explain to the public and were controversial among scientists and engineers.28

Jaczko, Fukushima, and his departure from NRC

Events at Fukushima shaped the remainder of Jaczko's contentious tenure as NRC chair. First, he appointed a task force to quickly outline the lessons that Fukushima should impart to the NRC and other national nuclear regulators. This group began work in March, 2011, and completed their assignment in July. Their conclusions focused on general improvements in NRC regulatory policy and some changes specifically aimed at the boiling water reactors operating in the United States that resembled those that exploded at Fukushima.29

Reverberations of the task force's report began almost immediately, but the effects were powerfully shaped by the history of nuclear power dating to 1954. In that year, the US Congress had opened development of nuclear power to private industry, which over the next two decades launched efforts by many private firms to build and operate nuclear power plants. The federal government would regulate safety, primarily through issuances of, first, a construction permit, and, second, after construction was complete, an operating license.30 The basic thought behind Congress' actions were to bring in the supposed efficiency and innovation that private industry had exhibited elsewhere.

For various reasons, however, private industry turned out to be, at best, of mixed competence in nuclear power. Plant construction time-schedules and costs proved difficult to control, and by 1978, the nuclear industry stopped asking for new construction permits.31 The anticipated launching of a nuclear-powered USA32 ground to a halt, and no further new applications for licenses to construct and operate came for three decades.

In 1992, the Congress began a series of reforms aimed at restarting the nuclear industry, and they changed the licensing from a two-step to a one-step process. The applicant could apply for a combined construction and operating license for a reactor of approved design. If building was to the approved specifications, the company could begin operating it without a second application.33

Unfortunately for those advocating more nuclear power, combined construction-operating licenses alone did not sway industry decision-making. It turned out that the real block to building new reactors was financing, not just the licensing procedures. In 2005, Congress approved several programs to help companies financially, the most important of which were Federal loan guarantees. Banks would loan to nuclear companies if the bank was guaranteed not to lose money. (In addition, some States allowed charging ratepayers for Construction While In Progress (CWIP), an alternative way of obtaining financing for building new reactors.34)

The Southern Company was the first applicant to receive a loan guarantee, of $8.3 billion, in 2010 from the Obama administration. The Company was ready to apply for its combined license in 2011, and, just a few weeks after Fukushima, Jaczko proposed to the other commissioners that NRC delay the licensing procedures. This resulted in a "no," so the Southern application went to a required public hearing in the Fall of 2011.35

It was here that Jaczko's growing concerns about safety met in a head-on collision with the power of immense amounts of money and thousands of construction jobs at stake. As he phrased the title of Chapter 9, it was an "Express Lane: The Nuclear Industry Licensing Juggernaut." Jaczko tried various ways to put the Southern Company on notice for safety improvements, but his efforts could not win the support of the other commissioners or the NRC staff. Ultimately, he voted no on issuing the license, but no other commissioners joined him.36

The aftermath of his failed attempt to slow down the first licensing procedures in over three decades launched Jaczko into a downward spiral, which ended in Harry Reid telling him that he would resign in May, 2012.37 Jaczko's described his "mistake" in the following way:

"There are significant safety enhancements that have already been recommended as a result of learning the lessons from Fukushima, and there's still more work ahead of us. Knowing this, I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened. But without this license condition, in my view, that is what we are doing."38

Jaczko, indeed, had been a different kind of commissioner and especially a different kind of chair of the NRC. He is probably the only person to have occupied those positions who developed a full-blown skepticism about the wisdom and necessity for continuing to encourage expansion of the industry, even though he acknowledged that existing nuclear plants in the US would continue operation for many years. Nevertheless, he believed that renewable energy especially offered many opportunities for safer and cheaper generation of electricity.39

Lessons from the Jaczko experience for anti-nuclear activists

I draw three lessons from Jaczko's memoirs. First, it is unrealistic to see the NRC as the engine that will close the nuclear industry in the United States. People with the expert knowledge to serve as commissioners will almost certainly come from training programs and experiences leading them to favor the technology. Jaczko was the exception proving the rule. Activist organizations can sue the NRC if they think it has violated one of its own rules, but that's about the extent of usefulness of direct interaction with the NRC itself. Instead, focus on persuading a majority in Congress that nuclear power's susceptibility to low-probability-but-high-consequence accidents makes it unsuitable as an energy source.

Second, nuclear power's weakest feature is its expense. The huge up-front capital expenditures needed to build a new plant, plus its long history of not building them on schedule, led to skepticism of the industry by financial institutions. Activists can work on Congress not to guarantee loans to the industry or insure lenders against delays in construction. Activists can also work with federal and state regulators of electricity markets not to allow higher rates for nuclear electricity or for rates funding Construction While in Progress. Starved of financing and subsidies, nuclear power will eventually disappear.

Finally, the plea that nuclear power is a good solution for climate change is refuted by calculating the costs and lengths of time nuclear plants need for construction, combined with the number of plants needed to make a dent in CO2 emissions. Point also to the opportunity costs of nuclear power: what could similar amounts of capital do to fully build out an energy economy based on renewable energy used efficiently? Renewable energy is not without its own challenges, but those pale in comparison with the intrinsic financial and safety weaknesses of nuclear power.40

John Perkins' latest book, Changing Energy: The Transition to a Sustainable Future, was published by the University of California Press in 2017. He's currently writing a new book on the prospects for a timely and complete transition to energy economies without fossil fuels and uranium (nuclear power). He has previously worked at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University (Ohio) and The Evergreen State College (Washington State). Perkins has published over 50 articles, book chapters, and reports on topics of energy, environment, and agriculture. He has an AB (Amherst College) and PhD (Harvard University) in biology.


1. J. Samuel Walker and Thomas R. Wellock, A Short History of Nuclear Regulation, 1946 – 2009 (Washington: United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG/BR-0175, Rev. 2, October 2010), 1 – 49.

2. John M. Broder and Matthew L. Wald, Chairman of N.R.C. to Resign Under Fire, New York Times, May 21, 2012, found at, 24 August 2019.

3. Gregory B. Jaczko, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 196 pp.

4. Meghan Anzelc, Gregory Jaczko, Ph.D. Physics, Commissioner, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (APS Physics, Forum on Graduate Student Affairs), found at, 19 August 2019.

5. Jaczko, Confessions, p. vii.

6. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 7.

7. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 4.

8. US Congress, "H.J.Res. 87 — 107th Congress: Yucca Mountain Development resolution." 2002, found at, August 20, 2019.

9. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 3 – 9.

10. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 10 – 13.

11. Nuclear Energy Institute, About NEI,, 21 August 2019

12. Nuclear Energy Institute, NEI Board of Directors and Executive Committee,, 21 August 2019.

13. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 12 – 13.

14. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 14 – 17.

15. Energy Information Administration, Illinois net electricity generation by source, May. 2019,, 21 August 2019. Percent calculated by author.

16. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 57 – 58.

17. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 67 – 68.

18. USNRC, Backgrounder on NRC response to lessons learned from Fukushima, September 17, 2018, found at, 21 August 2019.

19. International Atomic Energy Agency, International nuclear and radiological event scale (INES), found at, 21 August 2019.

20. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 70 – 95.

21. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 23 – 40.

22. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 104 – 115.

23. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 45 – 48.

24. John H. Perkins, Development of risk assessment for nuclear power, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 4 (2014): 273 – 287.

25. Thomas R. Wellock, A figure of merit: quantifying the probability of a nuclear reactor accident, Technology and Culture 58 (July 2017): 678 – 721.

26. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 48.

27. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 126 – 127.

28. Perkins, Development of risk assessment.

29. Charles Miller, Amy Cubbage, Daniel Dorman, Jack Grobe, Gary Holahan, and Nathan Sanfilippo, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century (Washington: U.S.NRC, 2011), 83 pp.

30. Kathleen M. Saul and John H. Perkins, Nuclear power: is it worth the risks? In Green Energy Economies: The Search for Clean and Renewable Energy, ed. John Byrne and Young-Doo Wang (Transaction Publications, 2014): 276 – 295.

31. Irvin C. Bupp and Jean-Claude Darian, The Failed Promise of Nuclear Power: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 241 pp.

32. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Civilian Nuclear Power: A Report to the President 1962 (Washington: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1962), 67 pp.

33. Saul and Perkins, Nuclear power.

34. Saul and Perkins, Nuclear power.

35. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 135 – 138.

36. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 132 – 143.

37. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 160.

38. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 157 – 158.

39. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 161 – 168.

40. John H. Perkins, Changing Energy: The Transition to a Sustainable Future (Oakland: University of California, Press, 2017), 232 – 237.

Aging nuclear plants, cost-cutting, and reduced safety oversight

Dr Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

"After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set up a task force to assess whether there were deficiencies in its oversight of nuclear reactor safety. The task force came back with twelve major areas for improvement. Its top recommendation: The agency needed to strengthen its fundamental regulatory framework to reduce the risk that a Fukushima-scale accident could happen in the US. But after dragging their feet for years, the NRC commissioners finally rejected the proposal in March 2016, with then-Commissioner William Ostendorff concluding that "the current regulatory approach has served the Commission and the public well."

"Yet only a few years later, the NRC has reversed course. The agency now says it urgently needs to transform its regulatory framework, its culture and its infrastructure ‒ but in ways that would weaken, rather than strengthen, safety and security oversight. A key aspect of that transformation is an overhaul (or what the NRC euphemistically calls an "enhancement") of the Reactor Oversight Process, the NRC's highly complex system for determining how it inspects nuclear power reactors, measures performance, assesses the significance of inspection findings, and responds to violations. Overall, these changes ‒ many of which are being pushed by the nuclear industry ‒ could make it harder for the NRC to uncover problems and mandate timely fixes before they jeopardize public health and safety. ...

'At this time, the four sitting commissioners (there is one vacancy) have not all voted on the proposed reactor oversight changes, but the outcome isn't in much doubt. The Republican majority, under the direction of Chairman Kristine Svinicki, has already weakened the NRC's regulatory authority in other areas. For example, in a 3-2 vote in January 2019, the majority gutted the staff's proposed final rule for protection against Fukushima-scale natural disasters by eliminating the requirement that reactors be able to withstand current flooding and seismic hazards."

The full article is online:

Edwin Lyman, 29 Aug 2019, 'Aging nuclear plants, industry cost-cutting, and reduced safety oversight: a dangerous mix',

Hanford, the nuclear frontier

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Andrew Blowers

In the second of a series of articles on the local and social legacies of nuclear energy, Andrew Blowers looks at the history of nuclear activity at the Hanford site in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States in eastern Washington state the mighty Columbia River bends east, then south before turning west for its long journey to the Pacific Ocean. In this middle reach the river passes through a landscape that has been utterly transformed by the nuclear industry over the past three-quarters of a century. For it was here in December 1942 that Lieutenant Franklin T Matthias, flying over the area on a mission for the Manhattan Project, exclaimed: 'This is it!' He commented later that 'the site was so good that there couldn't be a better one in the country. It looked perfect in every respect.'1

It was big country, with few people, and above all isolated – just the place for the secret, war-driven purpose of making plutonium, the deadly fissionable material that, less than three years later, would be used to explode over the skies above Nagasaki. Hanford, in the American West, a frontier land where the Lewis and Clark expedition had passed in 1805, had become, a century and a half later, the American nuclear frontier, the Atomic West.2 This semi-desert region of bare and barren brown and yellow hills and plains of sagebrush interspersed with homesteads of settlers and homelands of Native Americans was transformed into a landscape of risk and ultimately a nuclear wasteland, 'the little-known reservation that is arguably the most polluted place in the western world'.3

Hanford is one of the US Department of Energy's nuclear military reservations, places which have combined to produce the American nuclear arsenal. It is one of the three oldest and key wartime sites, along with Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Like them, it has the classic characteristics of a 'peripheral community',4 but over the years, as its mission has changed and its economy has developed and diversified, it has become less isolated and more integrated into the mainstream – evidence of the dynamic nature of peripheral characteristics. Nevertheless, Hanford remains, to an extent, a place apart, defined by its history and ongoing nuclear activity, which, in a somewhat perverse way, provides a stability and sustainability that will endure for decades to come. Hanford is a long-established nuclear wasteland that has reached a level of maturity and permanency which illuminates the persistence of nuclear in the era of nuclear's decline. Hanford's history, perhaps, also indicates nuclear's future.

'Peace! Our bomb clinched it!'

It is difficult now to imagine the frenetic activity and scale of the mobilisation of technology, science and human resources that brought about the transformation of Hanford in the wartime years. In these extraordinary circumstances homesteaders were evicted, responding with a passive acceptance of the exigency of war mingled with resentment at the loss of livelihood. Native Americans were banned from fishing and gathering in the area of the Hanford Reach. All that now remains of the pre-war settlements is an abandoned farm warehouse and a crumbling bank and high school marking the site of the tiny settlements of White Bluffs and Hanford.

The Hanford site covers 586 square miles (larger than Bedfordshire and half the size of Rhode Island). The outlying parts of the reservation have been left as wilderness – the protected areas of the Wahluke Slope to the north, the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, and the Arid Land Ecology Reserve flanking the bare saddleback Rattlesnake Mountain to the west. As Roy Gephart, who has chronicled the nuclear landscape, puts it: 'It contains a portion of the nation's most dangerous waste while preserving some of the most unique desert ecology within the Pacific Northwest.'5

Within these precious and pristine surrounds lies the heart of Hanford. In those frantic few wartime years, Hanford became the largest construction site ever assembled in the USA, with at its peak in 1944 50,000 workers recruited from across the nation and housed in barrack-like segregated accommodation with communal facilities. In these primitive conditions in a harsh climate they fashioned an incredible nuclear complex. They built reactors (then known as 'piles') along the Columbia to produce spent fuel for chemical processing, in long and massive plants called 'canyons' which turned out the small amount of plutonium (13.6pounds, the size of a softball) assembled in the 'Fat Boy' Nagasaki bomb.

The Hanford workers had no idea what they were producing until it was revealed that 'It's atomic bombs' on the morrow of the devastating impact on Nagasaki. The revelation was met with a surge of patriotic pride in Hanford's winning the war. As Michelle Gerber, Hanford's historian, commented to me in 2004, 'Nothing can make you that proud ever again.'

Production and pollution

During the ensuing decades of the Cold War, Hanford was at the heart of the United States' military nuclear production. Along the Columbia a further fleet of reactors was built, and inland, at the centre of the site in the so-called '200 area', giant reprocessing and finishing plants took over from the wartime 'canyons' dedicated to the production of plutonium. Elsewhere, as well as hosting these facilities Hanford became the scene of a variety of non-military experimental facilities, such as the Fast Flux Test Facility breeder reactor. On the Columbia River is the Columbia Generating Station, a public nuclear power plant supplying electricity, the only survivor of a grandiose plan for five nuclear power stations in Washington state which failed in the face of financial overreach and environmental opposition.6

Expansion of production was accompanied by rapid urban development as the temporary settlements of wartime Hanford were replaced in the post-war period, and the population settled in towns just to the south of the reservation. Foremost of these was Richland, a veritable company town built and controlled by the government. In its spacious layout and social purpose it had echoes of Garden City and new town principles, as well as the integrated neighbourhood unit concept of Clarence Perry.7 Indeed, in its early years Richland conveyed an egalitarian community ethos, regulated and communal, while also expressing hierarchical values in the so-called alphabet ('ABC') housing of varying size and rent designated for different groups – 'upper echelons' (administrators scientists), mid level (managers, engineers), down to blue-collar smaller homes and single-sex dormitory blocks.

The sense of identity with history of this 'Atomic City' is expressed in such features as 'Bombing Range Road' and its identification as 'Home of the Bombers', with its mushroom cloud, the symbol of its high school football team. Remnants of the early days still survive, although since its incorporation in 1958 Richland, with Kennewick and Pasco, has formed the Tri-Cities, a modern small metropolis with a population of 54,000 in 1962, increasing to around 250,000 today.

With the area's almost single-minded focus on wartime and Cold War productive effort, the negative consequences were grossly neglected. By today's standards the treatment of wastes was casual, neglectful and irresponsible. Low-level liquid wastes were siphoned off into cribs and swamps, while an estimated 56 million gallons of highly active liquid wastes from reprocessing were pumped into 177 tanks (149 single shelled and 28 double shelled), some of which have been leaking for many years, posing a threat to groundwater moving to the Columbia. These tanks constitute the most intractable of Hanford's clean-up problems, requiring intense manipulation and management prior to vitrification – a solution which still seems a long way off.

According to one estimate, there are some 1,700 waste sites and 500 facilities to be decommissioned, most of them along the Columbia or on the central part of the site.8 The inventory includes around 450 billion gallons of liquids discharged to the soil, 5 million cubic yards of contaminated soil, and 80 square miles of contaminated groundwater. The full extent of the contamination of this palpable nuclear wasteland is impossible to gauge with accuracy and, as Roy Gephart argues, 'deciphering this entire inventory is less important than pinpointing, or at least bounding, those portions posing the greatest potential health risk'.9

For years the scale of the accumulating problem was unknown and unregarded. The operations at Hanford were shrouded in secrecy and cover-up as the site's overriding priority was to continue to respond to the country's defensive demands. There were myriad incidents and experiments, paying little heed to human health or environment.

The most serious was the notorious experimental 'Green Run' in 1949, when there was a deliberate release of radionuclides, including iodine-131, casting a plume of radioactivity stretching 200 by 40 miles east and south-west of Hanford and giving readings exceeding the contemporary exposure standards by hundreds of times in the downwind communities. The idea was to develop a monitoring methodology to enable the US to simulate Soviet bomb-making capacity.10 According to historian Jerry Gough, whom I interviewed in 1999, 'The atrocity of the Green Run was not the release itself but the fact they didn't know what its effects might be. This was outrageous.'11

From plutonium culture to environmental culture

The outrages enacted on the Hanford landscape during the Second World War and the Cold War were concealed by a 'plutonium culture' – a combination of patriotism, belief in nuclear technology, and unquestioning trust in expertise that pervaded the communities in what Kate Brown has called Plutopia.12 With the ending of the Cold War there emerged a gradual but ultimately decisive cultural transformation. There was a transitional period of a decade or so up to the early years of this century, during which, reluctantly at first but pragmatically, Hanford was coming to terms with its new role and relationship with the nuclear industry. Three key developments in the change can be perceived.

First, and most obvious, was that the ending of the Cold War signalled the end of production at Hanford. Indeed, production had been declining since its peak in the mid-1960s as the era of détente and arms limitation set in. It was the closure in 1987 of Hanford's N reactor (described by President Kennedy shortly before his assassination in 1963 as a project that 'symbolises our strength as a nation') that effectively brought Hanford's military role to an end. Thereafter, apart from some experimental and research facilities, Hanford ceased production altogether.

The second development was the shift from secrecy to greater openness, marked especially by the publication in 1986 by the then site manager, Mike Lawrence, of the records revealing the sheer scale of the legacy and the casual attitudes to risk that had prevailed. In an interview with me in 1999 he argued that 'what went on here was good and necessary' but that 'it was very secretive; we know best ... How can people understand if they are not told?'

The end of production and the revelation of the legacy precipitated the third development, a fundamental change in Hanford's mission to a focus on environmental clean-up. The process is durable, unending and intractable, complex, and, in some ways, controversial. The key challenges are: removing high-level wastes from leaking tanks; decommissioning the reactors along the Columbia; and decontaminating and decommissioning the huge reprocessing canyons. Apart from these massive projects there are the myriad problems associated with redundant facilities, waste dumps and other hazards, including the perhaps impossible task of dealing with radioactive plumes beneath the site.

Some progress has been made, notably the removal of spent fuel and progressive cocooning of the redundant reactors in interim storage, engineering the secure storage of plutonium, decommissioning redundant facilities, and cleaning up contaminated sites. But the most difficult and costly challenge is the clean-up and remediation of the tanks and the vitrification of the high-level wastes in the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP), the construction of which has been plagued by delays, technical problems and cost escalation. The ultimate aim of cleaning up the Columbia Corridor and concentrating the most problematic and hazardous activities in an inner core of 10 square miles at the centre of the site seems some way off.

The management of the clean-up process has been criticised for its institutional inertia, reliance on big contractors with short-term contracts, changing strategies, and low productivity. Bill Dixon, an engineer with experience of working at Hanford, told me in 2013: 'The approach has been for the gold standard, which makes WTP expensive and long term.' Rather than an open-ended commitment, the US Department of Energy, the ultimate paymaster, presses for an accelerated programme based on a risk-based approach to make sure less money is spent in a shorter timescale for a lower standard of remediation.

In the end 'clean-up is a conditional, negotiated state',13 and a collaborative approach called the Tri-Party Agreement has been in force since 1998, involving the Department of Energy, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the state of Washington's Department of Ecology. This provides for a consensual approach on priorities, milestones, and actions. An element of public participation in clean-up is provided through the Hanford Advisory Board, with a broad stakeholder membership advising on major policy issues. Among the continuing controversies are questions such as: should all buildings be demolished; should all tank wastes be vitrified; should all reactors be moved to the central area; which areas should become available for unrestricted use – and when; and, the overarching question, how clean is clean enough? That question, given the uncertainties and different opinions, is a matter of both scientific and value judgement.

Stability and sustainability

Hanford has entered a mature and relatively stable stage in the relationship between its communities and the nuclear industry. The peripheral characteristics that were its raison d'être have evolved, and Hanford has undergone a profound change from isolation to integration – a community still marked by its nuclear history but no longer entirely defined by it.

Chosen for its remoteness to undertake a national strategic and secret operation, Hanford, although far from major centres, is far more accessible nowadays. The Tri-Cities is a fully connected and fast growing sub-regional centre. Its economic dependence on the nuclear industry, although still considerable, is much diminished. Fears of a steep post-production decline in the nuclear industry have been eased by the federal appropriation routinely provided to Hanford to the tune of $2 billion per year – around a third of the national nuclear clean-up budget. At the same time, the economy of the Tri-Cities has developed, with research laboratories (originally a spin-off from the nuclear activities) but also health services, food processing and wineries, high-tech industries, and regional retail and distribution services. Hanford's, or rather the Tri-Cities', economy is now neither dependent nor monocultural, but diversified and sustainable.

Hanford, created and supported by the state throughout its heyday, continues to exert political leverage. Politically speaking, Hanford is not just an environmental issue; it is a moral issue, which accounts for the obligation towards its clean-up mission felt by federal, state and local governments. There is still a residual sense of embattlement in a Republican pro-nuclear community within a Democratic state with pronounced anti-nuclear sentiments in the big cities to the west beyond the Cascade Corridor. But the mutual hostility of the years of nuclear production has abated, and mutual interest in clean-up has fructified. In short, a modernist discourse associated with the nuclear industry has shifted to a postmodern discourse of consensus and co-operation, reflecting the more complex economy and diverse society that constitutes the Tri-Cities area today.

A continuing legacy

Hanford's is a landscape traumatised by its wartime and post-war existence at the heart of the American nuclear-industrial complex. In this vast area are the remnants of a plutonium economy that has left a polluted landscape which will persist down the generations. 'Hanford represents one of the most daunting environmental catastrophes the world has ever known',14 comparable in scale and contamination to the contemporary Russian Cold War complex of Mayak near Chelyabinsk.15 The problems arising from an ageing infrastructure are difficult to contain. Major recent incidents include the collapse of a rail tunnel storing waste from plutonium production, further incidents of tank leakage, and risks to workers from demolition work.

It is intended to release most of the land to non-nuclear purposes. Already much is protected or conserved, and the stretch of the Columbia that runs through the site is under conservation as the Hanford Reach National Monument, a wildlife, fishing and recreational area, with the historic reactors dotted along its southern bank. In 2015 some of the historic nuclear structures, including the B reactor, were incorporated in the Manhattan Project National Historic Park, along with similar features at Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the other main wartime nuclear projects.

It will take time, resources and effort to achieve clean-up and to provide adequate, safe and secure interim storage for the Hanford wastes. The overall costs are estimated at over $100 billion, with a deadline for clean-up of 2060 – both likely to be exceeded. The WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) deep disposal facility in New Mexico, the destination for the military transuranic wastes buried at Hanford, has been suspended since 2014 owing to brine seepage. With the suspension of the national repository project at Yucca Mountain in 2008, a new process for finding a suitable site has begun. The slow progress with the vitrification plant and the lack of a national repository make a final solution for the disposal of vitrified high-level wastes a distant and uncertain prospect.

Hanford, the Atomic City of the West, was once at the nuclear frontier, creating weapons of devastating destructive power that left a nuclear wasteland. Today it is at the frontier of a massive clean-up project, described as 'the largest civil works project in world history'.16 The nuclear pioneers engaged in the defence of the nation appropriated a landscape truly awesome in scale, a sparsely settled wilderness in the mid-Columbia plateau, and transformed it into a scattered industrial complex in the sagebrush desert. Their successors have been left with the legacy of those years – a task of retrieval, containment, remediation and improvement to restore the landscape where possible and to withdraw those parts which are irremediable.

For the foreseeable future Hanford will remain a nuclear wasteland, where risk from wastes not fully comprehended or characterised lurk on and beneath its surface with no final solution yet in sight. It is a place where the impacts from a frenzied period of destructive impulse will linger indefinitely; a place where, in the words often attributed to Native American Chief Seattle, it may truly be said: 'We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.'


1. Quoted in J. Findlay and B. Hevly: Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West. University of Washington Press, 2011, pp.18-19

2. B. Hevly and J. Findlay: The Atomic West. University of Washington Press, 1998

3. M D'Antonio: Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal. Crown Publishers, 1993

4. The concept and characteristics of 'peripheral communities' were explored in the first article in this series ('Landscapes of the legacy of nuclear power'). In brief the characteristics are: remoteness, marginality, powerlessness, cultural resignation and resilience, and environmental risk. It may be noted here that the characteristics are dynamic, responding to changing power relations. For a more detailed analysis of the concepts of peripherality and peripheralization, see: A Blowers: The Legacy of Nuclear Power. Earthscan from Routledge, 2017

5. R. Gephart: Hanford, a Conversation about Nuclear Waste and Cleanup. Battelle Press, 2003, p.v

6. The Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) planned to build five large nuclear plants during the 1970s to serve Washington state. The project was a disaster, suffering cost overruns and delays, leading to one of the biggest defaults in history, with two stations never built, two halted during construction, and only one, that on the Hanford site, eventually completed. The scandal became popularised as WHOOPS!

7. C. Perry: 'The neighborhood unit, a scheme of arrangement for the family-life community'. In The Regional Survey of New York and its Environs, 1929, Vol. 7, 22-140

8. An estimate prepared by United Kingdom Nirex Limited for my visit in 2004

9. Hanford, a Conversation about Nuclear Waste and Cleanup (see note 5), p.5.3

10. The Green Run was a release in December 1949 of radioactive iodine-131 from 'green' (less-cooled) uranium fuel, apparently to test instrumentation for detecting Soviet bomb-making capability. It was not revealed until the 1980s, becoming notorious for the harm it may have caused in downwind communities

11. For a downwinder account of the unknown threats from Hanford, see T. Hein: Atomic Farmgirl. Mariner Books, 2003. She points out that the Green Run was only one of many deliberate and accidental post-war releases from the site. The Green Run released 8,000 curies in an estimated total of 740,000 during 1944-72 (p.xi)

12. K. Brown: Plutopia. Oxford University Press, 2013

13. Hanford, a Conversation about Nuclear Waste and Cleanup (see note 5), p.8.6

14. S. Shulman: The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Legacy of the US Military. Beacon Press, 1992, p.94

15. D. Bradley: Behind the Nuclear Curtain: Radioactive Waste Management in the Former Soviet Union. Battelle Press, 1998

16. G. Zorpette: 'Hanford's nuclear wasteland'. Scientific American, 1996, Vol. 274 (5), 88-97

mPower: an obituary

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

March 2017 ‒ The mPower small modular reactor (SMR) project in the USA just got much smaller: it has been abandoned.

mPower was conceived in 2008 and announced to the world in June 2009. In July 2010, Babcock & Wilcox announced an alliance with Bechtel called Generation mPower. At the same time, Babcock & Wilcox announced that it would build an mPower test facility in Virginia, part-funded by a US$5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalisation Commission.1

Generation mPower planned to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for design certification by 2013.1 The company aimed for NRC certification and a reactor construction permit in 2018, and commercial operation of the first two units in 2022.2

The idea was to produce scaled-down (195 MWe) pressurized light water reactors (PWR), drawing on decades of worldwide experience with (larger) PWRs and thus making NRC licensing simpler and quicker.3

Experienced, cashed-up companies ... a conventional reactor design ... R&D funding support from Virginia and from the federal Department of Energy ... what could go wrong?

It didn't take long for the project to fall apart. In 2013 Babcock & Wilcox said it intended to sell a majority stake in the mPower joint venture, but in February 2014 announced it was unable to find a buyer. In April 2014, Babcock & Wilcox announced it was sharply reducing investment in mPower to US$15 million annually, citing the inability "to secure significant additional investors or customer engineering, procurement and construction contracts to provide the financial support necessary to develop and deploy mPower reactors".1

More than 200 engineers, project managers, administrators, and sales-people were sacked in 2014.4

The Tennessee Valley Authority had been named as a lead customer and plans were developed to build up to six mPower reactors at TVA's Clinch River site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.5 But in 2014, TVA ended the agreement to share design and licensing costs.

In November 2012, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it would subsidize mPower development in a five-year cost-share agreement. The DOE's contribution would be capped at US$226 million, of which US$111 million was subsequently paid. That funding tap was switched off after Generation mPower downsized the project in 2014, but the company was not required to repay any of the DOE funding.2

The Generation mPower companies spent more than US$375 million on mPower to February 2016.2 Add that to the DOE's US$111 million contribution, and overall expenditure was nudging US$500 million.

In March 2016, Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel came to an arrangement whereby Bechtel would attempt to secure further funding from third parties, including the DOE.2 However those efforts have been abandoned. On 3 March 2017, Bechtel notified Babcock & Wilcox that it was unable to secure sufficient funding and was invoking a settlement provision to terminate the joint agreement. Generation mPower will terminate the program in the next few months.3

Bechtel spokesperson Fred deSousa said: "Bringing a new reactor program through the design, engineering and regulatory process is a very complex and expensive proposition. It needed a plant owner with an identified location and an investor willing to wait a significant period of time for a return, and these were not available."6

Rod Adams ‒ who worked for B&W mPower as the Process and Procedure Development Lead from 2010 to 2013 ‒ gives some reasons for the demise of mPower:3

  • The financial crisis of 2008.
  • The continuing reduction in natural gas prices.
  • Management challenges associated with a fundamentally unequal partnership between two large, established companies, each with their own culture.
  • "The aggressive effort to market the Fukushima events as a nuclear catastrophe in order to suppress a growing interest in nuclear energy development".
  • "The entry of activist investors that purchased a large portion of B&W's stock and forced a major reevaluation of the project and the overall corporate structure".

Adams' statement about aggressive efforts to market Fukushima as a nuclear catastrophe is a cheap shot at environmentalists and other nuclear critics. His statement about "activist investors" is more intriguing. That's a story he discussed in a 2014 article.4 He notes that the February 2014 announcement to sharply reduce investment in mPower followed the purchase of Babcock & Wilcox shares by Wall Street investment funds. Those investment funds purchased enough stock to impose a restructuring plan that directed spending away from mPower. Their motives, according to Adams, were to prioritize short-term profits over medium-term investments, and to protect their investments in fossil fuels by killing off a potential competitor. And their statements about a lack of customer and investor interest were a concocted cover story.

So mPower was wedged between aggressive anti-nuclear marketeers and fossil-fueled corporate interests. Perhaps. Adams also offers a tendentious conspiracy theory about a "sabotage effort from within the nuclear industry".4

A longer version of this article was published in Nuclear Monitor #840, 21 March 2017, 'U.S. small reactor project just got smaller',


1. B&W mPower,

2. World Nuclear Association, March 2017, 'Small Nuclear Power Reactors',

3. Rod Adams, 13 March 2017, 'Bechtel And BWXT Quietly Terminate mPower Reactor Project',

4. Rod Adams, 9 May 2014, 'B&W mPower cover story about lack of interest is bogus',

5. World Nuclear News, 14 April 2014, 'Funding for mPower reduced',

6. Margaret Carmel, 15 March 2017, 'BWXT, Bechtel shelve mPower program',

Generation IV nuclear waste claims debunked

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane have written an important article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists debunking claims that certain Generation IV reactor concepts promise major advantages with respect to nuclear waste management.1 Krall is a post-doctoral fellow at the George Washington University. Macfarlane is a professor at the same university, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission from July 2012 to December 2014, and a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future from 2010 to 2012.

Krall and Macfarlane focus on molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors, and draw on the experiences of the US Experimental Breeder Reactor II and the US Molten Salt Reactor Experiment.

The article abstract notes that Generation IV developers and advocates "are receiving substantial funding on the pretense that extraordinary waste management benefits can be reaped through adoption of these technologies" yet "molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors – due to the unusual chemical compositions of their fuels – will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues."

Here is the concluding section of the article:

"The core propositions of non-traditional reactor proponents – improved economics, proliferation resistance, safety margins, and waste management – should be re-evaluated. The metrics used to support the waste management claims – i.e. reduced actinide mass and total radiotoxicity beyond 300 years – are insufficient to critically assess the short- and long-term safety, economics, and proliferation resistance of the proposed fuel cycles.

"Furthermore, the promised (albeit irrelevant) actinide reductions are only attainable given exceptional technological requirements, including commercial-scale spent fuel treatment, reprocessing, and conditioning facilities. These will create low- and intermediate-level waste streams destined for geologic disposal, in addition to the intrinsic high-level fission product waste that will also require conditioning and disposal.

"Before construction of non-traditional reactors begins, the economic implications of the back end of these non-traditional fuel cycles must be analyzed in detail; disposal costs may be unpalatable. The reprocessing/treatment and conditioning of the spent fuel will entail costs, as will storage and transportation of the chemically reactive fuels. These are in addition to the cost of managing high-activity operational wastes, e.g. those originating from molten salt reactor filter systems. Finally, decommissioning the reactors and processing their chemically reactive coolants represents a substantial undertaking and another source of non-traditional waste. ...

"Issues of spent fuel management (beyond temporary storage in cooling pools, aka "wet storage") fall outside the scope of the NRC's reactor design certification process, which is regularly denounced by nuclear advocates as narrowly applicable to light water reactor technology and insufficiently responsive to new reactor designs. Nevertheless, new reactor licensing is contingent on broader policies, including the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the Continued Storage Rule. Those policies are based on the results of radionuclide dispersion models described in environmental impact statements. But the fuel and barrier degradation mechanisms tested in these models were specific to oxide-based spent fuels, which are inert, compared to the compounds that non-traditional reactors will discharge.

"The Continued Storage Rule explicitly excludes most non-oxide fuels, including those from sodium-cooled fast reactors, from the environmental impact statement. Clearly, storage and disposal of non-oxide commercial fuels should require updated assessments and adjudication.

"Finally, treatment of spent fuels from non-traditional reactors, which by Energy Department precedent is only feasible through their respective (re)processing technologies, raises concerns over proliferation and fissile material diversion. Pyroprocessing and fluoride volatility-reductive extraction systems optimized for spent fuel treatment can – through minor changes to the chemical conditions – also extract plutonium (or uranium 233 bred from thorium). Separation from lethal fission products would eliminate the radiological barriers protecting the fuel from intruders seeking to obtain and purify fissile material. Accordingly, cost and risk assessments of predisposal spent fuel treatments must also account for proliferation safeguards.

"Radioactive waste cannot be "burned"; fission of actinides, the source of nuclear heat, inevitably generates fission products. Since some of these will be radiotoxic for thousands of years, these high-level wastes should be disposed of in stable waste forms and geologic repositories. But the waste estimates propagated by nuclear advocates account only for the bare mass of fission products, rather than that of the conditioned waste form and associated repository requirements.

"These estimates further assume that the efficiency of actinide fission will surge, but this actually relies on several rounds of recycling using immature reprocessing technologies. The low- and intermediate-level wastes that will be generated by these activities will also be destined for geologic disposal but have been neglected in the waste estimates. More important, reprocessing remains a security liability of dubious economic benefit, so the apparent need to adopt these technologies simply to prepare non-traditional spent fuels for storage and disposal is a major disadvantage relative to light water reactors. Theoretical burnups for fast and molten salt reactors are too low to justify the inflated back-end costs and risks, the latter of which may include a commercial path to proliferation.

"Reductions in spent fuel volume, longevity, and total radiotoxicity may be realized by breeding and burning fissile material in non-traditional reactors. But those relatively small reductions are of little value in repository planning, so utilization of these metrics is misleading to policy-makers and the general public. We urge policy-makers to critically assess non-traditional fuel cycles, including the feasibility of managing their unusual waste streams, any loopholes that could commit the American public to financing quasi-reprocessing operations, and the motivation to rapidly deploy these technologies. If decarbonization of the economy by 2050 is the end-goal, a more pragmatic path to success involves improvements to light water reactor technologies, adoption of Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations on spent fuel management, and strong incentives for commercially mature, carbon-free energy technologies."

Pyroprocessing: the integral fast reactor waste fiasco

In theory, integral fast reactors (IFRs) would gobble up nuclear waste and convert it into low-carbon electricity. In practice, the IFR R&D program in Idaho has left a legacy of troublesome waste. This saga is detailed in a 2017 article2 and a longer report3 by the Union of Concerned Scientists' senior scientist Ed Lyman. This will be of particular relevance if the US Department of Energy proceeds with its plan to support the construction of a 'versatile test reactor' based on GE-Hitachi's 'Power Reactor Innovative Small Module' (PRISM) design, which is based on IFR designs.4

Lyman notes that the IFR concept "has attracted numerous staunch advocates" but their "interest has been driven largely by idealized studies on paper and not by facts derived from actual experience."2 He discusses the IFR prototype built at Idaho ‒ the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II), which ceased operation in 1994 ‒ and subsequent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE) to treat 26 metric tons of sodium-bonded metallic spent fuel from the EBR-II reactor with pyroprocessing, ostensibly to convert the waste to forms that would be safer for disposal in a geological repository. A secondary goal was to demonstrate the viability of pyroprocessing ‒ but the program has instead demonstrated the serious shortcomings of this technology.

Lyman writes:2

"Pyroprocessing is a form of spent fuel reprocessing that dissolves metal-based spent fuel in a molten salt bath (as distinguished from conventional reprocessing, which dissolves spent fuel in water-based acid solutions). Understandably, given all its problems, DOE has been reluctant to release public information on this program, which has largely operated under the radar since 2000.

"The FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] documents we obtained have revealed yet another DOE tale of vast sums of public money being wasted on an unproven technology that has fallen far short of the unrealistic projections that DOE used to sell the project to Congress, the state of Idaho and the public. However, it is not too late to pull the plug on this program, and potentially save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. …

"Pyroprocessing was billed as a simpler, cheaper and more compact alternative to the conventional aqueous reprocessing plants that have been operated in France, the United Kingdom, Japan and other countries.

"Although DOE shut down the EBR-II in 1994 (the reactor part of the IFR program), it allowed work at the pyroprocessing facility to proceed. It justified this by asserting that the leftover spent fuel from the EBR-II could not be directly disposed of in the planned Yucca Mountain repository because of the potential safety issues associated with presence of metallic sodium in the spent fuel elements, which was used to "bond" the fuel to the metallic cladding that encased it. (Metallic sodium reacts violently with water and air.)

"Pyroprocessing would separate the sodium from other spent fuel constituents and neutralize it. DOE decided in 2000 to use pyroprocessing for the entire inventory of leftover EBR-II spent fuel – both "driver" and "blanket" fuel – even though it acknowledged that there were simpler methods to remove the sodium from the lightly irradiated blanket fuel, which constituted nearly 90% of the inventory.

"However, as the FOIA documents reveal in detail, the pyroprocessing technology simply has not worked well and has fallen far short of initial predictions. Although DOE initially claimed that the entire inventory would be processed by 2007, as of the end of Fiscal Year 2016, only about 15% of the roughly 26 metric tons of spent fuel had been processed. Over $210 million has been spent, at an average cost of over $60,000 per kilogram of fuel treated. At this rate, it will take until the end of the century to complete pyroprocessing of the entire inventory, at an additional cost of over $1 billion.

"But even that assumes, unrealistically, that the equipment will continue to be usable for this extended time period. Moreover, there is a significant fraction of spent fuel in storage that has degraded and may not be a candidate for pyroprocessing in any event. …

"What exactly is the pyroprocessing of this fuel accomplishing? Instead of making management and disposal of the spent fuel simpler and safer, it has created an even bigger mess. …

"[P]yroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem. This is especially outrageous in light of other FOIA documents that indicate that DOE never definitively concluded that the sodium-bonded spent fuel was unsafe to directly dispose of in the first place. But it insisted on pursuing pyroprocessing rather than conducting studies that might have shown it was unnecessary.

"Everyone with an interest in pyroprocessing should reassess their views given the real-world problems experienced in implementing the technology over the last 20 years at INL. They should also note that the variant of the process being used to treat the EBR-II spent fuel is less complex than the process that would be needed to extract plutonium and other actinides to produce fresh fuel for fast reactors. In other words, the technology is a long way from being demonstrated as a practical approach for electricity production."


1. Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane, 2018, 'Burning waste or playing with fire? Waste management considerations for non-traditional reactors', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:5, pp.326-334,

2. Ed Lyman / Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug 2017, 'The Pyroprocessing Files',

3. Edwin Lyman, 2017, 'External Assessment of the U.S. Sodium-Bonded Spent Fuel Treatment Program',

4. World Nuclear Association, 15 Nov 2018, 'PRISM selected for US test reactor programme',

SMRs to power military installations and forward bases in the United States

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The US military experimented with small reactors in remote locations beginning 1954.1,2 Dr Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, summarizes the early experiments:3

"The Army Nuclear Power Program was initiated in 1954, in the heady early days of the atomic power era, to develop ground-based nuclear power plants for military use ‒ a mission distinct from the Navy's submarine nuclear propulsion program already well underway. Over two decades, the US Army built and operated eight small power reactors, ranging from less than one megawatt to ten megawatts of electricity, with limited success. The worst outcome was the 1961 core meltdown and explosion at the SL-1 reactor in Idaho, which killed three operators. Five of the reactors were designed to be portable to some degree, and three were deployed at remote military bases in Greenland, Alaska, and Antarctica. Although these reactors didn't explode, they proved unreliable and expensive to operate. Based on that experience, the program was shut down in 1977."

Efforts to renew the US military's interest in SMRs ‒ including microreactors in the range of 1‒10 MW ‒ have been underway for some time.4 Industry bodies such as the Nuclear Energy Institute have been proactive, and the Pentagon, with the support of Congress, is exploring the potential for the deployment of SMRs at defense installations for power generation, desalinating water and generating hydrogen for fuel. It is potentially a significant market: the Department of Defense manages more than 500 fixed installations and is the single largest energy consumer in the US.

Marc Nichol, the Nuclear Energy Institute's director of new reactor deployment, said in October 2018: "Small reactors are one of the most promising new nuclear technologies to emerge in decades. Energy is important to our national security; it must be reliable and resilient so that it's there when our men and women in uniform need it. Micro-reactors can enhance our capabilities by providing that resilient, 24/7 energy."5

However the plan is improbable and problematic. An article by current and former researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in July 2018, discusses the looming problems:6

"Because it is unlikely that further and substantial DOE funding will be dedicated to reinvigorating civilian nuclear power, and because the nuclear enterprise is unlikely to rebound on its own, some have advanced national security arguments to stem and reverse the perceived decline in US standing by assigning this task to the Department of Defense (DoD). Given the current political climate, which supports American primacy in areas of strategic importance, supporters in Congress, think tanks, the Army, and the Navy have floated the possibility of diverting large sums of money through the DoD to catalyze the development and deployment of SMR technologies.

"While we share the fears about the future of nuclear science and nuclear power in the United States, we believe that the proposal to try to address the problem through DoD leadership in development is both unwise and unlikely to succeed. There are several practical challenges. Any SMR that is designed to primarily serve the DoD would likely be too expensive for a commercial utility to deploy. The design specifications upon which the DoD would insist would likely render commercial variants infeasible (because, to minimize or avoid frequent refueling, it would likely need to use fuel that is enriched more than the current operating fleet standard of 5% U-235, and perhaps even greater than 20%) and economically uncompetitive in most of today's markets.

"Moreover, SMRs designed to serve a US base would face the same economic challenges as current commercial reactors, and there is no guarantee that a nuclear design would win the day in a competition for US military base power supply. Even siting, a purported advantage of having the military deploy SMRs, would be difficult. The DoD follows state environmental guidelines when they do not compromise the defense mission. The siting of SMRs would likely still become an issue for the DoD in a range of locations, and not just those that reject nuclear power outright. Finally, having the DoD take the lead in development risks creating several large, expensive, "too-big-to-fail" fiefdoms, which would detract from more pressing warfighting needs.

"In addition to the practical challenges, there are compelling normative arguments to be made against relying on the DoD to revivify the nuclear enterprise. These revolve around the role of the US military in American economic and civic life.

"First, the military develops new technologies when they are the only available solution to a problem. Scenarios proposed for military leadership in SMR design and development do not convincingly make the cut when balanced with alternatives, such as power purchase agreements. Second, we endorse the firebreak between the civilian and military nuclear programs because it has substantial normative value. Third, at a time when American civic and political norms rest on precarious ground, using the military to rescue a commercial industry degrades the social fabric from which it derives legitimacy. It also undercuts the DOE by underscoring its failure to enable the development of advanced reactors.

"Most troublingly, adopting this model would amount to an admission of failure on the nuclear industry's part. Defaulting to the national security argument in an effort to salvage the US commercial nuclear industry concedes the failure of the technical and economic arguments in favor of the technology. It also does little to drive commitment from industry that would generate broader deployment. Other options, including long-term power purchase agreements, coordination in human capital development, and research into grid security, constitute avenues for DoD involvement that are more politically credible and economically sound. However, it is unclear that any of these could have more than a modest impact on the development of a domestic SMR industry in the next few decades."

Project Dilithium

In January 2019, the US Department of Defense issued a call for information in support of its interest in acquiring small (1‒10 MW) power reactors for use at forward operating bases.

Edwin Lyman argues that the "inherently safe reactor" sought by the military is a myth:7

"All it really means is that in certain idealized scenarios, a reactor, after shutdown, could be adequately cooled by passive mechanisms, such as convective airflow. But passive safety cannot eliminate every pathway by which the reactor fuel could be damaged and release radioactivity. If a severe accident or sabotage attack were to induce more extreme conditions than the reactor was designed to withstand, all bets are off. How long would passive airflow keep nuclear fuel safely cool if, say, an adversary threw an insulating blanket over a small reactor? Or if the reactor were buried under a pile of debris? Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a direct explosive breach of the reactor core would not result in dispersal of some radioactive contamination. ... At best a release of radioactivity would be a costly disruption, and at worst it would cause immediate harm to personnel, render the base unusable for years, and alienate the host country."

Lyman notes that reactors deployed at forward operating bases or shipped through war zones would be prime targets of the enemy, and if commanders need to expend significant resources to protect them from military strikes, such reactors could become burdens rather than assets.7

Lyman commented on the proliferation risks:7

"The original RFI [request for information] stipulated that the reactor fuel had to be high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which is uranium enriched to levels above the 5 percent uranium-235 concentration of conventional power reactors, but still below the 20 percent that marks the lower limit for highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is usable in nuclear weapons. Although HALEU is considered highly impractical for direct nuclear weapons use, it has greater proliferation potential than fuel with uranium-235 concentrations below 5% because of the reduced effort needed to enrich it to a weapon-usable level ‒ which is why the international community saw Iran's stockpiling of HALEU as a threat. If the Defense Department goes forward with Project Dilithium, other nations, including US adversaries, may be prompted to start producing HALEU and building their own military power reactors.

"An even more worrisome problem is that the revised RFI issued on January 22 no longer includes the HALEU requirement. That opens the door for reactors fueled with HEU ‒ a major proliferation threat. The Defense Department may be envious of NASA, which is moving forward with development of a tiny HEU-fueled reactor to power deep space missions while turning a blind eye to the proliferation risks. Or it may have decided that the current lack of availability of a sufficient quantity of HALEU for a demonstration reactor would cause an unacceptable delay. Or the omission may simply be a mistake. As of this writing, the contracting officer at Defense has not responded to a request to clarify whether this was an innocuous oversight or a deliberate gesture.

"Given the dubious strategic value, low chance of success, and potential for sparking a HALEU-fueled international arms race, what can explain the Defense Department's renewed interest in small reactors after decades of dormancy? To be sure, Project Dilithium didn't just spring out of nowhere. It is the culmination of a patient, decade-long effort by nuclear lobbyists to interest Defense and its congressional overseers in a costly product ‒ small nuclear reactors ‒ that few in the private sector seem to want. The Pentagon is precisely the savior small nuclear reactor vendors need: deep-pocketed and unbeholden to return-seeking investors. But this coup by the nuclear industry will do little to enhance US national security and could expose fighting forces to undue risk. Hopefully, pragmatists at the Defense Department will realize this and pull the plug on this misguided effort before billions of dollars are wasted on a fruitless search for a reactor as rare as a dilithium crystal."


1. Peter Rejcek, 25 June 2010, 'Powerful Reminder',

2. Hanne E.F. Nielsen, 23 July 2019, 'Remembering Antarctica's nuclear past with 'Nukey Poo'',

3. Edwin Lyman, 22 Feb 2019, 'The Pentagon wants to boldly go where no nuclear reactor has gone before. It won't work.',

4. Dan Yurman, 6 Oct 2018, 'DOD Seeks SMRs for Tactical Readiness at Military Bases',

5. Nuclear Energy Institute, 9 Oct 2018, 'A Big Move Toward Small: Micro-reactors and the Pentagon',

6. M. Granger Morgan, Ahmed Abdulla, Michael J. Ford, and Michael Rath, July 2018 'US nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge', Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,

7. Edwin Lyman, 22 Feb 2019, 'The Pentagon wants to boldly go where no nuclear reactor has gone before. It won't work.',

New report concludes nuclear "will play no meaningful role" in climate change abatement

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Nuclear and Information and Resource Service

Nuclear power is frequently promoted as a necessary solution to global warming, and a key means to achieve emissions goals. This is a major mistake, according to a new report published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung‒New York City. The report ‒ "Nuclear Power and Climate Action: An Assessment for the Future" ‒ presents an industrial analysis of nuclear energy to assess its viability as a climate solution. From real and practical evidence, the report concludes that nuclear power is not a viable tool in the climate solutions toolbox, and that nuclear-free paths to phasing out greenhouse gas emissions are necessary, feasible, and cost-effective.

The report evaluates the technology from all sides: the potential for building new reactors, the prospects for continuing to operate existing reactors, and the commercialization of so-called "advanced reactor designs" in the mid-century timeframe. Analysis shows that nuclear power may not be available in any meaningful capacity by 2050. Existing reactor fleets in most of the world are already reaching the end of their mechanical lives and will mostly phase out within the critical climate timeframe, and strategies to reduce gas reduction must take this into account.

"Those who argue that nuclear power is necessary to reduce GHG emissions are gravely mistaken," said author of the report Tim Judson, Executive Director of the Nuclear and Information and Resource Service (NIRS). "The practical realities about nuclear energy show that it is a failed technology, which is on its way out. We have many more effective and promising tools in the climate action toolbox," continued Judson. "We must not waste time and money on trying to preserve a role for nuclear power, and align energy policies and investments with rapidly transitioning to renewables, efficiency, and carbon-free, nuclear-free climate solutions."

With the immense threats of climate change, it is tempting to overlook other environmental hazards in the effort to address it. That is a mistake with nuclear power especially, because its environmental impacts are so severe and long-lasting and so many of them intersect with and compound impacts of global warming as well as issues of climate justice. At every stage of its production ‒ from uranium mining to the production of radioactive wastes ‒ nuclear power pollutes the environment with some of the most dangerous, long-lived contaminants in the world and places undue stress on water resources.

Because fossil fuels make up 86% of global energy, decarbonization will require a total transformation of energy systems in most parts of the world. Renewable energies have proven to be the most promising option ‒ complemented by investments in energy efficiency, development of complementary technologies, and integrated reliably and resiliently. Evidence from places like Germany and California shows that nuclear power does not integrate well with renewables and phasing it out is likely to create greater opportunities to accelerate the phaseout of fossil fuels and the transformation of the energy system.

The report includes case studies showing that promotion of nuclear power entails significant climate opportunity costs, wasting time and financial investments that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize energy systems much more rapidly and cost-effectively. For instance, in the United States, the Summer 2 and 3 reactors were cancelled after major cost overruns and construction delays bankrupted their manufacturer, after US$9 billion had already been spent. Had utilities invested in energy efficiency and renewables, the report finds, the utilities would have made substantial reductions in emissions and reduced electricity costs for their consumers.

Similarly, the state of New York in the US decided in 2016 to subsidize four aging, uneconomical reactors, at a projected cost of $7.6 billion by 2029 ‒ three times as much as will be spent to achieve 50% renewable energy standard in 2030. Had New York invested in energy efficiency instead of nuclear, it could achieve greater emissions reductions in 2030, at a cost reduction of $10.6 billion.

"The pursuit of nuclear power in South Africa would have permanently locked us into complicity in putting our country as a radioactive waste zone for centuries," said Makoma Lekalakala, Director, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, and 2018 awardee of the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa. "By challenging the secret $76 billion agreement between South Africa and Rosatom, we exposed the role of corruption at the highest level of our government. The agreement would have forced South Africans to pay all the costs of a nuclear disaster, contaminated our environment and water with radioactive waste, and made electricity unaffordable for generations," continued Lekalakala. "We have all of the clean, affordable wind and solar energy we need in South Africa, and overturning the nuclear agreement has put us back on track for a healthy, sustainable future, free of fossil fuels."

"The imperatives of rapidly eliminating greenhouse gas emissions demand greater ambition in the implementation of the Paris Agreement," said Kerstin Rudek of Bürgerinitiative Umweltschutz Lüchow-Dannenberg of Germany, on behalf of the international Don't Nuke the Climate Coalition (a global network working to keep nuclear out of the climate agreements ‒ "Nuclear power has proved too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable to rapidly reduce emissions, and the vast majority of reactors around the world are likely to retire before 2050. A carbon-free, nuclear-free world is possible, but we can't get there by wasting time, money, and political will on failed technologies and false solutions like nuclear power."

The report concludes that the primary obstacles to rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions are political, not technological or economic. In particular, deceptive interventions by corporations invested in fossil fuels and nuclear energy have engendered inertia and confused the debate by, alternately, denying the reality of global warming and by presenting false solutions. Mitigating the economic and social impacts of climate action by ensuring a just transition for workers and impacted communities is key to charting a clear vision and building and sustaining the political will to accelerate emissions reductions and the phase-out of greenhouse gas emissions.

The report is online: Tim Judson, Nov 2018, 'Nuclear Power and Climate Action: An Assessment for the Future', Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York,

Nuclear lobbyists celebrate Union of Concerned Scientists' 'backflip' on nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Nuclear power advocates are celebrating the Union of Concerned Scientists' (UCS) new pro-nuclear position … although the organization has not changed its position and is not pro-nuclear (or anti-nuclear).

A recent UCS report found that 22% of nuclear power capacity in the US is unprofitable or will soon become unprofitable and that greenhouse emissions will rise to the extent that nuclear is replaced by fossil fuels.1 It thus offers support for broad policies that would in effect subsidize the ongoing operation of some nuclear plants as well as supporting other low-carbon technologies and policies. Support for nuclear subsidies is conditional on consumer protection, safety and security requirements, and investments in renewables and energy efficiency. On average, it would cost US$814 million annually to bring unprofitable plants back to a breakeven point according to the UCS report.

So, should unprofitable nuclear power plants be subsidized if they meet the UCS's criteria? Dr Gregory Jaczko, chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2009‒2012, doesn't think so. In a media statement, Jaczko said: "The Union of Concerned Scientist models don't reflect the reality of the United States electricity market. Renewables are getting cheaper faster than expected and are in some cases the least expensive source of electricity. In contrast, nuclear has only gotten more expensive. New nuclear is a financial boondoggle: the four new plants licensed while I chaired the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are costing billions more than projected, and two of them have been canceled after spending $10 billion. Imagine how much carbon-free generation could have been deployed with that investment. Employing nuclear for climate change is like Dorothy seeking the Wizard of Oz to get home. It's an expensive enticing mirage."2

In any case, the substantive issues have been lost in a blizzard of fake news about the UCS allegedly shifting its position on nuclear power. Steve Clemmer from the UCS said "we are getting a bit more vocal" about the benefits of keeping nuclear plants open.3 That's as far as it goes ‒ hardly a backflip and hardly momentous. Moreover, the UCS's support for keeping reactors online is highly conditional.

Nuclear advocate Mark Lynas congratulated the UCS for having "broken with the anti-nuclear ideology that has been part of the advocacy group's DNA since the 1960s" and said the organization "deserves great credit for having the courage to take this step."4 The Third Way pro-nuclear group said that: "Coming from an environmental NGO as respected and intellectually rigorous as UCS, this report is a big deal."5

The Breakthrough Institute argued that "opposition to nuclear energy from the institutional environmental movement has been monolithic, so this marks a decided change in the nuclear landscape".6 And the Breakthrough Institute piece, titled 'The dam has broken', suggests that other groups might follow the UCS's lead: "this sort of thing often happens slowly, even imperceptibly, and then all at once".6

Ted Nordhaus from the Breakthrough Institute said: "UCS is the first major environmental NGO to recognize that nuclear energy presently, and for the foreseeable future, is a key climate mitigation technology."7 (As we recently noted in Nuclear Monitor, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change envisages nuclear power being a marginal climate mitigation technology, dwarfed by renewables.8) The UCS report is "particularly symbolic" and it marks a "remarkable shift", Norhaus argues. He says it is likely but "by no means guaranteed" that other major environmental groups will follow the UCS's lead on the issue.7

A Boston Globe editorial argued that the UCS report is "symbolically, a really big deal" as the group's name is "practically synonymous with skepticism toward nuclear energy", and it is "hard to imagine a group with stronger historic anti-nuclear bona fides than the Union of Concerned Scientists".9

In fact …

But in fact, the UCS has never been anti-nuclear ‒ or pro-nuclear ‒ and it hasn't changed its position. Alan Nogee, who worked at the UCS for 17 years, 12 of them as Clean Energy Program Director, noted in the aftermath of the release of the UCS report that:

  • UCS has never called for a general closure or moratorium on nukes.10
  • UCS left the Safe Energy Communication Council following the Chernobyl disaster, when the Council voted to endorse a moratorium on new nuclear power.11
  • UCS has rejected numerous requests to endorse shutdowns.12
  • UCS has "worked to close or keep-closed-until-fixed, a handful of plants with specific safety and/or economic problems. It has rejected MANY requests from state & local groups to help close other plants or to support no-nukes laws."13
  • The UCS always distinguished between the positive economics / climate impact of continuing to operate existing reactor versus the negative economics of new build, and the need to hedge against uncertainties as to the capabilities of energy efficiency and renewables.14

Alex Frank from the Hastings Group said of the UCS report: "In fact, UCS did not change its views on nuclear power. It did not support new nuclear construction. It did not support subsidies for any specific existing reactor. It did not conclude that every existing nuclear plant should stay open. It did not state that retired nuclear plants will all be replaced with fossil fuels. It did not urge scaling back support for renewable energy to allow for more support of nuclear. It did not minimize concerns about nuclear power safety or the lack of effective watchdog review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

In an article titled 'Seven Things People Got Wrong with UCS' 'Nuclear Power Dilemma' Report, Clemmer said: "[D]espite reporting to the contrary, UCS has not changed its position on nuclear power. Has UCS advocated vigorously for policies to increase the deployment of renewable energy to address climate change? Absolutely. Have we been a longstanding watchdog for nuclear power safety? You bet. Do we now believe the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an effective watchdog or that nuclear power safety concerns are overblown? Emphatically no. But UCS has long recognized that the current nuclear fleet is a significant source of low-carbon power and that nuclear plants should not retire precipitously without carbon-free replacements."15

Clemmer said "some of the media coverage and statements by the nuclear industry and other groups have mischaracterized our report and our past work". The seven points he makes to correct the record are as follows:15

1. The report does not promote new nuclear power plant construction.

While new nuclear plants could be built under a national carbon price or low-carbon electricity standard, our modeling shows they are too expensive compared to new wind and solar projects, energy efficiency programs, and natural gas plants with carbon capture and storage.

This isn't the first time UCS has shined a spotlight on the high costs of building new nuclear reactors. This 2016 UCS power sector deep decarbonization study found that nearly all nuclear and coal plants in the United States would be replaced by low-carbon technologies by 2050 under every scenario, except our "optimistic nuclear case."16

2. The report does not advocate for subsidies for any specific nuclear plants.

As explained by UCS President Ken Kimmell in his recent blog, "the report does not argue for subsidies to any specific plants. That case will have to be made in state-specific forums. Should states decide to support nuclear power plant subsidies, our report calls for them to be temporary and subject to periodic reassessment. Companies seeking subsidies must open their books and allow the public and regulators to make sure that the subsidies are needed and cost-effective, and that the same level of carbon free power cannot be provided during the relevant time period with less costly options."17 Any subsidies also must be part of a broader strategy to reduce carbon emissions that increases investments in renewables and efficiency.

3. Existing nuclear plants must also meet strong safety standards to be eligible for support.

Since the 1970s, UCS has been a leading nuclear safety watchdog. The new UCS report recommends that nuclear reactors must meet or exceed the highest safety standards under Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) Reactor Oversight Process to be eligible for any policy or financial support. If the NRC weakens these standards, as proposed by the nuclear industry, UCS could no longer support this recommendation. At the same time, UCS will continue to push for better enforcement of existing regulations, the expedited transfer of nuclear waste from overcrowded cooling pools to safer dry cask storage, strengthened reactor security requirements, and higher safety standards for new plants. We also consider the NRC safety standards to be a floor, not a ceiling. States could encourage plant owners to make other safety improvements that go beyond current NRC standards.

4. Not every currently operating nuclear plant should stay open.

The report highlights examples where it might make sense to shut down existing nuclear plants that are saddled with major, reoccurring safety issues such as the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts that Entergy is closing next year and the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio that FirstEnergy is threatening to close in 2020 if it doesn't receive subsidies. Other examples include Indian Point, due to its proximity to New York City, and Diablo Canyon, which is located near earthquake fault lines in California.

It also might make sense to shut down plants with high operating costs or ones that need to make major new capital investments to continue operating safely. Examples cited in the report include Crystal River in Florida and San Onofre in California, which were retired in 2013 following failed steam generator replacements.

5. Not every nuclear plant that retires early will be replaced with fossil fuels.

The report acknowledges that with sufficient planning and strong climate and clean energy policies, some existing nuclear plants can be replaced with renewables, energy efficiency, or other low- carbon technologies. For example, California passed legislation in September that commits the state to replace Diablo Canyon with zero-carbon energy sources by 2025. And states experiencing rapid wind and solar power deployment such as Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas could potentially replace their nuclear plants with low-carbon energy sources over a reasonable period of time. However, a significant portion of the electricity in most of those states is still generated by coal and natural gas. Replacing those fuels with renewables and efficiency would result in much greater emissions reductions than replacing nuclear plants, another low-carbon source of electricity.

6. UCS has long supported keeping existing nuclear reactors that meet high safety standards operating to combat climate change.

7. UCS has long supported a low carbon electricity standard (LCES), but not at the expense of renewable electricity standards (RES).

Renewable standards have been effective at reducing emissions, driving down the cost of wind and solar, and creating jobs and other economic benefits for states and in rural communities. They have also been affordable for consumers. Including existing nuclear power plants in state renewable standards could significantly undermine the development of new renewables and all the benefits that go along with them.

We recommend including existing nuclear in a separate tier of an LCES, as New York state has done, to limit costs to ratepayers and avoid market-power issues due to limited competition among a small number of large plants and owners.

A long history of fake nuclear news

The portrayal ‒ by some in the media and some nuclear lobbyists ‒ of the UCS report as a pro-nuclear turn is false and it is wishful thinking. Such misrepresentation is common enough. Here are some examples:

  • In 2016, the Wall Street Journal said the Sierra Club was debating its position on nuclear power. Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said the organization "remains in firm opposition to dangerous nuclear power" and that the media article "reflects wishful thinking on the part of the nuclear industry"18
  • The Wall Street Journal claimed that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was working to keep two aging reactors online in Illinois. Henry Henderson from the NRDC said the newspaper was "dead wrong on our goals, focus and motivation" and that the organization's efforts to reform energy policy "do not involve, or signal, a change in NRDC's long-held concerns about the role of nuclear energy in the country's generation mix."18
  • In 2007, in response to a beat-up about environmental support for nuclear power, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reported: "Instead of a story about a growing fervor for nuclear power among some environmentalists, the story is really one about a growing fervor to resurrect nuclear power among corporate and political elites, aided by a handful of mainly environmentalists-for-hire."19
  • In 2014, the BBC (and others) falsely claimed that Friends of the Earth UK was turning in support of nuclear power.20
  • In 2009−10, the World Nuclear Association heavily promoted a dishonest article claiming that Greenpeace UK had changed its stance on nuclear power.21


1. Steve Clemmer, Jeremy Richardson, Sandra Sattler, and Dave Lochbaum, Nov. 2018, 'The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions ', Union of Concerned Scientists,

2. Oliver Milman, 14 Nov 2018, Closing nuclear plants risks rise in greenhouse gas emissions, report warns',

Media statement: 9 Nov 2018, 'Former NRC Chair Statement on the Union of Concerned Scientists' report embracing nuclear power'

3. Oliver Milman, 14 Nov 2018', Closing nuclear plants risks rise in greenhouse gas emissions, report warns',

4. Mark Lynas, 15 Nov 2018, 'Environmentalists must embrace nuclear power to stem climate change',

5. Lindsey Walter and Ryan Fitzpatrick, 15 Nov 2018, 'Nuclear Closures and Climate Risks: Adding Context to UCS's Eye-Popping New Report',

6. Breakthrough Institute, 14 Nov 2018, 'The dam has broken',

7. Ted Nordhaus, 8 Nov 2018, 'A New Day for Nuclear Advocacy…and Environmentalism?',

8. Nuclear Monitor #867, 15 Oct 2018, 'IPCC bets on the renewables revolution',

9. Boston Globe ‒ Editorial, 9 Nov 2018, 'To fight climate change, environmentalists say yes to nuclear power',






15. Steve Clemmer, 16 Nov 2018, 'Seven Things People Got Wrong with UCS' 'Nuclear Power Dilemma' Report',


17. Ken Kimmell, 8 Nov 2018, 'Why We're Taking a Hard Look at Nuclear Power Plant Closures',
18. Nuclear Monitor #826, 6 July 2016, 'Manufacturing dissent: environmentalists and nuclear power',

19. FAIR, 22 Aug 2007, 'NPR Touts Pro-Nuke 'Environmentalists': Network's own nuclear links undisclosed',

20. 18 Sept 2014, 'Friends of the Earth UK's position on nuclear power', Nuclear Monitor #791,

21. World Nuclear Association, 13 Oct 2009, 'Greenpeace changes the politics',

Nuclear News - Nuclear Monitor #867 - 15 October 2018

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Transatomic Gen IV startup shuts down

We wrote about Transatomic Power's proposed molten salt reactor (MSR) in the last issue of Nuclear Monitor.1 Since then, the startup has shut down.2,3

Transatomic had raised more than US$4 million from Founders Fund, Acadia Woods Partners, and others. But it was unable to raise US$15 million required for the next phase of the project.

In 2016, following the revelation of false calculations, Transatomic abandoned its plan to use waste (spent fuel) as fuel and it abandoned the associated claim that its 'Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor' could "generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor".4 Its waste-annihilating reactor was reinvented as a waste-producing, uranium fueled reactor.

Transatomic co-founder Leslie Dewan put a positive spin on the company's collapse: "Today the advanced nuclear technology sector is thriving, with over 70 advanced reactor projects in progress, financing actively flowing to new technologies, promising engagement with the NRC, multiple films and TV documentaries covering innovations, and even bipartisan political support."2

According to the Third Way pro-nuclear lobby group, "at least five companies are already working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to prepare for licensing".5 In other words, not one of the Gen IV startups has gone further than to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of their intent to engage in regulatory interactions ‒ and only five have taken that modest step.6

1. Nuclear Monitor #866, 24 Sept 2018, Film review: 'The New Fire' and the old Gen IV rhetoric,

2. Leslie Dewan, Sept 2018, 'Open-Sourcing Our Reactor Design, and the Future of Transatomic',

3. Energy Central, 2 Oct 2018, 'Transatomic Folds Its Tent ‒ Its Legacy May Live On',

4. James Temple, 24 Feb 2017, 'Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises',

5. John Milko, Todd Allen, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, 8 Feb 2018, 'Keeping Up with the Advanced Nuclear Industry',

6. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 'Advanced Reactors (non-LWR designs)', accessed 3 October 2018.

USA: Another nuclear power plant bites the dust

Exelon Generation's Oyster Creek nuclear power plant was retired from service on September 17 yesterday after almost 49 years of electricity generation. The single-unit boiling water reactor was the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the USA.1

"It's a sombre day," said Tim Moore, the plant's vice-president. "We watched emotionally as our reactor shut down for the very last time."2

"We're seeing the economic conditions regarding nuclear power plants erode," said Exelon spokesperson Dave Tillman.2

Oyster Creek was licensed to operate until 2029, but Exelon decided in 2010 to retire the plant early after revisions to New Jersey's water use rules would have required it to build new cooling towers at an estimated cost of more than US$800 million. Exelon announced in February this year that the plant, which was required to close by the end of 2019 under an agreement with the State of New Jersey, would cease operations at the end of its current operating cycle.1

400‒500 staff were employed at Oyster Creek and about 300 will be retained to carry out decommissioning work.

Environmentalists had long sought the shutdown of Oyster Creek over the years, citing corrosion that dangerously thinned its reactor vessel, and the leak of radioactive tritium into groundwater on the plant site. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called Oyster Creek "a disaster waiting to happen. By closing early, it will help protect both the environment and public safety. We've been fighting this plant for more than 15 years and this closure is long overdue."2

Oyster Creek is the seventh permanent reactor shutdown in the US in recent years (2013 ‒ San Onofre 2 & 3, Crystal River, Kewaunee; 2014 ‒ Vermont Yankee; 2016 ‒ Fort Calhoun). Many others are slated for closure over the coming decade although state government bailouts are slowing that attrition.3 A little over half of the 48 operational reactors in the US have been operating for 40 years or more4 and the average age is 38 years.5

Exelon's senior vice president William Von Hoene said earlier this year: "I don't think we're building any more nuclear plants in the United States. I don't think it's ever going to happen ... They are too expensive to construct, relative to the world in which we now live."6

1. World Nuclear Association, 18 Sept 2018, 'Oyster Creek retires after 49 years',

2. Wayne Parry / Associated Press, 17 Sept 2018, 'Long held as oldest in US, New Jersey nuclear plant closes',




6. Steven Dolley, 18 April 2018, 'No new nuclear units will be built in US due to high cost: Exelon official'

Unraveling the New York nuclear subsidy scam

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Tim Judson ‒ Executive Director, Nuclear Information & Resource Service

Across the country, nuclear plant owners are insisting states and the federal government approve billion-dollar subsidies to bail them out ‒ even if they're profitable. In its 2016 Clean Energy Standard (CES), the New York State Public Service Commission quietly authorized charging ratepayers up to US$7.6 billion over 12 years on their electric bills to subsidize nuclear giant Exelon, so it would keep running upstate nuclear plants it threatened to close (FitzPatrick, Ginna, and Nine Mile Point). Since these surcharges kicked in last spring, New Yorkers have already handed over US$656 million and counting to prop up these failing nuclear plants.1

The nuclear subsidy scam started in New York, and it's getting exported. After they were imposed here, Exelon and other nuclear owners used the same playbook to obtain billions more in subsidies in Illinois (US$2.4 billion), New Jersey (US$3.6 billion), Connecticut (estimated up to US$3 billion), and soon, Pennsylvania and other states. They did it by falsely claiming their nuclear plants are "clean energy" and "zero emissions," and threatening to shutter them and terminate their workers if they don't get the money, escalating their lobbying activity all the while.

Such tactics shouldn't work, yet they do. For example, in New Jersey Exelon and PSEG threatened to close plants and spent a combined US$2.6 million last year on lobbyists, who kept dogging the New Jersey legislature until the unpopular subsidy package finally passed.2

To date, the fairness and legality of these subsidies have not been challenged and judged in court. But that's about to change. A suit in New York State Supreme Court (Matter of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater v. NYS Public Service Commission, Albany County, 7242-16) is finally examining whether these subsidies are illegal or improper, if they violate the public trust and due process of law, and if PSC overstepped its authority by granting them without due process. The suit, of which I am a plaintiff, survived motions to dismiss, and hearings are pending which will have far-reaching implications.

New York is where the nuclear subsidy trend started. The PSC sold subsidies as a way to preserve jobs and "carbon-free" power as a kind of radioactive "bridge" to developing renewables. Now the New York State Supreme Court could be where those specious arguments unravel.

Dirty, obsolete nuclear plants are neither "clean energy" nor "zero emissions" and don't deserve "zero emissions credits." Subsidizing them squanders billions that won't be invested in renewables or efficiency, the two best ways to lower greenhouse emissions and fight climate change. In its first year, New York's Clean Energy Standard spent 99.5% of its money to subsidize nuclear plants, and just 0.5% on renewables.

Nuclear subsidies aren't a public good, but a private wealth transfer, enriching wealthy nuclear owners at ratepayers' expense. As Illinois subsidies kicked in this year, Exelon Generations' earnings growth shot from 8% to a cork-popping 36%.3 In New Jersey, the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear plants obtained ratepayer subsidies, yet they're profitable and will remain so at least through 2021.4 Nuclear owner PSEG's CEO admitted to The Bergen Record the subsidy was calculated to guarantee an 18% profit ‒ almost double the average return for a regulated utility in New Jersey.5

Could it be that behind such greedy profiteering is an enlightened desire on the part of nuclear owners to save us from climate change or preserve local jobs and tax bases? Is it unfair to accuse them of ratepayer money grabs?

Hardly. A March 2017 presentation by a former Exelon lobbyist that recently resurfaced brags about its nuclear subsidies representing a huge return on its "investment" in lobbying and political influence.6 One slide asked rhetorically, "Is Politics Profitable?", and answers by comparing Exelon's outlays in New York for the FitzPatrick plant, capital expenditures, and lobbying and PR campaigns to the US$7.6 billion it got back in subsidies. It boasts that represented a "return on investment" of 750%. An image on the slide showed copious amounts of cash spiraling down a vortex.

That image is emblematic of what's wrong with these subsidies: lobbying and politicking for profit, dumping billions in ratepayers' money down the drain to enrich wealthy plant owners, instead of investing in renewables and efficiency. Those are the real issues, and as the New York State Supreme Court lawsuit goes to trial this year, they will finally get heard.

Tim Judson is the Executive Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), one of the plaintiffs in the New York lawsuit.








California strives toward 'carbon neutrality'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Charly Hultén ‒ WISE Sweden

On September 10, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a plan that raises the state's level of ambition with regard to its carbon footprint. The announcement came on the eve of a Global Climate Action Summit, a conference held in San Francisco and hosted by the Governor, to showcase 'best policies' to address the threats of climate change in regions and communities around the world.

In part, the plan follows guidelines for sourcing of the energy supply set out in (State) Senate Bill 100, a draft of which cleared the Senate in August. SB-100 was controversial ‒ most Republicans opposed it, Democrats supported it. The opposition included powerful agricultural interests and the state's major privately owned utilities. On the other hand, luminaries like ex-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (Republican) and former US Vice-President Al Gore urged its passage.

California had an ambitious climate policy even before the announcement. A Climate Scoping Plan adopted in 2017 charts the way toward the goal that all electricity sold to, or generated by, public and private users in the state should be from "renewables" by 2050. The new bill and executive order move the deadline forward, to 2045. Progress will be assessed at three checkpoints, with specified target shares of retail sales of "zero-carbon" electricity for each. The checkpoints set the pace of reform for public utilities and other energy providers in the state.

The Governor's executive order, however, takes a giant step further. Not only will electricity in the state be carbon-free "as soon as possible, but no later than 2045", the entire Californian economy will be "carbon neutral". That means that Californians will remove at least as much carbon from the atmosphere as they add to it. As stated in the Governor's order: "The achievement of carbon neutrality will require both significant reductions in carbon pollution and removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including sequestration in forests, soils, and other natural landscapes." A truly ambitious goal.

Naturally, there are doubters.

Rich in energy resources, but ...

California, the most populous state of the Union and the fifth-largest economy in the world, uses quite a lot of energy and has a heavy climate footprint.

The California Energy Commission estimates that 32% of retail energy sales are generated from renewable sources today. Renewables are notoriously variable, but one sunny day this past June solar panels alone produced nearly half the state's electricity.

California also has the benefit of both geothermal (north of San Francisco; covering 6% of energy needs) and large-scale hydroelectric power to fill the gaps, albeit protracted drought in recent years has made even hydro something of a 'variable', too. For these reasons, increasing the efficiency of electricity storage media and upgrading the state's transmission grid system are key to achieving the plan's goals. Both are the object of high priority R&D programs started in the past few years.

The Executive Order sets out other principal climate policy measures:

  • "Requiring significant reductions of destructive super pollutants including black carbon and methane;
  • Supporting clean transportation to reduce petroleum use 45 per cent by 2045;
  • Setting a goal of 5 million zero emission vehicles by 2030;
  • Proposing to double the reduction in the carbon intensity of fuels by 2030;
  • Moving the state to 100 percent clean energy by 2045;
  • Requiring the state to double the rate of energy efficiency savings in buildings;
  • Extending and improving the state's cap-and-trade program;
  • Directing cap-and-trade funds to greenhouse gas reducing programs which benefit disadvantaged communities;
  • Developing a Forest Carbon Plan to better manage California's forest land."

Will nuclear power play any part in this?

'Renewable', 'zero-emissions', 'carbon-neutral'. The terms are used interchangeably – in daily parlance and, significantly, in the Governor's announcement. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Jane Long at Livermore National Laboratories points out the importance of a slight change of wording in SB-100, compared to previous documents on the issue. The bill uses 'zero carbon' and 'zero emissions' as the criterion. The State of California has explicitly excluded nuclear power from its definition of renewable power resources, but nuclear power does qualify as a "zero-emission" resource in US usage. As noted above, the target is "carbon neutrality" for the state in 2045, a term that neatly skirts the lexical issue. Other than the ban on carbon emissions, there are no specifics as to how Californians will go about reaching that target.

Long term, the likelihood that any nuclear power in the mix would be generated in California is small. California has only two remaining nuclear power reactors, both at Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County (on the south-central coast). Today, the plant supplies about 8‒9% of the state's electricity, but in 2016 the operator PG&E announced plans to take the reactors offline in 2024 and 2025, before they become too much of an "economic liability", as the company put it. In January 2018, the Public Utilities Commission gave its unanimous approval.

PG&E cited changes in the California power supply and demand – notably the growth of renewables and greater energy efficiency. The emergence of community choice aggregators in many communities was a third concern. The head of PG&E's electricity division stressed the company's willingness and preparedness to adapt to these new trends. In sum, nuclear 'new build' appears to be out of the question.

California regularly imports electricity from a number of western states in the US. SB-100 prohibits reliance on electricity from any source that adds to carbon emissions, whether inside or outside the state. But, pending further clarification, the possibility that out-of-state nuclear facilities might be called upon cannot be ruled out.

'America' is greater than Donald Trump

California's climate policy has been described as "a symbolic strike against the Trump administration". Donald Trump has made headlines worldwide for his refusal to acknowledge the problems climate-altering emissions pose, a position which led him to take the US out of the 2015 Paris Agreement and to do what he can to promote both 'fracking' to extract fossil gas and a revival of coal mining in the country.

Mr. Trump may be the chief executive, but he is hardly representative of the US as a whole. A majority of states, 28 of the 50, have adopted climate policies that conform with the Paris accord – or better.


Executive Order to Achieve Carbon Neutrality:

Senate Bill 100:

Camila Domonoske, 10 Sept 2018, California sets goal of 100 percent clean electric power by 2045. NPR 24 Hour Program Stream,

Community choice aggregators:

Rob Nikolewski in San Diego Union Tribune: Nuclear power receives its death sentence in California (11 Jan 2018); Will natural gas go up when Diablo goes down? (11 Jan 2018); More setbacks for the nuclear power industry (3 Aug 2017).

Dana Nuccitelli, 17 Sept 2018, 'California plans to show the world how to meet the Paris climate target',

James Temple, 28 Aug 2018, 'California advances an ambitious climate policy that should be a model for the world'. MIT Technology Review,

Vogtle's reprieve: snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor

Last year, the V.C. Summer twin-reactor AP1000 project in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of at least US$9 billion. The project was initially estimated to cost US$9.8 billion1; when it was abandoned, the estimate was around US$25 billion.2

Last month, the last remaining reactor project in the US ‒ the Vogtle twin-reactor AP1000 project in Georgia ‒ came close to being abandoned due to massive cost overruns. The construction cost blowout at Vogtle is just as bad as that in South Carolina:

  • c.2008: US$9.5 billion 'initial' budget for the twin-reactor Vogtle project according to electric power utility JEA.4
  • 2008: US$10.4 billion5
  • 2009: US$14‒14.3 billion6,7
  • 2013: US15.5 billion8
  • Aug. 2017: US$25‒30 billion. Total Vogtle cost likely to exceed US$25 billion and could exceed US$27 billion according to a Southern Co. filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.9 An analysis by the Augusta Chronicle found that total costs could approach US$30 billion.10
  • Aug.‒Sept. 2018: US$27‒30+ billion: In August, Southern Co. announced US$2.3 billion in additional cost overruns for Vogtle.4 S&P estimates the cost to be US$27‒28 billion including financing costs5 and states that "significant risks remain … and additional overruns or project delays are possible."11 JEA estimates total costs of "more than $30 billion" and notes that there is "no guarantee that this amount will not continue to increase".12 Morgan Stanley analysts say there is a "very high likelihood" of additional cost overruns.16

The current cost estimate for Vogtle reactors #3 and #4 is 10 times greater than Westinghouse's 2006 estimate of US$1.4‒$1.9 billion to build one AP1000 reactor.3 To find another blowout of that magnitude you'd need to go back to … Vogtle #1 and #2! Built in the 1970s and 1980s, the cost of the first Vogtle twin-reactor project skyrocketed 13-fold, from US$660 million to US$8.7 billion (around US$18 billion on today's money).13

The Vogtle project is 5.5 years behind schedule: planned startup dates of April 2016 and April 2017 have been pushed back to November 2021 and November 2022.

The project was 69.9% complete as of the end of July 2018, and construction 55.3% complete.14 Thus there is plenty of scope for further cost increases and delays.

Near-death experience

Vogtle's recent near-death experience began with the latest multi-billion-dollar cost increase: a US$2.3 billion increase announced in August. That automatically triggered a Project Adverse Event under the terms of the Vogtle Joint Ownership Agreement, requiring a vote by the four project owners ‒ Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corp. (30%), MEAG (22.7) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%) ‒ about whether to go ahead or to abandon the project.15 Georgia Power, MEAG and Dalton agreed to proceed. Oglethorpe held out for concessions but eventually agreed to proceed after several extensions to a deadline for a decision.

Under the revised agreement, Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power would pay an increased share (55.7% ‒ an additional 10%) of cost overruns up to US$1.6 billion beyond the current cost estimate and 65.7% of costs up to US$2.1 billion over the current estimate. Beyond that, minority owners would have the right to sell a portion of their stake in the project to Georgia Power, unless Georgia Power chose to abandon the project.15 Morgan Stanley analysts say there is a "very good chance" that future cost increases could exceed US$2.1 billion.16

Overall, the three smaller project partners (Oglethorpe, MEAG and Dalton) won minor risk reductions in relation to the inevitable future cost increases, but cost increases will no longer trigger a Project Adverse Event or another vote on the project.19 The minor partners were steamrolled according to the Energy and Policy Institute and "now only have one option for recourse; wait until costs go up by another $2.1 billion and forfeit their investment."19

The revised agreement also includes a provision to address a lawsuit from Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), which is doing everything it can to exit a Vogtle power purchase agreement it signed with MEAG.6 If JEA succeeds in exiting its agreement, Georgia Power would provide MEAG with up to US$250 million in loans to finance the plant's completion.17

JEA's legal filing against MEAG bemoans its "unlimited obligation to fund the exorbitant and ever-ballooning cost of constructing units of a nuclear power plant that JEA does not own, over which it has no control and which will be owned and controlled by private enterprises."18 It goes on to say: "JEA must satisfy this open-ended obligation to pay for MEAG's yet unknown and uncapped debt service regardless of the amount, regardless of whether the Additional Units are ever built or ever become operational, and regardless of whether JEA ever receives any electricity, capacity, or benefit whatsoever from the Additional Units."12

Carrots and sticks from the federal government have been important. Federal tax credits will amount to a subsidy of around US$2 billion. In addition, the federal government has provided loan guarantees to Vogtle project partners of US$8.7 billion, and has offered additional loan guarantees of US$3.7 billion. Last month, the Department of Energy lobbied the project partners to go ahead with Vogtle and warned that: "If the owners decide to cancel the project, the Department is prepared to move swiftly to fully enforce its rights under the terms of the Loan Guarantee Agreements, including the repayment provisions."12

Snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat

US Department of Energy spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said the revised Vogtle agreement "will reaffirm America's international leadership in nuclear technology and ... mark the beginning of a nuclear renaissance in America."15

Yeah, right.

Long before the latest multi-billion-dollar cost increase, in May 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalists wrote: "Years behind schedule, billions over budget, and with a key contractor's bankruptcy clouding its future, the troubled Vogtle project near Augusta is fast becoming Exhibit A for why no U.S. utility before Atlanta-based Southern had tried building a new reactor in 30-plus years."20

Exhibit B is the abandoned V.C. Summer project in South Carolina.

Bloomberg opinion columnist Liam Denning argued that Southern Co. "snatched defeat from the jaws of a different kind of defeat" with the revised project agreement.21 He continued:

"While Vogtle may well be completed due to sheer political doggedness, it won't be for any reasonable economic reason. Even assuming no further overruns, it will already cost more than $11,000 per kilowatt of capacity, multiples of what a new gas-fired plant or utility-scale solar array would cost. …

"Nuclear power proponents rightly point out that it provides vast quantities of carbon-free, uninterrupted energy. They also raise concerns about the U.S. falling behind on nuclear technology. That may be a valid concern, but does rather raise the question as to why the good ratepayers of Georgia should be saddled with the costs of maintaining national security.

"The problem, however, is that these plants are gigantic, one-off projects prone to cost overruns and requiring years of planning and construction before they generate a cent of revenue. This is just an unacceptable risk for most commercial operators, and why government assistance in the form of regulated cost recovery, price guarantees or finance is so often crucial to getting them built."


1. World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 2 Feb 2017, 'Toshiba-Westinghouse: The End of New-build for the Largest Historic Nuclear Builder',

2. Brad Plumer, 31 July 2017, 'U.S. Nuclear Comeback Stalls as Two Reactors Are Abandoned',

3. Jon Gertner, 16 July 2006, 'Atomic Balm?',

4. Ross Williams, 19 Sept 2018, 'Vogtle fate rests in key vote, deadline Monday',

5. Peter Maloney, 2 Oct 2018, 'S&P downgrades Georgia Power's partners in Vogtle nuclear project',

6. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, 20 Sept 2018, 'A Series of Unfortunate Events for Plant Vogtle – last new nuclear project in turmoil',

7. Ryan Alexander, 17 Aug 2017, 'Nuclear Waste for Taxpayers',

8. Sonal Patel, 24 Sept 2018, 'How the Vogtle Nuclear Expansion's Costs Escalated',

9. Gavin Bade, 3 Aug 2017, 'Vogtle nuke cost could top $25B as decision time looms',

10. Tom Corwin, 2 Sept 2017, 'Subsidizing new nuclear power such as Vogtle reactors in nation's interest, says expert',

11. Will Robinson, 30 Sept 2018, 'Credit rater downgrades JEA over Plant Vogtle exposure', Jacksonville Business Journal,

12. Will Robinson, 26 Sept 2018, 'Plant Vogtle's fate finally decided in latest vote',

13. David Schlissel, Michael Mullett, Robert Alvarez, March 2009, 'Nuclear Loan Guarantees Another Taxpayer Bailout Ahead?', Union of Concerned Scientists,

14. Georgia Power, 31 Aug 2018, 'Nineteenth Semi-annual Vogtle Construction Monitoring Report',

15. World Nuclear Association, 27 Sept 2018, 'Vogtle owners vote to continue construction',

16. Matt Kempner and Anastaciah Ondieki, 28 Sept 2018, 'After wrangling over Georgia nuclear plant, cost concerns remain', The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,

17. Gavin Bade, 26 Sept 2018, 'Vogtle nuclear plant owners agree to continue construction',

18. Times-Union Editorial Board, 23 Sept 2018, 'Sunday Editorial: Grand jury must get to the bottom of JEA's terrible contract',

19. Daniel Tait, 4 Oct 2018, 'Georgia Power Steamrolls MEAG, Oglethorpe in New Vogtle Agreement',

20. Russell Grantham and Johnny Edwards, 19 May 2017, 'Plant Vogtle: Georgia's nuclear 'renaissance' now a financial quagmire', The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,

21. Liam Denning, 28 Sept 2018, 'Nuclear Power's Big Problem Isn't That It's Nuclear',

Vogtle 3

Film review: 'The New Fire' and the old Gen IV rhetoric

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

The New Fire is a pro-nuclear propaganda film directed and produced by musician and film-maker David Schumacher. It's similar in some respects to the 2013 film Pandora's Promise.1,2 The New Fire premiere was held in October 2017 and it can be streamed online from 18 October 2018.

Promotional material claims that the film lacked "a supportive grant" (and celebrity endorsements and the backing of a major NGO) but the end-credits list numerous financial contributors: Berk Foundation, Isdell Foundation, Steven & Michele Kirsch Foundation, Rachel Pritzker, Roland Pritzker, Ray Rothrock, and Eric Uhrhane.

The film includes interviews with around 30 people (an overwhelming majority of them male) interspersed with footage of interviewees walking into buildings, and interviewees smiling. The musical underlay is a tedious drone ‒ a disappointment given Schumacher's musical background. A highlight is hearing Eric Meyer ‒ an opera singer turned pro-nuclear activist ‒ bursting into song at various locations around the COP21 climate conference in Paris in December 2015, while he and his colleagues handed out free copies of the pro-nuclear book Climate Gamble.

Interviewees are mostly aging but the film's main message is that young entrepreneurs may save the planet and its inhabitants with their Generation IV reactor projects. The film's website states: "David Schumacher's film focuses on how the generation facing the most severe impact of climate change is fighting back with ingenuity and hope. The New Fire tells a provocative and startlingly positive story about a planet in crisis and the young heroes who are trying to save it."3

Schumacher writes (in the press kit): "These brilliant young people – some of the most gifted engineers of their generation, who in all likelihood could have cashed in for a fortune by doing something else – believe deeply that nuclear power could play a key role in saving the planet. And they are acting on that conviction. They did the research. They raised the money. They used cutting edge computer technology to perfect their designs. They are the new face of nuclear power, and to me, the newest and most unlikely climate heroes."

These climate heroes are contrasted with anti-nuclear environmentalists. One interviewee says that "people of our generation are the first ones that have the opportunity to look at nuclear power without all the emotional baggage that previous generations have felt." Another argues that anti-nuclear environmentalists are "very good, decent, smart people" but the "organizational DNA … that they have inherited is strongly anti-nuclear." Another argues that environmental organizations "have been using nuclear power as a whipping boy for decades to raise funds". Another interviewee attributes opposition to nuclear power to an "irrational fear of the unknown" (which surely poses a problem for the exotic Generation IV concepts promoted in the film) and another says that "once people sort of understand what's going on with nuclear, they are much more open to it".

The film trots out the usual anti-renewables tropes and falsehoods: 100% renewables is "just a fantasy", renewables can contribute up to 20% of power supply and the remainder must be baseload: fossil fuels or nuclear power.

In rural Senegal, solar power has brought many benefits but places like Senegalese capital Dakar, with a population of one million, need electricity whether the sun is shining or not. A Senegalese man interviewed in the film states: "Many places in Africa definitely need a low cost, reliable, carbon neutral power plant that provides electricity 24/7. Nuclear offers one of the best options we have to do that kind of baseload." The film doesn't explain how a 1,000 MW nuclear plant would fit into Senegal's electricity grid, which has a total installed capacity of 633 MW.4 The 'microreactors' featured in The New Fire might help … if they existed.

Accidents such as those at Fukushima and Chernobyl get in the news because they are "so unusual" according to interviewee Ken Caldeira. And they get in the news, he might have added, because of the estimated death tolls (in the thousands for Fukushima5, ranging to tens of thousands for Chernobyl6), the costs (around US$700 billion for Chernobyl7, and US$192 billion (and counting) for Fukushima8), the evacuation of 160,000 people after the Fukushima disaster and the permanent relocation of over 350,000 people after the Chernobyl disaster.9

"Most people understand that it's impossible for a nuclear power plant to literally explode in the sense of an atomic explosion", an interviewee states. And most people understand that chemical and steam explosions at Chernobyl and Fukushima spread radionuclides over vast distances. The interviewee wants to change the name of nuclear power plants to avoid any conflation between nuclear power and weapons. Evidently he didn't get the memo that the potential to use nuclear power plants (and related facilities) to produce weapons is fast becoming one of the industry's key marketing points.

Conspicuously absent from the film's list of interviewees is pro-nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger. We've taken Shellenberger to task for his litany of falsehoods on nuclear and energy issues10 and his bizarre conversion into an advocate of worldwide nuclear weapons proliferation.11 But a recent article by Shellenberger on Generation IV nuclear technology is informative and insightful ‒ and directly at odds with the propaganda in The New Fire.12

So, let's compare the Generation IV commentary in The New Fire with that in Shellenberger's recent article.

Transatomic Power's molten salt reactor concept

The film spends most of its time promoting Generation IV reactor projects including Transatomic Power's molten salt reactor (MSR) concept.

Scott Nolan from venture capital firm Founders Fund says that Transatomic satisfies his four concerns about nuclear power: safety, waste, cost, proliferation. And he's right ‒ Transatomic's MSRs are faultless on all four counts, because they don't exist. It's doubtful whether they would satisfy any of the four criteria if they did actually exist.

Shellenberger quotes Admiral Hyman Rickover, who played a leading role in the development of nuclear-powered and armed submarines and aircraft carriers in the US: "Any plant you haven't built yet is always more efficient than the one you have built. This is obvious. They are all efficient when you haven't done anything on them, in the talking stage. Then they are all efficient, they are all cheap. They are all easy to build, and none have any problems."

Shellenberger goes on to say:12

"The radical innovation fantasy rests upon design essentialism and reactor reductionism. We conflate the 2-D design with a 3-D design which we conflate with actual building plans which we conflate with a test reactor which we conflate with a full-sized power plant.

"These unconscious conflations blind us to the many, inevitable, and sometimes catastrophic "unknowns" that only become apparent through the building and operating of a real world plant. They can be small, like the need for a midget welder, or massive, like the manufacturing failures of the AP1000.

"Some of the biggest unknowns have to do with radically altering the existing nuclear workforce, supply chain, and regulations. Such wholesale transformations of the actually existing nuclear industry are, literally and figuratively, outside the frame of alternative designs.

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face," a wise man once said. The debacles with the AP1000 and EPR are just the latest episodes of nuclear reactor designers getting punched in the face by reality."

Shellenberger comments on MSR technology:12

"New designs often solve one problem while creating new ones. For example, a test reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory used chemical salts with uranium fuel dissolved within, instead of water surrounding solid uranium fuel. "The distinctive advantage of such a reactor was that it avoided the expensive process of fabricating fuel elements, moderator, control rods, and other high-precision core components," noted Hewlett and Holl.

"In the eyes of many nuclear scientists and engineers these advantages made the homogeneous reactor potentially the most promising of all types under study, but once again the experiment did not reveal how the tricky problems of handling a highly radioactive and corrosive fluid were to be resolved."

In The New Fire, Mark Massie from Transatomic promotes a "simpler approach that gives you safety through physics, and there's no way to break physics". True, you can't break physics, but highly radioactive and corrosive fluids in MSRs could break and rust pipes and other machinery.

Leslie Dewan from Transatomic trots out the silliest advantage attributed to MSRs: that they are meltdown-proof. Of course they are meltdown-proof ‒ and not just in the sense that they don't exist. The fuel is liquid. You can't melt liquids. MSR liquid fuel is susceptible to dispersion in the event of steam explosions or chemical explosions or fire, perhaps more so than solid fuels.

Michael Short from MIT says in the film that over the next 2‒3 years they should have preliminary answers as to whether the materials in Transatomic MSRs are going to survive the problems of corrosion and radiation resistance. In other words, they are working on the problems ‒ but there's no guarantee of progress let alone success.

Dewan claims that Transatomic took an earlier MSR design from Oak Ridge and "we were able to make it 20 times as power dense, much more compact, orders of magnitude cheaper, and so we are commercializing our design for a new type of reactor that can consume existing stockpiles of nuclear waste."

Likewise, Jessica Lovering from the Breakthrough Institute says: "Waste is a concern for a lot of people. For a lot of people it's their first concern about nuclear power. But what's really amazing about it is that most of what we call nuclear waste could actually be used again for fuel. And if you use it again for fuel, you don't have to store it for tens of thousands of years. With these advanced reactors you can close the fuel cycle, you can start using up spent fuel, recycling it, turning it into new fuel over and over again."

But in fact, prototype MSRs and fast neutron reactors produce troublesome waste streams (even more so than conventional light-water reactors) and they don't obviate the need for deep geological repositories. A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ‒ co-authored by a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission ‒ states that "molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors – due to the unusual chemical compositions of their fuels – will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues."13 It also raises proliferation concerns about 'integral fast reactor' and MSR technology: "Pyroprocessing and fluoride volatility-reductive extraction systems optimized for spent fuel treatment can – through minor changes to the chemical conditions – also extract plutonium (or uranium 233 bred from thorium)."

Near the end of the film, it states: "Transatomic encountered challenges with its original design, and is now moving forward with an updated reactor that uses uranium fuel." Transatomic's claim that its 'Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor' could "generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor" was severely downgraded to "more than twice" after calculation errors were discovered. And the company now says that a reactor based on the current design would not use waste as fuel and thus would "not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel".14,15

So much for all the waste-to-fuel rhetoric scattered throughout The New Fire.

Michael Short from MIT claims MSRs will cost a "couple of billion dollars" and Dewan claims they will be "orders of magnitude cheaper" than the Oak Ridge experimental MSR. In their imaginations, perhaps. Shellenberger notes that "in the popular media and among policymakers, there has remained a widespread faith that what will make nuclear power cheaper is not greater experience but rather greater novelty. How else to explain the excitement for reactor designs invented by teenagers in their garages and famous software developers [Bill Gates / TerraPower] with zero experience whatsoever building or operating a nuclear plant?"12

Shellenberger continues:12

"Rather than address the public's fears, nuclear industry leaders, scientists, and engineers have for decades repeatedly retreated to their comfort zone: reactor design innovation. Designers say the problem isn't that innovation has been too radical, but that it hasn't been radical enough. If only the coolant were different, the reactors smaller, and the building methods less conventional, they insist, nuclear plants would be easier and cheaper to build.

"Unfortunately, the historical record is clear: the more radical the design, the higher the cost. This is true not only with the dominant water-cooled designs but also with the more exotic designs ‒ and particularly sodium-cooled ones."

Oklo's sodium-cooled fast neutron microreactor

The New Fire promotes Oklo's sodium-cooled fast neutron microreactor concept, and TerraPower's sodium-cooled fast neutron 'traveling wave' reactor (TerraPower is also exploring a molten chloride fast reactor concept).

Oklo co-founder Jacob DeWitte says: "There's this huge, awesome opportunity in off-grid markets, where they need power and they are relying on diesel generators … We were talking to some of these communities and we realized they use diesel because it's the most energy dense fuel they know of. And I was like, man, nuclear power's two million times as energy dense … And they were like, 'Wait, are you serious, can you build a reactor that would be at that size?' And I said, 'Sure'."

Which is all well and good apart from the claim that Oklo could build such a reactor: the company has a myriad of economic, technological and regulatory hurdles to overcome. The film claims that Oklo "has begun submission of its reactor's license application to the [US] Nuclear Regulatory Commission" but according to the NRC, Oklo is a "pre-applicant" that has gone no further than to notify the NRC of its intention to "engage in regulatory interactions".16

There's lots of rhetoric in the film about small reactors that "you can role … off the assembly line like Boeings", factory-fabricated reactors that "can look a lot like Ikea furniture", economies of scale once there is a mass market for small reactors, and mass-produced reactors leading to "a big transition to clean energy globally". But first you would need to invest billions to set up the infrastructure to mass produce reactors ‒ and no-one has any intention of making that investment. And there's no mass market for small reactors ‒ there is scarcely any market at all.17


TerraPower is one step ahead of Transatomic and Oklo ‒ it has some serious funding. But it's still a long way off ‒ Nick Touran from TerraPower says in the film that tests will "take years" and the company is investing in a project with "really long horizons … [it] may take a very long time".

TerraPower's sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor remains a paper reactor. Shellenberger writes:12

"In 2008, The New Yorker profiled Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive, on his plans to re-invent nuclear power with Bill Gates. Nuclear scientist Edward "Teller had this idea way back when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor," Myhrvold explained. "No moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple."

"Gates and Myhrvold started a company, Terrapower, that will break ground next year in China on a test reactor. "TerraPower's engineers," wrote a reporter recently, will "find out if their design really works."

"And yet the history of nuclear power suggests we should have more modest expectations. While a nuclear reactor "experiment often produced valuable clues," Hewlett and Holl wrote, "it almost never revealed a clear pathway to success." ...

"For example, in 1951, a reactor in Idaho used sodium rather than water to cool the uranium ‒ like Terrapower's design proposes to do. "The facility verified scientific principles," Hewlett and Holl noted, but "did not address the host of extraordinary difficult engineering problems." ...

"Why do so many entrepreneurs, journalists, and policy analysts get the basic economics of nuclear power so terribly wrong? In part, everybody's confusing nuclear reactor designs with real world nuclear plants. Consider how frequently advocates of novel nuclear designs use the future or even present tense to describe qualities and behaviors of reactors when they should be using future conditional tense.

"Terrapower's reactor, an IEEE Spectrum reporter noted "will be able to use depleted uranium ... the heat will be absorbed by a looping stream of liquid sodium ... Terrapower's reactor stays cool".

"Given that such "reactors" do not actually exist as real world machines, and only exist as computer-aided designs, it is misleading to claim that Terrapower's reactor "will" be able to do anything. The appropriate verbs for that sentence are "might," "may," and "could." ...

"Myhrvold expressed great confidence that he had proven that Terrapower's nuclear plant could run on nuclear waste at a low cost. How could he be so sure? He had modeled it. "Lowell and I had a month-long, no-holds-barred nuclear-physics battle. He didn't believe waste would work. It turns out it does." Myhrvold grinned. "He concedes it now."

"Rickover was unsparing in his judgement of this kind of thinking. "I believe this confusion stems from a failure to distinguish between the academic and the practical," he wrote. "The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of 'mere technical details.'""


1. Nuclear Monitor #764, 'Pandora's Promise' Propaganda, 28 June 2013,

2. Nuclear Monitor #773, 'Pandora's Propaganda', 21 Nov 2013,



5. Ian Fairlie, 2 April 2014, 'New UNSCEAR Report on Fukushima: Collective Doses',

6. 24 April 2014, 'The Chernobyl Death Toll', Nuclear Monitor #785,

7. Jonathan Samet and Joann Seo, 2016, 'The Financial Costs of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster: A Review of the Literature',

8. Nuclear Monitor #836, 16 Dec 2016, 'The economic impacts of the Fukushima disaster',

9. World Health Organization, 13 April 2016, 'World Health Organization report explains the health impacts of the world's worst-ever civil nuclear accident',

10. Nuclear Monitor #853, 30 Oct 2017, 'Exposing the misinformation of Michael Shellenberger and 'Environmental Progress'',

11. Nuclear Monitor #865, 6 Sept 2018, 'Nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger learns to love the bomb, goes down a rabbit hole',

12. Michael Shellenberger, 18 July 2018, 'If Radical Innovation Makes Nuclear Power Expensive, Why Do We Think It Will Make Nuclear Cheap?',

13. Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane, 2018, 'Burning waste or playing with fire? Waste management considerations for non-traditional reactors', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:5, pp.326-334,

14. James Temple, 24 Feb 2017, 'Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises',

15. Nuclear Monitor #849, 25 Aug 2017, 'James Hansen's Generation IV nuclear fallacies and fantasies',

16. NRC, 'Advanced Reactors (non-LWR designs)',, accessed 16 Sept 2018

17. Nuclear Monitor #800, 19 March 2015, 'Small modular reactors: a chicken-and-egg situation',

Transatomic Gen IV startup shuts down

Nuclear Monitor #867, 15 October 2018,

We wrote about Transatomic Power's proposed molten salt reactor (MSR) in the last issue of Nuclear Monitor.1 Since then, the startup has shut down.2,3

Transatomic had raised more than US$4 million from Founders Fund, Acadia Woods Partners, and others. But it was unable to raise US$15 million required for the next phase of the project.

In 2016, following the revelation of false calculations, Transatomic abandoned its plan to use waste (spent fuel) as fuel and it abandoned the associated claim that its 'Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor' could "generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor".4 Its waste-annihilating reactor was reinvented as a waste-producing, uranium fueled reactor.

Transatomic co-founder Leslie Dewan put a positive spin on the company's collapse: "Today the advanced nuclear technology sector is thriving, with over 70 advanced reactor projects in progress, financing actively flowing to new technologies, promising engagement with the NRC, multiple films and TV documentaries covering innovations, and even bipartisan political support."2

According to the Third Way pro-nuclear lobby group, "at least five companies are already working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to prepare for licensing".5 In other words, not one of the Gen IV startups has gone further than to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of their intent to engage in regulatory interactions ‒ and only five have taken that modest step.6

1. Nuclear Monitor #866, 24 Sept 2018, Film review: 'The New Fire' and the old Gen IV rhetoric,

2. Leslie Dewan, Sept 2018, 'Open-Sourcing Our Reactor Design, and the Future of Transatomic',

3. Energy Central, 2 Oct 2018, 'Transatomic Folds Its Tent ‒ Its Legacy May Live On',

4. James Temple, 24 Feb 2017, 'Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises',

5. John Milko, Todd Allen, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, 8 Feb 2018, 'Keeping Up with the Advanced Nuclear Industry',

6. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 'Advanced Reactors (non-LWR designs)', accessed 3 October 2018.

U.S. nuclear bailout could cost $8‒17 billion a year

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The controversial Trump Administration plan to nationalize the nuclear energy marketplace could cost U.S. consumers US$8‒17 billion a year in artificially high electricity bills, with the prospect of extensive coal-fired power plant subsidies potentially doubling that figure. Further, the bailouts of nuclear and coal could trip up America's renewables industry, leaving the U.S. even further behind in the global race for clean energy technology development and deployment.

On June 6, the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) released updated and expanded figures on the nuclear bailout costs estimated in its November 2016 report that concluded that federal handouts for nuclear alone could add up to US$280 billion to electricity bills by 2030. A bailout of coal-fired power plants would leave ratepayers and taxpayers holding the bag for even more. NIRS estimates that the current Trump bailout scheme could costs consumers US$8‒17 billion for just the nuclear element and as much again for coal subsidies.

Tim Judson, executive director, Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS), said: "By pushing for a nationwide bailout for nuclear power and coal, the Trump administration is rushing headlong into an energy buzz saw, and they don't even seem to know it. Subsidizing the nuclear industry alone is likely to cost American consumers US$8 billion to US$17 billion per year, and subsidies for coal could cost just as much. Betting on old, increasingly uneconomical nuclear and coal power plants as a national security strategy is like gold-plating a Studebaker and calling it a tank. And it could destroy the booming renewable energy industry, which is already employing more Americans than coal and nuclear combined."

Peter A. Bradford is a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and former chair of the Maine and New York utility commissions. Bradford also taught energy policy and law at the Vermont Law School. Commenting on the bailout scheme, Bradford said: "The Trump Administration's desire to tax American consumers to support failing power plants is energy policy-making gone haywire. As was said in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the facts are being fixed around the desired end result. We have no military crisis and no threats of our system reliability or resilience that require this drastic and expensive governmental intervention. Claims of such problems are fairy tales, straight out of Mother Goose."

Bradford continued: "The Administration's warnings of dire effects from power shortages caused by shortages of reliable and resilient generation are contradicted by all of the bodies with actual responsibility for assuring adequate supplies. There are no state or federal energy regulators petitioning DOE for these measures. Indeed, those who have spoken clearly have said that such steps are unnecessary. By overpaying hundreds of dollars per family per year for electricity that can be obtained far less expensively from other sources, the administration is impoverishing customers, cutting off construction and industrial jobs and suppressing energy innovation, in which the U.S. has been competing for global leadership."

Tyson Slocum, director, Energy Program, Public Citizen, said: "President Trump's asinine nuclear and coal bailout will cost households billions of dollars, but will bolster the profits of a handful of Trump's top campaign and financial supporters. Trump is charging consumers billions to fill the swamp with undeserving special interests."

Slocum said that any effort to force consumers and/or taxpayers to bailout the owners of nuclear and coal power plants under the guise of resilience, fuel security or national security is absurd and will be subject to vigorous legislative, regulatory and legal challenges.

As such, it is likely that the Administration is still months away from an actionable plan using any of the three statutes it has identified. Action under 202(c) of the Federal Power Act would involve a subsidy structured through electric rates, subject to review and approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Action under the 1950 Defense Production Act would require Congressional appropriations, and therefore a taxpayer-based subsidy, as would action under the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. Further, the formal National Security Council review process to develop a national security threat assessment intervention plan is at least months away.


The theories advanced by the Trump Administration for the nuclear and coal bailouts are radical, unprecedented, and unsupported by any factual or empirical analysis. Nuclear and coal power plants expected to retire because of their uneconomic performance pose zero reliability or national security concerns.

Nonetheless, an internal National Security Council policy memo leaked on June 1 outlined potential actions by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to provide billions of dollars in financial assistance over two years to uneconomic nuclear and coal power plants using: Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act; the 1950 Defense Production Act; and the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. While the Trump Administration has been trying to push for such bailouts in a variety of ways over the past year, the involvement of the NSC introduces a new twist in these efforts by trying to make fuel security a new national security priority that requires aggressive federal intervention into domestic energy markets.

The National Security Council memo focuses on supposed threats to natural gas pipelines and infrastructure from natural disasters and malicious attacks, but it does not consider the essential vulnerability of a national electricity grid based on central station power plants, of which coal and nuclear power plants are the most typical. They require high-voltage transmission lines to deliver electricity from coal and nuclear plants, hundreds of miles in many cases. In addition, the memo neither considers the vulnerability of power plants themselves, nor does it discuss the attractiveness of nuclear power plants in particular as targets for malicious acts.

In an odd twist, the memo cites provisions of the Defense Production Act to justify federal intervention into industry during times of war that make a stronger case for reliance on entirely different technologies than central station coal and nuclear power plants: Defense Production Act authorities should be used "to reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorist attacks" and to "encourage the geographic dispersal of industrial facilities in the United States to discourage the concentration of such productive facilities within limited geographic areas that are vulnerable to attack by an enemy of the United States." These provisions of the Defense Production Act, taken to their natural conclusion, should encourage the expansion of distributed and on-site power sources and modern infrastructure designs, like "islandable" microgrids, rather than trying to retain a grid design based on large, vulnerable central station power plants.

Audio from a June 6 media teleconference hosted by NIRS is posted at

The November 2016 NIRS report, 'Too Big to Bail Out: The Economic Costs of a National Nuclear Power Subsidy', is posted at

Before the US approves new uranium mining, consider its toxic legacy

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Stephanie Malin ‒ Assistant Professor of Sociology, Colorado State University

Uranium – the raw material for nuclear power and nuclear weapons – is having a moment in the spotlight. Companies such as Energy Fuels, Inc. have played well-publicized roles1 in lobbying the Trump administration to reduce federal protection for public lands with uranium deposits.2 The Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review calls for new weapons production to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which could spur new domestic uranium mining.3 And the Interior Department is advocating more domestic uranium production, along with other materials identified as "critical minerals."4

What would expanded uranium mining in the U.S. mean at the local level? I have studied the legacies of past uranium mining and milling in Western states for over a decade. My book examines dilemmas faced by uranium communities caught between harmful legacies of previous mining booms and the potential promise of new economic development.

These people and places are invisible to most Americans, but they helped make the United States an economic and military superpower. In my view, we owe it to them to learn from past mistakes and make more informed and sustainable decisions about possibly renewing uranium production than our nation made in the past.

Mining regulations have failed to protect public health

Today most of the uranium that powers U.S. nuclear reactors is imported. But many communities still suffer impacts of uranium mining and milling that occurred for decades to fuel the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race.5 These include environmental contamination6, toxic spills7, abandoned mines, under-addressed cancer and disease clusters8 and illnesses9 that citizens link to uranium exposure despite federal denials.

As World War II phased into the Cold War, U.S. officials rapidly increased uranium production from the 1940s to the 1960s. Regulations were minimal to nonexistent and largely unenforced, even though the U.S. Public Health Service10 knew that exposure to uranium had caused potentially fatal health effects in Europe11, and was monitoring uranium miners and millers for health problems.

Today the industry is subject to regulations that address worker health and safety, environmental protection, treatment of contaminated sites and other considerations.12 But these regulations lack uniformity, and enforcement responsibilities are spread across multiple agencies.13

This creates significant regulatory gaps, which are worsened by a federalist approach to regulation. In the 1970s the newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiated an Agreement States program, under which states take over regulating many aspects of uranium and nuclear production and waste storage.14 To qualify, state programs must be "adequate to protect public health and safety and compatible with the NRC's regulatory program."15

Today 37 states have joined this program and two more are applying.16 Many Agreement States struggle to enforce regulations because of underfunded budgets, lack of staff and anti-regulatory cultures.4 These problems can lead to piecemeal enforcement and reliance on corporate self-regulation.

For example, budget cuts in Colorado have forced the state to rely frequently on energy companies to monitor their own compliance with regulations.17 In Utah, the White Mesa Mill – our nation's only currently operating uranium mill – has a record of persistent problems related to permitting, water contamination and environmental health, as well as tribal sacred lands and artifacts.18

Neglected nuclear legacies

Uranium still affects the environment19 and human health in the West, but its impacts remain woefully under-addressed. Some of the poorest, most isolated and ethnically marginalized communities in the nation are bearing the brunt of these legacies.

There are approximately 4,000 abandoned uranium mines in Western states.20 At least 500 are located on land controlled by the Navajo Nation.21 Diné (Navajo) people have suffered some of the worst consequences of U.S. uranium production, including cancer clusters and water contamination.22

A 2015 study found that about 85 percent of Diné homes are still contaminated with uranium, and that tribe members living near uranium mines have more uranium in their bones than 95 percent of the U.S. population.23 Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump's decision to reduce the Bears Ears National Monument24 has reinvigorated discussion over ongoing impacts of uranium contamination across tribal and public land.25

Despite legislation such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act26 of 1990, people who lived near uranium production or contamination sites often became forgotten casualties of the Cold War. For instance, Monticello, Utah, hosted a federally owned uranium mill from 1942 to 1960.27 Portions of the town were even built from tailings left over from uranium milling, which we now know were radioactive.28 This created two Superfund sites that were not fully remediated until the late 1990s.29

Monticello residents have dealt with cancer clusters, increased rates of birth defects and other health abnormalities for decades.30 Although the community has sought federal recognition and compensation since 1993, its requests have been largely ignored.31

Today tensions over water access and its use for uranium mining are creating conflict between regional tribes and corporate water users around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.32 Native residents, such as the Havasupai, have had to defend their water rights33 and fear losing access to this vital resource.

Uranium production is a boom-and-bust industry

Like any economic activity based on commodities, uranium production is volatile and unstable.34 The industry has a history of boom-bust cycles. Communities that depend on it can be whipsawed by rapid growth followed by destabilizing population losses.35

The first U.S. uranium boom occurred during the early Cold War and ended in the 1960s due to oversupply, triggering a bust.36 A second boom began later in the decade when the federal government authorized private commercial investment in nuclear power. But the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1985) disasters ended this second boom.

Uranium prices soared once again from 2007 to 2010. But the 2011 tsunami and meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant sent prices plummeting once again as nations looked for alternatives to nuclear power.

Companies like Energy Fuels maintain – especially in public meetings with uranium communities37 – that new production will lead to sustained economic growth.38 This message is powerful stuff. It boosts support, sometimes in the very communities that have suffered most from past practices.

But I have interviewed Westerners who worry that as production methods become more technologically advanced and mechanized, energy companies may increasingly rely on bringing in out-of-town workers with technical and engineering degrees rather than hiring locals – as has happened in the coal industry.39 And the core tensions of boom-bust economic volatility and instability persist.

Uranium production advocates contend that new "environmentally friendly" mills40 and current federal regulations will adequately protect public health and the environment.41 Yet they offer little evidence to counter White Mesa Mill's poor record.

In my view, there is little evidence that new uranium production would be more reliably regulated or economically stable today than in the past. Instead, I expect that the industry will continue to privatize profits as the public absorbs and subsidizes its risks.

Stephanie Malin is the author of the 2015 book, 'The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice', published by Rutgers University Press,

Reprinted from The Conversation, 22 Feb 2018,











































Georgia Public Service Commission continues Vogtle reactor boondoggle ‒ but the project is probably still doomed

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Tim Judson ‒ Executive Director, Nuclear Information & Resource Service

In December 2017, the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates electric and gas utilities in the south-eastern US state, voted to approve continued construction of two AP1000 reactors at Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle.1 This decision was unsurprising because of the Commission's utter failure to question the project throughout its ten-year history, but the decision is all the more ridiculous and unfortunate for it.

The vote flies in the face of the evidence about the project's likelihood for continued failure, the state's energy needs, and the PSC staff's own recommendation to cancel the Vogtle reactors if Georgia Power did not agree to swallow US$4 billion of the cost.2

The PSC's decision is far from the end of the story ‒ more of a momentary reprieve that helps the industry save face, but not for long. The nuclear industry and its political backers simply could not afford to lose this round over Vogtle – and it is likely that significant outside pressure came to bear on the PSC, not only from Southern Co. and its army of lobbyists, lawyers, and government cronies. In fact, the Commission truncated its review of Vogtle, originally scheduled for a PSC vote in early 2018.

Time is only working against this project, with more information coming out each week regarding engineering and project planning failures, and subsequent coverups and collusion between utilities, Westinghouse, and regulators. Vogtle's twin project in South Carolina – the V.C. Summer 2 and 3 reactors – was cancelled in July 2017, leading to investigations of the project that have revealed years-long coverups3 leading to the project's failure and cancellation, resignations of utility executives4, utility reform legislation5, and a vote to deny the South Carolina utility's recovery of costs and reducing customers' bill by 18%.6

The PSC's vote to 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead' exempts the Commission from having to consider even more damning evidence that may well emerge in the coming weeks.

That said, the fight is not over, by any means. There are more days of reckoning to come in the years ahead. In 2014, the US Department of Energy issued US$6.5 billion taxpayer-guaranteed loans to Vogtle partners Georgia Power and Oglethorpe Power with $0 credit subsidy fee (similar to a down payment, to reduce the government's financial risk).7 Additional loan guarantees of US$1.8 billion were granted in 2015 (to project partner Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia ‒ MEAG Power), as well as an offer by the US Department of Energy to provide another US$3.7 billion in loan guarantees in September 2017 (to Georgia Power, Oglethorpe and MEAG).8

In 2014, it seemed to many like that would be the last straw – zero risk to Georgia Power for repaying a massive loan that covered all of Georgia Power's share of the project. But then the utility continued asking for rate hike after rate hike as the costs of Vogtle continued to go up9 … and then Westinghouse had to buy out the project's main contractor10, CB&I, to settle a mountain of legal disputes11 … then Westinghouse went bankrupt12 after taking over CB&I and inheriting all of the project's problems … then the V.C. Summer reactors were canceled13 … then the scandals and coverups14 of engineering problems started to emerge … and here we are today.

The PSC should have concluded the sorry saga and canceled Vogtle. Just don't be too quick to judge the vote a failure for those calling for Georgia to ditch the reactors. Environmental and consumer activists have mounted a heroic fight to stop Vogtle, in the face of monstrous political odds. And the foundation is starting to crack: Georgia PSC staff for the first time admitted not only that the Vogtle project has problems but recommended it be canceled if the utility didn't agree to swallow US$4 billion of the cost.15 Now, there is a division in the ranks of the utility establishment – making it as likely as not that the PSC's vote is really the beginning of the end for Vogtle.

Recently, I was looking over old status reports on reactor construction from the 1980s, and was reminded that Vogtle 1 and 2 were the single most expensive nuclear project in the first generation of nukes in the US – costing US$8.8 billion by the time the reactors were both completed in 1989 (that would be about US$18 billion today).16 Now, 30 years later, Southern Co. / Georgia Power is doubling down for a two-fer, with Vogtle 3 and 4 projected to cost US$25 billion. There is no doubt that Southern Co. has recouped massive profits on Vogtle 1 and 2, through the utility's guaranteed return on investment, and is desperate for even greater profits if Vogtle 3 and 4 ever come online.

The truth is, Southern Co. is not qualified to manage a reactor construction project (it operates six reactors, but doesn't design or build them)17; its new contractor, Bechtel, isn't going to assume any of the cost or risk to finish the reactors18; and the rotten underbelly of technical and financial problems19 plaguing the Vogtle reactors' construction means, at the very least, years more in delays and billions more in costs should be expected. And probably more train wrecks along the way.

Had the PSC cancelled the project in December – or forced Southern Co. to do so by holding the company accountable for the massive cost overruns – they could have saved a lot of face and pinned the blame on Westinghouse and their own 'bad apples'. Going forward, it will be a different story: Southern Co. and the Georgia PSC now have no one else to blame. And they could find themselves facing the same cleaning of the house now taking place across the border in South Carolina.

The US 'nuclear renaissance' is dead

It's hard to overestimate how desperate the US nuclear industry is to keep Vogtle construction going. Rightly or wrongly (more likely the latter), the industry views the completion of Vogtle as vital to its future.

Vogtle 3 and 4 are now the only new reactors being built in the US, more than a decade after the proclamation of a 'Nuclear Renaissance' which led to license applications for 30 new reactors between 2007 and 2010. While many of the licenses were approved, only V.C. Summer and Vogtle started construction – twin projects, both using Westinghouse's AP1000 reactor design. By early 2017, they had bankrupted Westinghouse – the largest nuclear designer/builder in the world, responsible for about 50% of reactors around the globe. Westinghouse now says it will not undertake any new reactor projects, nor will it complete Vogtle and V.C. Summer. And with V.C. Summer 2 and 3 cancelled, it means 28 of the 30 'Nuclear Renaissance' reactors have now been formally abandoned or indefinitely shelved.

The story of V.C. Summer is one of stark opportunity costs, one that looms over Georgia PSC's decision to charge ahead with Vogtle: South Carolina utilities wasted ten years and US$9 billion on the project. Ratepayers are paying 18% of their monthly bills for two reactors that will never generate a single watt of electricity. They were still 5‒10 years and US$16 billion from completion – a completely rational basis for cancelling the project.

But had the utilities eschewed the nuclear option in 2007 and invested in energy efficiency and renewables, not only would they have reduced carbon emissions and electricity usage significantly by now, South Carolina families and businesses would have lower electric bills today and the state could have built a strong, sustainable clean energy economy and created thousands of jobs.

If Georgia had cancelled Vogtle in December, the nuclear industry's case that it has a meaningful role to play in the country's energy future, addressing climate change, or anything else would be self-evidently false. With at least two reactors being built that could operate into the 2060s, there's at least a chance that the US will still have some nuclear-generated electricity in the late 21st Century.

But the industry can't keep itself going on the backs of just two over-budget, hopelessly delayed, unnecessary reactors. Georgia doesn't need Vogtle 3 and 4, and it never did. But by the time the reactors are completed ‒ if ever ‒ that will be the world's most expensive novelty item. Of course, the farce will quickly turn to tragedy if those nuclear mementos were ever to start splitting atoms ‒ generating nuclear waste that will be hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, and a multi-billion dollar bill for decommissioning the reactors and cleaning up their radioactive mess.

With or without Vogtle 3 and 4, the only future nuclear has left in the US is keeping increasingly old, dangerous, uneconomical, and uncompetitive reactors going for as long as it can – while solar, wind, energy efficiency, storage, electric vehicles, smart appliances, microgrids, and other modern, more environmentally sustainable, consumer-friendly, and increasingly affordable energy options take off.





















Vogtle 3Vogtle 4