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Nuclear lobbyists argue about how to solve the nuclear power crisis

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Michael Shellenberger from the US-based Breakthrough Institute (and sundry other pro-nuclear lobby groups) offers the following explanation for the "crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West":1

  • Lack of standardization and scaling: The constant switching of designs deprives the people who build, operate and regulate nuclear plants of the experience they need to become more efficient.
  • The "war" on nuclear power by the environmental movement ... "a powerful, $500 million annual lobby that does everything it can to deliberately make nuclear expensive."
  • Too much focus on machines, too little on human beings: "Areva, Toshiba-Westinghouse and others claimed their new designs would be safer and thus, at least eventually, cheaper, but there were always strong reasons to doubt such claims. First, what is proven to make nuclear plants safer is experience, not new designs. Human factors swamp design. ... In fact, new designs risk depriving managers and workers the experience they need to operate plants more safely, just as it deprives construction companies the experience they need to build plants more rapidly."

Shellenberger has a three-point rescue plan:1

  • 'Consolidate or Die': "If nuclear is going to survive in the West, it needs a single, large firm ‒ the equivalent of a Boeing or Airbus ‒ to compete against the Koreans, Chinese and Russians."
  • 'Standardize or Die': He draws attention to the "astonishing" heterogeneity of planned reactors in the UK and says the UK "should scrap all existing plans and start from a blank piece of paper", that all new plants should be of the same design and "the criteria for choosing the design should emphasize experience in construction and operation, since that is the key factor for lowering costs."
  • 'Scale or Die': Nations "must work together to develop a long-term plan for new nuclear plant construction to achieve economies of scale", and governments "should invest directly or provide low-cost loans."

Josh Freed and Todd Allen from pro-nuclear lobby group Third Way, and Ted Nordhaus and Jessica Lovering from the Breakthrough Institute, argue that Shellenberger draws the wrong lessons from Toshiba's recent losses and from nuclear power's "longer-term struggles" in developed economies.2

They argue that "too little innovation, not too much, is the reason that the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies":2

  • The Westinghouse AP1000 represents a fairly straightforward evolution in light-water reactor design, not a radical departure as Shellenberger claims. Rather, it represents "just the sort of incremental innovation in design and operation that Shellenberger argues elsewhere holds the key to reducing nuclear costs."
  • Standardization is important but it is not a panacea. Standardization and building multiple reactors on the same site has limited cost escalation, not brought costs down. "France, the poster child for standardization and economies of multiples in light-water reactor design and deployment, has seen modest cost escalation over time, not cost declines."
  • Most of the causes of rising cost and construction delays associated with new nuclear builds in the US are attributable to the 30-year hiatus in US nuclear construction, not the novelty of the AP1000 design. The AP1000 projects in Georgia and South Carolina are "for most practical purposes ... a first-of-kind-build" and the same challenges would have been faced even if a Generation II plant had been chosen instead of the AP1000.
  • Reasonable regulatory reform will not dramatically reduce the cost of new light-water reactors, as Shellenberger suggests. Not even the most zealous reformers would advocate dispensing with expensive items such as containment domes or multiple redundant back up cooling systems.

They write this obituary for large light-water reactors:2

"If there is one central lesson to be learned from the delays and cost overruns that have plagued recent builds in the US and Europe, it is that the era of building large fleets of light-water reactors is over in much of the developed world. From a climate and clean energy perspective, it is essential that we keep existing reactors online as long as possible. But slow demand growth in developed world markets makes ten billion dollar, sixty-year investments in future electricity demand a poor bet for utilities, investors, and ratepayers.

"Liberalized electricity markets only further exacerbate the risk associated with these investments. Conventional light-water reactors are capital intensive, long-lived infrastructure that require central planning, cheap capital, and long operating lifetimes to pay off, none of which exist in liberalized markets. Neither standardized conventional light-water designs nor regulatory reform address any of these challenges, which are in fact the central challenges that investment in new nuclear capacity faces. ..."

"Standardization and learning by doing are key requirements for sustainable nuclear economics. But those criteria alone will be insufficient to make new nuclear an economically rational option so long as they are coupled to large light-water technology. Whether Gen II or Gen III, learning by doing and economies of multiples require sufficient replication to bring declining costs. That replication is unlikely so long as the reactor in question is a 1GW, multi-billion dollar proposition, at least in the United States and Western Europe."

A radical break

The four Third Way / Breakthrough Institute authors conclude that "a radical break from the present light-water regime ... will be necessary to revive the nuclear industry". Exactly what that means, the authors said, would be the subject of a follow-up article. So readers were left hanging ‒ will nuclear power be saved by failed fast-reactor technology3, or failed high-temperature gas-cooled reactors4-6 including failed pebble-bed reactors7, or by thorium pipe-dreams8 or fusion pipe-dreams9 or molten salt reactor pipe-dreams10 or small modular reactor pipe-dreams?11,12 Perhaps we've been too quick to write off cold fusion?

The answers came in a follow-up article on February 28.13 They want a thousand flowers to bloom, a bottom-up R&D-led nuclear recovery as opposed to Shellenberger's approach, which they characterize as "a massive, state-directed consolidation of the nuclear sector in developed economies" and a "single state-sponsored nuclear behemoth [that] would deploy a single standardized light-water reactor design".

They argue against top-down, state-led innovation: "State-led development of advanced designs, bringing together large incumbent firms and scientists from national laboratories failed in United States, France, Britain, Japan, and Germany in the 60's and 70's. It will likely fail as well in Korea, China, France, and Russia today."

The authors don't just want a new reactor type (or types), they have much greater ambitions for innovation in "nuclear technology, business models, and the underlying structure of the sector" and they note that "a radical break from the light water regime that would enable this sort of innovation is not a small undertaking and will require a major reorganization of the nuclear sector."

Beyond that, the authors offer Silicon Valley-inspired gobbledegook and flapdoodle rather than anything meaningful: "[R]adical nuclear innovation must be informed by markets, end users, and modern fabrication and manufacturing methods. This is centrally a job for entrepreneurial engineers, not scientists at national laboratories, technocrats at the Department of Energy, or division heads at Westinghouse or General Electric. Public policy that empowers nuclear innovation and entrepreneurship will need to support engineers and start-ups, not direct them."

To the extent that the four authors want to tear down the existing nuclear industry and replace it with a new one, they share some common ground with nuclear critics who want to tear down the existing nuclear industry and not replace it with a new one. Shellenberger also shares some common ground with nuclear critics: he thinks the UK should scrap all existing plans for new reactors and "start from a blank piece of paper"1 whereas nuclear critics think the UK should scrap all existing plans for new reactors and not start from a blank piece of paper.

Small reactors

The four Third Way / Breakthrough Institute authors argue that nuclear power must become substantially cheaper ‒ thus ruling out large conventional reactors "operated at high atmospheric pressures, requiring enormous containment structures, multiply redundant back-up cooling systems, and water cooling towers and ponds, which account for much of the cost associated with building light-water reactors."13

Substantial cost reductions will not be possible "so long as nuclear reactors must be constructed on site one gigawatt at a time. ... At 10 MW or 100 MW, by contrast, there is ample opportunity for learning by doing and economies of multiples for several reactor classes and designs, even in the absence of rapid demand growth or geopolitical imperatives."

Other than their promotion of small reactors and their rejection of large ones, the four authors are non-specific about their preferred reactor types. Any number of small-reactor concepts have been proposed.11

We've discussed small modular reactors (SMRs) frequently in Nuclear Monitor.14 The bottom line is that there isn't the slightest chance that they will fulfil the ambition of making nuclear power "substantially cheaper" unless and until a manufacturing supply chain is established at vast expense ... and even then it's far from certain that the power would be cheaper and unlikely that it would be substantially cheaper.

As things stand, no country, company or utility has any intention of betting billions on building an SMR supply chain. The prevailing skepticism is evident in a February 2017 Lloyd's Register report based on "insights and opinions of leaders across the sector" and the views of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers. The report states that the potential contribution of SMRs "is unclear at this stage, although its impact will most likely apply to smaller grids and isolated markets."15 Respondents predicted that SMRs have a "low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive".16

An analysis of SMRs in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sums up the problems:17

"Without a clear-cut case for their advantages, it seems that small nuclear modular reactors are a solution looking for a problem. Of course in the world of digital innovation, this kind of upside-down relationship between solution and problem is pretty normal. Smart phones, Twitter, and high-definition television all began as solutions looking for problems. In the realm of nuclear technology, however, the enormous expense required to launch a new model as well as the built-in dangers of nuclear fission require a more straightforward relationship between problem and solution. Small modular nuclear reactors may be attractive, but they will not, in themselves, offer satisfactory solutions to the most pressing problems of nuclear energy: high cost, safety, and weapons proliferation."


1. Michael Shellenberger, 17 Feb 2017, 'Nuclear Industry Must Change ‒ Or Die',

2. Josh Freed, Todd Allen, Ted Nordhaus, and Jessica Lovering, 24 Feb 2017, 'Is Nuclear Too Innovative?',

3. Nuclear Monitor #831, 5 Oct 2016, 'The slow death of fast reactors',

4. Nuclear Monitor #823, 4 May 2016, 'The checkered history of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors',

5. M. V. Ramana, April 2016, 'The checkered operational history of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,

6. Matthias Englert, Friederike Frieß and M. V. Ramana, Feb 2017, 'Accident Scenarios Involving Pebble Bed High Temperature Reactors', Science & Global Security, Vol.25 Iss.1, pp.42-55,

7. Steve Thomas, 22 June 2009, 'The demise of the pebble bed modular reactor',

8. Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015, 'Thor-bores and uro-sceptics: thorium's friendly fire',

9. Fabian Schmidt, 18 Dec 2015, 'The rocky road to nuclear fusion power',

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

11. M.V. Ramana and Zia Mian, 4 Sept 2014, 'Too much to ask: why small modular reactors may not be able to solve the problems confronting nuclear power', Nuclear Monitor #790,

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

13. Josh Freed, Todd Allen, Ted Nordhaus, and Jessica Lovering, 28 Feb 2017, 'Do We Need An Airbus for Nuclear?',


15. Lloyd's Register, February 2017, 'Technology Radar – A Nuclear Perspective: Executive summary',

16. World Nuclear News, 9 Feb 2017, Nuclear more competitive than fossil fuels: report',

17. Kennette Benedict, 29 Jan 2014, 'Are small nuclear reactors the answer?',