BY JAMES PETHOKOUKIS
What would the world look like today if it were nuclear-powered? That is the intriguing “what if” scenario explored by The Economist last summer. From the piece:
In 1985 the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai announced that it had built a successful thorium reactor. Not only is thorium three times more abundant than the uranium previously used to power reactors, it is much harder to weaponise. As well as revolutionising electricity generation, the barc design triggered a shift in India’s fortunes that has led to it vying with China to challenge the United States as the world’s largest economy. BARC’s breakthrough unleashed innovations that have made nu-power stations smaller, safer and more efficient, leading to today’s neighbourhood nuclear “batteries”. As well as eliminating the use of coal, they have also steadily replaced natural gas as a source of heat and propelled the rapid development and adoption of electric vehicles, with a resulting fall in the use of oil. All of which prompted Gustaf Arrhenius, a retired researcher at the University of California, San Diego, to do a thought experiment that would probably have occurred to no one else but the grandson of Svante Arrhenius, a great Swedish chemist, who invented electrochemistry more or less single-handedly.
Of course, the Carbon Century didn’t end in the 1980s, nor might it end in this century, either. Back in 2014, well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Sam Altman was interviewed on the EconTalk podcast where he said, “I believe that the 20th century was clearly the Carbon Century. And I believe the 22nd century is going to be the Atomic Power Century. I’m very convinced of that.” Indeed, Altman was putting his money where his forecast was. At that time, he was president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, which had an investment in Helion, an experimental nuclear fusion company.
But more than six years later, as we move through the third decade of the 21st century, it sure seems like Carbon Century 2.0 — or at least it did until recently. In late August, NuScale’s small modular reactor became the first advanced nuclear reactor to be certified as safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The company has a contract to build its first plant in Utah by around 2030 or so. “NuScale and other advanced nuclear companies are hoping to transform the economics of nuclear energy,” according to the Breakthrough Institute. “Proponents anticipate smaller reactors will be easier, faster, and cheaper to build since they can be manufactured off-site and have lower operating costs.”
And then, in late September, came this blockbuster from The New York Times: “Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.”
(The advantages of nuclear fusion, according to IEEE Spectrum: “In a fusion reaction, a single gram of the hydrogen isotopes that are most commonly used could theoretically yield the same energy as 11 metric tons of coal, with helium as the only lasting by-product. As climate change accelerates and demand for electricity soars, nuclear fusion promises a zero-carbon, low-waste baseload source of power, one that is relatively clean and comes with no risk of meltdowns or weaponization. This tantalizing possibility has kept the fusion dream alive for decades.”)
But obviously, still a long way to go before America is atomic-powered, whether by advanced nuclear fission or emerging nuclear fusion. And what are the biggest obstacles moving forward? Technological? Regulatory? Both. In a 2017 report, the Breakthrough Institute highlighted a number of needed public policy steps, including licensing reform and targeted public R&D funding.
For his part, Altman thought the biggest problem was perception rather than policy, including for himself. And not much has changed. A recent Morning Consult poll found 49 percent of US adults view nuclear unfavorably (vs. 29 percent favorably), “making it the most unpopular energy source other than coal.” I would guess the recent Chernobyl mini-series on HBO didn’t help here, just as the Three Mile Island accident didn’t help back in the beleaguered sector back in 1979. In 2009’s Atom Awakening, however, nuclear engineer James Mahaffey doesn’t blame either for the sector’s coma:
The nuclear power expansion was already dead years before the TMI disaster. TMI was merely the “last nail in the coffin.” It was not the fear that plants were going to go up in mushroom clouds or that cities risked being evacuated, it was the fundamental cost of the expansion. The words of Lewis Strauss were still ringing, and civilization had not reached the point of maturity at which it could realize that we had, for as long as we could remember, been using the lowest bidder for our energy needs. Coal was not being burned because it was the cleanest way to derive electricity, or even the most convenient. Coal was being burned because it was the cheapest. Strauss had been at least partially correct when he said that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” The cost of the fuel to burn, including its mining, processing, storage, and transportation, was practically zero. A great deal of power comes from a tiny amount of nuclear fuel. The problem is the up-front capital cost of the plant itself. A coal plant is cheap to build and expensive to run. A nuclear plant is cheap to run and expensive to build. From a total expense standpoint, it is a lot better to have the expense spread out over the life of the plant as fuel costs than to pay interest on the initial build for the life of the plant. Economics is what killed the expansion, and not the TMI-2 meltdown. With the expansion stopped in 1977 due to economic realities, nuclear power went into a coma. Requests for building permits stopped. Orders for reactor units stopped. Some plants for which construction was already in progress continued to be built, but some nuclear plant building projects were abandoned, and some designs were converted to coal. Electrical power delivered in the United States by nuclear reactions stopped at 20 percent, where it has remained ever since. Nuclear power is the walking dead of energy production, neither progressing nor falling away.
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James Pethokoukis is Editor of AEIdeas and is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.