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Opinion | The Fantasy of Reviving Nuclear Energy

BusinessOpinion | The Fantasy of Reviving Nuclear Energy

World leaders are not unaware of the nuclear industry’s long history of failing to deliver on its promises, or of its weakening vital signs. Yet many continue to act as if a “nuclear renaissance” could be around the corner even though nuclear energy’s share of global electricity generation has fallen by almost half from its high of roughly 17 percent in 1996.

In search of that revival, representatives from more than 30 countries gathered in Brussels in March at a nuclear summit hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Belgian government. Thirty-four nations, including the United States and China, agreed “to work to fully unlock the potential of nuclear energy,” including extending the lifetime of existing reactors, building new nuclear power plants and deploying advanced reactors.

Yet even as they did so, there was an acknowledgment of the difficulty of their undertaking. “Nuclear technology can play an important role in the clean energy transition,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, told summit attendees. But she added that “the reality today, in most markets, is a reality of a slow but steady decline in market share” for nuclear power.

The numbers underscore that downturn. Solar and wind power together began outperforming nuclear power globally in 2021, and that trend continues as nuclear staggers along. Solar alone added more than 400 gigawatts of capacity worldwide last year, two-thirds more than the previous year. That’s more than the roughly 375 gigawatts of combined capacity of the world’s 415 nuclear reactors, which remained relatively unchanged last year. At the same time, investment in energy storage technology is rapidly accelerating. In 2023, BloombergNEF reported that investors for the first time put more money into stationary energy storage than they did into nuclear.

Still, the drumbeat for nuclear power has become pronounced. At the United Nations climate conference in Dubai in December, the Biden administration persuaded two dozen countries to pledge to triple their nuclear energy capacity by 2050. Those countries included allies of the United States with troubled nuclear programs, most notably France, Britain, Japan and South Korea, whose nuclear bureaucracies will be propped up by the declaration as well as the domestic nuclear industries they are trying to save.

“We are not making the argument to anybody that this is absolutely going to be a sweeping alternative to every other energy source,” John Kerry, the Biden administration climate envoy at the time, said. “But we know because the science and the reality of facts and evidence tell us that you can’t get to net zero 2050 without some nuclear.”

That view has gained traction with energy planners in Eastern Europe who see nuclear as a means of replacing coal, and several countries — including Canada, Sweden, Britain and France — are pushing to extend the operating lifetimes of existing nuclear plants or build new ones. Some see smaller or more “advanced” reactors as a means of providing electricity in remote areas or as a means of decarbonizing sectors such as heat, industry or transportation.

So far most of this remains in early stages, with only three nuclear reactors under construction in Western Europe, two in Britain and one in France, each more than a decade behind schedule. Of the approximately 54 other reactors under construction worldwide as of March, 23 are in China, seven are in India, and three are in Russia, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The total is less than a quarter of the 234 reactors under construction in the peak year of 1979, although 48 of those were later suspended or abandoned.

Even if you agree with Mr. Kerry’s argument, and many energy experts do not, pledging to triple nuclear capacity by 2050 is a little like promising to win the lottery. For the United States, it would mean adding an additional 200 gigawatts of nuclear operating capacity (almost double what the country has ever built) to the 100 gigawatts or so that now exists, generated by more than 90 commercial reactors that have been running an average of 42 years. Globally it would mean tripling the existing capacity built over the past 70 years in less than half that time in addition to replacing reactors that will shut down before 2050.

The Energy Department estimates the total cost of such an effort in the United States at roughly $700 billion. But David Schlissel, a director at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, has calculated that the two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia — the only new reactors built in the United States in a generation — on average, cost $21.2 million per megawatt in today’s dollars — which translates to $21.2 billion per gigawatt. Using that figure as a yardstick, the cost of building 200 gigawatts of new capacity would be far higher: at least $4 trillion, or $6 trillion if you count the additional cost of replacing existing reactors as they age out.

For much less money and in less time, the world can reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of renewables like solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal power, and by transmitting, storing and using electricity more efficiently. A recent analysis by the German Environment Agency examined multiple global climate scenarios in which Paris Climate Agreement targets are met, and it found that renewable energy “is the crucial and primary driver.”

The logic of this approach was attested to at the climate meeting in Dubai, where more than 120 countries signed a more realistic commitment to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.

There’s a certain inevitability about the U.S. Energy Department’s latest push for more nuclear energy. The agency’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, brought us Atoms for Peace under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s in a bid to develop the “peaceful” side of the atom, hoping it would gain public acceptance of an expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons while supplying electricity “too cheap to meter.”

Fast forward 70 years and you hear a variation on the same theme. Most notably, Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary under President Barack Obama, argues that a vibrant commercial nuclear sector is necessary to sustain U.S. influence in nuclear weapons nonproliferation efforts and global strategic stability. As a policy driver, this argument might explain in part why the government continues to push nuclear power as a climate solution, despite its enormous cost and lengthy delivery time.

China and Russia are conspicuously absent from the list of signatories to the Dubai pledge to triple nuclear power, although China signed the declaration in Brussels. China’s nuclear program is growing faster than that of any other country, and Russia dominates the global export market for reactors with projects in countries new to commercial nuclear energy, such as Turkey, Egypt and Bangladesh, as well as Iran.

Pledges and declarations on a global stage allow world leaders a platform to be seen to be doing something to address climate change even if, as is the case with nuclear, they lack the financing and infrastructure to succeed. But their support most likely means that substantial sums of money — much of it from taxpayers and ratepayers — will be wasted on perpetuating the fantasy that nuclear energy will make a difference in a meaningful time frame to slow global warming.

The U.S. government is already poised to spend billions of dollars building new small modular and “advanced” reactors and keeping aging large ones running. But two such small reactor projects based on conventional technologies have already failed. Which raises the question: Will future projects based on far more complex technologies be more viable? Money for such projects — provided mainly under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act — could be redirected in ways that do more for the climate and do it faster, particularly if planned new nuclear projects fail to materialize.

There is already enough potential generation capacity in the United States seeking access to the grid to come close to achieving President Biden’s 2035 goal of a zero-carbon electricity sector, and 95 percent of it is solar, battery storage and wind. But these projects face a hugely constrained transmission system, regulatory and financial roadblocks and entrenched utility interests, enough to prevent many of them from ever providing electricity, according to a report released last year by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Even so, existing transmission capacity can be doubled by retrofitting transmission lines with advanced conductors, which would offer at least a partial way out of the gridlock for renewables, in addition to storage, localized distribution and improved management of supply and demand.

What’s missing are leaders willing to buck their own powerful nuclear bureaucracies and choose paths that are far cheaper, less dangerous and quicker to deploy. Without them we are doomed to more promises and wasteful spending by nuclear proponents who have repeatedly shown that they can talk but can’t deliver.

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