12 December 2021

The Roots of Progress: “Why has nuclear power been a flop?”

Excessive concern about low levels of radiation led to a regulatory standard known as ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable. What defines “reasonable”? It is an ever-tightening standard. As long as the costs of nuclear plant construction and operation are in the ballpark of other modes of power, then they are reasonable.

This might seem like a sensible approach, until you realize that it eliminates, by definition, any chance for nuclear power to be cheaper than its competition. Nuclear can’t even innovate its way out of this predicament: under ALARA, any technology, any operational improvement, anything that reduces costs, simply gives the regulator more room and more excuse to push for more stringent safety requirements, until the cost once again rises to make nuclear just a bit more expensive than everything else. Actually, it’s worse than that: it essentially says that if nuclear becomes cheap, then the regulators have not done their job.

Further, the NRC does not benefit when power plants come online. Their budget does not increase proportional to gigawatts generated. Instead, the nuclear companies themselves pay the NRC for the time they spend reviewing applications, at something close to $300 an hour. This creates a perverse incentive: the more overhead, the more delays, the more revenue for the agency.

The result: the NRC approval process now takes several years and costs literally hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jason Crawford

Complaining about excessive regulation stifling innovation has been a favorite refrain of the tech industry for years, but this story about nuclear power exemplifies how excessive regulation actually looks like. As I was reading it, I was tempted to attribute these exaggerated safety concerns to public fears resulting from nuclear plant accidents such as Chernobyl – except these standards were implemented a decade earlier than Chernobyl, so perhaps the negative perception around nuclear stems from its association with nuclear arsenal and the constant threat of nuclear conflict during the Cold War. Safety regulations are certainly necessary in an area as sensitive as nuclear, both regarding the ongoing operation of reactors and for waste disposal, but they shouldn’t be so overbearing by design that they drive up the costs of nuclear power and prevent it from becoming an economic alternative to fossil fuels.

Chart of regional distribution of electricity consumption
Devanney Fig 1.3: Regional distribution of electricity consumption

As the global need for low carbon energy increases, fortunately countries are starting to consider nuclear power as a viable alternative again. China is working on molten-salt thorium-fueled nuclear reactors, which should be safer from meltdowns because it is using molten salts for cooling instead of water, and could remain a viable energy source for longer, as thorium is more abundant in nature compared to uranium. France is planning to shift priorities to smaller, more modular reactors that should be faster to construct and safer to operate, and several European countries have taken an interest in nuclear power after this autumn’s rises in gas prices. Expanding nuclear capacity takes a long time though, so we are not going to see the fruits of these efforts until the end of the decade most likely.

Post a Comment