The Nuclear Option

Note: This post is about the prospect of new nuclear power in Massachusetts. It should be acknowledged that nuclear power plants in New Hampshire and Connecticut currently supply 30% of the power we depend on from the New England grid. We also import power from New York which has several nuclear plants. When those reach end of life, we will likely be set back in our transition to clean power. The loss of Pilgrim in Massachusetts in 2019 has undoubtedly led to an increase in our emissions, although that is not yet reflected in available statistics.

Within the next few decades, we can hope that new next generation nuclear power plants will become an increasingly important source of safe, clean and reliable electric power. However, from a state policy perspective, our practical focus for new generation has to be on other forms of clean power.

Public opinion is divided about nuclear power. Many remember Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima and have deep concerns for operational safety. Many have concerns about diversion of nuclear fuel to terrorist or rogue states. Many have concerns about hazardous spent nuclear fuel.

There is a persuasive case that the climate benefits of nuclear power outweigh those risks especially as to newer nuclear technologies. But we need not attempt to sort through those legitimate concerns, because even if there were public support for bringing nuclear power back to Massachusetts, there is no immediate action that the state could take toward that end.

Cost Competitiveness of the Nuclear Industry

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses and oversees nuclear power plants in the United States. As of January 2021, there were 95 commercial nuclear power plants currently operating in the United States (list downloaded on May 1, 2021 from the NRC Datasets page). All of these plants were licensed for construction before 1979, the year that the Three Mile Island plant partially melted down.

In the wake of Three Mile Island, the NRC imposed a number of changes in how nuclear plants are designed, built and operated. These changes raised construction costs. Both the median costs and the median duration of construction more than doubled for plants that were completed after Three Mile Island as compared to plants that received their operating licenses before the incident. According to the World Nuclear Association, the incident “was a major cause of the decline in nuclear construction through the 1980s and 1990s.” The 1986 melt down of Chernobyl further damaged the industry. Globally, new construction starts peaked in 1976 and have never again reached their 1985 pre-Chernobyl level. IAEA, Nuclear Power Reactors in the World (2019), Figure 6.

While Three Mile Island and Chernobyl damaged the industry, many negative trends for the industry had already begun to emerge before the incidents:

  • Slowing growth for electricity demand in the 70s (not the expectation today, as we electrify heating and vehicles)
  • High interest rates — especially damaging to projects with high upfront costs (not the case today)
  • Bad track record of project design and management leading to cost escalation (still a problem with recent projects)
  • Rise of non-utility generators and shifting of project risk from utility rate-payers to investors (still the case today)
  • Well publicized safety failures (bad memories refreshed by Fukushima)

Including the period before and after Three Mile Island [1960-2010], more than half of all reactors ordered were subsequently canceled. Tellingly, fully 40 percent of these cancellations happened before the accident—that is, the headwinds for the nuclear industry had already been blowing hard.

Three Mile Island: The driver of US nuclear power’s decline?

Construction management challenges have continued as new construction of nuclear power plants has resumed in the United States following the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The World Nuclear Association says that the Energy Policy Act provided “much-needed stimulus for investment in electricity infrastructure including nuclear power.” Yet, today, there are only two nuclear plants under construction in the United States and they are part of a single “third generationproject in Georgia. That project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns leading to the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the primary contractor. Also contributing to that bankruptcy was a South Carolina nuclear project that was started and cancelled after overruns. Twenty six other projects were proposed post-2005, of which 18 have been suspended or cancelled while 8 remain in proposal or planning stages.

Toshiba’s statement withdrawing from a South Texas reactor project in 2018 demonstrates industry recognition of huge construction cost risk. Toshiba said its withdrawal was consistent with its basic policy “to eliminate risk from the overseas nuclear power business, particularly from construction-related cost overruns in nuclear power plant construction projects.” Nuclear plant construction management challenges are not unique to the United States. Although the United States has more nuclear generating capacity than any other country, France is the country with the highest share of its power produced by nuclear plants. The leading French nuclear manufacturer has recently faced financial restructuring after difficulty completing a reactor for Finland.

With natural gas prices low since 2009 as a result of shale gas, some already existing nuclear plants are too expensive to compete. Since 2013, ten nuclear plants have been prematurely retired, including the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts.

The basic problem is low natural gas prices allowing gas-fired plants to undercut power prices. A second problem is the federal production tax credit of $23/MWh paid to wind generators, coupled with their priority access to the grid. When there is oversupply, wind output is taken preferentially. Capacity payments can offset losses to some extent, but where market prices are around $35-$40/MWh, nuclear plants are struggling. According to Exelon, the main operator of merchant plants and a strong supporter of competitive wholesale electricity markets, low prices due to gas competition are survivable, but the subsidized wind is not. Although wind is a very small part of the supply, and is limited or unavailable most of the time, it has a major effect on electricity prices and the viability of base-load generators. [Recovery of huge nuclear capital investments depends on selling all the power the plants are capable of producing. When wind power is given priority access to the grid, then nuclear power plants may not be able to consistently run at capacity.]

World Nuclear Association.

Uncertain Outlook for Nuclear Power

The Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook forecasts no nuclear capacity additions through 2050 as the value to cost ratio of natural gas plants is much higher than that for nuclear power plants. Similarly, the World Nuclear Association states that “Nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels [emphasis added].”

From a climate perspective, we should all hope that clean nuclear power becomes cost-competitive more quickly. Third generation nuclear plays a role in all four decarbonization scenarios developed by the well-respected Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. Similarly, the International Panel on Climate Change, in its 2018 Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, considered alternative pathways to limiting warming and found that:

Nuclear power increases its share in most 1.5°C pathways with no or limited overshoot by 2050, . . .

Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, Section 2.4.2.1. (references omitted).

The World Nuclear Association heralded the IPCC report as an endorsement of the need for expanded nuclear power, but the IPCC report is more fairly read as balancing hope and uncertainty. The quotation above continues:

. . . but in some pathways both the absolute capacity and share of power from nuclear generators decrease. There are large differences in nuclear power between models and across pathways. One of the reasons for this variation is that the future deployment of nuclear can be constrained by societal preferences assumed in narratives underlying the pathways.

Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, Section 2.4.2.1. (references omitted).

In its direct comments on nuclear power the IPCC report finds that:

Costs of nuclear power have increased over time in some developed nations, principally due to market conditions where increased investment risks of high-capital expenditure technologies have become significant. ‘Learning by doing’ processes often failed to compensate for this trend because they were slowed down by the absence of standardization and series effects. What the costs of nuclear power are and have been is debated in the literature.

Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, Section 4.3.1.3 (references omitted).

A rigorous review of real world cost variation of nuclear plants emphasizes continuing uncertainty as to their economic viability:

While reactor designs have been standardized, licensing procedures have been streamlined, and construction management techniques are much more sophisticated than before, some old problems remain, and new ones may emerge. The policy and design changes represented by Gen III+ and Gen IV reactors do represent improvements over the current fleet, but the interlinked issues of reactor scale, customization of site-built technologies, slow electricity demand growth, intense competition from other energy sources, deregulated electricity markets, slow speed of industry learning, nuclear waste disposal, terrorism, and proliferation remain potential impediments to the cost competitiveness of next-generation nuclear power in the 21st century.

A reactor-level analysis of busbar costs for US nuclear plants, 1970–2005 (2007)

The hopeful news is that there is plenty of money flowing into developing reactor technology that may take us beyond the expensive, hard-to-manage, often unsafe nuclear projects of the past. Companies working on “fourth generation” technology include:

  • Terrapower — developing three distinct new reactor technologies
  • Kairos Power — focused on a salt-cooled high temperature reactor intended to be cheaper than natural gas
  • NuScale — small modular reactor design has received NRC approval
  • X-Energy — high temperature reactor using enclosed uranium pellets
  • Holtec — diversified nuclear industry products including small nuclear reactors
  • Oklo — startup developing small scale nuclear reactor

Nuclear Power in Massachusetts

Market conditions do not favor new third generation nuclear power generation in Massachusetts any more than they do elsewhere in the United States. Two realities combine to make new nuclear power construction non-viable in Massachusetts:

  • Availability of cheap natural gas;
  • Power sector regulation that places the risk of investing in new generating capacity on the investors.

Nuclear power is even further disadvantaged by Massachusetts policy commitments to supporting wind power development, including prioritization of wind generation on the grid (which might prevent a nuclear plant from consistently achieving the high utilization needed to pay for its construction).

Theoretically, it would possible to foster one or more nuclear projects in Massachusetts by putting the construction and utilization risks on ratepayers. However, among the many other states that have recently considered that approach, only Georgia is currently building a plant and Georgia has had a very rough ride, as noted above. In any event, it would be near impossible to site a nuclear plant (with current technology) in Massachusetts — that is the analytic assumption in the Massachusetts pathways analysis (see note 28).

Massachusetts is hoping to decarbonize electricity generation using wind, solar and hydro power. It is fair to question whether we will actually be able to site enough wind and solar to meet the growing demand for power as we electrify vehicles and buildings. The pathways analysis does include a scenario in which wind development is constrained and in that scenario, nuclear power does become economically viable. But we have a long way to go before we start to hit limits on wind and solar. It makes most sense to move forward on our wind and solar plans for the next five years or so and be prepared to develop a nuclear power strategy if renewables expansion looks like it is topping out and/or if nuclear becomes much more attractive.

The role of nurturing, evaluating and approving fourth generation nuclear technologies falls to the federal government, in particular the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The nuclear industry is actively advocating for itself at the federal level. State legislators in Massachusetts don’t hear anything from the nuclear industry, consistent with the perspective adopted in this post: Progress needs to occur at the national level between the national regulator and the industry before there is much we can do here.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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29 Comments

  1. What is Massachusetts doing to foster research and startups for next generation Nuclear? Even if we don’t build at scale with the concentration of companies and universities Massachusetts can be at the forefront of research. Can the state maybe reach out to researchers and companies in the space and help fund a collaborative type initiative for Nuclear research? For example something similar to Hack/reduce https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hack/Reduce. In addition to cash are there any state facilities that could be used to help foster this type of research?

    1. A fair question. My anecdotal sense is that the energy research money flow is from the federal government and that, by contrast to biotech, there has been no engagement of the nuclear research community with the state to suggest useful ways we could support them. I’m open to hearing that pitch.

      1. Agreed that the federal government needs to be a driver of this. One thing I would maybe the state can reach out to contacts in Academia and in the VC community and find out what help the state can provide aside from trying to get more funding.

  2. Forty years ago my father suggested that one way of clarifying the risks and real costs of the option would be to require all nuclear plant operators to buy insurance on the private market.

      1. What about the cost of the endless lawsuits that activists bring against nuclear companies out of fear rather than fact – could that also be major reason that almost nothing is being built?

        What don’t we apply a similar free-market approach to solar and wind by removing all government subsidies from the renewable sector and see how long that industry lasts?

  3. I’m reading in “Power” magazine that the first nuclear fusion reactors could come online in the 2030’s. The joke being that fusion is always 30 years away… Renewables
    can help transition us to an electric economy. Would the public of the 2030’s come around to something that sounds “nuclear”, but does not have the long term waste storage issues, and is a less dangerous target for terrorists? Or will we prefer the more traditional power sources including wind, hydro, and solar because they are more ‘mechanical’, and less dependent on the scientific priesthood?

  4. Final exam question #1:

    – It’s nighttime.
    – Temperatures are hovering in the low 20’s.
    – Snow is falling steadily.
    – The wind has dropped to a variable 5-10 MPH.
    – Composite generating output from Solar + Wind is now…”Gross Zero”.
    – Seabrook is shut down.
    – Fracking has been banned, so no Nat Gas is available
    – We are assuming the voters do not want to freeze in the dark.
    – Amazon is not delivering electricity.

    Question: for the next 12-24 hours, where will our “net zero” power come from?

    You may use extra sheets for your answer. Please point to real production numbers to reach some 15 GW.

    1. 🙂 🙂
      Are there lifelines? Can we call a friend 🙂

      Well-written and agree with your point.

    2. That is certainly the right question. The easiest answer is to preserve our existing nuclear capacity as long as we can and also some fossil generating capacity — gas or petroleum. Using gas or petroleum a few days a year is a not necessarily inconsistent with our climate goals.

      1. Will…I suggest you have to back up the “few days/year” number. It is night, every single night, longer in winter. As a sailor I think you will have a low/zero output wind days a minimum once/week. Look outside right now…less 10 MPH…same for 24 hours beginning at midnight tonight. Under those conditions, 100% of our power has to come from somewhere else, for many hours and days, not some minor supplement. And, we are talking of greatly expanding output to cover e-cars, trucks, heating, cooling, manufacturing, cooking…we need greatly MORE, not just stretching out of the life cycle of current resources. Let’s get real. Let’s be honest with ourselves. So far all we are doing is increasing our dependence on the frackers (who we then relentlessly malign). Wind+solar cannot base the grid without massive additional resources that must be accounted for in the plan, up front. These things take time. Please further note that we just recently shut down 750+ windmill equivalents at Pilgrim. We have no nuclear in MA. Maine, New Hampshire, VT, Quebec will have needs also.

    3. I have installed wood-burning stoves and thoroughly enjoy the radiant heat and mesmerizing flames. Granted, it does release particulate matter and carbon, but it sure is nice in the scenario you describe.

  5. Well I’d like to see more rigorous data comparing nuclear impact (including accidents and their probablities) against waste generated by non-recyclable parts from wind turbines, old solar panels, and also against people whose water supply is polluted by fracking.

    Nuclear is scary thanks to, well, 3 high-profile accidents. But I would like to see hard data. I wouldn’t be surprised if actual stats are counter-intuitive.

  6. Thank you for this extremely in-depth followup! I still think nuclear has promise, but you’ve convinced me that the time may not be now.

  7. As a ratepayer, no, I do not want to assume risk against the cost of building nuclear plants. Obviously if wealthy investors are wary, I should be too. The risks are still too great. I believe the real solution is rethinking the grid to make electricity generation more local. This way, ratepayers all have equal investment. I guess I’m talking about state and government control of electricity. I guess I’m fed up with capitalism! It doesn’t always bring innovation unless it can promise to make a few people very rich.

    1. More local generation is definitely one of the pathways that makes sense, somewhat dependent on battery improvement. But either way, it’s hard to get capitalism out of it. Every energy source depends on either the extractive capacity or the manufacturing capacity of large organizations.

    2. Local sounds good, but it would actually be better to site a lot of the energy generation far away, where they have the resource and the available land e.g. solar panels in Arizona, windmills in Kansas, hydropower in Quebec. Also, spreading out the renewables generation helps hedge against the rare day when it is not windy in Massachusetts. So locally what we’ll need to squeeze in are more electric wires to bring the energy to us in crowded cloudy New England.

  8. Nuclear power as a solution to meet our clean energy needs will not be an option as long as safe containment of spent fuel for thousands of years is a necessity. We’ve not solved the technical problems. Until we do, further investment is a foolish option that only creates grave risks for future generations.

  9. While creating a new site for a nuclear plant would be even more difficult than siting all the windmills, solar panels, and new electric transmission lines and substations, we should should preserve/re-use the existing nuclear site in Massachussetts (Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant near Plymouth, stopped producing power in 2019), and encourage New Hampshire to keep Seabrook operating. Probably it makes sense to connect the many off-shore windmills to built near the Cape to the Pilgrim site, which can handle the electrical equipment, and already has high power transmission lines connected to the rest of the state. If the state should decide it does want to build a new nuclear power plant, the most logical place to locate it would be at the Pilgrim site. So keeping that site available as an option for future electricity generation / infrastructure would be a wise choice.

  10. How many Chernobyl’s, Fukushimas, and would have to occur each year to match the direct morbidity and mortality of a year of burning coal? (Not to mention input to global warming)

    Granted waste storage and excluded land is a problem.

  11. I personally believe that investments in nuclear power should be part of the solution to Global Warming from a risk management point of view, including the reliability and resiliency of generating capacity. But different nuclear reactors than those which are currently operating will be needed to address and resolve the issues that, as several commentators have emphasized, justifiably stand in the way of nuclear energy development, namely cost, safety and the handling or radioactive waste. On the political side I am struck by the fact that some acts in recent years directed at nuclear research and waste management actually received support from Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress in 2018 and 2019, contrary to the impression one might have that any initiative that involved consideration of science and attention to knowledgeable experts would automatically be taboo to a large majority of the former.

    A number of new reactors with different technologies and designs are being planned and developed, the first installations of some of which may begin operation by the end of this decade. I will not go into the list of those I am aware of here, and their respective pros and cons. They include designs that promise to substantially reduce the costs and waste management challenges and alleviate safety concerns associated with current generations of nuclear reactors. I think we would be foolish not to pursue these avenues as one potential contribution to achieving and maintaining reliable zero carbon electricity generation in the long term, although, or actually precisely because they will only foreseeably become available on a significant scale in the long term. If we stop now, we will effectively have given up on this opportunity. If an effort will take a long time to come to fruition, then it is urgent not to delay embarking or continuing along the path to bring it to fruition. Nuclear power would be a valuable source of zer carbon obaseload power in conjunction with fluctuating renewable sources. It also offers a capability that wind and solar generation does not. it is difficult for renewable energy to muster the intense heat needed in industrial processes, such as steel and cement production. These kinds of industrial processes currently account for an estimated 10 percent of global emissions. Use of a non-carbon emitting energy source to fuel them, in the form of smaller or modular nuclear reactors, will make another contribution to reducing the overall level of these emissions.

  12. Will, this is very impressive and honest analysis.
    It is possible that in long run we won’t need nuclear power. This can only happen if renewable sources supply the baseload power. This could happen if these sources convert the output of their current production into a renewable fuel (green ammonia, hydrogen) and use/sell the fuel for generation of the baseload energy. Obviously, such generation of green fuels is an additional investment, with its own risks and a wind turbine owner/operator won’t be interested, especially given the fact that the energy they are currently producing is bought at a huge premium. Therefore, we need the government (not sure if the state government can do much) to step in and create a sustainable energy contribution scheme so that the much needed baseload producers are not getting killed in an unfair competition. Given such competition, there will be a push to abolish the nuclear and create mini – natural gas power stations to satisfy the baseload requirements and we know that such stations are great emitters of greenhouses.

  13. Thank you Will. We need nuclear power, especially small plants such as those from NuScale, Holtec and Oklo. The nuclear waste issue still needs to be resolved, but has anyone seriously evaluated the battery waste issue? Batteries have limited lives and their own disposal problems.

    Nuclear also has the potential to provide green hydrogen, which appears to be a fuel forgotten in Massachusetts. See https://oilprice.com/Alternative-Energy/Fuel-Cells/The-Nuclear-Option-For-Hydrogen.html Hydrogen has an important role to play in trucking, busing, air travel and shipping (at least the rest of the world thinks so.) See https://www.ft.com/content/d459cd7d-6eb6-4ee8-8b47-22f164c0536c

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