Last month, I discussed how nuclear costs (for both construction and operation) have escalated rapidly in previous decades, and I asked why we can't achieve those previous costs, by just doing what we did then. Those issues are discussed further in this post.
The political/public reaction aspect
The data presented in last month's post clearly show that the tangible impacts of rare nuclear accidents are orders of magnitude smaller than those inflicted by fossil fueled power generation. However, as the Fukushima example shows, the political and public reactions to those rare nuclear releases are far out of proportion with their actual impacts. Japan shut down all its reactors (choosing to use fossil fuels instead) and it is unclear when they will restart (or how many). Nuclear construction around the world slowed down greatly and, despite the fact that the event showed the consequences of even a worst-case meltdown even to be far smaller than we thought, additional regulations, requirements, and costs have been layered on top of the existing ones, with no discussion of trimming any requirements back.
As I've discussed in previous posts, this creates an interesting, and unfortunate, "Catch 22" situation for the industry. Due to the political repercussions of even extremely rare release events, the industry feels it must spend exorbitant sums to decrease the frequency of events to more and more negligible levels, since meltdowns may result in nuclear's demise due to lack of political support. However, it seems clear that spending those sums is rendering nuclear uncompetitive with fossil fuels and perhaps even renewables (eventually), which will clearly lead to nuclear's demise.
The way out?
In my view, the answer to this Catch 22 situation is a question of balance. It also seems clear that the course the industry is on (costs, etc.) is not sustainable.
New reactor designs feature core damage and/or release frequencies that are orders of magnitude smaller than those of current reactors. Some small modular reactor designs (e.g., NuScale) can go indefinitely with no active cooling, which dramatically reduces the probability of meltdowns (and should reduce reactor complexity). The consequences of an SMR accident should also be far smaller than those of a large plant. New nuclear fuel designs may also greatly reduce accident frequencies and consequences. These advances, along with operational lessons learned (from Fukushima, etc.) theoretically should lead to a greatly reduced severe accident frequency, with significant releases (anywhere in the world) perhaps occurring as rarely once every several centuries (or even millennia).
The question is whether that level of performance is necessary, especially if it comes at a price that is equal to, are perhaps even higher than, those of nuclear today. That is, sufficiently high that no nuclear gets built since it is the most expensive power source. I'm not suggesting that requirements be reduced so that the severe accident frequency actually increases (from its current value of once per several decades). But I am suggesting (as I have in previous posts) that the scaling back of some cost-ineffective requirements be at least considered, in an effort to reduce overall costs while maintaining a severe release frequency that is as low or perhaps still somewhat lower than today's, due to the improvements in severe accident frequency that are a feature of new designs. In other words, a trade-off between the inherent safety advantages of new designs and the reduction of some onerous, cost-ineffective regulations, QA requirements, and operational procedures. The result may be an accident frequency (and consequence level) that is sufficiently low to maintain public/political acceptance, with costs that make nuclear economically viable.
Fortunately, there are a few small examples of moves in this direction. NuScale is currently taking the position that much of the Class 1E electrical equipment used in current large plants (that is used for things like emergency diesel generators that ensure power for active cooling is available) should not be required for their modules, since the modules do not require active cooling.
This reasonable request is fine, but it is unlikely to be enough. It seems to me (personally) that for a reactor that is all but immune to meltdown (as it does not require active/forced cooling to prevent fuel melting) and would release a tiny fraction of what Fukushima did even if a meltdown were to somehow occur, few if any components or systems can really be classified as important to safety. Few should even be subject to rigorous regulatory analysis and review. It could be argued that an analysis showing that the maximum possible release (perhaps under the hypothetical scenario of a dry core) would have small to non-existent impact on public health should be the only thing submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Alternatively, reduced requirements (fab QA, etc.) for all reactor components should be explored and evaluated using Probabilistic Risk Assessment analyses, with the goal being a significant release frequency that is roughly on par with today's reactors (on a per gigawatt basis).
As is said by many 12-step programs (e.g., AA), the first step to recovery is recognizing that you have a problem. And yet, whether it's nuclear professionals who seem to think that nuclear must be perfect (instead of just orders of magnitude better than other sources) out of some misguided sense of professional pride, suppliers who happily charge several times as much for "nuclear grade" versions of the same product, or researchers who hype various "issues/problems" with current nuclear in order to justify research funding, many in the industry seem to want to continue business as usual, and deny the need for significant changes to address escalating costs. For whatever reason, the industry has done relatively little to stand up for itself and resist the ever-increasing burdens that have been (and are being) placed upon it. At times it seems like the industry has actually abetted it. Perhaps Romm is right about the industry being responsible for its negative learning curve with respect to cost.
Instead of acknowledgment of the need for change, we often hear reasons why the high costs are bearable, and that the industry will still survive. We hear arguments that, well, over the entire 60-year reactor life the overall costs will be lower (despite the fact that almost all industries require much shorter paybacks for investments). Or that continuing the reactor project is cheaper than gas from this point forward (as opposed to the entire project cost being cheaper than gas). We hear that overall costs are not too much higher, since unexpectedly low-interest rates have offset the increased raw costs (as though those low rates will last). We hear hopes that natural gas prices will come up significantly in the future, and that expensive nuclear still makes sense as a hedge against that possibility.
We also hear that the high costs of these new projects (e.g., Vogtle, Summer, and the EPR in Europe) are high because they are first of a kind, and that if we get a chance to build more copies, the costs will be lower. It could be argued, however, that these new projects were the industry's second chance, and it may be unlikely that it will be given another, in the developed world anyway. On a related note, we hear that although nuclear is going nowhere in the developed world, plants are being built in Asia, and that's good enough.
We also hear arguments that nuclear should be given credit for its non-polluting and non-CO2 emitting nature in government policies and in the power markets. That is clearly true (and is only fair), but note that most believe that all such fair policies would do is keep existing plants open, as opposed to stimulating new builds. Despite what all of us had been taught, i.e., that once built, nuclear's operating costs are far lower than other sources, now we hear that existing nukes need help to compete. How did this happen? It is partly due to policies and markets that are warped to nuclear's disadvantage but increased operating costs are a major factor.
I've been advocating nuclear in the public sphere for some time, and the most difficult issue by far to address (in debate, etc.) is the issue of escalating cost. High and increasing nuclear costs make the industry almost impossible to defend. If nuclear offered a low price similar to fossil fuels, and was not associated with increased power bills, defending it would be much easier. If the public was convinced nuclear was inexpensive, the environmental arguments could be dealt with (my experience shows), as the industry's case is strong. Nuclear opponents are starting to use the cost issue as their main line of argument. It is also becoming easier to argue that renewables will actually be cheaper than nuclear (even at high levels of renewable penetration). The public is not going to accept a nuclear role if they think that its entire role can be met by renewables at a cheaper cost.
I understand that reducing (cost ineffective) requirements will be a difficult sell, politically. Perhaps the only chance will be in the area of SMRs, where we could argue that SMRs' inherently smaller risks and potential impacts (due to small potential release and lack of need for active cooling) justify starting with a "clean slate" with respect to determining the requirements. SMRs may be the industry's last chance to fight the (necessary) battle against escalating requirements and costs. And that "battle" is happening right now. As for how it's going, the fact that NuScale seems resigned to a ~$1 billion, many year design and licensing process, for a reactor that is clearly safer than current plants, does not strike me as an encouraging sign. It may be time for the industry to try rallying what political allies it has, and have them weigh in on these issues.
Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Communications Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.