Hardly a day goes by without somebody on social media sternly reminding me that we desperately need nuclear power in order to fight climate change. I’m always tempted to respond that I agree, but only if they happen to have a time machine — because, if you really wanted to fight climate change and stop runaway global warming with nukes you should have started building 20 years ago. We’re too late.
Of course, I don’t actually bother responding, since one cannot dissuade a true believer. And one can only stomach so many lectures about the incredible safety record of nuclear power. The safety argument comes to the fore, because so many people think atomic energy isn’t safe. They’re wrong, but the underlying argument is only so much theater.
Large numbers of people would like to stop fracking, and they have plenty of good reasons for it. Fracking causes earthquakes and contaminates groundwater. It wastes huge amounts of fresh water. Its continued use makes petroleum less expensive, which encourages the use of carbon-generating gasoline and diesel fuel.
It’s dangerous. Yet, despite all of the protests and no matter how many videos we see with people setting their tap water on fire, fracking continues.
The same goes for coal-fired power plants. Ditto for pipelines. Nobody wants coal burning in their backyards. So, naturally, we build them in poor areas. We run the pipelines through Native American burial grounds so as not to disturb nice, clean white people in the suburbs.
The myth that nuclear power’s decline in the US came about because of the fears of an irrational public continues to persist. However, if the “bewildered herd” had any real influence, fracking would certainly cease. And truth be told, the only reason coal is finally dying has everything to do with economics.
Two recent news stories will serve to demonstrate what’s really going on. First, I would direct your attention to these news items: “U.S. Nuclear Comeback Stalls as Two Reactors Are Abandoned” (NYT) and “A Dissenter’s Tale of South Carolina’s Nuclear Project Fiasco” (ENR). The short story is that the South Carolina nuclear project at Jenkinsville failed to make it to the halfway point of construction. This failure drove Westinghouse into bankruptcy. And finally, consumers had to pay for most of it, since in our country, profits are private and losses are public.
Here is the key point:
Because they do not generate carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear plants are often seen as a useful tool in battling climate change. Yet in the United States, few utilities today are willing to incur the risk that comes with building massive new reactors, preferring to stick with cheaper natural gas plants and smaller wind and solar farms. (NYT, 2017-07-31)
Nuclear projects are enormous and expensive. As a result, they require public and private investment. Private firms would prefer to avoid the risk of catastrophic failure on massive projects that take many years to complete.
Nuclear projects need huge amounts of resources, including the brainpower to manage, control, build, and maintain some of the most complex technology humankind has ever created. The AP1000 reactor is one of the most ingenious hunks of engineering ever built, and its safety is unsurpassed. But, like so many things in the nuclear industry, their construction costs continue to rise. Delays are the norm, making it nearly impossible to tell how much they will finally cost and when they will come online. That’s why China appears to have given up on them.
When you cannot calculate true final costs or accurately predict the schedule of construction, then, logically, you can’t get a real handle on the amount of risk involved. This is the real reason nuclear power can’t seem to get traction here. Safety comes at a price.
The second story comes from my home state of Ohio, where dirty money helped bail out “clean power.” See “Ohio Nuclear Energy Company Gets $1.1 Billion Bailout.” Simply put, the Ohio legislature had no interest in propping up a failing industry. So the industry went out an bought a new one [i.e., a new legislature]. It was a good investment. For a measly $30 million, they received $1.1 billion in return.
This is what the propaganda blitz is all about. Instead of viewing nuclear power as a hugely expensive burden, a technology whose time has come and gone, we’re supposed to reclassify it as “green technology” that will help us fight climate change. That’s a farce. And the industry knows it.
We will not see an uptick in new plant construction. Nobody wants to foot the bill. And besides, climate change is here now. We can’t wait for them to be built, and we can’t risk another project failure.
As the costs of running old atomic plants continue to rise, the industry will continue to use their lobbying clout to force the public to pay for it. And when the plants reach their natural end of life, the industry will lobby for those lives to be extended, or they will force the public to pay all decommissioning costs.
Can we stop any of this? Probably not. Money talks, and the nuclear industry has a lot to say. And sadly, many of my friends who consider themselves science nerds and climate warriors have bought into their “green power” fairy tales.
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30 thoughts on “Nuclear Power: What’s Behind the Latest Propaganda Blitz?”
OK, I decide to build a power plant. I have access to enough money that cost is no object, except I would rather pay for land acquisition, engineering, and actual construction than pay anything to lawyers. Can anyone give me, as a percentage of total project cost, the historically average cost of permits and other legal expenses for nuclear vs. fossil fuel?
You may find the following article from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists useful. They are far more optimistic and nuke-friendly than I am.
Just out of curiosity, would you accept the typical 12.5% discount from the government for your private project?
OP: “stick with cheaper natural gas plants and smaller wind and solar farms”
I thing of beauty: “Jenbacher J920 Flextra Gas Engine | GE Power”. YouTube.
Maintenance is quick and easy, put one in your hospital, hotel, etc and cogen the heat for hot water & heating.
Current motivations for energy demand, increased technologies and inflating prices are spearheaded by the financial oligarchs of the world.
Nuclear energy is not really safe … and requires fossil fuel as back up anyway. The media hush on melt downs is verging conspiratorial and alternative fuel technologies are being put to the side as afterthoughts.
As a seasoned professional in the Oil and Gas industry, take it from me very little is ‘safe’ – for us or the environment. I’ve recently drafted a paper (unpublished) that Sustainability as a concept is a poor reaction to climate change. The term underpins the need to continue consuming and to continue progressing in technologies – I don’t know like a type of virtual ziggurat – we want to metaphorically (and possibly literally) reach for the stars and commune with God – our thirst for building high – is going to result in the curse of Tower of Babel for us – so I assert.
On climate change – the only effective way to deal with this matter in the 11th hour is to switch off. We need to stop consuming. We need to give the Earth a pause. We need to learn to consume less – much less than we think we need. We need to become harmonious with the environment around us and stop trying to invent things that can be weaponised. It is possible to use the principles of engineering and technology to not just reduce our footprint, but rather to turn it around completely and start to live more symbiotically with the natural world around us.
However, the motivations of the ultra-capitalists will prevent this reasonable and logical solution. They will want to stretch out the current lifestyle as long as possible. And they will have the means to temporarily escape this world if it goes to pot – leaving us poorer members behind Mad Max style – They then can choose their time to re-patriotise the planet.
This is kind of lame, I know, but I’m watching the new Dark Crystal series on Netflix and I think its an allegory for this very condition that we are in. Now, of course the Dark Crystal movie ends with a simple solution, one that we won’t actually have (restore the crystal), but the new series I think is much more about what’s happening now. The world is dominated by a small band of Skeksis, who have the power and dominate the other beings of the planet. The crystal is corrupted, resulting in global decay. The Skeksis want immortality and to remain in power at any cost. They rule over the Gelfling and are starting to drain them of their essence to feed their immortality. Ultimately the way of the Skeksis will lead to global destruction and their own demise, but for now they do all they can to remain in power and pursue immortality.
OMG – I’ve started to watch the series too … Only after I rewatched the Dark Crystal movie recently. It was the first movie I saw in a cinema. I think I was six or seven years old.
But I never thought it could be applied to our current condition … and I think you are right … Glad there are other people who are thinking this …
Parrellism? How odd.
YOU give up using electricity for your home and your family.
Don’t use the Passive Aggressive First Person Plural. Not on me. Not on American voters. Not even on the people reading this site.
Just tell us all what you mean: proles freeze in the dark isolated in their Indian reservations, important people like yourself get to keep posting here.
This old argument… The whole issue is that voluntary self-sacrifice doesn’t work. No one does it and no one will because we all know that one person doing something is meaningless.
Even if I live off the grid and live like the Amish it will do nothing to solve the problems, that’s why collective action through enforced regulations and systemic change is required. Yes, for some things, we all have to adopt rules in order for them to work. Just like traffic rules.
If you are the only person who obeys traffic rules then obeying the rules is pointless. If everyone drives all over the road, on any side or down the middle, no one obeys stop signs or traffic lights or speed limits, then you choosing to do so yourself will do nothing to make you safer or improve road conditions. It’s only when there is enforcement and almost universal adoption of the rules that the rules have any effect at improving safety and actually making travel easier for everyone.
Exactly! By the same token, saving the oceans one starfish at a time, however well intended, will not work unless the overall effort is significant enough to make a real difference.
Given correct decisions and implementation, the solution could require minimal “sacrifice”.
Potholer54 (real name Peter Hadfield) has been a journalist for over 20 years, 14 years as a science correspondent, and holds a geology degree:
• “A CONSERVATIVE solution to global warming (Part 1)”.
• “A conservative solution to climate change – part 2”. YouTube. potholer54.
The reality that no one wants to face is that what is needed right now are sharp cuts in consumption and power usage, and it can’t be voluntary stuff that comes from environmentalists who want to do their part, we need real top-down re-engineering of the global economy. Sadly, our societies aren’t up to it. The best possible examples, like the Nordic countries and Japan cant even bring themselves to do what needs to be done, much less countries like America, and when it comes to the international cooperation that’s needed its an even bigger disaster.
But systems re-engineering is critical here. The whole American mindset is insanity. I’m not an Andrew Yang supporter, but he’s got the right general idea when it comes to climate change. We need big action.
When I say systems re-engineering what I’m talking about is conscious systemic design of things like supply chains, packaging, disposal, labor markets, etc. Doing those things will help us reduce how much we really need to cut in terms of consumption, but we also need to look at rationing and taxation as means to start directing the reduction of consumption and use of the most damaging goods and practices to the environment.
And so much of this is far beyond even the possibility of control of the “consumer”, because its impossible for consumers, even if they wanted to, to understand the impacts of their choices.
The whole recycling debacle is a good example of why even the best intentions are useless. For the past 20 years people have increasingly recycled in the US, only to ultimately end up creating more environmental problems than helping. That’s because so much recycling in the US was done so poorly by those managing it. They bundled up what was actually un-recyclable garbage and shipped it to China (yes, shipping tons of trash to China has itself been a massive environmental disaster) where most of that “recycling” ended up getting dumped into the ocean, feeding the other environmental disaster, the plastic crisis.
The way recycling was handled by private waste management companies is another example of why the idea that we can all just be blissfully unaware and let “the market” handle things is a farce.
As much as I hate Trump, the reality is that we need a massive re-on-shoring program and we need global localization. I mean, there is a huge environmental cost to all of this international trade and shipping. Localized production as much as possible all by itself can lead to significant reductions in carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. And the issue here that I’m talking about really is the international labor market, and the whole concept of countries trying to “lure” international capital. The whole system of international economic competition is driving massive environmental destruction. The idea that a country like Ireland is going to setup tax structures to make it so companies will move facilities to Ireland, which helps them but creates systematic global inefficiencies, is just absurd. And chasing labor costs around the globe to do stupid stuff like produce plastic trinkets that say “U.S.A. is #1” (Made in Thailand) is beyond absurd.
We need a lot more accountability, now. We need systematic re-design of the global economy, now. We need enforced consumption reduction, starting at the top (meaning wealthiest people and wealthiest countries), now.
The fact is that the modern economy is massively unsustainable, and what nuclear power plants represent is the idea of some solution that will allow us not to do the real work of designing a sustainable economy and making the sacrifices that have to be made.
But the biggest obstacle we face here in America is that I fear there is no “society” left in America to work with. Facing this issue requires collective action and collective sacrifice, and those concepts are so foreign to Americans now I’m not sure its possible, even if financial corruption wasn’t a massive obstacle to overcome. The idea of any individual having to do anything, no matter how trivial, for the good of the community is anathema in America now. There is no civics in America at all. No civic duty, no civil responsibility. Indeed the idea of civic duty is practically viewed as evil.
And this may sound naive on my part, or perhaps self-serving, but I really do think that one of the things that can help bring us out of this is a profound acknowledgement that Jesus never existed. That may sound absurd, but I really think that, at least in America, this has the possibility of shocking people into waking the f* up and taking their heads out of the sand. Because IMO this issues goes well beyond just realizing that Christianity is without merit, it’s about realizing that the central pillar of Western thought for the past 2,000 years has all been imaginary and that we’ve all been chasing after a fairy-tale this whole time. It’s also an example of just how wrong and misguided the experts and powers-that-be can be. And of course, it brings to an end the fatalistic worldview of Christianity, the longing for global destruction as a part of Jesus’ master plan. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely am committed to following the science and the facts on this, even if they lead to the conclusion that there was some real founder Jesus. And this isn’t an issue I peruse for political reasons, but I do think that its an issue than can have a real positive impact in the world.
I’ll put it this way, if I thought that the issue of Christian origins was purely academic I wouldn’t be putting effort into it. It’s like a scientist who works on curing cancer. You have to follow the science, and the science may be interesting, but the real reason to pursue it isn’t just to learn, its about the practical result. So, whether its true or not, or whether I’m just deluded or not, I feel like addressing the issue of Christian origins is the best way that I personally can help to improve the world to do things like help solve the climate crisis, reduce gun violence, etc.
My hope for the success of humankind solving the environmental crisis that will culminate in global extinction of species & possibly humankind is dismal, to say the least.
The perfect storm of; climate change, eco-refugees, and economic collapse will be devastating on a global scale. Already some environmental systems have reached the tipping point. The Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica are such of these systems and the effects will not be mitigated. Any attempt at mitigating the destruction should have been initiated decades ago.
I’m afraid the attitude now will be one of ‘ let the good times roll’ until Mother Nature kicks us in the ass and humankind is forced to it’s knees. Human behaviour is difficult to change. But ‘hope springs eternal’ as has been said especially when that’s the only choice left. In the final analysis I think the efforts to correct climate change will be an excercise in futility. Too little, too late.
I do like what you say R.G Price … I do believe Jesus is real though as you may have heard some of my retorts in the past – and perhaps his followers have let us down and I include the followers of other prophets too (myself)
I’m only just waking up to the reality of it all.
I think your reality check is also true – people will be too hesitant to let this go. That poor and meagre Zion place with no facilities and comforts in The Matrix has an interesting parallel here. Humans want their comforts. It will take a lot of courage to pick and leave for the mountains.
(Note: The mountains will be environmentally the safest places to be in the future)
But if I do it first – then at least I’ll be ahead of the slackers, but then while in the hills and meadows and mountain steppes I might get an inkling that I’ve made a mistake by leaving all that comfort behind.
However, I think trying to get the big players to listen before a major catastrophe comes is wishful thinking. Rather, they are preparing for it another way … they perhaps want a complete meltdown as they have the tech and finances to evade it all. Antartica/Space stations/Deep Sea installations, etc … The safest place for people will be away from cities towards rural places, and towards mountains rather than on low altitudes/elevations.
The rest of the people will remain or be left to fight over the scraps … I fear ….
Why is it when humankind is in trouble that there is an exodus to the mountain? What makes one think that the mountain will be your salvation?
Better to be upstream and piss in every-bodies drinking water than vice-versa 🙂
😂 Aside what db says …
Ice caps melt – sea level rises > Move to higher ground
Rural places better than Urban places > Due to smog
Higher ground better than lower ground due to increased chances of smog
Upstream water sources are cleaner …
The exception is high altitude industrial cities which are worse than low altitude industrial cities.
Woodland better than grassland … etc
Also nukes are pointing to cities 😫
Everyone knows that mountain tops are holy places that are closer to God, so its easier for him to protect you there. Have you learned nothing? :p
🤫 – Don’t tell anyone the real reason !!!
Ain’t no mountain high enough! 😉
Timeline of Westinghouse Electric Company
2004: Westinghouse bids for two Chinese reactor sites; the US Export-Import bank approved $5 billion in loan guarantees.
2005: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the final design certification for the AP1000. see: Westinghouse AP1000 video. YouTube.
2007: Westinghouse won China National Nuclear Corporation’s bid for 4 AP1000 reactors including Technology Transfer agreement.
2008: Georgia Power Company reached a contract agreement for two AP1000 reactors designed by Westinghouse.
2008: South Carolina—SCE&G and Santee Cooper announced a contract with Westinghouse. Costs were estimated to $9.8 billion for two AP1000 units, plus transmission facility and financing costs. Increasing customers bills by $1.2 billion (2.5%) during the construction period.
• The company’s executives saw an opportunity to boost earnings by handling all facets of construction — a multi-billion-dollar challenge Westinghouse had never attempted before.
2017: Westinghouse files Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
• Not seeing an AP1000 issue here? Rather bad corpoorate decisions and failed internal oversite. Cf. “China’s first fourth-generation reactor to go online in 2018”. YouTube.
Indeed. Nuclear energy or big oil. Lambs led to the slaughter.
(Where’s my sandwich board?)
Yes … db
They pay all that money to get the reactors, but try to skim off for installation … Rookie mistake for such a High Risk venture.
Oh my! “These are our times and our responsibilities. Every human being has a sacred duty to protect mother earth from whom all life comes. In order to do this, we must recognize the enemy…ourselves.”
Leon Shenandoah of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy
OP: “Delays are the norm, making it nearly impossible to tell how much they will finally cost and when they will come online. That’s why China appears to have given up on them.”
The first (of four) China AP1000 reactors missed its original 2013 start-up date and began operating in 2018 with a cost overrun of $1.46 billion_US, as design changes occurred frequently in the process of construction (per information presented by a State Nuclear Power Technology Corp official). The three other AP1000 reactors were operating by January 2019.
“Hualong reactors replace AP1000s in Chinese nuclear plans”. Nuclear Engineering International. 8 February 2019.
• China is not giving up on building reactors. China is building more reactors!
Yes. I can read, and so can you.
I’m not sure this helps, but you all might NOT be aware of Price-Anderson:
. . . essentially, the US gov limits the amount of $$$ for which an owner of a nuclear power plant is liable in the event of accident (disaster).
In other words, the taxpayers make the nuclear power industry possible. We do this via the Price-Anderson law.
In years past, I was a writer for an engineering magazine. The “crisis” which I was told to write about was the possibility that Price-Anderson would NOT be re-authorized . . . meaning that the nuclear power industry in the US would be pronounced dead the next day.
Put the specifics aside and think for a moment: Without this special 100% pre-event bail-out from the US Gov, the nuclear power industry would not exist.
On another issue, you all must be aware that there are 90,000 tons of radioactive waste in “temporary” storage in the U.S. US Gov factoids:
“temporary storage” Japan is considering releasing thousands of gallons of radioactive water into the ocean b/c of diminishing storage space. This water is being used as a coolant to prevent further meltdown of the Fukushima reactor. Scares the hell outta me!
Political and public will needs to be solidly behind the comprehensive changes required to, dare I say it, solve the climate change crisis. What are the odds of that happening? I think people are reluctant to change their lifestyle or lower their standard of living, especially in the developed nations, b/c of their “addiction to the good life.” Whatever that may mean?
How come the problem of over population seldom gets factored into any solution? When an organism exploits and depletes the finite resources and pollutes the environment in a closed system then the population crashes. Woe is me!