Another nuclear renaissance? And did environmentalists kill the last one?

by John Q on November 26, 2022

There has been a lot of talk lately about a revival of nuclear power, partly in response to the need to replace the energy previously supplied by Russia, and partly as a longer-term response to climate change. To the extent that this means avoiding premature closure of operational nuclear plants, while coal is still operating, this makes sense. But new nuclear power does not.

The misconception that nuclear makes economic sense remains widespread, but has been refuted many times. Less remarked on is the misconception is that the big obstacle to nuclear power is opposition from environmentalists.

Environmentalist opposition was a big factor in the decline of nuclear power in the late 20th century, but not since then in most places (Germany is the most important of these).

In the US, nuclear power has had bipartisan support at least since 2002 when GW Bush launched the (hopeless overoptimistic) Nuclear Power 2010 program, giving rise to talk of a ‘nuclear renaissance’.

As it turned out, only two projects (each with two reactors) got off the ground under this program. One was abandoned with a loss of billions of dollars, and the other will supposedly be completed by 2023. As far as I can tell, there was no effective opposition to either project except from consumers objecting to the massive costs. The Obama Administration gave continued support to nuclear power, which has continued under Trump and Biden

Similar points may be made about the UK. A number of projects were proposed in the early 2000s. Most have been abandoned, and the only one to proceed so far (Hinkley C) is hugely expensive. Searching for protests against the project, I found that somewhere between 100 and 400 people blockaded the site for a couple of days in 2011, long before construction started. More interestingly, workers at the site staged in a sit-in in 2018, when they were sent home without pay because of snow It’s clear that environmentalist opposition was not a big problem

This is unsurprising.E nvironmentalists may not be keen on nuclear power, but are far more concerned about coal, oil and gas. But these aren’t the only energy sources that have been obstructed by protests. NIMBY objections have been a huge obstacle to wind power, effectively prevent onshore wind in the UK and (until recently) offshore wind in much of the US. Solar power has been obstructed by utilities concerned about the impact on profits, as well as being the subject of vitriolic attacks from the political right.

It’s arguable that concern about nuclear safety following the Three Mile Island meltdown resulted in higher costs. But in the light of the subsequent disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, it’s hard to make the case that safety standards should be relaxed.

Given all this, why are we seeing so many announcements of new nuclear power programs? My best guess is that is part of a political package which includes life extension for existing reactors and a general acceleration of permitting processes that have held up all kinds of energy developments. As with the last nuclear renaissance, I expect that the number of projects actually constructed will be tiny. The work of decarbonizing energy supply will be done almost entirely by the sun and the wind.

fn1. There are operating examples of small reactors, but these are made on a one-off basis and are expensive because they forgo size economies. The ‘modular’ idea is to counter this loss with the economic gains of high-volume production. So far, the required scale does not look achievable.



Pseudonym 11.26.22 at 7:17 am

Is there a good breakdown anywhere of just why constructing new nuclear power plants is so much more expensive now? It seems like it must have made economic sense in the past, so I’m curious about what changed, given that so much of the fossil fuel competition is being phased out. Would an effective energy storage mechanism make a difference at all?


BigHank53 11.26.22 at 9:53 am

Building nuclear power plants wasn’t ever cheap. The more of them that were built, the more it became obvious that the proponents of nuclear power were, in fact, monorail salesmen straight out of the Simpsons. Plants were never completed on time or within budget. Operating costs were never as low as projected. Utilities used to be able to pretend that their nuclear plant would be different; that delusion expired five decades ago. Wikipedia has a good list of cancelled US nuke plants—most were terminated in the seventies.

Since then, of course, Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown us that if you thought building a nuclear plant was expensive, breaking one was absolutely ruinous.


Brett 11.26.22 at 5:30 pm

The cheap plants of the 1960s were often built at a loss and made with then-cheap labor – and weren’t particularly safe or clean even if they probably weren’t going to cause a Chernobyl-esque disaster. Getting plants that were safe made them more expensive everywhere, although there is some variation between countries – the US’s general permitting rules making it unfavorable to build anything quickly if it’s big contribute to unusually high costs here compared to the high costs elsewhere.

@1 Pseudonym:

Is there a good breakdown anywhere of just why constructing new nuclear power plants is so much more expensive now?

These are some pretty good pieces on it:

The first piece is interesting, and then second gets more specific on why they’re so expensive now in the US. Much of it comes down to just how they’re huge construction projects with extremely precise construction, and any changes to it made in construction tend to leave to huge delays as the permitting for the changes has to be done. The former especially tends to exclude lots of contractors from these projects.

On top of that, the US has a permitting regime that makes it very easy for opponents to cause expensive delays with litigation over permitting. It’s an effective way to kill a lot of projects.

The below are also good.


Phil 11.26.22 at 5:32 pm

Have you looked at France?


CJColucci 11.26.22 at 6:19 pm

I don’t, in principle, oppose more nuclear plants, but there are practical business reasons nobody has built many lately, which still prevent large-scale construction, and nothing is likely to change that. Nobody is going to build enough fast enough to make much difference in the short- to medium-term.
I suspect that much of what passes as green pro-nuclearism is a species of virtue signalling.


Brett 11.26.22 at 6:28 pm

@4 Phil

France built a ton of cheap plants of mixed quality in the 1970s, which got expensive as they had to retrofit them to be safer from the 1980s onward. They never got as expensive as the US, thankfully, but were still pricey.

The new plants they’ve tried to build have all been very expensive and over budget. Same issue – large construction projects that require an immense deal of precision and extra component reliability, which usually means frequent delays and expenses.

France also screwed up in a unique way, pocketing the profits from their nuclear plant fleet without reinvesting them into useful upgrades. It’s why so many of them have to shut down when the temperature of their cooling water gets too hot, and why they’re finding problems in older plants.


Kenneth Schulz 11.26.22 at 9:23 pm

Brett @3, thanks for the interesting links. I would add that, given the small number of plants of any given design family worldwide, and the small total number, the cost drivers mentioned can’t be amortized over large production runs, and many must be borne by single installations.
[Several decades ago, I worked on a few contracted human-factors-in-nuclear-safety projects for the Electric Power Research Institute and an operating utility. I have not worked in that industry since.]


Kenny Easwaran 11.27.22 at 5:01 pm

There’s a three-part series on the Construction Physics substack about why nuclear power plants are so expensive to construct:

The part I recall that struck me most was that you can’t just use off-the-shelf parts for anything – even for screws and metal plates and so on. This is because you have to know the isotopic concentrations in them, which means you have to have certificates tracking the material in the screws all the way back to the original mine.

The thing that seemed most potentially interesting was basically getting the Navy to build a bunch of nuclear submarines without the submarine.


John Q 11.28.22 at 12:14 am

Phil @4 Here’s a piece I wrote about why France appeared to succeed with nuclear power in the 1970s and why it failed thereafter. I didn’t choose the headline, which was more definite about the prospects in China than I was. Still, the article was correct in identifying China as the only place where there is any serious prospect of a significant nuclear buildout.

Kenny @8 I think much of what I wrote about France and China. is applicable to the US Navy. I’ve been struck by how much better they did than civilian plants, and this article helps to explain it.


J-D 11.28.22 at 12:56 am

Here’s a piece I wrote …

Link missing.

Thx. here it is JQ


Ray Vinmad 11.28.22 at 6:37 am

Many people fervently flog the two claims-that nuclear power is the solution and that it is environmentalists that are the weight on progress. It’s an almost constant online.

Sometimes they don’t seem sincere. I am curious why there is such a constant litany. Is it because nuclear plants are better money-makers than some of the other options?


TM 11.28.22 at 1:40 pm

“why are we seeing so many announcements of new nuclear power programs?”

I’m not seeing those but I do see some talk about nuclear power initiated by right wing interests. Each time the public seems to be getting on board with more renewable energy investments, these trolls are trying to change the subject to nuclear. I think the purpose isn’t so much to actually promote nuclear projects as to sow doubt about and slow down renewable projects. In the end they are still in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry and there is no end to their obstructionism.


Zamfir 11.28.22 at 2:18 pm

@ Kenny, the point about not using off-the-shelf components is very real, but it is not much related to issues like isotopes. Such consideration only apply to the nuclear reactor core, which is not where the massive costs come from.

The far majority of a nuclear plant has little to do with nuclear physics. It’s mostly about heat removal – to make electricity on good days, to protect the core on bad days, and physically this is not so much different than other thermal power plants.

If you look at engineering drawings from the 1960s, perhaps early 1970s, al those other parts are engineered and built by “regular”, non-nuclear companies, with prior experience in thermal coal electricity production, or in coal-fired ship propulsion. The latter was a declining market at the time, and companies were happy to switch to a new market.

These companies were used to building dangerous equipment, where failure could kill people – up to sinking entire liners with thousands of people aboard. Nuclear plants from that early period are built according to safety standards that are high, but still similar to other industries.

Over time, nuclear standards got higher and higher, especially when it come to quality control. Ever larger parts of the plant become special “nuclear” grade equipment, with dedicated standards and dedicated suppliers – in a dwindling market. That’s not so much about some special metals for screws in the reactor. Those are expensive, but there is not that much of it.

You also get “nuclear” pumps, nuclear welding, nuclear concrete pouring, nuclear pressure transmitters, nuclear logic gates, nuclear diesel motors. These are physically not so different from their non-nuclear alternatives, just built and documented to special nuclear-industry standards. That makes them expensive (lots of extra work). It also makes them difficult to improve, because every change in design or production method requires extensive re-documentation, while that cost cannot be shared with other customers.

And perhaps most pernicious, it’s error-prone. If you look at the cost and schedule overruns in NPP projects, it’s always the same pattern: some part or work was not quite engineered or made to the agreed standard, it’s difficult to fix after the fact, it’s impossible to prove beyond any doubt that the lower quality is good enough, the nuclear regulator will not compromise (unlike those in the 1970s). Now the project is another 6 months delayed, with plenty of subcontractors on paid standby until work can continue.


Seekonk 11.28.22 at 6:40 pm

“Blast a hole thorough the rock in the Earth’s crust (9 to 12 miles thick) to the mantle [which varies from 1000º C to 3700º C], shoot some water down the hole and bazanga! Instant, high-pressure steam from a virtually inexhaustible clean source that could power all of humanity’s energy needs for millions of years.”

The author claims that this clean energy source is feasible although not imminent. It would use the already existing gyrotron to bore through the crust.


Omega Centauri 11.28.22 at 9:06 pm

There is a huge amount of credentialism surrounding the engineering and safety analysis. For most engineering analysis software, the costs of code certification are prohibitive so the choices of analysis packages are extremely limited. I’m sure similar issues are in part responsible for limitations regarding the usage of commercially available parts. So the cost escalation is somewhat artificial. I suspect the creeping demand for more decimal digits, going from 99.99% certainty of no failure to 99.9999% are responsible for much of this.

Of possible interest, is whether the case for small modular plants makes sense. I suspect proponents have been underestimating the effects of extreme demands for safety on costs.


Anders 11.28.22 at 10:20 pm

One point I don’t see mentioned in the linked articles is around the decommissioning / dismantling costs at the end of a reactor’s life (making all sites safe, disposing of irradiated fuel and radioactive waste). Clearly the economic cost of nuclear as an energy source ought to encompass these costs, along with fuel and capital costs. But you don’t see nuclear apologists like Michael Shellenberger rushing to ensure these are included in comparisons of cost per kWh.

Even where end-of-life costs are accounted for, there is plenty of scope for nuclear authorities to understate them. They’ll be incentivised to take optimistic cost estimates, then calculate their present value using a conveniently high discount rate. And given how large the end-of-life costs are, the scope for reported ‘all-in’ nuclear costs per kWh to err on the low size is vast.


Anders 11.28.22 at 10:21 pm

err on the low side


KT2 11.29.22 at 2:33 am

Australian universities & media favorable to gas?

Granny told me this;

“Favourability towards natural gas relates to funding source of university energy centres

“Methane is 28 to 86 times more potent as a driver of global warming than CO2. Global methane concentrations have increased at an accelerating rate since 2004, yet the role of fossil fuels and revitalized natural gas extraction and distribution in accelerating methane concentrations is poorly recognized.

“Here we examine the policy positioning of university-based energy centres towards natural gas, given their growing influence on climate discourse.

“We conducted sentiment analysis using a lexicon- and rule-based sentiment scoring tool on 1,168,194 sentences in 1,706 reports from 26 universities, some of which receive their primary funding from the natural gas industry.

“We found that fossil-funded centres are more favourable in their reports towards natural gas than towards renewable energy, and tweets are more favourable when they mention funders by name.

“Centres less dependent on fossil funding show a reversed pattern with more neutral sentiment towards gas, and favour solar and hydro power.


notGoodenough 11.29.22 at 10:47 am

CJColucci @ 5

“I suspect that much of what passes as green pro-nuclearism is a species of virtue signalling.”

I would respectfully disagree on this point (depending on what you are counting as pro-nuclearism).

I think most people on CT (with some exceptions) would agree that decarbonisation of our society is important and something which should be attempted, and that VREs offer an inexpensive and reliable approach. I won’t belabour the point too much, except to say that regardless of the criticisms which may be levelled at VREs (some fair and some less so), as someone once put it “VREs are like having a Bloody Mary for breakfast – you may need something else at some point, but it will get you most of the way and give you a chance to figure out the rest afterwards”. So, investment in VREs is good, and should be ramped up as much as possible to facilitate decarbonisation and energy independence.

However, I think there are reasons why some pretty reliable people in the energy research community think nuclear should be “on the table”, and it seems to be a not-unreasonable and a good faith position (even if you may not agree with it). To understand this, it is best to consider in purely energy system terms, so to lay the case out it is first important to consider VREs. As far as I am aware, the majority of work in the field suggests that going beyond 80% VRE into deep decarbonisation will become increasingly problematic due to the increasing strain on storage/distribution (ES/D) [1]. These are not problems which cannot be solved, I must stress, but do require careful consideration of the use and cost of electricity storage and load management approaches) [2]. So a lot then comes down to expectations of improvements in ES/D, particularly with respect to scalability, critical raw materials (CRM) availability, and cost. If you are at the optimistic side (ES/D will continue to rapidly decrease in cost, increasingly use non-CRMs, and can be widely and rapidly deployed) then VREs look an increasingly safe bet. If, on the other hand, you are sceptical about advances in these areas, a VRE-only approach looks a pretty risky bet past a certain point [3] (again, this is purely from a purely energy systems POV). So why is nuclear energy attractive from an energy system perspective? Simply put, it is firm dispatchable energy with an excellent EROEIext, which is relatively easy to site from an engineering perspective (comparative to hydro, for example), and offers an easy way to shore up deficiencies in your infrastructure. While it is true that, from an economic perspective, nuclear and VREs compete (under some or even perhaps many circumstances) [4], from an energy systems perspective they help each other as ES/D for VREs makes them able to time shift wrt. baseload nuclear (particularly if it can be coupled with its own storage system, such as the case for MS-nuclear). In short, if you are concerned about the “remaining 20%”, and are sceptical it can be best covered by overbuilding and/or ES/D improvements and deployment, then nuclear is very attractive (alongside other similar technologies, such as the less developed geothermal or the mostly exploited hydro). In short, it is a way of hedging the bet.

Although I am energy system adjacent, I certainly cannot claim expertise to make a fair assessment of this sort of analysis. However, I think that there are some pretty reliable people who have these sorts of concerns (e.g. Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuele, Chris Clack, etc.), and regardless of whether or not you think they have a good point, I think they have come to their positions reasonably and fairly – these are not the eponymous nuke bros, nor as far as I can tell mendacious grifters or axe grinders. Their positions, to the best of my understanding, is less “pro-nuclear”, so much as “pro-rapid decarbonisation, which seems to be more optimal if including some degree of clean firm generation, of which nuclear is one possibility – so let’s not exclude anything prior to assessments of each system”.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to disagree, but I think it should be emphasised that there are reasonable concerns regarding degree of VRE penetration, and that people can see nuclear as one potentially key part of the puzzle [5] – at least, from a certain perspective.

[1] There is, of course, a lot of variation in this number of “VREs which can be easily used”, depending on what you are accounting for and what assumptions you model. For example, some dynamic EROEI + ESOI (energy returned / stored on energy invested) modelling can put the number as low as 40%. In many ways the exact number isn’t so important to this point, so I will set it aside as a bit of a tangent. Suffice to say that, apart from a very small minority, most analysis suggests there is a “cap” at which VREs become problematic, unless you make some generous assumptions regarding future improvements.


[3] I can go a bit more into ES/D if there is interest and it doesn’t stray too far from the OP, but won’t include for now as I don’t want to go too off topic. It is, however, I think worth noting that improved ES/D increasingly makes energy infrastructure source carrier neutral, and can offer substantial benefits of its own in terms of carbon emission reduction (e.g. efficiency improvements from HVDC).


[5] Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone adopting a “pro-nuclear” position is being reasonable, merely that some are.


1soru1 11.29.22 at 12:06 pm

End-of-life costs associated with fossil fuel plants are also worth accounting for.

Looking strictly at the narrow economics, a typical US funeral costs $8000. A typical estimate for the number of direct deaths from air pollution from burning fossil fuels is 100,000 annually in the us, and 7 million worldwide. That is 56 billion dollars you wont see in the accounts of fossil fuel companies.

Admittedly, worldwide, average funeral costs are lower. But if climate change is not dealt with. they will likely drop in the US too, due to economies of scale. So round it down to 50 billion; that is 2 large nuclear plants a year, even at inflated costs.

Switching to clean power would merely require US citizens to spend the money they would have been spending on funerals on that power instead.

The unfortunate issue is that there is no simple market mechanism to move that money in that way. There is no website where you can request a quote to see you much it would cost to keep your grandmother alive another 5 years, or to give your grandson a future.

The thing is, most renewables are effectively part of a hybrid system that has no plan for keeping the lights on other than burning gas. As part of that system, they are profitable. Like a hybrid car, this gets you some level of reduction of emissions, and so a drop in the funeral bill. But the bill remains.

As I understand it, likely the cheapest complete clean solution is a nuclear/renewables mix where there is enough nuclear to meet the lowest point of demand, and enough storage or long-distance transmission to smooth the variation of daily supply and demand. Other technical solutions are possible, especially in places with hydro or geothermal power. But once you start comparing the costs, you have to ensure you are comparing the costs of solutions. When a landlord with a leak gets quotes from plumbers, it is fair enough to pick the lowest.

It is not ok to give some smart guy $10 for saying ‘hey, the tenants could buy a bucket’.


reason 11.29.22 at 10:01 pm

I don’t understand your argument. People may well die in significant numbers because of air pollution, but unfortunately if they don’t die from air pollution they will die with 100% certainty from something else.


Omega Centauri 11.29.22 at 10:46 pm

There are groups of researchers who have done -and are doing a considerable amount of simulation of grids with circa 100% renewables. They are using past weather records as input. They always come up with variable renewables solutions, but they always come up with the need for substantial (2-4) times overbuild of the variable renewables component. Overall system cost is alleged to be comparable to or less than current costs. But, new construction of grid components (generation, distribution, and storage) is not aligned to overall system needs, but rather to the profitability of each additional project. It becomes hard for a solar plant which is built to only output, when generation/demand is in a severely challenged period (likely only a few percent of the time). So there is a gap in the way our financial system currently functions that makes it difficult to fund/construct the overbuild.


Moz in Oz 11.29.22 at 10:51 pm

Someone at the Guardian is struggling to keep a straight face “the Sizewell C nuclear power plant in Suffolk – surely the “most announced” project in UK infrastructure history”… has just been announced again. This time for real, honest. They’re really, seriously, actually going to build it now.

Short article mostly about finance and buying China out of the progress so far.

1soru1 said: most renewables are effectively part of a hybrid system that has no plan for keeping the lights on other than burning gas.

I thought most renewables were still substituting for fossil fuels? Only a few countries are at the stage of having so much renewable electricity that gaps in supply are an issue? I’m familiar with Aotearoa where gas and coal are used to fill in where there’s a shortage of hydro, either as peaking plants or during dry winters. I believe Norway does much the same. Australia OTOH seems to be planning on pumped hydro and batteries to replace peaking plants, and a bit of solar to replace the coal. With a side project of running an extension cord to Singapore to sell them battery backed solar.


JimV 11.30.22 at 3:19 pm


I don’t understand your objection to 1soru1’s argument. If we agree that air pollution causes excess deaths we can’t take it back because the final diagnosis is something different but related.

My objection is that everyone born is going to die eventually. (Not all of us plan to have a funeral. I’ll donate my body to science if they will take it; my friend Mario says they won’t want it.) Air pollution speeds that up, which makes the growth in population slightly less than it would otherwise be, which I think in an absolute (not individual) sense is all to the good, since data also shows our current world population is using up natural resources faster than they can be renewed, and has been for around 80 years.


1soru1 11.30.22 at 7:43 pm

@21 the point of those figures is it shows the existence of people who are prepared to spend that much money commemorating the deaths of those who die to fossil fuels. This may not literally prove, but does strongly suggest, a lower bound for the level of demand for those people to instead not die.

This is where arguments based on the short-term profitability of hybrid renewables flounder; they are ignoring the full scope of that demand, simply because no market mechanism exists to supply it.

Admittedly, it is easy to double count these things. Which is why I showed the numbers checked out at even an absurdly low figure of $8000 per avoidable death; figures used in other contexts (e.g. highway design) are commonly over a million.

@23 right now yes. But nuclear power plants take a while to approve and build. So to get to net zero emissions by 2050 by an overall system including that element, ideally you would be starting perhaps 10 years ago[1]. But now is where we are.

The only alternative that at least can hope to avoid mass deaths is to wait and see if any improved energy storage technology pops up by that time. The available timescale for that to be discovered, developed and deployed does not seem to me to be overly generous.

[1] Of relevance as to why the previous ‘nuclear renaissance’ stalled;


TM 12.01.22 at 12:09 pm

Suprising (?), but:
France still receiving nuclear material from Russia

“Once Europe’s biggest power exporter, France has made a bad situation even worse, and Europe’s energy crisis could intensify if Electricite de France SA comes up short with a plan to restart a quarter of its nuclear plants by mid-December. Its recent track record doesn’t look promising, and grid operator RTE warned on Friday that the risk of shortfalls in January is rising. While the state-controlled utility has brought in emergency welding crews from the US and Canada to help fix unexpected cracks at a dozen units, the schedule is already well behind the plan of a few weeks ago. “


a different chris 12.08.22 at 12:15 am

Ugh. I spent much of my life working with those putzes*. A field engineer friend put it best “I always have thought nuclear was a good idea. Now I’ve been part of the industry what I think is SHUT IT DOWN!!! SHUT IT ALL DOWN!!!! PLEASE GOD!!!”

My favorite instance, out of so very many, was actually non-nuclear but happened at a nuclear plant in NJ. They shot a part of their turbine 2 miles into a farmers field somehow. Don’t think that the people that caused this were somehow separate from the people responsible for the nuclear part of the plant. Same dudes.

But it is unkillable. I never thought I’d live to see the day where this was the logic of our worldwide betters:

A) OMG, there are 4 Ukranian nuke plants! The Russians have them by the short hairs!! My god we never expected (??) nuclear plants to actually be under threat in a war zone…
B) OMG!, the Russians cut off our oil supply!!! Why didn’t we forsee this? What should we do??!!!???
C) Build nuclear plants!!!

I mean jesus christ. Because there will never be a war on Western soil…well except maybe for Western North Carolina but hey just guns it will never escalate…

As an aside, I have made amends by moving into the medical device field. We sell 10’s of thousands of, well many things. So I gotta raise an eyebrow at this:

I suspect the creeping demand for more decimal digits, going from 99.99% certainty of no failure to 99.9999% are responsible for much of this.

We could knock off quite a few of the more infirm a year if we were happy at 99.99. Just sayin’. So why can’t the nuke industry do it?

*actually to be fair, a lot of them were quite smart. And I liked them. But they were weird.
My favorite had the grand name of “Kingsley Graham” and decorated his office with used pistol range targets.

However, they were also “Nuclear Navy” refugees and didn’t have, let’s say quite the ingrained respect for life and the planet as you would hope. Upton Sinclair almost got it, but really it wasn’t the paycheck but just their entire world view, who they were and what they were good at.

And not enough of them were “quite smart”…

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