Reviving the Nuclear Dream?

By Caitlin Stronell (CNIC) and MV Ramana (Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.)


<An edited version of this article was published in Japanese by Kyodo News on January 12, 2023 and subsequently published in several local newspapers in Japan>

Prime Minister Kishida has recently been calling for not only the restarting of existing nuclear reactors but also “the development and construction of next-generation innovative reactors incorporating new safety mechanisms.” This may have revived the hopes of the ‘Nuclear Village,’ but we have to ask some basic questions first. Can these so-called next-generation nuclear reactors can really succeed where older reactors failed? Can they be cheaper and safer at producing nuclear energy? A closer look suggests otherwise.

Nuclear power has at least four “unresolved problems”: high costs, the risk of accidents, the connection to nuclear proliferation, and the production of hazardous radioactive waste. For businesses, the most important challenge is economics. Nuclear energy is a far more expensive way to generate electricity than other low-carbon alternatives. In the United States, Lazard, the Wall Street firm, estimated that the levelized cost of electricity from new nuclear plants will be between $131 and $204 per megawatt hour; in contrast, newly constructed utility-scale solar and wind plants produce electricity at somewhere between $26 and $50 per megawatt hour according to Lazard. Further, nuclear power has become more expensive with time, whereas solar and wind have become cheaper rapidly; this reduction is expected to continue over the coming decades.

Nuclear projects are not just expensive, but they also tend to increase in cost, often injuring the financial health of companies. Cost increases at the V. C. Summer project in South Carolina forced Westinghouse to seek bankruptcy protection. Even in China, the world leader in nuclear new-build, many nuclear plants have been delayed and construction costs have exceeded initial estimates.

None of these problems will be resolved by newer reactors, especially the reactor designs called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that are closest to deployment. The economic problem with SMRs is that when the power output of the reactor decreases, it generates less revenue for the owning utility, but the cost of constructing the reactor is not proportionately smaller. SMRs will, therefore, cost more than large reactors for each unit (megawatt) of generation capacity. This makes electricity from small reactors more expensive; many built in the United States shut down early because they were financially uncompetitive.

SMR proponents argue that the lost economies of scale will be compensated by savings through mass manufacture in factories and resultant learning. Historically, in the United States and France, the countries with the highest number of nuclear plants, costs went up, not down, with experience. Even if SMRs were to become comparable in cost per unit capacity of large nuclear reactors, their electricity would still be far more expensive than solar and wind energy.

Small reactors can also undergo severe accidents. Historically even “small” reactors have suffered major accidents: Fukushima Daiichi NPS Unit 1 had an output of 460 megawatts, only slightly larger than the maximum output of 300 megawatts that characterizes a SMR. Further, all reactors have fundamental properties that make them hazardous, including highly radioactive materials that are hot or under high pressure or both.

A greater challenge is how reactors behave as systems. Decades ago, the sociologist Charles Perrow identified two characteristics—tight coupling and interactive complexity—that combine to make accidents a “normal” and inevitable feature of the operation of some hazardous technologies. Perrow’s first and most relevant case study was the meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. Tight coupling refers to how fast events occur that make it hard to stop accidents once they start. Interactive complexity refers to the possibility of different parts of the system to affect each other in unexpected ways thus producing unanticipated outcomes. Therefore, it is impossible to predict in advance what kind of accident sequences could occur. New safety mechanisms can be put in place only if one knows what kind of accident sequence one is protecting against.

 As a result of these characteristics, all nuclear plants, including SMRs, can undergo accidents, which could result in widespread radioactive contamination. Building multiple reactors together, as SMR vendors are proposing, will further increase the risk of cascading accidents and their impacts. These concerns should be familiar to all, ever since the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdowns in 2011 reminded people of the inherent risks associated with nuclear power.

Further, Japan does not yet have safety standards for next generation nuclear reactors and these could take years to formulate. The licensing process and getting approval from local governments to site and operate new reactors will also most probably take time because the government and nuclear plant operators have failed to adequately address the public’s safety concerns and lack of trust.

Nuclear waste is also a problem for SMRs. Like large reactors, SMRs too will produce radioactive substances with extremely long half-lives, hundreds of thousands of years in some cases. Indeed, in comparison to large reactors, SMRs will produce even more waste per unit of electricity generated. Despite decades of well-funded research, there is no demonstrated way of safely managing these wastes because of a combination of social and technical problems. Experiences of accidents at repositories—for example, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the USA—demonstrate the dubiousness of claims about the long-term safety of repositories.

The basic problems of nuclear power generation will not be solved simply by making reactors smaller. Neither will public trust be regained by making the same old promises.

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