Meredith Angwin

Energy Analyst & Author

Nuclear Renaissance?

Whenever the price of natural gas rises, nuclear begins to look more attractive. The most recent Nuclear Renaissance was in 2008, just before fracking lowered the price of natural gas.

Once again, we have another edition of “gas prices are high and people are looking at nuclear energy.” This is not just a replay of 2008. Today, our power grids are massively dependent on natural gas. Since many things can interfere with natural gas delivery, the term “rolling blackout” has joined “cost of natural gas” in the discussion about the grid.

In contrast, because it has fuel stored on site, a nuclear power plant has a built-in fuel security.

The good news is that the U.S. government is sort-of supporting development of many sizes of nuclear plant. There is a project underway to replace a coal plant with a nuclear plant (TerraPower plant) in Wyoming. There are venture capital firms (such as Nucleation Capital) specializing in nuclear energy. There are  new-nuclear companies (such as ThorCon Power) in America signing memorandums of understanding to supply electricity to other countries. The U.S. also has a new six billion dollar fund to support American nuclear plants that are in danger of closing for economic reasons. (These threatened plants are usually on RTO grids, as I note in Shorting the Grid.)

Mixed News at Best

Despite all these plans, there is definitely bad news for nuclear in the United States. As I see it, the current administration is confused about nuclear energy. With one hand they support it: with another hand they try to to kill it.

Let’s look at license extensions for existing plants. For example, two large nuclear stations jumped through all the hoops and had all the inspections that the NRC requires, in order to get their licenses extended. (Turkey Point and Peach Bottom.) Having watched one license extension (Vermont Yankee) very carefully, I know that there were many opportunities for public comments and intervenor comments. I am sure that the work toward the extensions cost the plants tens of millions of dollars. After years of effort, Turkey Point and Peach Bottom had their licenses officially extended.

Then an anti-nuclear group raised another set of objections. The license extensions were cancelled, and the NRC required new research and new reports. Companies must pay the NRC $291 an hour for any review of license extensions. Withdrawing the license extensions can be considered blackmail. It is certainly not the rule of law.

Would any company invest anything in getting a nuclear license extension after these incidents?

I hate to think about the issues around our Georgia new builds, the Vogtle plants. I am sure they will be completed, and their power will even be cost competitive. But the huge overruns on these new builds are another factor that argues against new nuclear energy in the United States.

Will the new generation of nuclear plants, the smaller ones, be the answer? I hope so. But it is not easy to restart an industry

Ruined City: A Novel

I am a fan of Nevil Shute, and I have just finished re-reading Ruined City. The novel is about trying to re-start an industry, in this case, ship-building.

A little about the plot, hopefully without spoilers. A wealthy British banker, Henry Warren, has a miserable home life with an unfaithful wife. He asks his wife to give up her lover. She replies that she wants a divorce. Henry is overworked, overwrought and miserable. He cannot sleep without pills, and he has no appetite.

After the conversation with his wife, Henry decides he needs to get away for few days. He decides to take a walking tour, as he did when he was younger. He has his chauffeur drop him near Hadrian’s Wall. Henry tells nobody where he is going. He is dressed like a banker (which he is) and eager to walk. But he is no longer a young man. While walking, he collapses. He is rescued by a group of men. They help him into a truck which takes him to a nearby hospital. Once in the truck, he notices that the men have also stolen his wallet, including his identification.

Soon he is hospitalized, fuzzy from anesthetic, and recovering from emergency surgery. He decides not to tell anyone that he is a banker, at least for a while. There are many men walking the roads in search of work (1938) so he is not unusual in having little money with him.

As he recovers, he begins to learn things.  He realizes that when the local shipyard closed, it ruined the small city. The men are on the dole, and they are not eating enough to stay healthy. They are also in despair at not being able to support their wives and families. Any sickness in the family can knock the whole family into total penury and near-starvation.

The hospital Almoner (a sort of social worker) is convinced that good times will come again. After all, people will want to replace old ships. One person after another tells him that seven destroyers from their shipyard were at the Battle of Jutland in WWI. It’s a good shipyard, and it will come back!

The Shipbuilding Won’t Come Back

Henry Warren knows better. He knows that shipbuilding will not come back to the town. He is a banker.  He frequently advises industry clients. He knows that new ships will be built at places that are still building ships, not at places that have ceased to build them.  In the town where Henry has been in the hospital, men are physically weak from poor food and idleness. The young men have not gone through apprenticeship programs in shipbuilding skills. Any banker would recommend a client to go to a shipyard with a sturdier workforce and more recent experience.

New ships will be built. But not in this town.

More stuff happens, of course. And there’s even a sort-of happy ending. But I promised “no spoilers.”

Fiction That Tells the Truth

Ruined City shows “supply chain problems” and “workforce problems” from a human angle.

Even with a nuclear renaissance, will plants be built in America? I don’t know. I hope so. But there are so many people who think we are prosperous because…well, you know…we just are prosperous. We always have been prosperous. And now we can devote ourselves to plans for net-zero or battery development or whatever, and we will still be prosperous.

It is not easy to counter magical thinking. The kind of thinking where the president announces that he plans to shut down the fossil industry in ten years.  And then he gets upset that the fossil companies are not investing in drilling and in new infrastructure.  China and South Korea are top-notch at building new reactors on time and on budget. However, most people in our government don’t seem too concerned with this fact. We may have supply chain and workforce problems, but we will win the game because…we always win the game.

The small companies, the nuclear startups, give me hope. But if they want to succeed, I suggest that they use their excellent designs to build overseas.

It is not easy to counter magical thinking. It is not easy to restart an industry.


Warning and End Note

First, the warning.

The initial chapters in Ruined City are difficult to read because the protagonist shows the typical prejudices of his time.  Henry Warren is a well-off English banker  who has inherited a respected bank. His home life is very unhappy. Painfully, for a reader today,  Henry is particularly unhappy that his unfaithful wife is sleeping with a black man. (Actually, her lover is a wealthy Arab.)

To read this book, I have to remind myself that this book was written in 1938, and Shute’s views of race relations underwent a huge change by the time he wrote Chequer Board after WWII. I like Shute’s later books better in many ways. But Ruined City feels very relevant to American nuclear.

To make myself feel better about recommending the book, I have decided that the whole black-man-unfaithful-wife thing is just a plot device to get Henry Warren so depressed that he finds himself in a hospital in a town far from London. Ruined City is not about adultery. It is about a ruined city.

End Note:

Let me recommend that people download Jack Devanney’s “Low CO2 Electricity: the Options for Germany” at his The Gordian Knot Book website. The first two pages show that nuclear at $2000/kW installed can be effective at decarbonizing the grid. At $8000/kW nuclear is too expensive. If you want to dig deeper, you will find that Devanney is very clear about his assumptions and modeling.

In 2012, Robert Hargraves wrote Thorium: energy cheaper than coal.  Devanney’s work is more up to date, but Hargraves work is also important, and it led the way.