Nuclear comes last

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Nuclear comes last

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Everyone from the EU to General Electric seems excited about nuclear power’s latest fad – small modular nuclear reactors. Dig past the headlines, however, and it is a different story, as Linda Pentz Gunter writes.

Until last November, the American nuclear power manufacturer NuScale had high hopes that their small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) would launch a new era of safer, cheaper, and less cumbersome nuclear power. Working with a $600 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, it was moving ahead to build six SMRs for the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) by 2030. But, Utah power providers got cold feet when it became evident that the target price for power from the plant was $89 per megawatt hour, up 53% from the previous estimate of $58 per MWh.

Five months later, NuScale is “burning cash at the rate of $185 million per year,” as reported by Motley Fool. “NuScale’s VOYGR nuclear power product has ‘no secure customers’ and is ‘not cost competitive’ says one analyst.” Three days later the company’s CEO, John Hopkins, sold 59,768 of his shares. This is the same CEO who declared NuScale’s SMR project, aptly named VOYGR, “a dead horse.” It’s clearly on a journey to nowhere. “We think investor enthusiasm for SMR is misguided,” declared analysts at Wells Fargo. 

Bankers are tepid given the price tag

The splashy cheerleading Nuclear Energy Summit, organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Brussels on March 21, proved to be just that. The participants arrived floating on the hot air of their misplaced enthusiasm but “left humbled by the tepid reaction of bankers assessing the price tag of their ambitions,” Bloomberg reported.

French president, Emmanuel Macron (left) and IAEA director general, Rafael Grossi (right) were among those faced with the uncomfortable truth at their Nuclear Energy Summit that “nuclear comes last” as an investment priority for banks. (Photo: IAEA Imagebank.)

European Investment Bank Vice President Thomas Ostros told summit attendees that, “the project risks, as we have seen in reality, seem to be very high.” 

Representatives from the European and Latin American banking worlds were more blunt, saying their “lending priorities lean toward renewables and transmission grids,” and that “nuclear comes last.”

See our related story: Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, a History of Failure

Even the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) couldn’t quite bring itself to slam down its rubber stamp on Oklo’s chalet-in-the-woods micro reactor, the Aurora, which remains about as real as its namesake fairy tale princess. 

In January 2022, the NRC denied Oklo’s license application outright because it “continues to contain significant information gaps in its description of Aurora’s potential accidents as well as its classification of safety systems and components.” 

It’s tempting to ask whether things can get any worse for the nuclear power industry, but they almost certainly will.

Oklo reapplied nine months later, but according to the NRC docket, there is “no further action.” 

Nevertheless, Oklo brags on its website that it “made history” simply by developing “the first advanced fission combined license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” which sums up the second nuclear “renaissance” perfectly: Make a drawing. Hit ‘send.’

Meanwhile, the U.S. military canceled its contract for an Aurora reactor originally intended for the Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska.

“…We should probably slow things down a little bit”

And finally, an executive from the industry that has consistently delivered its latest new reactors decades late and billions over the original budget — in one case $20 billion over — suggested they should all just slow down. Ian Edwards, chief executive of Canadian reactor producer, Atkins Realis recently said, “we all become too optimistic. We have this optimism bias towards being able to deliver faster. Really we should probably slow things down a little bit.”

But nuclear power is the answer to our current climate crisis…Ya think?

It’s tempting to ask whether things can get any worse for the nuclear power industry, but they almost certainly will. Unless we end up paying for it all. As the Bloomberg article that related the tail-between-legs exit of the Nuclear Summit conferees said in a headline: “Taxpayers are needed to foot the bill to achieve 2050 targets.”

H.E. Minister Suhail Al Mazrouei of the United Arab Emirates, which hosted the COP28 where the “triple nuclear” pledge was first announced. This must have delighted billionaire Bill Gates who can’t wait to sell his taxpayer-funded, proliferation-friendly reactors to the UAE. (Photo: IAEA Imagebank.)

Currently, a majority in the U.S. Congress seems intent on ensuring that will happen. Because, after all, why should multi-billionaire Bill Gates be forced to pay for his own nuclear toys when he can milk (read bilk) U.S. taxpayers instead?

The U.S. government has already pledged $2 billion of our money to Gates for his proliferation-friendly liquid sodium-cooled molten salt fast reactor produced by his company, TerraPower (more properly, TerrorPower). Gates can’t wait to export it to the United Arab Emirates. Nuclear weapons anyone?

See our related story: Bill Gates’ Dumb Climate Idea.

The ADVANCE Act, has been passed by the U.S. House with 365 voting in favor and only 36 Democrats-with-a-conscience (and economic sense) voting against it. By its own description, the ADVANCE Act aims to “advance the benefits of nuclear energy by enabling efficient, timely, and predictable licensing, regulation and deployment of nuclear energy technologies.” In other words, do away with burdensome — and costly — safety regulations. 

“Walkaway safe” and “meltdown proof”

Indeed, New Mexico Democrat, Senator Martin Heinrich, told E&E News in January that “These regulatory timelines do not lend themselves to fighting the climate crisis.” Oh those wascally wegulations!

Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia doesn’t want to seat any new NRC commissioners who might be “too focused on safety.” 

The NRC’s motto is “protecting people and the environment,” a mandate it demonstrably endeavors to avoid already, but even some vestige of interest in safety is probably better than none. Not that safety oversight will be needed, of course, because, hey, SMRs are “walkaway safe” and “meltdown proof,” and any new light water reactors are too “advanced” to be a safety risk.

Let’s remember that the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters are each racking up costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars and counting. We have been warned.

This makes the insistence by SMR manufacturers that they must be covered by the Price-Anderson Act (PAA) all the more curious. Price-Anderson, due to expire in 2025, was culled out of the ADVANCE Act, now moving out of Senate committee and working its way through the reconciliation process, and handled separately. The Senate adopted the House version of the PAA, giving it a 40-year extension to 2026, and expanded limited liability for a major accident to just over $16 billion per reactor. President Biden duly signed it into law.

Chernobyl and Fukushima…racking up costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars each…and counting

Ed Lyman, Nuclear Power Safety Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Nuclear Intelligence Weekly that “The nuclear industry’s push for a 40-year Price-Anderson Act extension is a sure sign that it doesn’t believe its own messaging about how safe the next generation of nuclear reactors is going to be.”

But in a joint statement, Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) declared that “The extension of the Price-Anderson Act in the minibus sends a clear message that we are committed to the advancement of this safe and reliable power source.”

The “clear message” this actually sends is that, in the event of a major nuclear accident, U.S. taxpayers will be thrown under that minibus. The $16 billion coverage will be chicken feed and we will all be stuck with the bill. Let’s remember that the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters are each racking up costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars and counting. We have been warned.

But a bi-partisan group of Representatives and Senators think it’s perfectly fine for all of us to pay for such an eventuality. Meanwhile, if you own a home and are forced to abandon it in the path of a nuclear accident, you cannot claim a dime off your homeowner’s insurance. It will just be a total loss. Think about that for a moment.

Are we outraged yet?

This story first ran in Beyond Nuclear International.

Written by

Linda Pentz Gunter

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at the NGO Beyond Nuclear. She writes for and edits the organization's publication Beyond Nuclear International.