COP28’s tripling nuclear energy is unachievable

United Nations IAEA

An opinion piece in the Boston Globe co-authored by Ernest Moniz, nuclear physicist and former US Secretary of Energy and Armond Cohen, lawyer and executive director of US-based Clean Air Task Force, defends tripling nuclear power capacity globally “as an essential part of mitigating climate change” to come out of the United Nations talks convened in the United Arab Emirates in December 2023.  The OpEd starts off by mischaracterizing the outcome of the COP28 with “Nuclear energy was an unexpected winner at COP28.” While it is true that, to date, of the 32 nations currenting generating civil nuclear power in the world, many of them make up the bulk of the 25 countries than signed a US-led pledge to triple the world’s nuclear power generating capacity by 2050. Given the state of the technology, however, exactly what it means to be a “winner” is highly questionable if not dangerously delusional.

Moniz and Cohen’s OpEd translates what a winning project would need to look like to offset an accelerating global climate crisis.  Essentially, they write, “the world will soon need to build the equivalent of about 50 large nuclear power reactors per year until 2050.”  A “large” reactor generates at least 1100 to 1600 megawatts electric each. Assuming that some licensing review process is still allowed and the first safety certified designs could be approved for construction by 2030, that would ambitiously mean that  over new 1,000 large reactors would need to be completed and operating by 2050. An “equivalent” number refers to designs still in the development stage for “small modular nuclear reactors” or “SMNRs” with a power capacity ranging between 1 to 300 megawatts electric (MWe). That deployment strategy adds up to many more thousands of micro- to mini-power reactors in the next 26 years. The nearly 70-year old commercial nuclear power industry operates a total of 412 civilian power reactors in the world today within the 440 units also considered “operable” with a number not allowed at power as is the example of the post-Fukushima reactors in Japan.

Of the so-called “winners” who signed onto the COP28 pledge to take on the monumental and dubious task to triple the world’s commercial nuclear power capacity by 2050, 18 of those 25 nations have a range of operational experience at generating electricity beginning with one atomic reactor.

The signing nations, led by the United States currently with 93 units, are Armenia (2 units), Bulgaria (2 units), Canada (22 units), Croatia (0), Czech Republic (6 units), Finland (5 units), France (55 units), Ghana (0), Hungary (4 units), Jamaica (0), Japan (10 operating units of its remaining 33 post-Fukushima “operable” units), Republic of Korea (26 units), Moldova (0), Mongolia (0) , Morocco (0), Netherlands (1 unit), Poland (0), Romania (2 units), Slovakia (5 units), Slovenia (1 unit), Sweden (6 units), Ukraine (15 units with 6 units now controlled by Russian military), the United Arab Emirates (3 units) and the United Kingdom (9 units).

Moniz and Cohen have glossed over recent history that would otherwise shed a doubtful light on the plausibility of such a big win starting with the world’s leading nuclear power “winner”, the United States.  A heavily lobbied Congress launched its so-called “nuclear renaissance” with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  The Act legislated a streamlined federal licensing process combining construction permits with the operating licenses into one application. The industry was incentivized with billions of federal taxpayer dollars for to receive federally backed loan guarantees and production tax credits that eventually jump started industry “advanced reactor” projects for 33 new large units according to the Congressional Research Service by 2007. Fast forward 16 years later, in 2023 the construction of only one large Westinghouse reactor (1,100 megawatts electric) was completed for Vogtle Unit 3 and made operational in Georgia. Its companion reactor, Vogtle Unit 4, is scheduled for completion, testing and start up later in 2024 or early 2025. The two-unit Westinghouse project originally estimated to cost $14 billion to complete is now running between $35 to $40 billion before both units will generate the most unpredictably expensive commercial electricity anywhere to date. The only other two units to even risk groundbreaking for construction, V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 in South Carolina, were abandoned in 2017 by its utility partnership with a $10 billion sunk cost and two executives serving time in federal prison for defrauding the state’s electric ratepayers. The remaining 29 “advanced” reactor units have been suspended, cancelled or withdrawn.

Moniz and Cohen fail to mention anything about the status report on the US “equivalent” design approach to economically failed new large reactors by replacing them with smaller, modular “advanced” designs where a reactor site on a much smaller footprint would construct and license as many as a dozen reactor units from a single control room. As small modular reactors are completed they could be sequentially brought on line with the aim of commissioning units cheaper and quicker and supposedly safer nuclear power.

The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) much ballyhooed and federally subsidized poster child for SMNRs is the Portland, Oregon startup, NuScale Power Corporation. NuScale is owned (60%) by the Fluor Corporation, a  historic US nuclear technology corporation that is also a leading nuclear weapons manufacturer. The DOE even donated a free site to NuScale’s pilot project on federal land at its Idaho National Laboratory.  NuScale was the first and remains the only startup nuclear company to receive a SMR design safety certification from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for its small, modular commercial reactor, a conventional pressurized water reactor scaled down to 50 megawatts electric. The NuScale concept represents its innovative thinking to abandon the nuclear industry’s decades old conventional thinking of building and operating reactors on “economies of scale;” where large units are thought of as the most efficient for electricity production.  NuScale’s search for customers to subscribe to the concept of twelve small conventional units on one control room connected with the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS). UAMPS is full service power agency that “provides comprehensive wholesale electric energy services, on a non-profit basis, to community-owned power systems throughout the Intermountain West. The UAMPS membership represents 50 members from Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.” Its placement on the western grid was an ideal location for the NuScale pilot reactor project sited at the national laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho.

NuScale and 33 members (“subscribers”) of UAMPS came together under a DOE financial umbrella of $1.4 billion (1/4 of the projected cost) to consolidate the limited liability corporation “Carbon Free Power Project” (CFPP) that filed a Combined Operating License Application to the NRC for 720 megawatts using NuScale reactors. The CFPP had initially planned for twelve NuScale reactors (50 MWe each) but as the projected cost-of-completion rose from $53/MWh to $55/MWh  with increasing uncertainty, the CFPP dropped the original design and chose instead to contract for NuScales’ still-yet-to-be NRC certified 77-MWe modules and downsized the plant from 12 units to six, to yield the project’s total output of 462 MWe. As the projected cost of project completion spiraled out of control, UAMPS municipal subscribers started heading for the exit doors. The projected cost eventually rose to $89 /MWh even considering the DOE subsidization without which it would have risen to more than $105/MWh. By November 8, 2023, the thinned ranks of UAMPS subscribers and a financially beleaguered NuScale announced the mutual agreement to terminate the CFPP nuclear project.  By this time, there were only subscriptions for 20% of the 462 MWe project where 80% was the contract agreement. By the old and dated “too cheap to meter” promotional standard, nuclear power has become “too expensive to matter” as one seasoned industry watchdog frames it.

One final note on Moniz and Cohen’s opinion piece where they further mischaracterize the intent of this massive infusion of nuclear power to abate climate change. They argue, “The principal goal is carbon-free energy available 24/7 as an essential complement to variable wind and solar electricity.”

Today, renewable wind and solar generated electricity are being rapidly coupled with increasing storage capacity and  “intermittency” of the energy source fading from its description.  This combination is now far more economically competitive than nuclear power, as well as reliably deploying faster with more carbon reduction per rate of investment. To Moniz and Cohen’s premise, in fact, one need only follow the energy policy activities of France, Europe’s prime nuclear power leader to assess this absurd climate policy “goal”. Most recently, France is aggressively legislating to cut back its renewable energy programs in favor of re-establishing its stalled nuclear power program as the government’s chosen path to “energy sovereignty”.  France is preparing legislation to avoid setting targets for renewables is to be introduced in February 2024 and then its lawmakers for a vote. Meanwhile, the bulk of France reactors are increasingly troubled by aging and deteriorating safety margins. It is widely recognized that after decades of effort “France has yet to bring the first of a new generation of nuclear power plants online.”

In our view, the Moniz and Cohen argument set forth in this opinion piece is dangerously complicit in an overall strategy to displace and effectively eliminate the most viable and far more competitive renewable energy policy to address the  climate crisis. Renewable energy with electricity storage coupled with least cost energy efficiency and conservation can provide greater carbon reduction in less time at least cost than the most expensive and far more dangerous nuclear technology which time and again is demonstrating its unreliability to effectively deploy.

[Photo: US Special Climate Envoy and former US Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations /IAEA/ COP28/Dubai, UAE]

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