Countless people have for decades claimed generating more nuclear energy is one of the most important and effective interventions to mitigate climate change. Nobody asks the question of how to make developing nuclear energy more tractable. An associated question would be: what are the reasons why generating more nuclear energy has been so intractable?




New Answer
New Comment

5 Answers sorted by

From an EA point of view, the crucial consideration for nuclear energy seems to be its effect on nuclear proliferation:

sometimes it seems nuclear energy can increase proliferation, and sometimes decrease it.

Andy Webber talked about Nunn-Lugar program on the 80k podcast... but I'm not sure whether he actually mentioned that a lot of old nukes were actually used for nuclear power. I think someone should look into whether it makes sense to advocate for increased nuclear power on proliferation grounds (e.g. trying to burn it all up) or whether it'd be better to optimize separately for the best climate change intervention and the best non-proliferation intervention.

I've written a little bit about nuclear here - 'ctrl+f nuclear'

One update that I've made recently is that I was always puzzled that China is not building more nuclear, but I recently heard that this is because they're currently just a building a series of test reactors to see which one works before scaling up.

Especially this paper was pretty good: A Nuclear Solution to Climate Change?  (saying that nuclear is only cost-competitive with fossils at a $100 / t co2 tax ).

I've not taken the time yet to read either your write-up or that paper. That's on top of another ten that have been cited in the answers I've received so far. I'm busy enough that I don't know when I'll have time to read all of them but it could be weeks before I finish reading all of them. Yet what I was seeking was better sources and now I've got more, in quality and quantity, then I was prepared to receive, so thanks!

Also, Matthew Dalhausen's answer reaches some conclusions that are somewhat the opposite of the ones you've presented, so I'd be intereste... (read more)

Hauke Hillebrandt
Can totally empathize with info overload - so here are the relevant sections: "current generation nuclear might be better than using coal power and would reduce emissions in advanced economies.   But, crucially, continued reliance on old technology does not lead to technology innovation spillovers in emerging economies. Current nuclear technology, for instance, will not play a big part in preventing climate change because: * It’s not infinitely powerful: It only contributes 5% to the world’s energy supply[169] and even in China, where regulation is lax and public opposition to nuclear is not as big an issue for policy-makers, few reactors are currently being built. * It carries safety risks.[170] While advanced nuclear power in some advanced economies might actually reduce nuclear proliferation risk by using up nuclear material, in other countries, nuclear power might increase proliferation risks.[171] * It will not be used in many emerging economies.[172] There is not much nuclear power in Africa to start with and only additional 1–5 countries in Africa currently plan to have commercial nuclear power, with many countries being away at least 10 years away from starting construction on nuclear plants.[173] Continued reliance on outdated nuclear technology might not have the same crucial global technology spillovers as investments in other clean energy (including advanced nuclear). Since the best path towards global decarbonization is through global technology spillover into emerging economies, the actors that have the best emissions score may, surprisingly, not be the most effective actors at reducing the global rate of emissions in the future. This has some counterintuitive implications. Consider that Germany has higher carbon emissions than France even though it has invested more heavily in solar than its neighbor, which uses much more nuclear. Should advanced economies like Germany leave their nuclear plants running? Perhaps, but it will not make a very lar
Thanks, that helps too. I still intend to read everything in full later. It's not like it's something I don't know when I'd ever do. It's only that I've got other tasks I've got to complete I need to prioritize before I get to this and I'm not sure how long those other tasks will take. Please feel free to ping me by the end of November if I've not followed up by then.

Epistemic status: loose impressions and wild guesses.

Note that this is not true across the globe. See this Wikipedia list, and command-F "202" (for 202X).

Some are even plant closures (mostly US, Canada, Germany), but China has a ton of new plants. Other countries with new plants and planned plants include Finland, Egypt, France, Poland, Russia, Turkey, even the US!

My loose impression is that some recent excitement is driven by Small Modular Reactors, and of course, climate change.

This chart is useful, showing that nuclear as a share of all energy plateaued in the last 80s, and in absolute terms plateaued in the early 2000s, but it doesn't show the last few years or future projections.

One final note, it's possible nuclear just isn't as good as it's proponents say (or wasn't historically). Our World in Data does show that nuclear is among the safest (in terms of deaths per watt-hour), but even though deaths were low, Fukushima cleanup is estimated to cost $200 billion (similar to global annual investment in solar).

Also note that nuclear is now more expensive than both solar and wind, both of which has been consistently getting cheaper.

Nuclear in contrast is actually getting more expensive. Possibly due to increased regulatory/safety overhead.

(I've got a longer response to the part of your comment comparing the rate of development of nuclear energy in different countries, so I'm posting it as its own comment. I'll respond to the other points you've made in a separate comment.)

Some are even plant closures (mostly US, Canada, Germany), but China has a ton of new plants. Other countries with new plants and planned plants include Finland, Egypt, France, Poland, Russia, Turkey, even the US!

The primary motivation for plant closures I'm aware of are concerns about health, safety,  pollution and p... (read more)

My loose impression is that some recent excitement is driven by Small Modular Reactors, and of course, climate change.

I'm aware of SMRs but most of the info I'm exposed to about them is either mainstream media. That tends to be more sensational and focuses on how exciting the are instead of on data. Mainstream science reporting is better but such articles commonly rehash the basics, like simply describing what SMRs are, instead of getting into details like projected development timelines. 

I can check whether anyone in the forecasting community, either... (read more)

Nuclear energy is expensive. This is true of all rankine cycle style generators, which use heat to generate steam to turn a turbine.  In most places, the cost of new renewable energy is cheaper than the ongoing operation and maintenance cost of rankine cycle generators.  Nuclear is particularly expensive among rankine style generators, as it requires lots of capital and long build times, and is the only major generating technology with a negative learning curve over the past several decades.  The cost issue is the main problem with nuclear power.

While rankine cycle generators can't compete on cost with renewable energy now, there is a need for excess renewable energy, storage, or other firm capacity at high levels of variable renewable energy (80%+) on the grid.  This is decades away.  Ideally, you'd want a technology with a low capital cost and high ramp rate.  The theory supported by nuclear advocates is that smaller modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) may be cheaper to build than existing light water reactors and can provide that firm capacity.  Nuclear however, is just one of many competitors to provide that grid service.  It has to compete with hydropower, high capacity factor offshore wind, various forms of storage, targeted building efficiency, demand response, expanded transmission, and even overbuilt renewable energy with curtailment as costs get cheap enough.  Nuclear isn't the ideal solution to firm capacity, as it is expensive and has low ramp rates.  Optimistic cost projections for SMRs are still multiple times that of renewables.  Nuclear plants want to run at high capacity factors (85%+) to offset their cost, and take many hours to ramp up or down.  Some have suggested pairing electrolyzers onsite with nuclear to convert the constant power output into a one with more variable energy and higher ramp rate.  But it's almost certain that renewable energy paired with electrolyzers or other renewable gas will be cheaper and do the same thing.  Here is an example case study comparing generating technology mixes for a 100% renewable U.S. power grid:  In all decarbonization scenarios, VRE accounts for 70%+ of capacity and 90% generation.  Nuclear and coal phase out as the highest-cost generating options.

Compounding the cost problem is that the nuclear industry has had significant issues of corruption, fraud, and other criminal activities which undermine safety and increase costs.  Some of these issues are nuclear-specific, but most are related to having vertically-integrated or state run utilities building large generators instead of cheaper alternatives and having to have some mechanism of public debt repayment to make up the cost.  The safety issues that arise from this are unique to nuclear power, and justifiably worry anti-nuclear activists.

Nuclear, even some SMRs, will likely be part of the grid in 30 years, if for no other reason than because the utility and nuclear lobbies are quite politically powerful and engage in both legal and illegal bribery.  Even coal CCS is getting substantial government R&D investment, which will never be economically viable.  But SMRs will never play more than a supporting role for the grid, at best reducing capacity costs ~20% for a 100% RE scenario several decades from now.  Beyond keeping existing nuclear plants open that are still in good operating condition, there isn't much of a role for nuclear in the next several decades.  The most important thing to focus on in the next several decades is building lots more wind and solar, electrifying heating and transport, and building efficiency.  Everything else is secondary.

Edit: Hauke Hillebrandt left a couple different answers representing different viewpoints but his answer here reached some conclusions that somewhat contrast with your own. I'd be interesting to learn what other conclusions might be reached if you two were to discuss the points where you might disagree.

I'll reply to this comment at greater length later once I've read it more closely but I wanted to thank you now for taking the time to write it, as it's very informative. 

I literally just googled this so take it with a grain of salt.

But it basically seems that governments aren't supporting it, and in the absence of economic costs for externalities (such as carbon credits), other forms of fuel like natural gas works out cheaper for the private market. Also capital requirements are high, which reduces the number of people who could altruistically accept that haircut and fund it even if they wanted to.

P.S. As for why govts don't support it, I'm sure part of it has to do with election campaigning and mixed public perception. It's hard to mobilise hundreds of billions of dollars in govt funding without public support.