The Future of Nuclear Power


Richard A. Muller

4 April 2009


China has 9 nuclear power plants currently operating, but they are planning 32 new nuclear plants by 2020. Some experts expect China to have 300 by the middle of the century. That would be an average growth of 6 per year. An even bigger surge would likely take place if Chinese were to get carbon credits each time they built one. Many experts in the US believe that nuclear carbon credits are necessary and urgent. The only reason they have not yet happened is that there are still many environmentalists who oppose nuclear power.


In the United States, there are currently 104 commercial nuclear reactors, and they produce about 20% of the US electricity. That makes the United States the world’s largest producer of nuclear power. But the present crop of nuclear plants is aging, with the last commissioning 30 years old. This fact is well known in the field, and had been (until recently) been considered part of the eventual demise of the technology.


That was the old interpretation. Many experts now think it is wrong. I am optimistic about both the near and long-term future of nuclear power.

In fact, Nuclear Power in the US may be on the rise. As of this writing (April 2009) the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received applications for construction of 26 new nuclear reactors, and 6 of them have already been ordered.


There are many reasons for this revival of interest. But the biggest may be the growing support of nuclear power in the United States. Polls taken by the Nuclear Energy Institute show that the number of people who oppose nuclear power in the US has been steadily declining, from 50% in the 1980s, to about 25% now:



I believe that this growing public support is based on the fundamentals of nuclear power. It is safe, waste issues have good technical answers, and the alternative sources of energy do have significant environmental issues themselves.


Over the past three decades, the most effective opponent to nuclear power was Ralph Nader; he has not changed his mind, but he has lost his influence. In 2000, the the votes he drew from Democrats were enough to take the win from Gore and give it to Bush. When that happened, he said that no harm had been done; there was no real difference between Bush and Gore. After that, Democrats stopped listening to Nader, and the newspapers stopped covering his press conferences. Since he was the leading opponent of nuclear power, that was an extremely important development in the field.


Here are a few of the other prominent “environmentalists” who now back nuclear power:

-- Nick Kristoff (regular columnisht, NYTimes; wrote “Nukes are Green” op-ed)

-- Stewart Brand, a founder of the environmental movement, creater of the Whole Earth Catalog.

-- James Lovelock, very popular author and speaker, creator of the GAIA theory.

-- Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace; now a pro-nuke leader.

-- Hugh Montefiore, former Chairman, Friends of the Earth

Many people I know at Berkeley and elsewhere are also on this list. I sense a real change in mood in the University of California student body, for example. There are remarkably few students who are now “anti-nuke”.


Nader’s place as the primary US opponent of nuclear power has been taken largely by Harry Reid, the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, who has made a populist issue of opposing nuclear waste storage in his state of Nevada. President Barack Obama has indicated limited support of nuclear power; he wants to hold off until issues of nuclear waste have been resolved. These issues are, in my analysis, primarily political ones – the opposition of Senator Reid. However, several of President Obama’s top science appointments are not nuclear proponents. These include Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who is at best lukewarm, and Science Advisor John Holdren, who has actively opposed nuclear power in the past.





Part of what once “killed” nuclear power was the expense. However, several key things have changed in the past 20 years:


(1) Improved “Capacity Factor”. Nuclear power has become much cheaper, thanks to improvements in capacity factor, the fraction of time that a plant is delivering electricity. The capacity factor in the last 20 years has risen from 55% to 89%. According to Per Peterson at Berkeley, this is likely due to the fact that power plants are now being run by private companies rather than by public utilities.


(2) Streamlined licensing. It is no longer a “two step” process in which, after an expensive first step, you can be turned down for issues not raised in the first step. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects 21 applications for 32 reactors over the next two years. The licensing speed-up significantly reduces the risk and cost of new plants.


(3) Fossil fuel prices have gone up substantially. Dropping natural gas prices in the 1980s made nuclear seem expensive by comparison. That added to the anti-nuke argument, and was largely responsible for the demise of a nuclear reactor in California called Rancho Seco. When natural gas prices are higher, nuclear can operate at a lower relative cost.


The nuclear energy institute states that even now, nuclear power is cheaper than coal, excluding capital costs. I checked this against 2005 data published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) , and found that it is comparable, not cheaper. But, of course, capital costs can not be excluded; they are a major expense for nuclear power.


In much of the rest of the world (e.g. Canada, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Czech Republic), nuclear power is presently cheaper than coal – primarily because coal is more expensive. It is substantially cheaper than natural gas in most countries.


Many of us knowledgeable in the field expect a resurgence, and the only question has been when. The sudden rise of oil prices may have made a difference. Nuclear is now presented not as a solution in itself, but as part of a rainbow of technologies that are needed for energy independence and to reduce global warming.



Traditional Danger of Nukes


The “traditional” dangers of nuclear power, the things that led to the three decade moratorium on new plants in the US, were:


(1) Leakage of radioactivity during normal operation. This was big worry back 30 years ago; the public seems to be convinced that this problem is small. 20% of US electricity comes from nuclear power; 80% of the electricity in France. Yet there have been no leakage incidents of any note.


(2) Accidents. The big ones were 3 Mile Island in the US (1979) and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union (1986). The Three Mile Island Accident caused a great trauma at the time, particularly since it happened just as the movie “The China Syndrome” was in theaters. But, again, time (29 years since Three Mile Island) seems to be healing this wound. The public also seems to accept the (valid) argument that our reactors are much safer than the Russian Chernobyl design.


(3) Nuclear waste. This is not a technical problem but a public relations one. The public perceives the long lifetime of plutonium to be the major danger. However, the experts on nuclear waste agree that the plutonium is not a very dangerous part of nuclear waste. That’s because it is very insoluble in water (in equilibrium, typically 0.00001 dissolves), and relatively harmless when such water is drunk; the cancer dose for consumed plutonium is a half gram. Plutonium is dangerous primarily when breathed, not when swallowed.


If we exclude the plutonium, then the radioactivity of the rest of the waste is relatively short-lived. After about 100 years, it drops to the level that it is less than 100x the radioactivity of the uranium originally mined from the ground. That means that if it is stored in such a way that there is a 10% chance that 10% will leak, the odds are that no more radioactivity will be released than the radioactivity that was removed from the ground. For more discussion, see my article The Witch of Yucca Mountain published in MIT’s Technology Review.

(4) Uranium supply. Many people think we will run out of uranium fuel, but the experts know that we will not. There was a report in 1980 done by the Department of Energy that really addressed this issue. I can give you details if you want. There was a very good Scientific American article published in 1980 that summarizes this work. That article is still being widely referenced in the recent literature. There is plenty of uranium in US soil; there is no need to mine the oceans or start using breeder reactors.


(5) The “Plutonium Economy”. This was the public fear that continued use of nuclear reactors would require breeder reactors that manufactured plutonium out of depleted uranium. The fear was that once plutonium was a commodity, dangers of nuclear proliferation would grow. This is not a current legitimate concern (although some in the public may not understand why); with the big supply of uranium (1980 Dept of Energy report), there is no need to use plutonium, so the issue goes away.


If nuclear power does not expand rapidly in the next few years, the primary reason will be the lingering pubic fear, and possibly politicians who continue to exploit that fear. For many countries, nuclear should and could be an important part of their future, but it may take strong leadership to educate the public about the important advantages of “going nuclear.”