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How can the U.S. nuclear industry address building new plants on time and within budget?

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

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  • Mar 5, 2020


How can the U.S. nuclear industry address building new plants on time and within budget?

In 2018 MIT issued a significant report titled, "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World"


The report contains six recommendations to address the role of nuclear energy in decarbonization strategies related to mitigating climate change.

The six recommendations are described in summary form below. The recommendations address how the U.S. nuclear industry can deliver new power stations and control costs and schedules to prevent overruns. Are they right?

Many experts say the barrier to new nuclear plants is fear of radiation. Others say that the real issue is controlling costs, and schedules, to deliver new plants, of any size, on time and within budget. This question addresses the cost issue.  The U.S. has some of the highest capital costs globally for new nuclear power plants. See chart below.

The failure of the V C Summer project in South Carolina, which left rate holders with a $9 billion debt, has raised doubts about any publicly traded electric utility, facing the issue of being a "prudent investor," moving forward with plans for a new full size reactor, e.g., 1000 MW or larger.

Duke Energy canceled new projects in Florida and North Carolina. DTE canceled a project in Michigan, and TVA stopped a co-funding project with a vendor who was designing a 180 MW small modular reactor opting instead for an Early Site Permit that doesn't reference any particular technology.

Chart: Courtesy of World Nuclear Association

Meanwhile, out West in Idaho NuScale is working with its first customer, UAMPS, to deliver a 60 MW small modular reactor (SMRs) at a site in Idaho and to build out the power station to eventually comprise 12 such units. It plans to break ground and begin revenue service for the first unit by the mid-2020s.

Natural gas plants are replacing closed nuclear power stations. In Florida, Duke is replacing a 900 MW nuclear power plant in Florida with natural gas. In New York the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which is rated at 2200 MW will close and will be replaced with natural gas.  How can nuclear energy compete? Can it drive down construction costs for new units to be competitive with gas?


1. Are SMRs all that's left of the future for nuclear energy in the U.S.? What about advanced reactor designs like molten salt, sodium cooled, and high temperature pebble bed designs. What about "mini" reactors with power ratings of less than 10 MW?

2. For the six recommendations in the MIT study, how useful are each of the proposals and if not, what would you propose in their place?

3. If you were the CEO of a publicly traded electric utility today, what would be your thoughts about building a new nuclear power station, of any size and technology, as part of getting to zero carbon by 2050?

Please post your replies below.

The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World

(1) An increased focus on using proven project/ construction management practices to increase the probability of success in the execution and delivery of new nuclear power plants.

(2) A shift away from primarily field construction of cumbersome, highly site-dependent plants to more serial manufacturing of standardized plants.

(3) A shift toward reactor designs that incorporate inherent and passive safety features.

(4) Decarbonization policies should create a level playing field that allows all low-carbon generation technologies to compete on their merits

(5) Governments should establish reactor sites where companies can deploy prototype reactors for testing and operation oriented to regulatory licensing.

(6) Governments should establish funding programs around prototype testing and commercial deployment of advanced reactor designs using four levers: (a) funding to share regulatory licensing costs, (b) funding to share research and development costs, (c) funding for the achievement of specific technical milestones, and (d) funding for production credits to reward successful demonstration of new designs.



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In the era of smart grids, microgrids and distributed generation, nuclear power plants, both large and small are unnecessary. Nuclear energy is neither cheap nor does it aid decarbonization, on the contrary it is most expensive and heavily contributes to carbon footprint, especially in context of United States. Here is why.

Given that U.S. has only 1% uranium (ore) supply that is available at a reasonable cost and necessarily imports 90% of nuclear fuel supply from other countries (Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Russia), it does not make business sense to invest billions of dollars in nuclear power plants and risking nation’s energy security.

Needless to say, U.S. does not have the capability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel (which has 90% potential energy), hence all spent fuel is secured, protected and stored to prevent any accidental release of radiation in the environment (air, water and soil). The spent fuel or hot waste is stored under 40 feet of water in spent-fuel-pools made of several feet thick reinforced concrete with steel liners until its radioactivity decays to 1% of the original level (immediately after pulling out of the nuclear reactor) for five to ten years. Then this waste is enshrouded in thick layers of stainless steel called “casks” and temporarily stored as waste.

Here are a couple of pictures of the cask:


Manisha Rane-Fondacaro's picture
Manisha Rane-Fondacaro on Mar 27, 2020

Continuation of my earlier post...

“The iron and steel industry worldwide accounts for around 21% of global industrial energy use and about 24% of industrial CO2 emissions in the world.”

Hasanbeigi, A. and Springer, C. 2019. How Clean is the U.S. Steel Industry?  An International Benchmarking of Energy and CO2 Intensities. San Francisco CA: Global Effi­ciency Intelligence.

Likewise, “Cement production is one of the most energy-intensive and highest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitting manufacturing processes. In fact, the cement industry alone accounts for more than 6% of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions in the world.”

Hasanbeigi, A. and Springer, C. 2019. Deep Decarbonization Roadmap for the Cement and Concrete Industries in California. Global Effi­ciency Intelligence. San Francisco, CA.

Another point pushed by nuclear energy proponents is that it has high energy density and capacity factor, and that the volume of spent fuel is negligible. Relax, the amount of spent fuel generated in the U.S. is roughly 83,000 metric tons, which could all fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards. If that is the case, why is it spread over 76 sites in 34 states? And why is there no permanent disposal site assigned in the U.S.?

It is a no-brainer. Because the fuel volume requires tons of packaging to prevent possible radiation accident. After all the spent fuel still has 90% of potential energy. And which state would be eager to offer its land for a national monument of radioactive hazardous waste dump? 

This very lack of permanent disposal site is costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Per U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

"Federal government storage costs: Delays in taking custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel for interim storage or disposal add to federal government liabilities. Specifically, the federal government bears part of the storage costs as a result of industry lawsuits over DOE's failure to take custody of commercial spent nuclear fuel in 1998, as required by contracts entered into under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. DOE reported at the end of fiscal year 2016 that the federal government has paid industry about 6.1 billion in damages and has projected future liabilities at about $24.7 billion. Each year of delay adds about $500 million to federal liabilities."    

And this "expenditure" is in addition to all the subsidies nuclear energy has received to date.

Per Federal Energy Subsidies: What Are We Getting for Our Money?

"Since the beginning of the nuclear age, federal funding just for research and development of nuclear power have topped $100 billion, says the Congressional Research Service. AWEA’s estimate for all federal subsidies to the nuclear industry during that period is nearly twice that much. ROI: Huge cost overruns passed on to utility customers; aging and crumbling reactors riskily kept running longer than they were built for; tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for many millennia." 

Here is the first paragraph of summary of Nuclear Energy Policy by Mark Holt, Specialist in Energy Policy October 15, 2014.

 “Nuclear energy issues facing Congress include reactor safety and regulation, radioactive waste management, research and development priorities, federal incentives for new commercial reactors, nuclear weapons proliferation, and security against terrorist attacks.”

And if there are so many issues and concerns about nuclear energy, why are we still pursuing civilian nuclear energy programs, especially when there are other affordable options? 

Defuncting the myth of zero carbon nature of nuclear energy: Emission of water vapor from nuclear power plant exhaust does not make nuclear energy a zero-emissions source.

The most often quoted figure for GHG emissions intensity of nuclear energy is 29 tonnes CO2e/GWh.

Most life cycle analysis of nuclear energy ignore GHG emissions from nuclear waste disposal or storage per Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Electricity Generation: Systematic Review and Harmonization by Ethan S. Warner, Garvin A. Heath

Supplementary information:

David Fleming, author of THE LEAN GUIDE TO NUCLEAR ENERGY: A Life-Cycle in Trouble, said it the best: The world’s endowment of uranium ore is now so depleted that the nuclear industry will never, from its own resources, be able to generate the energy it needs to clear up its own backlog of waste.


With an industry that has not yet solved the problem of getting rid of the waste, even though, it would seem that fourth generation plants which, incidentally, can also use Thorium, seems like a non starter. Add to this that apparently the cost of wind and solar appears to be coming on to be less expensive than nuclear and Nuclear seems to be a rather poor choice. For the cherry on the top, the mega battery in Australia, owned by a wind farm is on track to return it's whole capital cost in a tad over 3 years and you are well on the way to solving the problem of generating power when it is not needed and needing it when you are not generating. I don't see the future for nuclear.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 19, 2020

You might want to check on the non-subsidized cost of power from batteries. Exorbitant.

Donald Osborn's picture
Donald Osborn on Mar 23, 2020

Actually you may have been right a yaer ago but not today. The cost of large scale battery systems is already quite competitive now and only getting better. It is a fast moving market.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 23, 2020

Competitive with what? Installation cost is exceptionally high and capacity factor exceptionally low. Equals really expensive energy.

Donald Osborn's picture
Donald Osborn on Mar 27, 2020

You might want to check the actual market today before making such unfounded claims that today's market clearly disproves.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 28, 2020

Use the actual installed cost of batteries, capacity factor (it is in the single digit range) debt repayment and profit. A simple economic analysis calculates the cost of energy at well north of $200 per megawatt hour. 
Attempting to make money on such a deal is really hard, unless you are raiding the taxpayers and consumers wallet.

The industry could meet its targets 100% by establishing targets of zero new NPPs and negotiating the cancellation of any projects in progress. That is my firm and serious recommendation.
Man-made nuclear power solutions are both too expensive in initial capital outlay and in long-term risk to compete with the free and safe (for two or three billion more years) nuclear power resource that rises in the sky each day. Isn't it obvious that the low cost of electricity generated from solar powered devices (including wind turbine generators relying on solar driven atmospheric effects and water driven devices relying on evaporation and rainfall or tidal effects) plus energy storage devices have conspired to make nuclear power (created as a justification for investment in nuclear weapons research) clearly a fools errand. Nuclear engineers and managers need to find a new line of work. There are plenty of good uses for your talents if you can get outside your box.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 19, 2020

Your economic analysis is not consistent with reality. 
The natural gas combined-cycle power plant and low natural gas prices are responsible for the demise of nuclear power. 
As far as green energy is concerned, absent subsidizes and mandates, the resources is too expensive. Take away forcing the taxpayer and consumer to fund the resource, then renewables become exceptionally poor investments.

You need to ask yourself: If green energy is so economical, why does it need subsidies?

Donald Osborn's picture
Donald Osborn on Mar 27, 2020

Come on Michael, you know (or should know) that both fossil and nuclear fuels have received far more subsidies that renewables and fpr far longer (despite being "mature" technologies). The subsidies continue. If one actually has a "level playing field" then solar, solar+storage, wind, and wind+storage would continue to show better economics and are still coming down (not up) the cost curve. This is such an old trope.


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 28, 2020

No, it is actually based on financial pro forms analyses.

Green energy cannot play on a level playing field, hence the mandates and subsidies. 

The depths of green energies corruption were on full display when renewable subsidies were added (briefly) to the bill to help Americans deal with the corona virus catastrophe. An utterly disgusting demonstrating of the complete lack of integrity of the "green" movement and the Democratic Party.

First the vast majority of costs are regulatory/paperwork related. So the MIT suggestions are good, but they don't deal witht the heart of the problem.

NRC should:

1) Develop a single tracking system for all quality control/material tracking requirements that is shared between all projects and run by the NRC. That way each project does not have to do this, and does not have to get approval.

2) NRC should pre-load the system with inspection requirements, checklists, and other templates. Potential plant projects should have access to the system in advance to know what the expectations are.

3) all inspections/deficiency should be in the central NRC run system - so that if there is an issue - it is reported, tracked, and resolved in the NRC system.

4) NRC should provide welding/assembly guidance to schools that can turn out the required labor and have certifications (and recertification) for both the welders/assembly personnel as well as the inspection personnel. NDT requirements should be updated to use the current best practice. 

5) A single foundation requirement should be established for Nuclear plants - design and build the foundation to specification and the standard plant should then be able to be assembled on the site to standard plans. Move the civil/seismic and other location variables into the foundation design - the plant itself should be able to "float" on the foundation in a standard form (no I don't mean literally float - but that the plant should be able to be build on a foundation that meets all requirements.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Mar 19, 2020

During World War I the federal government issued design requirements for standard steam locomotive types in order to make the railroads more efficient to move coal and munitions, among other things, to support the war effort. The result is that whatr we know today as standard configurations of steam locomotives came from this effort by the U.S. Railroad Administration. Here is an ASME review of that effort.

It follows that the NRC, and various standards development organizastoins, such as ASME, ANS, IEEE, etc., could collaborate to develop design standards for a 1000 MW off-the-shelf PWR that could be built using the existing supply chain.  Size matters so designs could also be developed for an SMR 100 MW, 300MW, and a mid-range 600MW if needed.

Once certified and approved by the NRC, utilties would be able to fast track their licensing applications and would benefit from potential economies of scale in the supply chain which no longer had to custom build major long lead time components.

Note that the railroads did adapt the USRA designs to meet specific needs, but the deviations were not intended to be noncompliant. A similar approach might be worth investigating for nuclear reactors.

India is doing this with plans to build 10 700 MW PHWRs and another 7 when these are done, all based on a CANDU type design. Is the U.S. so individualistic that this wouldn't work?


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 19, 2020

What you just described is essentially what occurred with the Combustion Engineering System 80 reactor of the 1970's. The Three Mile Island accident came along and generated a tsunami of new regulations and rules, quickly sinking nuclear power.

Fundamentally, the scope of NRC involvement needs to be greatly scaled back. The NRC epitomizes overregulation, particularly because there have been no restraints on the wild proliferation of rules. That has caused licensing costs to quadruple since the 1990's with durations approaching 10 years.

The only logical solution to overregulation lies with passively fail-safe designs. The current generation of reactors requires power and water to keep the core from melting.

The six recommendations seem to fall into three catagories to me: 1-3 are current tech recommendations that appear to follow the Rickover (USN) logic on nuclear reactors - keep them safe, simple and consistent in design. 4 is market policy recommendation that is consistent with US commercial values - let nuclear compete on a level playing field. 5 and 6 speak to future tech, and we should be pursuing that aggressively (IMHO), but not lose sight of points 1, 2, and 3. I'm good with all of them. That being said, the days of "utility-sized" nuclear plants may be over. The green evolution is changing the grids in many areas from a single monolith structure to multiple smaller structures. This is a practical result of needing more agility in generation choices and the amount of inertia those choices offer at any given time. To better fit into the mix, the smaller, more modular designs may be the best application of nuclear technology, both current and future.   

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Mar 18, 2020

Brian - I agree with your summary.  The key added factor is whether the markets will price Carbon.  Pennsylvania's potential entry into the NE Carbon Market seems to have extended the economic life of the Beaver Valley site.  If you evaluate PA's generation profile, there is almost no wind nor solar (growing fast from a very small base), 10% hydro, the only base load carbon free generation is nuclear.   Their coal is being displaced by ultra cheap and efficient combined cycle natural gas plants but shutting down 1000 MW of nuclear would of reversed many of those carbon emission gains.  In my mind the most important factor maybe the 1000 jobs which would be very difficult to replace, so lots of wins. 

Brian Hulse's picture
Brian Hulse on Mar 23, 2020

Ultimately, all of those workers will need to be retrained in technologies of the 21st century where competency is rewarded at a level consistent with or better than what the have now. Natural gas will continue to be the go-to fossil fuel until it's had a stake driven through it's heart. Whether the stake is provided by ratepayers demanding green energy or by market pressure or by regulatory pressure is immaterial. What matters is "the next big thing". If that is destined to be nuclear, then I stand by what I said. If some kid comes along, nails three things together that have never been nailed together before and has an unending energy box that runs on air....then fine. Paradigm shift. My point is jobs can't be the show driver. Ultimately, neither can money. Natural resources have to be front and center - conservation, preservation, sustainability. 

Given all the most current information, costs, construction times, market experience -- the serious answer is to build Solar+Storage systems (plus wind+storage) instead. This is not a snarky answer but a reflection of the market and construction realities. We have reached the point where this does make economic and operation sense and the cost curve for it is just continuing to improve. By the way I spent a decade as a Sr Engineering/Management level at a major electric utility.

As far as NUSCALE is concerned, the business model is to foist most of the costs on the taxpayer. Not even remotely competitive without resorting to the government "pig trough" of money. The entire effort is a classic     example of the Washington swamp in action.

1. SMRs are all that's left for the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. until U.S. leaders provide policy and financing support for GW+ reactors. China, Russia, France, and South Korea each have public / private consortiums combining the best of both worlds, and are reaping their rewards by dominating a healthy international market for new utility-scale reactors and technologies. Needless to say, the geopolitical influence gained by having the energy supply of other countries dependent on their technologies is inestimable.

2. MIT recommendations:
• #1 will not be an issue if #2 is addressed.
• Re: #3 - Unlike designs produced in other countries, U.S. reactors have incorporated "inherent and passive" safety features for decades.
The most successful passive safety feature in the history of the industry prevented 1979's Three Mile Island accident from predating Fukushima, and is often overlooked - the U.S. Hybrid Steel and Concrete Containment Design Standard, where "containment design pressure membrane load is carried by a steel shell and localized missile or jet impingement loads are carried by a combination of a steel plate shell and a concrete shell acting compositely."
• #4 - 6 Agree

3. If I were the CEO of an investor-owned utility (or any other corporation), I would be contractually required to pursue strategy in the best financial interest of investors. Because I'm under no obligation to be "part of getting to zero-carbon by 2050", I would be acting irresponsibly if I supported any investment that wasn't ultimately profitable - whether beneficial for the environment or not. My company could (and would) be held liable.
That's why for utility-scale nuclear government support is essential. Case in point: I know for a fact upper management at PG&E supports keeping Diablo Canyon Power Plant open. But with state government under pressure from the Western States Petroleum Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association, policy has been specifically crafted to make nuclear energy unprofitable in California. It required over $100 million in campaign donations and lobbying - but compared to projected sales of natural gas, that's a drop in the bucket.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 6, 2020

Question#1. Small reactors inherently have higher energy costs than larger units; classic economies-of-scale proven throughout history. The real question is: can nuclear compete with natural gas. Not the current designs. Maybe an advanced reactor type, but the odds are slim.

Question#2.The MIT report completely ignored the real driver behind excessive construction costs: massive overregulation by the NRC. The ensuing complications cause project management to be exceptionally daunting. The only way out lies with passively fail-safe designs that vastly reduce NRC involvement.

Question#3. I would not touch a nuclear plant with a 10 foot pole. The financial risk is way to high, with the likelihood of making a profit close to zero.

As far as Three Mile Island was concerned, power was required to pump water thru the core and spray water in the containment, which would have failed without that feature. The design was not remotely passive.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 6, 2020

"Small reactors inherently have higher energy costs than larger units; classic economies-of-scale proven throughout history."

Classic economies of scale apply to mass-produced widgets, not gigawatt-scale nuclear reactors. In the U.S. every nuclear power reactor has been a custom creation, subject to multiple rounds of testing and inspection. NuScale aims to build nuclear reactors on an assembly line, dramatically cutting production time and costs.

"The MIT report completely ignored the real driver behind excessive construction costs: massive overregulation by the NRC."

That's part of it.

" I would not touch a nuclear plant with a 10 foot pole. The financial risk is way to high, with the likelihood of making a profit close to zero."

If you're looking to make a quick profit, try tech / software startups. Utility electricity has never been a get-rich-quick scheme.

"As far as Three Mile Island was concerned, power was required to pump water thru the core and spray water in the containment, which would have failed without that feature. The design was not remotely passive."


"Once the secondary feedwater pumps stopped, three auxiliary pumps activated automatically. However, because the valves had been closed for routine maintenance, the system was unable to pump any water."

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 19, 2020

If they had let the emergency injection pumps run automatically, as designed, the core would not have melted. Operator error. They thought the plant had gone "solid" when there actually was a steam bubble forming above the reactor core. That being said, the operator training program was badly deficient.

The feed water problems started with valves associated with the ion exchange/filtration system.

The auxiliary steam driven feedwater pumps over sped due to steam condensing on piping, creating a slug of water that caused the turbine to trip on high speed. Also, Motor operated valves overtorqued and would not re-open

None of these items are passive.

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