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Nuclear Energy: Mark Bittman's Renewables Delusions

Nuclear and Renewables

Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman’s column. 

New nuclear plants are being built around the world including in the United States. Bittman incorrectly suggests that nuclear energy is going away. In fact, there are 69 nuclear power plants under construction around the world right now, dozens of which will come online in the next year. China has 28 plants under construction, Russia has 11, and there’s even a small handful in Europe. Japan is not only restarting some of their idled reactors, but also approving construction of new nuclear plants.

In the wake of Fukushima, no countries announced plans to cancel new nuclear reactors, and several countries (UAE, Turkey, Jordan) announced plans to begin construction on their very first nuclear power plants. The United States is indeed closing a few old plants — Vermont Yankee operated for four decades — but we also have four new larger nuclear reactors under construction.

Renewables require a massive expansion of the grid, not its demise. Bittman imagines that renewables are like personal computers displacing mainframes, essentially freeing us from the grid, but this is the opposite of what the NREL study he cites actually claims. NREL’s study relies on a huge expansion and upgrade of the electrical grid, not its dismantling. Renewable energy like wind and solar, by their intermittent nature, require more grid infrastructure not less.

In Germany, for instance, the government is currently spending $25 billion on 2300 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines, and when the sun doesn’t shine (which is often the case in Germany) the country relies on the interconnected European grid to import electricity from other countries (like nuclear-powered France).

Renewables, on the other hand, are far from ready to replace fossil fuels in any country. Germany, in fact, is building new coal plants.

Nuclear receives far less subsidies than renewables. Bittman attacks nuclear subsidies, but they are far smaller than renewables subsidies. Since 1950, nuclear power has received $3.60 in federal subsidies for every megawatt-hour of electricity it has produced, compared to $1.50 for coal, $5.70 for gas, $6 for hydro, and over $100 for solar and wind. Germany has committed over $130 billion to solar subsidies since 2000, yet only receives 5 percent of its annual electricity from solar.

Renewables are far more dependent on subsidies than nuclear. Meanwhile, renewables are completely dependent on federal and state subsidies. When the federal PTC for wind expires, new wind projects plummet. And these are not loans; these are direct payments, tax credits and grants ($10 billion from 2009-2014). Wind and solar may be competitive with coal in some areas, but that’s including these massive subsidies. Renewables also receive many implicit subsidies like renewable portfolio standards, priority access to the grid, net metering, etc.

Utilities pay billions to insure their nuclear plants. What about insurance? Utilities are required to buy the maximum amount of insurance available and pay into an additional fund of $12.6 billion in the event of an accident. And while federal loans for nuclear power plants are quite new (only one has been accepted), new nuclear power projects are under construction in South Carolina sans federal loans.

Nuclear scales seven times faster than renewables. Bittman claims renewables can scale quickly while nuclear is slow — the opposite is the case: nuclear can be scaled seven times faster than renewables. One recent analysis examined how quickly countries could add energy from various sources over an 11-year period in terms of how much additional energy was added per person (MWh/person/yr). Sweden, France, and Belgium’s nuclear build-out were the fastest, adding 5-7 MWh/person/yr. What of Germany’s push into renewables over the last decade? It added just 1 MWh/person/yr of wind and solar over the same amount of time.

The only country that has decarbonized at a fast enough rate to meet climate targets was France during its massive nuclear build-out. It went from zero percent nuclear to 80 percent in 30 years.

Sweden voted in 1980 to phase-out nuclear power by 2010, but this plan was cancelled over concerns of climate change and the realization that renewables were not a feasible option. And while coal use is shrinking in the United States, it is because of cheap natural gas, not a valuation of externalities. 

No energy technology is perfectly clean, and solar panel production creates toxic waste. Bittman imagines solar is clean but the mining of materials used in solar panels is extremely toxic, and the production of PV solar panels produces more SO2 than when coal is burned (per unit of energy created). About 80 percent of European solar panels are manufactured in China, whose environmental and occupational protections may not be up to Bittman’s standards. In 2011, massive protests erupted in China after an accident at a solar panel factory resulted in a toxic waste spill.

Advanced nuclear reactors are being developed around the world. There have been a variety of designs built and tested over the decades, from salt-cooled to gas-cooled, pebble-bed to liquid fueled. In 1986, the US EBR-II plant performed a demonstration of its advanced passive safety features, where power was shut off, cooling ceased, and the reactor was able to shut-down and cool itself without any human or mechanical intervention. A similar test was performed with a gas-cooled reactor in China in 2004. The Superphénix plant in France – another sodium-cooled fast reactor that operated from 1986-97 – was 1200 MW, larger than most commercial nuclear power plants today. None of the examples above are “coulds.”

Since they use fuel much more efficiently, advanced reactors would lessen the need for uranium mining. Some new reactors can use nuclear waste as fuel or decommissioned weapons material, meaning there is much less need for new uranium to be mined. And while uranium mining can indeed be dangerous, it’s not nearly as dangerous or environmentally harmful as coal mining.

Antinuclear activists are one of the greatest threats to action on the climate. Bittman likely has no sense of the scale that’s required to deal with climate change. Consider that if a single 500 MW nuclear reactor is taken off the grid, over 100,000 solar home installations and 750 wind turbines would need to be installed in order to generate enough power to fill the void. Bittman fears the new nuclear craze, but what’s crazy, and scary, is his insistence that we shut down the development of new, advanced nuclear plants that have proven to be able to displace coal. As former NASA climate scientist James Hansen said, “The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed.”

Photo Credit: Renewables Delusions/shutterstock

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Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 8, 2013 6:26 pm GMT

Seems to me the high temperatures of the salt must be translated into producing enough energy to be practically useful. Given material limitations, the resulting design is complex, with material temperature imposed limitations on the practical efficiency and capabilities of the plant. Further, the MSR produces many complexities as far as practical maintenance considereations are concerned. In other words, the MSR has to be a safe, practical power plant that can be readily operated, which seems an unlikely possibility.

These considerations point to a high cost design that will be unable to compete in today’s (or tomorrows) power markets. That is, in my opinion, why there is not a lot of interest in the concept; it seems unlikely to be an economical approach for power production.

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on Sep 8, 2013 6:47 pm GMT

In my opinion the main forces opposing Nuclear are the same forces opposing renewables.

Safe Nuclear is definetly part of the solution the Nuclear community and the Renewables community should be working together for change.

I will defend renewables and always be an advocte for them.

The history of Nuclear energy has shown us what can be done.

The industry itself has caused most of the objections the high cost the issues with waste disposal and the safety record. Saying we killed less people than coal is not a great argument.

The industry needs to improve it’s methods however that is going to take time a long time,

In the meantime renewables which can be deployed much faster can start the process to a carbon free energy world powered world.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 8, 2013 7:45 pm GMT

“… thousands of square miles of the earth uninhabitable as nuclear energy has…”

What do you mean “uninhabitable”?  Do you mean that if a person or animal went there, they would drop dead in a day or a year? (I don’t believe there is much if any land that is that contaminated, outside of the nuclear plant grounds themselves.)  Do you mean that living there would be worse for your health than living downwind of a Chinese or Russian coal-fired plant? (Perhaps there is some land in that category, but not much: the animals that live near Chernobyl are thriving.)  Do you mean that the land is not available for most human uses or natual ecosystems, like the tens of thousands of square miles that would be dedicated to power our society if we relied on solar energy, or the many hundreds of thousands of square miles if we relied on biomass?  (Note that the most severe nuclear contamination is temporary, with a 30 year half-life; our need for energy is permanent.)  These real-world comparison points always seem to be missing from technical material describing “horrible” contamination.

On nuclear waste disposal, are you aware that we have been safely and permanently disposing of military nuclear waste for over a decade in the New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in which the waste is buried in a 100 million year old salt formation?  Are you aware that interim above-ground storage in dry casks is commonly used, and is extremely cost effective, and reduces the amount of space that is ultimately needed for underground permanent repositories; also that interim use of dry cask storage gives our decendents the option to beneficially use this potentially valuable material?  In other words, our current waste disposal actions makes sense from a technical and economic perspective, in spite of the fact that they have been criticised harshly by detractors.

In terms of culpability, I agree the Creationists mostly cause no harm.  The nuclear opponents, however, are a primary factor in prolonging our addiction to fossil fuels, which entails much harm to our society. Most haven’t ever really looked past their own retoric and scrutinized the facts.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 8, 2013 9:46 pm GMT

Regarding the B&W efforts towards small reactors as well as Westinghouse’s SMRs (scaled down AP1000s). This is what the nuke industry should have done in the first place. But there is this culture in engineering/geekworld that well yes we can build it this size, but why not bigger? And of course they see that bigger is often better*(or not, see sidebar below) and the bean counters look at it and go well this will probably going to be cheaper.Riiiiiiight.

I think had they started with SMR builds, operations and maintenance would have been much cheaper. With concomitant issues of water use and land use, smaller reactors would have had an easier time for siting and might have changed some of the public perception of nuclear power. The advantage I see is that replacing current and very aged facililities with SMR’s allows for speedier build out as we try to decrease our carbon footprint as fast as possible. There is the additional benefit of allowing for selective decommisioning as renewable energy matures, although I think we will be with nuclear for a rather long time, but this is an option. That is instead of closing down a 1,000-1,300 reactor and creating a big hole in production or the necessity of having larger amonts of renewable replacements for switchover, we can shut down one or two 150-200MW SMR’s at a time and manage the renewable build out much more easily.

BTW, I am anything but pro-nuke, aside from the expense and the incompetence in engineering designs and implementation from Rancho Seco to San Onofre,  I really dislike the nuclear fuel cycle as a whole. Mining operations, mine tailings, etc. and the illnesses and deaths therefrom are conveniently not enumerated when the nuclear industry touts safety. Coal though has a nasty nuclear problem to accompany the CO2 output as many of us know, and the soup of toxic heavy metals its use spews out into biosphere makes it less palatable to me than than nuclear.  Yes this is an old study that I read way back in my Cal days but it is well done. It’s nicely pdf’d.

Sidebar. For entertainment value only so hold off on the trigger fingers. Why is bigger not always better? Fans of the Who may want to visit this performance from the Smothers Brothers Show way back in the 60’s, and check out the ending.

At the time the end of a typical Who set Pete Towneshend would be smashing his guitar and Moon would set off a small charge in one of his bass drums as the climax.   I was on an interview shoot with Tom and Dick Smothers many years ago and he tells of how the CBS fx guys in the studio thought that the stage charge was kind of small so they added another larger charge to Moon’s cannon which had failed to go off earlier during rehearsal.  So you had about three to four charges in the cannon and the resulting explosion was quite big, shooting shrapnel into Moon’s arm and singing Townshends hair. There are other versions of this story but this is the one I recall.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 8, 2013 9:06 pm GMT

Your 4x cost of solar is way off.   Solar is $2000/KW for moderately sized 4-8KW installations. A Vanadium redox battery can cost about 500-$700/KWH. For 100MWH size or larger, $450/KWH and even larger systems, Prudent costs additional storage for larger installations at $270/KWH. So for large installations, storage is nearly a magnitude less per KWH than the $/KW installation. (always fun with KW and KWH, it’s like apples and pears). These systems are manufactured by numerous companies including Prudent Energy in China and Sumitomo in Japan, the latter building a 60MWH facility for a Japanese utility that has solar as part of its mix. The commercial sized 3.5MWH installation in Southern Caifornia requires very little supervision except for the occasional eyeball check and the electronic monitoring of the vanadium redox flow batteries. Like most batteries output can vary according to demand, similar to a UPS system. Temperature range of operation is 22 to 122 degrees F. Efficiency about 75% and the charge lasts a long time. You can plunk these into neighborhood power substations as distributed energy storage of renewable as well as off-peak production.

According to Prudent Energy

“There are only two moving parts in the VRB-ESS. These are low maintenance long life pumps, which require replacement every 5 to 7 years. All other operations and maintenance costs are limited to possibly two visits per year to check on overall status of the system. Detailed on line data is available to determine if any unplanned maintenance is required. Operations are automatic and programmed into the system controller. We estimate an O&M cost of $0,008/kWh is required. Reliability is thus very high. We have proven availability figures of over 96% over 5 year periods.”

Interesting timing. Because right now there is not enough solar in the USA that really needs to be stored.  You can and should store some but any that exceeds the site’s needs and goes onto the grid gets used up. Compare the CAL-ISO output on a really hot day and a lower temperature day you will see solar available to the grid drop down by several hundred MW as the on site usage increases to meet local HVAC demands. So the real need will be in a year or two when California’s solar output more than doubles yet again to something like 4-5 GW and by then the commercial availability of storage will be more ubiquitous. If you think this is not possible take a look around and do some market research. Renewables and storage is a very fast moving market with something new every month. I can tell you from personal experience that similar technology and market races are going on in everything from cloud storage to film and TV production. Along with headaches and sleepless nights.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 9, 2013 12:05 am GMT

Michael, the small MSRE at Oak Ridge produced 8MW for four years, about the equivalent of six 2MW wind turbines at capacity factor of .3 with a tiny fraction of the footprint. Hastelloy-N was the steel used for metal components and it functioned well, although newer ceramic components like those used in modern jet engines may prove more durable. Once the reaction is started it is self sustaining with addition of U-233 or thorium as needed – no downtime for refueling. So the concept is far from an “unlikely possibility” – at least on that scale, it’s proven.

Passive safety and ambient pressure of the salt coolant would likely make construction far less expensive than traditional PWRs. It burns nuclear waste from other reactors; the amount of waste it produces is less by two orders of magnitude; the waste it produces is radioactive for hundreds of years instead of thousands.

The main challenges facing utility scale thorium powered MSRs are in order of importance:

1) Improved durability of graphite moderators, or an alternative method of slowing fast neutrons

2) Improved durability of metals under high temperatures and neutron flux

3) Chemical separation of actinide byproducts

If you have some specific information on which of these problems is intractable and why, I’d love to hear it. As I’ve already pointed out, there is a lot of interest in the concept in the nuclear engineering community and it’s political problems, not technical ones, which have sidelined development for 40 years.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 9, 2013 2:56 am GMT

The objective of the plant is to provide power. That means some form of thermodynamic cycle must be employed.

If the cycle is Brayton based, then material limitations of the metal used come directly into play and that places a limit on the efficiency of the cycle. The metal temperature limits are identified in the ASME Boiler & Pressure Vessel Code. Trying to move very high-temperature fluids is difficult and not easily accomplished.

If a Rankine steam cycle is employed, similar constraints exist due to the properties of water and the capabilities of the metals containing the working fluids. Once again, the ASME Code sets the material limits.

Further, fast reactors are difficult (but not impossible) to safely control, with a whole host of technically related challenges to obtain regulatory approval of the various accidents and events.

The point is, a physics experiment or government prototype is a long ways from a commercial and competitive power plant. The technical problems are, in fact, many and difficult. Politics is yet another can-of-worms and not the major hurdle.

The fundamental problem is economics and the ability to compete in the power markets. The combined-cycle power plant is a formidable competitor and is the technology that must be bested in a head-to-head contest. These machines are much more capable reaching very high temperatures (and corresponding high efficiencies) than reactors. These types of power plants are also inherently very low-cost to build.

Until such time as the MSR can be proven to be a much more cost effective power plant than a combined-cycle plant, there is no compelling reason for any utility to build an MSR. Politics is but a minor player.

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on Sep 9, 2013 4:39 am GMT

Efficiency matters if your burning hydrocarbons the energy density in Nuclear fuels means you have the flexibility to take it back a notch.

Why not run at temperatures and efficiencies that do not require special ceramic coated titanium alloy parts.

If that 10% less efficiency saves you a $Billion dollars and the plant can be built faster and fixed cheaper 

Why do you have to run at the absolute maximum efficiency theoretically possible.

As you said a Rankine or Brayton cycle basic heat engine a no brainer.

Nuclear should adopt the KISS principle think Russian tractor. 3 wheels are cheaper than 4.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 9, 2013 4:55 pm GMT

Until such time as the MSR can be proven to be a much more cost effective power plant than a combined-cycle plant, there is no compelling reason for any utility to build an MSR. Politics is but a minor player.”

The compelling reason is to address excess CO2. As has already been pointed out, coal emissions are killing people, too. I’m against carbon taxes, but if that’s what it takes to add in the REAL price of coal, then so be it.

Politics was a MAJOR player when they decided to cut the advanced nuclear programs of the 70’s and 80’s just before the long term proving stage. First, Nixon cut MSR for the fast reactor, then carter (?) cut the IFR for the silly enviro’s. 

The MSR is INHERENTLY more safe and about 200x more efficient, concerning fuels… who really cares about the thermodynamic cycle (in this case)… even coal (at 1,000,000x LESS power density) doesn’t!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 9, 2013 5:40 pm GMT

Michael, the MSRE was a thermal, slow neutron design that worked well (44% efficient) with a standard Rankine cycle turbine using technology that is nearly a half century old.

You say the technical problems are “in fact, many and difficult.” If so, specifically what are they? Why are agressive international projects in Canada, India, China, Australia, and the Czech Republic pursuing this technology while the U.S. Dept. of Energy sits on its hands? Why did respected physicists Edward Teller and Ralph Moir endorse the priniciple specifically  in respect to attacking climate change? The DOE bizarrely classifies thorium, a preferred MSR fuel, at the same radiotoxicity as plutonium (I’ve held pure thorium in my hand, and lived to talk about it) and forbids its use for commercial research.  This is all suggestive that the problems are indeed ones unique to entrenched American business interests.

“The combined-cycle power plant is a formidable competitor and is the technology that must be bested in a head-to-head contest”. CCGTs create carbon – lots of it – and thorium creates none. It’s about as common in the Earth’s crust as lead, and there is an easily-mineable and (for all practical purposes) unlimited supply. No fracking required. These factors alone beat gas hands down and warrant a funded research effort.

While domestic Transatomic Energy and FLIBE Energy are limited to working on theoretical designs, just over the border to the north David LeBlanc and his team at Terrestrial Energy, Inc. are building a working prototype. You might want to familiarize yourself with someone who is working through the various challenges hands-on, and is not discouraged in the least:

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 7:07 pm GMT

Fast neutron reactors are commercially proven, no rabbits need to be pulled out of hats.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 7:09 pm GMT


The UCS is not a reputable source whatsoever. They have done misleading work on GMO and nuclear that totally discredits them as being unbiased or scientific whatsoever.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 7:30 pm GMT

Wait a minute, how can James Hansen’s opinion on energy be so easily dismissed? As if the man is not intelligent enough and demonstratably motivated enough to form a valid opinion on the matter of clean energy? Thats just silly, his heavy endorsement of nuclear power ought to make anyone think twice about the subject.

Furthermore how is Mark Jacobsen, someone far less accomplished and without a background in energy or electrical/mechanical engineering, more qualified to speak on the subject than Hansen, a well renowned scientist with a PHD in physics?

Mark Jacobson’s analysis regarding a renewable powered economy is completely void of any real economic consideration and is severely lacking in analysis of how a large share of variable generation will meet peak demand for every single second of a given year.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 9, 2013 7:35 pm GMT

Again, physics experiments (MSRE) are not power plants. The high-temperatures of the MSR have to be translated into something that can safely generate power and at costs that are competitive. That is the point of the exercise, with the reactor simply a means to help reach that end, presumably as driven by low-cost nuclear fuel. However, the high-cost of building a nuclear plant generally completely overwhelms that consideration. Efficiency thus becomes a tool to try and deal with the high build cost.

Designs that generate steam (for steam turbines) mean that some form of heat exchanger is required and the secondary side is at a vastly higher pressure than the molten salt reactor side. Metals generally are limited to a temperature that yields about 1060 F steam – practical efficiency in low 40% range. However, a tube rupture sends high pressure water into the low-pressure reactor side, with catastrophic consequences (steam explosions). This particular path may be untenable from a practical licensing standpoint. Employ another intermediate system to counteract the steam explosion risk, and efficiency drops and the plant becomes more complex (costly).

An alternative design would be some form of Brayton (presumably a helium gas turbine) cycle. The practical limit of metals that move the working fluid is likely in the 1400 F range at pressures well above that of the reactor. Practical efficiency level somewhere in the low 40% range.

Contrast the above with combustion turbines whose firing temperatures are approaching 2900 F and plant efficiencies pushing past 55%. Couple that with the lowest plant build cost (by a huge margin) and you have a very formidable competitor.

As for CO2, remains conjecture that is becoming increasingly less than the catastrophic boogey-man touted by the environmentalist lobby. That means the competitor to beat is the combined-cycle power plant. If you cannot soundly beat that means of power production, then the MSR is a poor investment.

As for thorium, it is a fertile material, just like uranium-238 which we have vast quantities. The thorium material has been used in US commercial reactors, but the economics of using uranium are better. Ditto for using plutonium, which is routinely created in commercial reactors but is too expensive to reprocess relative to the once-thru uranium cycle.

The MSR proponents need to specifically address economics instead of trying to hand-wave around this key consideration.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 7:40 pm GMT

‘If you include all 50 years of subsidies for Nuclear in today’s dollars, Renewables have recieved a much lower amount in comparrison’

its subsidy dollars per kWh produced which is the meaningful metric. In that regard nuclear power relies on much less government support than wind and solar before considering inevitable storage needs and grid modifications required to scale them up.

“In one year the equivilant of 8- 10 Nuclear plants of renewables were deployed”

Where and does this account for capacity factors?

“Which is going to reduce GHG from coal the fastest?”

based on historical data the answer to that question is clearly nuclear:


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 9, 2013 7:40 pm GMT

Fast neutron reactors are not commercially proven. In point of fact, they have been utterly dismal investments that rarely operate. That particular technolgy needs a lot more work and may never be competitive.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 7:56 pm GMT

“I stand by my original statement. You are wrong. The first French NPP sets were built in 1981, that is almost 40 years ago, using Westinghouse licenses. Time to mothball them, no?”


Since there are 59 operating reactors in France I would say I was right. We should mothball valuable carbon free energy generating assets? well if we are feeling foolish we might. France is intelligent and will operate the majority of these plants as long as their board of auditors say it is safe to do so. Especially since decomissioning funds are collected through operation.

I think France would be wise to add some renewables, wind can be cost effective, though offshore wind has not been thus far in its history. Wind and Hydro should be a part of the energy mix in most any country, but hydro isn’t so scalable, and wind cannot provide controllable or predictable energy like nuclear can, so a heavy share of nuclear is needed for most countries to remove heavy shares of fossil fuel generation.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 8:01 pm GMT

such a lengthy response which can be rebutted in brevity:

Biomass and biogas have very low energy density and cannot contribute much to global GHG emissions reduction without taking up significant portions of land.

“I am a shareholder of EcoPower cvba, a cooperative supplying my home with 100% renewable sourced electricity 34/7/365 when my home soalr PV are not producing”

Perhaps you should take the time to learn how the utility compensates for distributed PV and what costs are associated with doing so on a large scale.

Nuclear energy is a very very viable answer to the global warming conundrum.


George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 8:14 pm GMT

Again you seem to be quite unaware of the land requirements of providing a large share of a developed nations energy needs via biomass. It isn’t feasible.

Geothermal, sure the potential resource is enormous, but extracting from it isn’t easy or cheap (compared to wind, hydro, or nuclear) and can cause earthquakes.

Wind is already cost-effective in many places (when effects of intermittency are ignored) but scaling it up beyond 20% of grid electricity in a given area is questionable technically, environmentally, and economically.

Your analysis of Vogtle is funny. The state of Georgia will produce 40% of its electricity emissions free through nuclear when the additions to Vogtle are complete. Now these new reactors (the first built in the states in 30 years) are expensive, but are they more expensive than creating an equivalent amount of energy from wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc?


and its not even close. It would take 2800 2.5 MW wind turbines, a large amount of new transmission infrastructure, lowered usage rates on dispatchable generators, and costly grid infrastructure and oversight additions to create an equivalent amount of annual energy as just one of the new Vogtle reactors. And where would these turbines be sited in a state with heavy forests and low wind resource?

The case for solar is much worse. Ditto for Geothermal. and biomass. No where to build such a large hydro plant.

Please dont respond with some super long bunch of non-sense again.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 8:22 pm GMT

Allison Mcfarlane, like her predecessor Gregory Jackzo, has heavy ties to Harry Reid and was appointed to her position largely because of this political connection.

Harry Reid is the main combative force against Yucca.

Read the Yucca Mtn Wikipedia page for starters. The storage repository is very very well studied. The conlcusion that politics, not science, are keeping Yucca from being utilized is very apparent to anyone persistent enough to sift through the facts.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 8:35 pm GMT

Hmm strange response… I was comparing all three as services….

Yes railroads provided a transportation service in a more cost effective and practical manner than other sources.

Same goes for internet data services.

Wind and solar are both different because depending on geographic region the service they provide is provided in a more practical and cost-effective manner by other options (which often benefit from less federal and state subsidy). Your assertion that TX is installing wind turbines to avoid water scarcity is a correlational fallacy. If one examines the wind industry deployment projections being made at the end of 2012 when the PTC was expected to expire it was clear that very few turbines would be deployed without heavy federal subsidy.



George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 8:43 pm GMT

But why should an owner of a PV system get a higher rate for the electricity they produce than the wholesale rate that dispatchable generators get (~4c/kWh), especially considering that PV is a variable source which is reliant on and increases costs (reduces profitiability) for essential dispatchable generation?

PV systems lower usage rates of transmission infrastructure, but the PV systems owner still relies on transmission infrastructure at night or during clound cover. And as it turns out usage of transmission infrastructure costs a utility very little, it is the fixed costs of that infrastructure that are costly.

Dispatchable generation assets lose usage due to PV which pushes ammortization schedules and raises overall costs for electricity. They also use fuel less efficiently when they are increasingly in the position of operating on stand-by and ramping-up/down to compensate for large shares of variable generation.

I have no problem with PV, but PV advocates should be aware of the comprehensive costs of maintaining grid stability with large shares of it.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 8:47 pm GMT

Yes well again such a long response for something so simple.

The average price for advanced nuclear power is lower than photovoltaics in most parts of the world before considering storage and grid modification needs for large penetrations of solar. The economic benefit you directly experience due to solar is the result of a subsidy system.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 8:51 pm GMT

Oh really?

You might want to tell Russia that, apparently they were not aware and have already been successfully operating commercial fast reactors.

Where did you gain your nuclear expertise and insight from?

Can you tell me again how global warming is a total and complete farce? And if you believe that to be true then why the hell are you wasting your time on a such a site as this?


George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 9:02 pm GMT

An objective mind sees only the forces of the natural world and the potential tied to them, not this psychologically delusional notion of ‘industry’. We’re not on teams here, nuclear is your power source is much as it is mine.


The history of nuclear research is chock full of examples where promising research was abandoned for political or other reasons. People who say that we should give up on it because it hasnt advanced much in 50 years basically don’t understand much about experimentation in the nuclear industry. A startup can build a new photovoltaic cell or wind turbine with a fraction of a fraction of the capital investment required for nuclear, and with none of the required government oversight. In reality nuclear is very immature, and its potential to create low cost energy on a global scale is far greater than any other clean energy source that we know of.


If we are talking about avoiding global warming as much as possible while raising the standard of living for billions, Nuclear energy is the most viable option. All technologies can contribute and have advantages, but ignoring the huge advantage that nuclear materials have in energy density is just, well, ignorant.

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on Sep 9, 2013 9:11 pm GMT

@ George

A quick reponse

If we subsidise advanced Nuclear in preferance to renewables how would the economic benefit be different?

How many Countries can realistically develop an advanced Nuclear industry?

How many Countries would we prefer not to develop a Nuclear industry?

Now compare that to those than can develop an advanced renewables industry.

Which approach is likely to benefit their economies more in the next 20 yrs?


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 9, 2013 9:09 pm GMT

The Russians design and build reactors that blow-up. Most could not be licensed to Western standards.

The climate has not been heating up anywhere near the rates predicted by the various models that created the hysteria in the first place. In fact, the heating of the planet has paused for +15 years. That is an obvious tip-off that the models are overlooking key complexities in the climate. Thus, panic is simply not warranted.

I am attempting to bring light to those in the darkness.

And your credentials are what …?

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 9:13 pm GMT

Yes I agree that conservation is the cheapest way to reduce emissions in most cases, but when CA has more electrified transport (which is seemingly inevitable) and requires more desal their electrical usage will stay relatively steady.

And again CA is a blip compared to India, China, and Africa where electricity is scarcily yet available but will be. Globally speaking cleaner energy generation is essential. Conservation can’t do it all.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 9:20 pm GMT

This is an outdated understanding of nuclear plants. There are several nuclear reactors available today from the likes AREVA and CANDU that can follow demand almost as nimbly as natural gas plants.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Sep 9, 2013 9:41 pm GMT

George, please indulge me in this, I’m really quite curious.  About 4 years before being tapped as Obama’s choice for chairman, McFarlane gave an interview to MIT’s Technology Review.  In that interview she said the following….


TR: Only last year, the Bush administration filed the necessary application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct Yucca. Now Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, says Yucca is “off the table.” Is it really unsuitable?

AM: Yes. The area is seismically and volcanically active. More significantly, the repository would have an oxidizing environment–meaning materials there would be exposed to free oxygen in the air. Neither spent nuclear fuel nor canister materials are stable in such an environment in the presence of water. The United States is the only country that is considering a repository in an oxidizing environment.

TR: Then why was Yucca Mountain the government’s choice for 22 years?

AM: Mostly political reasons. Originally three sites were considered: Yucca, and ones in Texas and Washington State. Congress balked at the price tag of characterizing three sites at once. In the ensuing fight to keep the waste program alive, Nevada was the politically weakest of the three and lost the battle.


…George, do you believe these concerns to be completely without any merit whatsoever? If so, why did her nomination not face stiffer opposition? I mean not one dissenting voice against her confirmation.  Even the NEI supported her confirmation.  Also, please describe these “ties” to Harry Reid.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 9, 2013 9:29 pm GMT

No Im not behind the times, your list of storage capacity is but a spec of dust in comparison to global electricity production.

When battery banks are more economical than peaking plants then I am sure that profit-driven utilities will rapidly adopt them.



Paul O's picture
Paul O on Sep 10, 2013 6:17 am GMT

Question 1)  If we subsidise advanced Nuclear in preferance to renewables how would the economic benefit be different?


a) Land use is better with Nuclear Power, it does not compete with Agriculture, or destroy scenic landscapes, or endanger wildlife

b) It can provide Process heat for industrial use, winter heating.

c) Power output can be increased on the same plot for future needs and increasing populations. Virtually no limit to the power output we can build or design for.

These are all vital econimic gains.


Question 2) How many Countries can realistically develop an advanced Nuclear industry?



Very few, that is why we want to sell the advanced reactors, possibly modular. The question is not really cogent.


Question 3: How many Countries would we prefer not to develop a Nuclear industry?



Many Countries (Syria etc), that is why we’ll sell them reactors , and not expect them to develop anything.


Renewables have the same flaws regardless of whose developing or deploying them, among these are Expansive sequestration of land, Intermittency, None dispatchablility, dependency upon weather, higher maintenance frequency or replacement of units (PVs or Windmills), not easy to expand output for future growth and needs (especially in congested densely populated countries), inability to supply heat.

Further, renewables require people to bend their energy usage (change their lives) to accomodate what the weather dependent renewable has to offer them on a given day (hence net metering and smart grids).


Sometimes it just feels like Large scale renewables are a forced solution formented by people who just don’t want nuclear power at any means whatsoever (Lovins et al).

Gerry Runte's picture
Gerry Runte on Sep 10, 2013 8:05 am GMT

Nuclear’s share of global electricity generation was about 13.5% in 2012.  It will only be about 12.8% by 2020.

You need to look at the subsidies study done by the Congressional Research Office.  You also need to be careful how “subsidy” is defined.  

Gerry Runte's picture
Gerry Runte on Sep 10, 2013 8:11 am GMT

First, a comment on comparing nuclear with photovoltaics that I posted a few days ago:

Until large scale economic energy storage becomes available, anyone who compares large nuclear plants- or any other form of central baseloaded generation – to renewables is advertising that they don’t understand how electricity delivery systems function.  When you can adequately aggregate intermittent generation through storage, then maybe a comparison could be made, as long as the incremental grid infrastructure is included in the equation.  The question, of course, is whether the central generation model is still viable in all regions.

Regarding cost, with the exception of China, Russia, South Korea and India, where actual costs are not exactly transparent, installed costs for nuclear are averaging above $7,000 kW.  Add in operating costs and the levelized buss bar cost for  new unit is in the neighborhood of 14 cents/kwh.

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on Sep 10, 2013 9:13 am GMT

Why can’t we do both?  

Install renewables which continue to lower their cost and improve their efficiency.

Export the equipment, technology and knowhow we develop for renewables.

While waiting for advanced Nuclear to actually be developed into a commercial product.

Then the construction time for the plants and the Transmissssion lines and grids to be upgraded.

Any Grid improvements and Upgrades needed by renewables will also be there for Nuclear when it eventually happens.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Sep 10, 2013 1:35 pm GMT

We are developing both as we should.

Problem is that Many Governments and States are filled with Renewables enthusiasts and Groups who are trying to Abolish Nuclear power, who are trying to shut down perfectly good nuclear plants, and who think that Renewables can completely provide all our energy links (there are such link even here at TEC.


These Enthusiast want to Erase Nuclear Power completely. I strongly disagree. We could be building 3rd Generation Nuclear like the AP 1000, along with researching 4th Generation nuclear.



Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 10, 2013 4:39 pm GMT

Michael, you are bending over backwards to exaggerate design challenges of MSRs when no significant ones exist.

• In the case of power generation, high temperatures are an advantage for generating power from CCGTs.

• Your assumption for the “high cost of building a nuclear plant” is based on current high-pressure, solid fuel core designs and not applicable.

• Higher Brayton cycle gas efficiencies are irrelevant when thorium, per unit of energy generated, is orders of magnitude cheaper than natural gas with virtually none of the environmental concerns. No fracking – discussion of which is conspicuously muted on your end.

• The thorium fuel cycle offers several advantages over U-238, including 3.3 times the neutron absorption cross section, better chemical stability, better proliferation resistance, and fewer long-lived transuranic wastes. So I would like to see some support for your contention that “the economics of using uranium are better” (?)

• Regarding CO2 and the environment – you hold an outlier  position which is becoming less tenable by the minute, and if anything concerns have been significanlty underestimated. Call it a “boogey-man”, call it whatever you like – denying there’s a serious problem puts you squarely at odds with the most accomplished and knowledgeable scientists in the world.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 10, 2013 4:47 pm GMT

Gerry, I would like to see your source but don’t have the patience to hunt it down.

I’d respectfully request that you provide your own specific references/links to support your opinion. Thank you.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 10, 2013 4:50 pm GMT

We can do both and that is in fact what is happening but at a pace far too slow to matter.

Nuclear is actually developed into a commercial product and becoming safer and more modularized with each generation. From your commentary it seems you are quite unaware of Rosatum, EDF, AREVA, or Toshiba-Westinghouse and how they are selling and constructing reactors in Vietnam, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, India, Iran and several other countries.

Renewables can play a role, but the current technologies cannot enormously offset fossil fuel combustion globally due to the economic and technical constraints of providing on-demand grid compatible electricity. Nuclear is an absolute requirement to a meet emissions reduction goals, even the EU energy comissioner has acknowledged this:

I think all practical clean energy options should be funded, but I feel that common logic gives funding priority to the energy source with the most potential. Nuclear energy simply has the most potential to meet energy requirements with low cost because

a) it is a stored form of energy

b) the energy density is enormous compared to other options and efficiencies of current reactors are far below experimental demonstration, meaning that the land, raw material and human labor inputs are far less for nuclear than for wind solar etc.

c) it is easily extractable compared to other sources and completely scalable. It is often said that the solar and wind resources of the Earth are many times greater than peak demand. That is great but of course extracting that energy is another thing all together and using only renewables to scale to the energy demand of population dense areas is unfeasible in most cases. Entire nations and cities have been powered by nuclear energy for decades.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 10, 2013 5:07 pm GMT


I compare nuclear and photovoltaics while acknowledging that photovoltaics have limitations on overall contribution to a localized grid system without a storage medium. I understand quite well how electrical grids function and why the advertised price for PV does not reflect comprehensive costs of scaling such a variable generation technology up, that is my point in comparing the two.

The EIA projects the total LCOE of advanced nuclear in the US to be $0.108/kWh in 2018.

Not many nuclear plants have been built recently, and modular builds from the likes of Toshiba-Westinghouse have only begun to see commercial deployment. Nuclear power has an interesting cost history, it doesn’t seem out of the question that the passive safety systems and modular build-out of new Gen3 reactors will allow them to meet EIA forecasts of 10c/kWh. Such a price is still high but is still likely the best option for clean energy considering the comprehensive costs of maintaining grid stability.


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 10, 2013 5:12 pm GMT

The combustors used with gas turbines are relatively straightforward to cool, which means high temperatures can be achieved reasonably readily. That is not the case for applications where high temperature fluids must be transported down a pipe, which is the case for the MSR.

Nuclear power plants require a lot of steel, concrete, piping, etc. to deal with the various systems used, and in particular to deal with the various accidents and events prescribed by regulations. That is a obstacle faced by all nuclear plants. As no MSR has ever been designed and licensed in the US, the actual costs are a bit of a mystery.

The high cost of the nuclear portion of the plant has to be compensated for by some form of cost reduction. Efficiency improvements are one approach, economies-of-scale is another approach. Making the reactor smaller (less costly) is another approach, but that runs completely counter to the well proven “economies-of-scale” approach.

“Fracking” is accomplished at very deep levels (thousands of feet) in the earth and is not an environmental issue in the real world.

Thorium does indeed have a number of attractive features, but the uranium fuel cycle is the one that is currently being used because of economic considerations. Using thorium is not a good fit with the conventional water reactors currently in use.

The entire “climate-catastrophe-caused-by-man” is in reality becoming ever shakier as the planet’s temperatures simply refuse to follow the models. The “most accomplished and knowledgeable scientists in the world” have got a major problem on their hands that no amount of name dropping can overcome.

If the MSR is to be pursued, then convincing arguments need to be made based primarily on economics (as in the MSR is more cost effective option than the alternatives). Absent that proof, the MSR will remain an interesting curiosity.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 10, 2013 5:12 pm GMT

Russia currently has the most successful commercial reactor company in the world. They have come a long way since Chernobyl and even the UK is looking to source reactors from them now.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 10, 2013 7:05 pm GMT

Reponse at top of column.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 10, 2013 7:06 pm GMT

Michael, your argument is making less and less sense the more we get into specifics.

The very simple MSR at Oak Ridge used molten salts at a sustained temperature of 1200 degrees F, which transferred heat energy to a secondary loop much as current PWR designs do. It worked at the equivalent of full power for 1.5 years with no significant problems.

Nuclear power plants – and gas power plants – require a lot of steel, concrete, piping and other construction materials. Your attempt to artificially inflate the material requirements of MSRs has no basis whatsoever. Costs for MSRs are indeed a bit of a mystery, as they are with every new technology – but there’s nothing to suggest they’ll be more than traditional nuclear plants, and much to suggest they’ll cost less.

“The high cost of the nuclear portion of the plant” is an assumption you have yet to support so the rest of that paragraph is irrelevant, as is the point that “thorium is not a good fit with the conventional water reactors currently in use”. They’re not the point of this discussion.

Without getting into a debate on climate change, which would be a complete waste of time, I’ll just point out that denying anthropogenic roots in increased atmospheric carbon levels, and failing to draw a line to the disappearance of Arctic ice and increased average global temperatures is increasingly akin to believing the Earth is flat. If you are finding your beliefs more marginalized as time goes on, there are very good reasons.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 10, 2013 7:46 pm GMT

At the inception of the Yucca project the storage term was to be defined as 250 years, as the commercial technology already exists to fission said spent fuel in fast neutron reactions,lowering half-life of waste to the scale of decades.

The oxidation problem that Macfarlane presents only factors into a scenario where waste is stored for thousands of years and active measures are not taken to ensure the integrity of containment. Commercial reactors exist today that can burn spent fuel and reduce the half life down to a length of decades, and there is no reason that waste containment cannot be replaced/refurbished/modified over the course of hundreds of years if it were in fact to be stored that long. The seismic activity of the area has been fully investigated by the DOE. The DOE has reported that the repository is safe for storage of the waste for several thousands of years, and is no doubt safe for the much shorter term for which it would actually be needed.

There certainly is opposition within the nuclear industry against those who lobby against Yucca including Macfarlane Jackzo and Reid, but it is more important at this point to move on and find a fully consented storage site which is why Chu gave up on Yucca and Moniz has sought this year to establish a new government department that works solely with the management of nuclear waste at sites that are consented at both the state and federal level.

The storage issue is so overblown it is comical. The volume of the waste is quite miniscule for a source that provides 1/5 power for the most powerful nation on Earth. There are many many solutions for storing it, the delay in doing so is just a bunch of political hot air.



Gerry Runte's picture
Gerry Runte on Sep 10, 2013 10:58 pm GMT

EIA’s numbers are for a $5,400 kW installed cost plant with 2 cents/kWh for O&M.  New nuclear is more like $7,000/kW awith higher O&M.  

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 10, 2013 11:53 pm GMT

Even without subsidies Texas ERCOT is planning for more than 1000MW to be built in 2014 and already 249MW is planned for 2015.   As for the necessity of wind and solar power? Try 3 years of drought.
When power plants have to curtail ooutput because of lack of coolant, where are they going to get their energy if not from wind and solar?

This is what happens in TX when yo don’t have enough water.

“Nearly 40 percent of water taken from rivers and lakes nationally gets used by power plants, according to Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Nuclear, coal and natural gas plants need significant amounts for cooling equipment. But most of that water goes back into the rivers after it is used for cooling — albeit at a slightly higher temperature, which can cause problems for fish. Webber told the committee that solar panels and wind plants need no water, and some types of gas plants need less water than others. Also, some cooling technologies can be less water-intensive than others, but they may cost more.”

Texas is now in its third year of drought—but is the end in sight, or are conditions getting worse?

Far more of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought now than in July 2012. The Panhandle and the Southeast Texas coast, which are important regions for ranching and agriculture, have been especially hard-hit. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, over 90 percent of Texas is in drought, and about 35 percent is in extreme drought.

Turbines will be built because the wind is free and that after paying for the initial cost you will make money.  Foundation Windower intalled ninstall a GE 1.5 MW at the busweiser plantin Fairfield, CA. Cost $4 million. Berfore credits. Annual production 3500MWH. Let’s say the price is $.10/KWh.  That’s $350,000/year. Payoff in less than 12 years. Add O&M costs make that  13. Own it for 25 years you are making gravy. Add tax incentives more gravy. But do you need tax incentives beyond normal depreciation and all? Nope? Didn’t even include that in my original BOTE caluclation. Which is why wind power will be built, tax credits or not.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Sep 11, 2013 12:25 am GMT

Good explanation. Thanks for taking the time.

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on Sep 11, 2013 1:17 pm GMT

George, the UCS links I gave above are to exhaustive studies that are well documented and authored by experts in the field.

Can you list a credible source that is also critical of nukes?  If not, it is just “shoot the messenger” and it is you who is biased, not UCS.  I.E. You just don’t like their position, so you slam the organization, attempting to “poison the well”.

Here are other critical sources.  You may tell us that they too are bogus.  But, to be convincing, you must share with us why their views/data  are wrong. 

1.  U.S. Nuclear Power in Decline
J. Matthew Roney

Of the 253 reactors that were ordered by 1978, 121 were canceled either before or during construction, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ David Lochbaum. Nearly half of these were dropped by 1978. The reactors that were completed—the last of which came online in 1996—were over budget three-fold on average.

2.  Report: Nuclear Received 4 Times More Subsidies Than Solar in CA

“Federal dollars per new megawatt-hour for distributed solar are infinitely lower.”


 3.  about the Progress Energy nuclear program:

Orlando Sentinel Slams The ‘Nuclear Tax’ Ratepayers Must Pay Progress Energy



Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 11, 2013 4:07 pm GMT

Jan, kind of odd that J. Matthew Roney claims nuclear power is “in decline”, then provides this graph:

Nuclear has been by far the fastest growing and most successful provider of zero carbon energy in history. Every reputable analyst sees the decline of the last few years as the result of low natural gas prices – nuclear simply cannot compete. If we include the health and environmental costs of natural gas nuclear wins hands down.

2. Re: “Federal dollars per new megawatt-hour for distributed solar are infinitely lower.” Really – “infinitely” lower? That kind of hyperbole is best ignored.

3. What the Orlando Sentinel article doesn’t mention is that by requiring customers to pay for new plants up front Progress Energy is saving them billions of dollars in interest payments, which they are legally entitled to levy later on (and do so on new gas plants).


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