Does nuclear power deserve to be in the Green New Deal?

“Joe Biden calls for 100 percent clean electricity by 2035,” the Washington Post wrote last July. Paying close attention to political statements is usually a waste of time, but words matter in headlines. The significant word in that one was “clean.” The word that was not there was “renewable.” This is more than a quibble. For the first time since the 1970s, the Democratic Party has both a platform and a president officially in favor of nuclear power.

Republicans have a lot of hot-button issues, such as gun control and abortion. The Democrats perhaps have fewer that generate emotional high drama, but nuclear power is one of them. For many politicians nuclear power is a charged third rail, best left untouched. Nuclear power was notable in the Green New Deal proposals of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts — for not being mentioned at all.

“Everything You Know Is Wrong” — The Firesign Theater, 1974

The semantic shift to “clean” betrays a grudging acknowledgement of an inconvenient truth: that decarbonizing the power grid without using nuclear power will be impossible. Every scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that does not end in catastrophe relies on nuclear power to limit global warming. The IPCC projections also depend upon wide-scale deployment of carbon capture technologies — most of which, other than trees, require energy inputs to work. Electrifying transportation is the holy grail of decarbonization; in the US, transportation passed electricity generation as the biggest source of carbon emissions in 2017. But electric vehicles will require a lot of electricity, the more carbon-free the better.

In this situation, older Democrats who came of political age in 1970s may be excused for hearing in their heads an echo of the Firesign Theater’s line from 1974: “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”

The decades of Democrat inner conflict over nuclear power must start with Jimmy Carter, a graduate of the Naval Academy who once planned to serve as an engineering officer onboard the USS Seawolf. As a young officer in 1952, Carter was detailed to an American team that helped clean up an experimental reactor at Chalk River, Ontario. Carter personally made multiple dashes into a hot zone, timed not to exceed 90 seconds. “For about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine,” Carter told the Ottawa Citizen in 2011. “They let us get probably a thousand times more radiation than they would now.”

Decades later, as president, Carter issued an executive order blocking approval of a completed state-of-the-art, privately financed spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Barnwell, South Carolina. Spent nuclear fuel is routinely processed in most countries — only 3% of it is dangerous, the rest actually commercially valuable — but Carter wanted to make a statement about nonproliferation. A scenario in which a civilian recycling plant is hijacked by terrorists sounds like bad a Hollywood script, but it played at the time. The decades-on consequence of Carter’s 1977 action — and subsequent ones by another Democrat, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who blocked the Yucca Mountain depository in his home state —was to transform an issue with an accepted technical solution into a permanent objection. The issue has now had a half-life 50 years, and counting.

When he became president in 1993, Bill Clinton used his his first State of the Union speech to make an anti-nuclear statement, announcing that he would seek to end research and development on advanced reactors at the US national laboratories. The research, Clinton asserted, was “not needed.” In the Senate, Clinton was aided in getting the defunding through by then Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

Kerry, recently named Biden’s climate “ambassador,” acknowledges having changed his mind about nuclear. “I remember the intensity of the nuclear debate when I first started in environment back in 1970,” Kerry told an MIT audience in 2017. “I was on the other side of it then. But given this challenge we face today and given the progress of fourth generation nuclear, [we have to] go for it. There is no other alternative.” The most notable loss in Clinton’s 1993 decision was work on the Argonne National Laboratory’s Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), a prototype that consumed its own waste and was extremely safe.

A few weeks after the Green New Deal announcement, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez added that she wanted to leave “the door open on nuclear, so that we can have that conversation.”

If we push on the open door and take a look at the state of nuclear power after the 50 years’ war, the landscape is bleak. Between 1977 and 2013, no nuclear reactors started construction in the US. Work on two started in 2013 in South Carolina was abandoned in July 2017. Long-time US nuclear national champion Westinghouse Electric, designer of the Navy’s ship and submarine reactors, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017. Its assets are owned by a Wall Street hedge fund. General Electric is now GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.

The nuclear power plants built in the 1970s, which presently generate some 20% of US electricity carbon-free, are on life extension or past it and scheduled to be closed. Diablo Canyon, which produces 23% of the California’s carbon-free electricity (in a state blessed with abundant hydropower), is to be replaced by natural gas. Indian Point, also scheduled to be closed, makes 10% of New York state’s electricity, including 25% of that used in New York City and Westchester County.

As for building replacement reactors, citizens of the US find themselves in the position of medieval peasants who stared at the Roman roads and aqueducts and wondered, “How did they do that?” Nuclear technology in the US has a rare thing— a “forgetting curve,” the opposite of learning curve. In his 2020 book “How Innovation Works,” author Matt Ridley felt compelled to add a chapter “Nuclear power and the phenomenon of dis-innovation.”

The phenomenon is all the more curious because the fundamental design of the pressurized water reactor has not changed since the 1950s. Nuclear power plants, in the words of British writer Simon Taylor, have become “Cathedrals to the cost of the baroque engineering needed to make the pressurized-water reactor even safer than it already is.” The UK’s Hinkley Point C reactor, which Taylor supports, may be the largest civil engineering project in Europe. The only two reactors now under construction in the US, at Georgia Power’s Vogtle site, will finish among the most expensive ever built.

If not exactly what the 1970s anti-nuclear activists envisioned, the economic death of the nuclear power industry was an acceptable outcome. It was, in fact, one they worked toward for decades.

The 1970s environmentalists pioneered an oppositional technique known as regulatory ratcheting. It can be used by a savvy, vocal minority that is against something, but lacks sufficient political clout to get it banned outright. The technique works by patiently cultivating safety concerns, then working on various boards and state agencies to translate them into rules. The ban is achieved by economics, in increments. To the chagrin of a few 1970s progressives, foes of abortion in Red states have adapted the technique, lobbying for rules that require everything from hospital admitting privileges for clinic doctors to minimum corridor widths for emergency evacuation.

Statistically, a person is more likely to be hit by lightening than die in a terrorist attack. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NCR) has an “airplane rule” that now requires concrete containment domes be built able to withstand 9/11 style attacks by

large, commercial aircraft used for long distance flights in the United States, with aviation fuel loading typically used in such flights, and an impact speed and angle of impact considering the ability of both experienced and inexperienced pilots to control large, commercial aircraft at the low altitude representative of a nuclear power plant’s low profile.

Containment dome top being placed on Georgia Power’s Vogtle 4 reactor, March 2020. Post-Fukushima, reactor designs were changed to gravity-feed coolant water in the event of a total loss of electrical power for pumps.

Fears work best if left vague and not subjected to examination. Nuclear weapons are terrifying; by association, so must be nuclear power. Wikipedia contains one entry for “Anti-nuclear movement,” not two. Nearly all accidents at nuclear power plants have been thermal in nature, hot teakettles allowed to run dry and melt on the stove, yet the public believes they are steps toward fission detonation.

Epistemology, we now know all too well, is emotional and tribal. The anti-nuclear wing in the Democratic base is not likely to change its mind by hearing facts in a debate. Nuclear power enjoys some bipartisan backing, so perhaps their support can be dispensed with. But if they learned anything in the 1970s, it was how to block things they disliked.

To find a world in which a Green New Deal might be reconciled with nuclear power we have to go farther back, to the original New Deal.

The 1930s New Deal did not use the word “deal” in the Donald Trump sense. Franklin Roosevelt was a poker player. A “new deal” is called for when the deck has been played out.

In the early 1930s, the laissez-faire approach to the economy of the 1920s certainly appeared to be played out. The New Deal consensus was that government needed to step in and do things to create jobs, and these things could be big. Interestingly, many of the massive public works projects of the era involved electrical power generation: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Grand Coulee dam; Hoover; Bonneville; and others. Grand Coulee remains the largest generator of electrical power in the US today.

While the New Dealers didn’t know it, these projects laid some groundwork for the nuclear era that followed. The Manhattan Project depended on cheap public electric power at its sites in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Washington. More important, the building of those 1930s mega-projects gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a chance to mature its management skills, which would prove crucial in the war. Every country had clever physicists who knew what could be done in theory; only the US was actually able to build a bomb.

Thus nuclear power and nuclear weapons were twins born out of the Second World War. The reactor or “atomic pile” actually emerged first, controlled fission being a necessary proof-of-concept for uncontrolled release in a bomb.

The plot of a 1946 film noir, “The Dark Mirror,” hinges on a folk belief that among twins there is a “good” one and an “evil” one. After the war, the nuclear twins grew up with all kinds of advantages. But they had difficulty, as twins sometimes do, establishing independent identities. The earliest nuclear reactors were “dual use.” While they could coincidentally generate electrical power, their primary purpose was to manufacture plutonium for weapons. Dual-use designs, it proved later, were inherently riskier. The Soviet RBMK reactor design, later made infamous at Chernobyl, was originally dual-use.

In the US, a different military choice became an anchor of reactor design — decades later seeming more like a concrete kimono. An unequivocal engineering triumph of the 1950s was Admiral Hyman Rickover’s program to build a nuclear-powered submarine; the USS Nautilus was launched on 21 January 1954.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571)

Rickover was a notorious perfectionist with exacting engineering standards. Putting a nuclear reactor into a submarine presented unique challenges. The boiler and pipes needed to be able to withstand all kinds of stress; tests on the Nautilus included depth charges. Rickover had served on submarines, and knew that if there was a valve or fitting, it would at some point spring a leak. Rickover was also keenly aware that anything on a submarine had to be “sailor-proof,” a concept best explained by the saying, “A sailor can break an anvil with a rubber mallet.” Nearly every nuclear accident, even Fukushima, which was caused by a tidal wave, has involved operators making dumb mistakes.

Rickover’s end product was a very highly engineered, indeed intentionally over-engineered, pressurized water reactor (PWR) design. These have served the Navy well for 70 years and, to anyone’s knowledge, not harmed a single sailor. The PWR would long be associated with Rickover’s prime contractor, Westinghouse.

It was a feature, not a bug, of the post-war economy that research underwritten by the military would transfer to the industrial side of the military-industrial complex. Commercial aviation in the US was a classic beneficiary. The electric power utilities saw Rickover’s naval reactor as just the ticket; all they needed to do was take the Nautilus’ PWR design, which produced 10 megawatts of power, and scale it up by a factor of 100. What could go wrong?

Thus, despite being a bit immature, and without having had an opportunity to make some youthful mistakes, the nuclear power twin got a job. Some work experience and experimentation would have been nice, but the utilities were eager. They had projections showing demand for electricity only going up in the 1960s and beyond. In that decade the utilities made a headlong, lemming-like rush into nuclear power; it was as if they all joined hands and jumped over the cliff at the same time. The Washington Public Power Supply System — WPPSS, forever known as “Whoops!” — ordered no fewer than five reactors. Two ended up cancelled before construction started; two were abandoned 75% complete.

It was not that pressurized water reactors were the wrong choice for the time; it was that other events were conspiring to make them the only choice. Normally, technologies get an opportunity to evolve, or be replaced. The PWR, by bad timing, became an irrevocable choice. Subsequent engineering efforts to improve it got channeled into making it safer under every imaginable scenario, from a total loss of back-up power to a takeover by malevolent operators. It was in what nuclear engineer James Mahaffey calls The Rickover Trap.

The first oil shock came in October 1973.

In an alternative history, the OPEC oil embargo might might have prompted a New Deal or World War II–scale government response by the US. It did in France, which has a long history with dirigisme, state guidance of economy. In 1974, Prime Minister Pierre Messmer announced a massive multi-year program to convert French electricity generation to nuclear. France still produces 75% of its electricity from nuclear; has retail rates lower than the rest of Europe; and exports €3 billion of power each year.

In the US, energy conservation became vaguely patriotic. Electricity consumption actually went down a year. Its long-term growth rate slowed, contrary to the projections the utilities had made in the 1960s.

Carter delivers a fireside chat Feb. 2, 1977.

As a call to arms, Carter’s earnest assertion that the energy crisis was the “moral equivalent of war” (with its unfortunate acronym, MEOW) fell flat. The cardigan-wearing Carter, White House thermostat turned down, asked Americans to do without, not do something about.

After the Vietnam war and Watergate, there was little residual faith in government getting anything right. That distrust extended to the large monopolies supposedly being regulated by that government. By the late 1970s, distrust had segued into a plan: deregulation. If human regulators were too fallible or corruptible to get things right, let the Market decide.

While deregulation was more of an ideological fashion among pundits and politicians, it drew practical strength from the consumer movement. Let us do this thing, the politicians promised, and your month-to-month electric bills will come down, as they had for long distance and air travel. It would not be easy, however; the conventional wisdom was that the electric power utilities were “natural” monopolies and consumers were best protected by regulating them.

Among academic economists there was skepticism that markets could work in electric power without introducing unintended and unpredictable consequences. In a 2019 interview, MIT economist Paul Joskow remembered his initial incredulity when he and fellow economist Richard Schmalensee, authors of the 1983 book “Markets for Power,” were approached by officials of the Reagan administration. “They said, ‘Why can’t we do this for the electric power industry?’ Dick and I said, ‘Because the electric power industry is not like the airlines.’”

Nevertheless, the ideal of deregulation, if not its actual practice, reigned. Since the market had no way to price carbon emissions, calls to “free” it could come from backers of anything, including fossil fuels. Politically, deregulation led to an uneasy alliance between advocates of renewables — Greens — and true believers in markets, typically libertarians or conservative Republicans. Those wanting subsidies for renewals had to genuflect before the free market like everyone else, but — like the monks who prayed for chastity, but not too soon — had to beg for special dispensation from it. After their favored technologies got established, they promised, renewables would compete in the market on their own two feet. Nuclear power, having squandered its inheritance of state aid, needed no such indulgence.

Utility “restructuring” — the term is more accurate than deregulation — became an arcane game in which regulations were added in an effort to compel market-like behaviors. The 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) was a landmark in that it forced establishment utilities to buy power from “alternative” power generators. The idea was that having guaranteed free-looking market would seed a renewables industry.

The restructuring efforts were complex and varied from state to state, but some common threads eventually emerged. Politicians would not, or politically could not, take the free market idea too far — for example, by allowing retail rates to rise without price caps. Utilities, unlike other businesses, were required to keep selling their product even when they were selling it at a loss. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was caught in horns of this particular dilemma in 2000, leading to its 2001 bankruptcy filing.

A consequence little-noticed by consumers was the impact on investment. Time horizons, previously decades long, went short-term. By the late 1970s, with inflation and interest-rate chaos, the utilities were in a financial box canyon. The effect on orders for new nuclear power plants was swift and dramatic. Measured by megawatts of generating capacity ordered, nuclear went from 68% in 1973 to 0% in 1979. The Arizona Palo Verde nuclear station (today the largest in the US) ordered in October 1973 was the last not later cancelled.

By the 1980s, academic economists were writing obituaries for the US nuclear power industry. The reactors, zombie-like, would carry on generating power to the date of their demise, 40 or 60 years in the future, but the industry itself had “failed” or “collapsed.” There was no prospect of it rising from the dead. These autopsies resonated with the prevailing norms of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Industrial policy, however well intended, was inherently misguided. State support of dying industries was out. Only the market should pick “winners and losers.” Nuclear power, if it could not find financing in private markets, was a loser.

Not all countries, of course, shared the shibboleths of Anglo-Saxon economics. In them, nuclear power lived on under the protective wing of the state. France and Sweden were two European examples. Post-Soviet Russia viewed nuclear engineering as a potential export industry worthy of state subsidy; it had only to live down the damage done to its brand by Chernobyl. China put nuclear power on its list of industries it could dominate after a few patient years of technology catch-up. China’s pollution problems from coal-fired electricity were sufficiently grave that it needed nuclear anyway.

South Korea managed to evade the Rickover Trap and actually drive the cost of nuclear down, along a normal learning curve. Like France, South Korea had a powerful contingent of technically trained civil servants who saw their job as carrying on the business of government even as elected politicians came and went. The chaebol — interconnected business groups — that controlled its construction and heavy industry also had close ties to the government. All parties were open to appeals to South Korean economic nationalism.

The South Korean technocrats picked a reactor design with the idea that it would become South Korea’s own after a one-time technology transfer. In the 1980s, they selecting a PWR from the number three US company, Windsor, Connecticut–based Combustion Engineering. This they standardized as their one national design, the NPP. The country’s single national power utility, KEPCO, built NPPs over and over during the following decades, pausing after each build to take lessons learned and enforce these on its construction industry. Such standardization had for decades been on the to-do list in the US, but its fragmented industry had been unable to get it done. South Korea now generates 26% of its electricity by nuclear power.

By the 1990s, the academic economists appeared to be right. Nuclear power in the US was on life support. No one could see how it might get up and walk again.

The academics had missed a line written by James Hansen in 1981:

anthropogenic carbon dioxide warming should emerge from the noise level of natural climate variability by the end of the century

By the end of the century, it had.

The first use of the term “New Nuclear?” (with the question mark) dates to a 2006 white paper commissioned by the government of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. This paper was the starting gun to a very long review process that ultimately ended with construction at Hinkley Point C (due to be complete in 2025). The white paper made an obvious point: if the problem was carbon emissions, one answer was staring us in the face: nuclear power.

Hinkley Point C

Minds changed slowly in the first decades of the new century. Solar supporter Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, shocked many by coming out pro-nuclear in 2005. Senator John Kerry had apparently changed his mind by 2010, when he and and fellow senator Joe Lieberman introduced a bill called “The American Power Act,” which included pro-nuclear provisions. Carol Browner, who served as head of the EPA under Clinton, underwent a conversion experience. Other unlikely converts included Patrick Moore, a former president of Greenpeace Canada; James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis; and George Monbiot, influential environment columnist for The Guardian newspaper.

“New Nuclear” became in some ways a call to go Back to the Future. Government-sponsored US reactor research had suffered lost decades; the new hope was that SpaceX-style DOE grants would allow private start-ups to make up for lost time. Many of these openly scavenged the research done at the national labs prior to 1993.

The NuScale “reactor in a can”

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are another New Nuclear fashion; these get favorable mention from Mr. Kerry. SMRs are still pressurized water reactors, but the idea is that they will be standardized and factory-built, then trucked to sites where they they are needed. Historical memory is short; the U.S. Army built a prototype reactor in the 1950s that was towed by a Jeep.

Politically, research is relatively easy to support. The contentious test may not come from New Nuclear, but from old. Former EPA head Carol Browner, for example, is adamant that the aging US reactors should be kept in repair and going as long as they are safe — what will no doubt come to be derided as an “Amtrak plan.” Differing opinions over how safe is safe may well kick off a series of rematches with groups who would like existing reactors, such as Indian Point and Diablo Canyon, moved out of their backyards.

Construction of new, current-technology PWR nuclear plants would undoubtedly require commitment to New Deal-scale infrastructure projects. For what it is worth to Green New Dealers, Vogtle is currently the largest jobs-producing construction project in the state of Georgia. The regulatory ratchet would need at least need to be stopped in place; politicians would need to dare come out and say that nuclear power is now safe enough. This, however is the kind of probabilistic reasoning to which many voters have shown themselves immune. (Three young soldiers minding an experimental reactor in Idaho were killed in 1962 when one of them inexplicably pulled out the reactor’s control rods, the only certain US reactor accident fatalities; this has to be compared to the 3,000 to 30,000 people die annually from particulates put into the air by coal-fired power plants.) It would also require a national consensus, currently missing, that carbon-free electrical power is worth paying for. The markets are currently constructed to prove the opposite; the old New Dealers were right about them being broken. In video game terms, a New Deal is a Reset. Political thinking about nuclear power deserves one.

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Will Bates writes about science, technology, and business. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and numerous magazines.

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Will Bates

Will Bates

Will Bates writes about science, technology, and business. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and numerous magazines.

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