Nuclear Has Fallen Short

Nuclear power has far from lived up to its potential. With the first nuclear reaction occurring in 1942 one would think that seventy years later nuclear would be a lot further along than it currently is. If you look at the last seventy years of any other invention the change and innovation has been enormous. Take for instance airplanes, since 1942 a lot has changed for this industry: [1] unmanned flight, speeds in excess of three times the sound barrier, and more than 90,000 worldwide commercial flights per day (just to name a few). Meanwhile, nuclear power plants currently only make up 14% of the world’s electricity from 435 nuclear power reactors [2].


In 2010 nuclear was fourth in worldwide electricity production, well behind its capitally intensive counterparts of gas and coal. It was once believed that nuclear energy would provide the world with an endless supply of energy to meet the growing demand but it has fallen short. The main factors at play are continued safety concerns, extremely high capital costs, cheap alternatives (i.e. current coal and gas prices), a lack of carbon policy, and a constantly changing political climate.

It seems that every time nuclear starts to pick up steam and energy policy is leaning towards increased usage one of these factors have gotten in the way. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima all point to the enormous safety concerns that exist, but in each of these cases without human error or neglect for safety precautions they could have been avoided. Costs continue to rise as fail safes and redundancies are built in to new designs. Natural gas prices are at an all-time low, so while aging coal plants are being decommissioned they are being replaced with cleaner gas plants instead of nuclear. Without a price to the amount of carbon being emitted by coal and gas power generation such high capital costs for nuclear make it unable to compete. Lastly, with it taking over ten years to propose and build a new nuclear plant it is very difficult to get investors when the political favor behind nuclear could change in four years and the project could be stopped.

The future outlook for nuclear power looks bleak but there are a few bright spots. The U.S. is the largest provider of nuclear power in the world making up over 30% of production and it is finally building new reactors. The two new reactors near Augusta, Georgia are the first to be built in the U.S. since 1978. [3] Also, China currently only has 14 plants operational but has 26 reactors currently under construction. [4]

Nuclear power is not going to go away but with all the current factors acting against it most areas of the world, aside from China, India, and a few others, are drastically reducing their reliance on nuclear.

[1] The Economist, March 10th – 16th, “Nuclear Energy: The dream that failed” pgs. 3 – 12







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2 responses to “Nuclear Has Fallen Short

  1. lwinm

    Thanks for the post. I thought you did a great job of identifying major challenges for the nuclear power industry: continued safety concerns, high cost of construction, and susceptibility to unpredictable political climate (e.g. nuclear power in Germany). However, having worked in the nuclear power industry for three years, I would like to briefly challenge your point that nuclear power has far from lived up to its potential.

    I start by noting that the expectation for any one technology to provide the majority of energy for the world, especially for that transformation to occur within the span of a human lifetime, seems unrealistic. Moreover, although the first controlled nuclear chain reaction occurred in December 1942 (Chicago Pile-1 at the University of Chicago), there was not a nuclear reactor which produced electricity until December 1951 (EBR-1 at the National Reactor Testing Station) [1], [2]. Initially, EBR-1 could only generate a maximum of 100kW of electricity [1]. Modern nuclear power plants, in comparison, can generate over 700MW per reactor (7000 times greater than EBR-1).

    Regarding the comparison to the development of other technologies, such as airplanes, I would point out that none of the 90,000 worldwide commercial flights per day are flown unmanned nor anywhere near three times the speed of sound. If those were the technological standards for commercial flight, safety concerns and costs would also become a significant challenge. I acknowledge that substantial difficulties remain for nuclear power. Some of these may never be resolved, such as the vulnerability to political climate. However, I believe it’s unfair to dismiss all the progress that has been made, as not living up to its potential. Humans have been dreaming of (and designing ways to achieve) flight since before the Renaissance. The possibility of harnessing energy from nuclear fission is a concept developed only within the last century through breakthroughs in physics and chemistry. Considering it’s only been 60 years since electricity was first generated through a controlled nuclear chain reaction, I would say the industry has not done too badly (especially when you account for 10 years to propose and build a power plant).


  2. Like the first commenter, I appreciate your mentioning the challenges faced by the nuclear industry and its stagnant growth in countries which have traditionally led in its advancement. It’s also nice to hear the commenter’s insight from experience working in the industry. I’d like to add to the argument that the nuclear industry in fact continues to progress not only in technological development but also in adapting to its variable policy environment. Small modular reactors (1) may demonstrate both of these points.

    The fundamental challenges associated with nuclear power – including safety and waste disposal concerns – are still present with small modular reactors, but they do address the issue of cost. Capital-intensive nuclear power plants are difficult to finance, as you both mention, especially due to the long return-on-investment period. (My colleagues in the industry taught me that it’s actually more like a 20-year timeline to construct new plants – 10 or 20, it’s far from the 2-5year outlook that investors usually prefer to work by.) The smaller reactors, with a maximum capacity of 300 megawatts, are less daunting in terms of up-front costs as well as construction timeline. Their modular form allows them to be potentially mass-produced and shipped to various sites (though this raises a concern around security of the resource). And even at their small size, they could still power about 200,000 U.S. homes. (2)

    This new technology is drawing plenty of attention despite the recent Fukushima accident. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $450 million in funds specifically for engineering and licensing of small modular reactors. (2) With this kind of support from the democratic administration, small modular reactors may be playing a part in changing the face of nuclear power generation; it’s a technology more palatable for policymakers on either side dealing with a public that may or may not support large nuclear facilities. I think this shows a resilience that’s been overlooked in the nuclear power industry.


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