Nuclear Fictions

The Olkiluoto 3 reactor just came on line but last week had to be powered down because it cannot complete economically with wind power. (Photo: IAEA Imagebank)

Lying is the new black. It is everywhere. It is in, and cool and entirely acceptable in the circles where judgement and ethics are permanently suspended. Disgraced (and now criminally charged) U.S. congressman, George Santos, is the poster child of this new fashion statement. Make up something outlandish and Santos has probably claimed to have said it or done it. None of it is true. And he is still in Congress.

In this (hopefully permanently) post-Trump era, lying with impunity has become precisely that: unpunishable, even applauded, as Trump was on his CNN debacle, which consigned that network to the dustbin of what once used to be called journalism.

It’s all about entertainment now, and clicks, likes, readership and ratings. And fiction. And the nuclear industry boosters are going for the Pulitzer Prize on that one. We used to say, “you couldn’t make this stuff up,” but the pro-nukers do. All the time.

So nuclear power is “the cheapest, safest, greenest” form of energy ever invented. It is “carbon-free.” No one ever died because of a nuclear accident. Irrational fear-mongering by the anti-nuclear movement killed off nuclear power growth in the United States. Renewables are a pipe-dream of the crunchy granola set and about as boring and superfluous. And so on and so on.

There used to be fact-checkers at media organizations. Not any more. Because all this twaddle appears in print and on the air, unchecked and unchallenged. Not only that, media outlets are no longer impartial and are, in fact, deliberately fanning the flames of deceit. Thus, Bloomberg could trumpet an article about the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in Georgia with this headline: Nuclear Power Makes Comeback with Massive Carbon-Free Vogtle Plant in Georgia. 

This is a comeback? From what, exactly? A comeback is usually a triumphant return to greatness by a previously successful but then faded star. Actor Robert Downey Jr made a comeback. Basketball legend, Michael Jordan, made a comeback.

Calling Vogtle 3 (pictured under construction) “carbon-free” as Bloomberg News did –and many media outlets do — ignores all the carbon-intensive activities involved in manufacturing components, transporting them and constructing the plant. (Photo: U.S. NRC)

But Vogtle 3 and 4 are a nuclear comeback? The two reactors are more expensive than any previous reactors — far more — and will exceed at least $35 billion when both are finally operational. That’s over $21 billion more than originally planned.

Massive? That would be the bill paid by Georgia ratepayers. As Stephanie Cooke reported recently in Energy Intelligencer, ratepayers haver already “been charged for the financing portion — but not the actual capital costs — of Georgia Power’s construction bills since 2011.” This has now gone on six years longer than expected, and counting.

And, as Patty Durand, a candidate for the Georgia Public Service Commission, pointed out in a recent column in Utility, Dive, “if all construction costs for Plant Vogtle get moved into the rate base, Georgia Power bills will increase 20% for 60 years.”

Another $2.1 billion of capital costs will be folded into the rate base once Vogtle 3 is fully operational. There will likely be a similar rate hike once Vogtle 4 starts up.

As for carbon-free, do the Bloomberg writers imagine that these plants just magically dropped into place like manna from heaven? Did they really not notice all the cement and steel and other manufactured parts and the trucks delivering it all, and the construction activities on the site? Do they know what fuel these reactors use (uranium) and where it comes from and what kind of carbon footprint uranium mining, milling and enrichment leave behind? Apparently not. Or, maybe calling it “carbon-free” is just, well, a lie.

The Vogtle 3 and 4 project has been beset by numerous delays and technical flaws along with its cost over-runs. It began more than 16 years ago and is still incomplete. If this is a “comeback” then during its previous go-around it must have fallen at the first fence, broken its leg and been shot on the spot. Because it really can’t get much worse than Vogtle.

Unless you are French. Then it can get positively scandaleuse. The French flagship new reactor is called the Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), but unless time is running backwards it’s not evolutionary. Like its American AP1000 counterpart, it has suffered years of delays at construction sites in France, Finland and the UK, and run up enormous cost over-runs.

Cost estimates for France’s twin reactor EPR project, Hinkley Point C in the UK, are now predicted to reach at least $40 billion, making it second only to the Great Mosque of Mecca as the most expensive building in the world.

Undeterred, voilà, along comes the French small modular reactor (SMR) known as the “Nuward”. (Notice how a version of “new” has to creep into the branding here — like the “NuScale” counterpart in the United States.)

When asked about the timeline for Nuward’s first concrete pour, the company’s president and CEO, Renaud Crassous, stated blandly: “The constant timeline has been to focus on 2030 as the best compromise between the expectation of the potential market and our ability to grow quickly to deliver this new product.”

2030? Quickly? Hello? So seven years from now, if we continue along our current path of doing too few renewables too late, by which time we will be in grave climate chaos (arguably in some parts of the world we are already there), the nuclear industry will proudly point to, drumroll, a concrete pad. But no actual reactor.

Reality check anyone? Why aren’t the editors at Bloomberg and the New York Times asking questions about time at the very least? And cost? The carbon-free part — that dominated the Bloomberg headline and which isn’t even true — is entirely irrelevant if nuclear power is too slow and too expensive. Which it is.

Instead, the media routinely publish nuclear industry jokes dressed up as journalism.

The failure of nuclear power to arrive in a timely manner — indeed the reality that it is already obsolete — was played out beautifully last week in Finland where Olkiluoto 3,having finally stuttered into life, had to be abruptly powered down due to Finland’s 500 megawatt-hours of new wind-generated electricity contributing to a dramatic drop in electricity prices.

Thus, after all the waiting, the cost over-runs, the technical failures, the lawsuits and withdrawals, Olkiluoto 3 is not so much a newborn as stillborn. Too expensive, too late and effectively dead on arrival.

No matter. The nuclear industry will instead try to distract us with what they call “science”. (In their Thesaurus, ‘science’ is a synonym for ‘alchemy’.) One such example of their “science” is a claim that new reactors will consume their own waste as fresh fuel! No need for uranium mining, they crow!

Except that the claim that a nuclear reactor could “burn” or “consume” nuclear waste is misleading. Reactors can only use a fraction of irradiated fuel as new fuel, and separating that fraction — which requires carbon-intensive and radioactively polluting reprocessing — increases proliferation and terrorism risks.

Undeterred by, heaven forfend, actual facts, those who claim that reactors can eat their own waste won’t eat their own words. Because that would be uncool. And ethical. And these days, embracing integrity and the truth is just so last year.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.