“Nuclear Renaissance (version 4.0)” is the centralized corporate power industry’s final grab at mega-sums of public money and total control of energy.
Facing a definitive tsunami of cheaper, cleaner, safer, faster-to-deploy renewables, it’s meant primarily to serve the nuclear weapons complex while insulating entrenched centralized power against distributed green social democracy.
The “Renaissance’s” prime medieval reality is the escalated likelihood of another Three Mile Island-Chernobyl-Fukushima disaster at one of America’s lingering 94 reactors.
Most US nukes were designed in the pre-digital 1960s and ‘70s. They are dangerously decayed, with an average age of around 40. They are structurally dubious, seriously under-maintained and inherently unsafe.
None have significant private accident insurance. But a major meltdown/explosion could threaten millions of lives and inflict apocalyptic health, ecological and economic harm.
The Renaissance’s key illusion is that atomic reactors are some kind of magical unicorns, generating limitless cheap clean power while never aging, breaking down, emitting heat, carbon or radiation…and certainly never ever blowing up.
In fact our existing reactors are so hideously complex it’s impossible to meaningfully calculate the odds on which one will explode next …and when. Major disasters at six reactors—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the four at Fukushima—have been accompanied by a bevvy of smaller disasters whose impacts have nonetheless been substantial.
After sixty years of operations, the Peaceful Atom still can’t get meaningful private disaster insurance. Nor has it solved its forever problem of safely managing its uniquely dangerous wastes.
Given the realities of a radioactive cloud blowing into Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta, or permanently contaminating a few thousand square miles of prime farm and forestland, there are no odds that can counter-balance any possible benefit from the risks being taken to extend the licenses of our current reactor fleet, or to undertake building a new generation whose safety again can’t be guaranteed, and whose costs, deployment times and real risks remain serious unknowns.
Especially when all this comes in the shadow of an astonishingly successful revolution in renewable generation, battery storage and increased efficiency. l
But first let’s follow the money.
Financial disaster has defined the last eight big Euro-American reactor projects. Single nukes in Finland and France, and double projects in England, South Carolina and Georgia, have all gone unimaginably over budget.
After years under construction, the two at VC Summer in South Carolina have been cancelled outright, wasting more than $10 billion. At least one utility executive has gone to prison.
The two at Vogtle, Georgia, coming in seven years late, cost far beyond $34 billion—more than double the original promised price of $14 billion. Inaugural kilowatt/hour costs far exceed local renewables
Two nukes being built at Hinckley, England, are already far behind schedule and soaring in cost (so far more than L32 billion and counting)…with serious questions about their eventual safety and ability to operate.
Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville, France, have both soared billions over budget. None of the above can compete with existing wind, solar or efficiency. Opened years past schedule in March, 2022, Olkiluoto is already being periodically shut because wind power is so much cheaper.
Indeed, though nuclear was originally promised to be “too cheap to meter,” it’s now west Texas wind turbines that produce electricity so cheap it’s often given away free at night
To denigrate such alternatives (with which they cannot compete) nuclear backers often point to Barack Obama’s infamous $550 million failure at the Solyndra solar company. That federally-subsidized bankruptcy was caused primarily by Chinese solar panels undercutting the US industry.
But the Solyndra disaster has been dwarfed by $65 billion spent (thus far) on the yet-to-produce-anything fusion fiasco at ITER in France, the $20 billion overrun at Vogtle, the $10 billion collapse at Summer, the $2 billion-plus five-reactor bankruptcy at the Washington Pubic Power System (WOOPS) and much more. Small wonder Forbes Magazine in 1985 labelled atomic energy. “the largest managerial disaster in business history.”
To ecape that reality, on April 15, 2023, Europe’s largest economy went post-nuclear. Germany shut the last three of its seventeen reactors as part of its energiewende transition to wind-solar-efficiency-based system.
With wind-powered juice shipped down from the North Sea, and thousands of solar panels installed on rooftops, Germany already gets roughly half its electricity from Solartopian sources.
Germany does still have fossil-based output—much of which is exported to France, whose 56 reactors suffer from generic structural cracks and defects to rivers too hot to cool reactor cores. France once got some 80% of its electricity from nuclear. But more than half its reactors—twice as many as Germany—have recently endured sporadic shut-downs.
Thus the French nuclear poster child buys electricity from Germany, with zero reactors.
Likewise, 90+ US nukes can’t compete with wind or solar, can’t manage their wastes, can’t guarantee they won’t below up, can’t get comprehensive accident insurance. Most or all are riddled with serious structural flaws which are rapidly worsening with age…led by embrittlement, a fatal metals flaw likely to let reactors shatter and explode during the inevitable coming melt-down.
But buried amidst the massive “Rennaisance” arer some terrifying medieval realities. Among them are the dozen earthquake faults that surround California’s Diablo Canyon, whose two ancient reactors are riddled with dangerous and structural maintenance failures. Critical oncrete is crumbling at Ohio’s Davis-Besse and Seabrook, NH. Vital intake pumps at South Texas recently froze. Indeed, virtally every one of the world’s 400+ operating reactors suffers individualized problems that seriously threaten another Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima…whose four exploded reactors—like about half those worldwide—were designed by General Electric.
Thus the abstract debate over “nuclear power” shrivels before the concrete realities of the individual plants themselves. Anyone supporting building new reactors or, more critically, extending operations at the old ones, must be prepared to take personal responsibility for the apocalyptic damage to ensue after the next accident, which will occur not in the abstract, but at an actual reactor with its litany of ultimately fatal flaws.
This latest “Renaissance” turns not so much on generic issues of efficiency, waste and fuel cycle carbon emissions…but on the idiosyncratic realities of each of 90+ hyper-complex machines, nearly all designed and built more than four decades ago (Nine Mile Point, on Lake Ontario, opened in 1969; the pair at Diablo in 1984-5).
Any meaningful “Renaissance“ discussion must start with a one-by-one examination of every operating reactor on its own specific terms…where plant-by-plant realities are far more compelling than broad-based overviews.
So if someone tells you they “support nuclear power,” ask which individual reactors they’re ready to personally insure.
As for the future, any “Renaissance” involving the old-style first-generation big light water reactors starts with zero currently under construction, and no prospect of any new ones even remotely competing with renewables…or opening for an undetermined but very substantial amount of time.
All this comes as wind, solar, batteries, efficiency, micro-grids and other Solartopian assets plummet in price while soaring in reliability and job creation. As nukes careen into a fiscal pit, green energy exceeds all previous expectations, and is pricing out even fully amortized old nukes.
The “Renaissance” multiplies our peril by keeping old nukes operating ever-deeper into the danger zone, making the unthinkable virtually inevitable. The scale of any potential reactor disaster today dwarfs whatever “long odds” the industry might claim against it happening.
Many of the west’s reactors are also fueled by uranium still purchased in large quantities from Putin’s Russia. The six Ukrainian reactors at Zaporizyzya are now occupied by a ragtag Russian army, which sloppily overran the apocalyptic site at Chernobyl. Russian incompetence and on-going warfare have created a highly unstable radioactive horror show now terrifying much of Europe while threatening the health and safety of the planet as a whole.
Ukraine’s nuke nightmare also underscores the disturbing reality that any commercial reactor can easily be turned into a de facto atomic Bomb with minimal ordnance or disruption. In reality, no reactor site can be reliably protected against a focused terrorist, national or otherwise.
Overall, nuclear power makes no sense outside military or anti-democratic corporate interests.
Without a trace of irony, an industry defined by environmental contempt now shills its filthy burners as a cure for global warming. Every reactor burns at more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Massive quantities of carbon are emitted in the mining, milling, enrichment, transport and waste management that come with the fuel.
And then there’s the next Apocalyptic explosion.
Despite their sixty-year history, atomic power still can’t get liability insurance. Instead the taxpayers must absorb liability for a reactor apocalypse. No matter the odds, the consequences of such a disaster—human, ecological, financial—can never be compensated.
But comparable sums invested in wind, solar, batteries and efficiency slash gas emissions immediately. Any investment sunk into any proposed big nuke represents a lost climate opportunity we can’t afford..
Diverting gargantuan resources into these big, expensive centralized reactors slows the spread of distributed renewables, hardening the grip of corporate power over what otherwise could be a democratized energy system.
In addition to fissile bomb materials and trained staff for nuclear weapons, commercial reactors impose a multi-national death grip against democracy. The corporate world’s greatest fear is a green public with local-owned renewables and micro-grids, can open the door to energy democracy.
Thus Ohio’s House Speaker, Larry Householder, took $61 million in utility bribes to help scam through billion in bailouts for two collapsing nukes. Household awaits sentencing.
But the Renaissance attack on renewables is well known. The Legislature in 2016 slipped a single clause into the Ohio Code that’s killed more than $4 billion in private financing. The anti-green attack has cost Ohioans billions in income and millions of safe jobs.
Parallel attacks on wind and solar are booming throughout the US. North operations at Dial Carolina’s gerrymandered legislature is trying to ban offshore wind development for ten years. California’s “green” Governor Gavin Newsom is demanding years of additional operations at the Diablo Canyon nukes while refusing to help
Thus the “nuclear issue” that matters most is which old reactor will blow next…and when.
The industry’s other Inconvenient Truth is that its much-hyped Small Modular Rectors don’t really exist now….and can never compete.
A pre-cursor to the smaller designs has already exploded at Santa Susana, north of Los Angeles, with catastrophic impacts. Provable new prototypes are allegedly on their way. Massive quantities of public money are being spewed at private hype-stars like Bill Gates.
But in reality, while Solartopia booms, the nuke industry can’t deliver a workable fleet of commercial SMRs until at least 2030. Given atomic technology’s historic record for delays and overruns, even if the grift keeps flowing, it’ll likely be 2035 or 2040 before a substantial fleet could come on…and even then at Vogtle-style prices far exceeding any investor’s worst nightmare. And given the industry’s addiction to public money, the ultimate backup investor will undoubtedly be—as usual— the taxpayer.
Indeed, even if those SMRs miraculously appeared today, their delivered costs per kilowatt-hour would be far higher than wind and solar. If they ever do arrive in anything resembling a competitive market, they—like Finland’s Olkiluoto—won’t be worth turning on.
So the industry is fighting back. Solar panels on 1.4 million Golden State rooftops already provide far more electricity than Diablo’s nukes, at far less cost, powering a far more flexible grid. Some 70,000 Californians work in the solar industry (not counting those in wind and efficiency) versus just 1500 at Diablo. Twice in recent years privately owned decentralized battery arrays have helped avert regional blackouts.
Amidst Germany’s energiewende, the spread of solar panels so far exceeded original estimates that, on behalf of panicked corporatists, Prime Minister Angela Merkel intervened to slow it down. Had she not done so, the country would be burning far less coal and gas even as a residual backup.
Throughout the US, fossil/nuke-owned state legislatures are doing all they can to stop the rise of wind and solar. In Ohio, Texas, California, Florida and elsewhere, the war against distributed green energy rages unabated.
Meanwhile the Biden Administration’s massive federal subsidies are prolonging operations at increasingly dangerous, uncompetitive reactors. The retro-grade “Renaissance” is really a deep back flip into the Dark Ages.
But as illustrated in the works of Amory Lovins (The Road Not Taken), Mark Jacobson (No Miracles Necessary) and many many others, there is zero doubt that renewables, efficiency and storage can move our economy to carbon-free, saving billions of dollars and creating millions of jobs.
The question is when.
As of now, this latest “Nuclear Renaissance” is a diversion, a roadblock…and a serious danger. Oliver Stone’s super-hyped promo piece “Nuclear Now” might be far more appropriately titled “Apocalypse Again.”