I study energy and nuclear stuff as a historian--power generation in my MA work, nuclear applications in medicine for my PhD--and I see a lot to like in this post. I also currently do public health work, so this is right in my wheelhouse. And I more or less agree with the basic premise.


I think the nuclear debate, like all energy debates, gets badly derailed by the unwillingness of participants to engage with the full complexity of the cost structure. When you say "nuclear is safe," or "nuclear is clean," or "nuclear is cost effective," or whatever, the meaning of those claims is subject to manipulation almost beyond recognition.

Here's a simple example: How are you amortizing the cost of waste storage? How long will the waste storage and protection costs need to be borne? Waste storage was supposed to be a cost borne by taxpayers in the US (in order to stimulate the industry), but that doesn't make it go away, any more than the cost of carbon dioxide emissions goes away just because a coal plant operator isn't paying that cost. And if you cost out the active maintenance of storing anything for a thousand years, that cost is going to be pretty high.

Likewise, it is totally fair to say that nuclear power has a good safety record relative to coal! But if you do a comprehensive analysis of safety issues, the balance between nuclear and, say, geothermal enabled with deep horizontal drilling, nuclear starts looking pretty bad. That's because you have to add in what might be described as a "catastrophic risk premium," i.e. the very low chance of a highly catastrophic event. And despite the relatively low number of nuclear power reactors in the world (relative to fossil fuel plants), they suffer mildly catastrophic breakdowns at the rate of roughly one per twenty or so years. There has only been one Chernobyl level event so far, but in subsequent analysis of the Fukushima and Three-Mile Island events, it turned out that they were more dangerous than initially recognized. TMI, in particular, was much closer to having an explosion and / or suffering a pressure vessel breach by meltdown, with an accompanying massive radioactive material release, than realized. No one knew how bad the meltdown and loss of core geometry was until they finally opened it up in the cleanup, years after the event. The good news is that they didn't become Chernobyl-level catastrophes! But that's not how risk works. If you see almost-catastrophes on the regular, you can more or less predict that sooner or later you will get the full enchilada. And the fact that these events keep happening for, essentially, different reasons every time (human error, equipment breakdown, natural disaster) tells you that the underlying system is prone to catastrophic, chain-reactive failure.

Moreover, you can't think about the safety of nuclear without giving thought to the safety issues around waste storage--I tend to think that the danger of someone using waste to make a "dirty" radiological weapon is small, but it is not zero, and good old fashioned water or soil contamination is definitely a potential health hazard--and around proliferation. Modern reactors don't produce weapons grade material...unless you want them to. And remember that producing weapons-grade material is, at this point, a 75-year-old technology. It isn't that hard. One of the big bottlenecks for potential proliferators is access to the unenriched nuclear material; that access will get naturally easier as the industry grows, for all the basic reasons of supply chains.

Speaking of which, mining of nuclear materials is itself a highly fraught enterprise with a dubious health record, major safety and environmental concerns, and a nasty legacy. And remember those reactors that Matt mentioned on ships that sank? Good news! They haven't produced major releases! Bad news! It takes a long time for modern ships to break down--they are well constructed out of tough, resilient alloys. But "long time" and "forever" are not the same thing. "Long time" and "1000 years" are not even the same thing.

None of this means you can't do nuclear. These are all problems that have solutions, and you could level similar types of concerns at every energy technology. Producing batteries requires mining activities with many of the same concerns. Both PV cells and batteries have serious environmental costs around production and disposal. A lot of solar tech precursors are currently made with slave labor. I can tell you a great story about why space-based solar was (and maybe still is) potentially a really, really bad idea. Fossil fuels are a huge disaster all the way around.

But I am personally pretty meh on nuclear for the simple reason that I described above: it seems to be prone to catastrophic, chain-reactive failure. The simple reason for my assessment is that fission-based technologies are, at a deep, fundamental level, quasi-uncontrollable. They involve forces that are hard for humans to parse. Two examples come to mind:

1) Chernobyl blew up in part because of the design of the control rods, which could not be inserted fast enough to overcome the fact that they initially could cause a spike in fission rates by displacing neutron-moderating water. But "not fast enough" was around 1.3 ft/s--it took less than 30 seconds to scram the reactor. It's not like the rods were being screwed in or something. Stuff just happens really, really fast in a nuclear reaction (which is why you can use it to make a bomb). Humans struggle to grok that.

2) Fukushima was a problem in part because scramming the reactor (shutting down the reaction) is not enough. Fission reactions get so hot that the pile in a big reactor can melt itself down for literally days after you scram the reactor. And if the fuel melts together, it will start fissioning again (this is problem with loss of core geometry), because remember that sufficiently radioactive isotopes will do their thing with nothing more than simple proximity. There have occasionally been "natural" nuclear reactors in the wild for precisely this reason.

So with nuclear you always have the fundamental problem that enriched fuels want to do The Bad Thing on their own, and your whole fancy reactor design is about getting them close, but not too close, but fissioning, but not too fast--it's a goldilocks engineering problem, and goldilocks engineering is actually really hard, because you can screw up in either direction. And in this case, if you screw up, The Bad Thing can happen at a speed too great for humans to effectively parse and respond, given the limitations of our senses and cognition.

So, TL:DR - All energy production systems have big problems related to the complexity of what you are trying to do. But given that we are now living through that disaster with fossil fuels, I would argue that we should be much, much more risk-averse in our next step, and I tend to be unconvinced that fission-based nuclear meets that criteria because of both the accumulation of little dangers around the technology and the catastrophic tail risk that it represents.

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I work in the energy field, and all I want to comment on is this.

"You can walk into a car rental place, get a make and model of a car you’ve never driven before, and get yourself up to speed very quickly on how to drive it safely."

Sure, maybe you can figure out the basics.... but all the little details of how to pop the gas cap or trunk, or attach Bluetooth you definitely can't figure those out very quickly. As someone who rents probably 30 cars a year.... It seems like I have to google features pretty regularly.

Now energy. This post is no fun because it makes sense. Hell it makes sense to people on all sides of the political guiding line, except maybe for the hardcore anti-nuke greens.

As someone who works on gas turbines for a big energy company, renewables don't scare me. They aren't going to put me out of a job in the next two decades... but Nukes... nukes would put me out of a job quickly. Well not technically, I could work on steam turbines as well (I do sometimes), but they suck to work on.

I'm not sure why, but the US has lost some of its ability to innovate in the last few decades. Ok, I am absolutely sure why... stupid regulations.

The same sort of inflexibility that prevents energy innovation is the same reason our CDC and FDA suck and we don't have rapid covid testing.

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The reason that nuclear bro's exist is that there is another group of people who are allegedly not opposed to nuclear in principle, but insist that nuclear has clearly failed the cost at safe operation test in the free market and therefore does not need to play a serious role in our green energy future. What one has to recognize it is that this is the same instinct of thought (and sometimes the exact same people and organizations) that are leading to this type of argument today that also lead to the disastrous decisions on nuclear policy starting in the 70s and the disastrous decisions to shut down functioning nuclear plants today and will vigorously oppose any change in regulatory framework that would enable cost-competitive nuclear power today.

I don't really have any recommendations though. I guess we are going to muddle through with lots more carbon emissions and increasingly unreliable and expensive green energy grids. The political power within the movement to organize a green energy future will lock out nuclear.

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The main issue is the disconnect between the professed urgency required to mitigate global warning and the practical decision to rely on future technological advancements with an unknown timeframe for implementation.

If we need to take drastic action immediately to solve this issue, a massive investment in nuclear power + renewables + existing storage is the path to a clean grid using present day technology. This would also have the downstream benefit of making the actual marginal cost of power production ~$0, which would help usher in your proposed abundant energy future. On the other hand, it would be ruinously expensive/disruptive and potentially rendered obsolete in 20/30 years.

If we don't need to take drastic action, by all means we should wait until (a) battery technology makes a leap sufficient to rely entirely on renewables or (b) keep taking shots at other potential advances (CCUS? Geothermal? Hydrogen?).

The same people who are most insistent on the urgency of this crisis are often the least interested in coming up with a solution that incorporates the tools at our disposal. That, IMO is why 'nuclear bros' exist.

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What would MY do without the commentariat to feed him article ideas through our bickering?


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It's all safetyism. We overdo reduction of risks we *perceive* as dangerous much more than the risks that are actually dangerous. It's anti rationalism and it's anti science.

Nuclear simply can't compete if it has to have a ton more safety regulations than every other energy industry. "Broadly, nuclear regulation is at a crossroads. Plants are shutting down faster than they are being constructed, and unlike other industries, nuclear is forced to subsidize its regulator (NRC); the industry also faces a permit approval and construction timeline that stretches more than 20 years." - https://www.americanactionforum.org/research/putting-nuclear-regulatory-costs-context/

"Based on a review of publicly reported 10-K data, AAF finds the average nuclear reactor must navigate $219 million in regulatory liabilities ($60 million annually per plant), with many of the newest burdens arising in 2012." - https://www.americanactionforum.org/research/putting-nuclear-regulatory-costs-context/

Nuclear is also the only energy industry that safety stores it's waste at it's own cost. (Keep in mind the waste is not nearly as toxic as it's made out to be.) - https://whatisnuclear.com/waste.html

Maybe I should just pose this as a question:

Why does the energy industry with the lowest Deaths per KwH have the most expensive safety requirements?

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Like most economists or people who's perspective is limited to economics Noah Smith does not have a clue what he is talking about when it comes to technology. This is easy to prove. All you need to do is mandate that wind farms and massed solar arrays must install the energy storage needed to make their generated power despatchable to demand before they can connect to the grid. And then you get to watch the advocates of those alternative sources scream about how unfair this is because it isn't possible now and won't be for the foreseeable future.

The reasons are quite evident to anybody who does understand the basics of technology. They are intermittent sources, geographically limited in production and therefore will require a massive amount of overbuilding, expensive energy storage and a continent spanning and very agile grid in order to make them suitable to base load electrical supply. The last two items do not exist and if they did would be enormously expensive to achieve. Those costs apply only to wind and solar. Which makes it very expensive power indeed. And that does not include the risk of creating a single gigantic grid, which, if it failed, would be disastrous.

The ironic thing is that if you did develop large scale energy storage it would work better with virtually any other generating method. I got into this with Alon Levy who didn't quite seem to grasp the argument or chose not to. You need energy storage, and a lot of it, with wind and solar because they are intermittent sources. Nuclear power has its own intermittency problem. Conventional designs are not agile and are therefor used for base load. (newer designs are agile). What this means in practice is that if you scale nuclear power properly then they can keep chugging away generating power while (and not instead) you store excess power production any way you like to deal with peak loads. You would therefore need to build a lot less energy storage. And it does not matter what type. Batteries, hydro... anything will do.

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I worked on the OHIO class replacement nuclear submarine program (now Columbia-class). Super fun project. How many people get to crawl around on submarines getting built with a stopwatch? The new reactors are amazing (e.g., 40 years operating window without refueling).

I think the unexpected problem for modular distributed commercial use - at scale - would be labor. You still need nuclear engineers to operate the reactor. Maybe there's a chicken and egg thing where if a new reactor network was approved the timelines are long enough to train the labor market or the operations could be de-centralized.

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Nuclear power’s safety profile looks even better if you take into account the process of getting the fuel. Uranium mining has gotten safer, though there is still some exposure to radon. On the other hand, coal mining is really dangerous and the newer mining techniques are causing coal miners to develop black lung after shorter periods of working in coal mines. The oil and gas industry is notoriously dangerous. Throw in that per kWh, you need less fuel for a nuclear reactor compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power looks even safer

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Agree with this on nuclear. Six workers died at a Georgia chicken plant in January, which is 6 more than died at Three Mile Island. But bigger point is we need to price carbon, since in practice we do "have a fixed pool of subsidies to dole out that different potential energy sources are in zero-sum competition for" and the politicians doing the doling out are neither scientifically literate nor immune to lobbying by industry as well as by environmental activists with huge ideological preferences. Look at EV credits currently in reconciliation bill, which will handicap the company that created the market for them, as well as all the foreign car makers who forced the Big Three to start making better cars 50 years ago. Management was lousy but the UAW was also a huge part of the problem.

Despite all the smart people, Matt included, having concluded that carbon pricing is politically impossible, the Senate is considering adding a carbon fee to the reconciliation bill right now to solve two problems: the current policies in the bill (lots of tax credits + Clean Electricity Performance Program) don't reduce emissions enough to hit our emission reduction targets and the total bill's size is too large for (at least?) two senators. Resources for the Future found "without a carbon price or other substantial climate policies, [emission] reductions fall short." Their first endnote in the full analysis (link at bottom of my link below), "We assume that gaming of the program is precluded," also hints at a third problem, which for some reason is not being discussed much, as if passing a defective bill will achieve anything. Four energy economists (energyathaas link below) have confirmed the problem is real:

"These differences in incentives open up a variety of channels for gaming and unintended consequences that could lead to large government expenditures without inducing large-scale substitution of new, clean energy supply for fossil-fueled generation."

If you agree we need a Carbon Fee, call and email your Senators (and Reps--House will have to sign off on it) and tell them you want to pay more for fossil fuels to solve the problem, especially with a means-tested rebate to make all but the most successful Substack authors whole (still leaves ~$400B in revenue to help pay for other policies).





UAW: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/04/27/the-road-ahead

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Lol is something going wrong with the commenting? These past few days I haven't seen the comment button in the emails, and the current number of comments on this post is suspiciously low...

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"In certain circles, being pro-nuclear is a way to be climate-aware and pro-science while also signaling a kind of masculine tough-mindedness and hippie-punching attitude."

I know one of those guys (Yes they are male). And I have no problem signaling pro-science, toughmindedness, hippie punching if its not JUST and attitude. But sure enough, he has zero interest in any other policy and especially not a tax on net emissions of CO2, which he is sure will wreck the economy.

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I work at X-energy, one of the Gen 4 vendors trying to get some reactors built in the US by 2027. I wouldn't give up on NEIMA and the new regulatory framework just yet. Yes the NRC is throwing up plenty of roadblocks, but in Reg Guide 1.233 they endorsed a risk informed, performance based approach (RIPB) that replaces a lot (but not enough) of the deterministic regulations with requirements derived from a Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA). Using this, we can build safer plants at much lower cost.

As we go through our licensing process, we will see if the regulator really has bought into the NEIMA/RIPB frame of mind or if they are going to kill us with with deterministic requirements outside the scope of Reg Guide 1.233. But at least some of the NRC staff really have changed their tone so cost effective new nuclear may be possible. And Congress is acting like it will happen, pouring a ton of cash into the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Project (ARDO). New Advanced Nuclear in 2027 may become reality.

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Subsidy scarcity may not be a real thing, but anti-nuclear environmentalists tend to overestimate the potential for wind and solar to carry the majority of load on our grid. That lack of understanding leads them to think that nuclear isn't a necessary component of our future grid and building these things takes political will and time. I am pro solar and pro wind, but I usually end up sounding very anti-wind when I talk to people because they tend to believe we can just build enough wind turbines to power everything. It's always windy somewhere right? Wrong. I also don't think we have the luxury of sitting around hoping that nuclear r&d will lead to mass implementation in 30 to 50 years. Mainly all this "new nuclear" stuff is just rebranding. Some of it might lead to lower costs to build in the future and the tech is absolutely cool and useful, but light water reactors are already very safe and cost effective over their lifetimes. Nothing needs to change to make them a good addition to our carbon free grid, except public perception. Yes, they have a massive upfront cost but are very inexpensive to run after that and the environmental impact is far lower.

The tendency of environmentalists to worship at the altar of wind and solar has also led to virtually no push into investment for geothermal. 20 years ago there was no real reason to think geothermal was any less cost effective than wind, but wind power is now cheap because over-hype led to massive investment. If the same had happened for geothermal and nuclear then we wouldn't have had to build natural gas plants and we would be in a much better position right now. The problem is not that "nuclear-bros" hate wind, the problem is that wind hype prevents better solutions from getting funding and attention. So 20 years from now we will still be dealing with where to get power when the wind isn't blowing. And the answer will still be natural gas.

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The understated theme, "how everyone, policymakers, and pundits alike, should *think* about policymaking" is such a valuable and underrated point, as well as absent from much of the discussion thread. I think about this often in the tangible distinction that can be between the difference of the actual legislative text, and the desired policy goals which require assumptions and analytical work. Keep writing on this!! What's more, a tension I hope you further unpack is the difference in the actual vs. the perceived role of Legislators, both in their minds and in the minds of voters. I think it's often framed and believed that Legislators are Executors, which shifts the emphasis of their attention. A better way to think about their role (as Matt alluded to with "we need to do is recognize that the existing regulatory framework for nuclear reactors is extremely hostile to breakthroughs.") would be to say that members of the Senate Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs Committee are in effect "board members" of the industries listed in the committee and their job is to design and update the parameters of said industry areas. Again, please more on this!

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I'm on the "everything and the kitchen sink" bandwagon for fighting climate change, and so I'm wide open to more nuclear-generated electricity. Nonetheless, I'm nervous. We haven't solved the long-term storage issues for nuclear waste (even if waste transportation is *probably* very safe). This has been an open question for, what, decades? France has had a very smart approach toward nuclear energy, and yet in just over a decade, they're planning on reducing its contribution from >70% to around 50%. That may be a very smart mix of nuclear and renewable, but it's still quite a drop -- I'd like to know more about that.

I guess my bottom line is: try it, but don't anticipate counting on it for much.

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