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A Newclear Day
“A boy and a dog wake up new every morning” – Havilah Babcock
Around 380 B.C. Plato stated in his famous Socratic dialogue The Republic that “our need will be the real creator.” Today, that insight is commonly phrased “necessity is the mother of invention”.
Four decades of Dark Ages for nuclear energy in Western civilization began with two very different events, with two vastly different outcomes. One occurred in the United States, the other in present-day Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union.
In the United States, the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear incident (which caused exactly zero deaths or radiation injuries) and the coincidental timing of the release of the movie The China Syndrome twelve days earlier are easy marks. Despite the fact that other complex forces were already at work, and a few projects in-progress were completed afterward, TMI marked the beginning of the Dark Ages for nuclear in the U.S.
In Europe and in particular Germany, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and geopolitical events (crumbling of the Soviet Union, German reunification) aligned and consolidated popular political opinion against nuclear energy across most parties. In 2002, Germany promised to phase out its nuclear power plants within twenty years. By fall of 2010, with Angela Merkel’s governing coalition attempting to extend some plant’s lives by up to 12 or more years, Chancellor Merkel’s office was surrounded by protesters. The protests spread to Munich in October. A month later, violent protests broke out against a train transporting reprocessed nuclear fuel.
A few months later, when the dust cleared from the first major nuclear accident of the twenty-first century (at Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in March of 2011) the prevailing wisdom was that new nuclear energy projects were dead, set back for another generation, if not longer. In the decade after “Fukushima,” the subsidy-driven explosion in the proliferation of wind and solar projects stood as evidence of that paradigm. Evidence to the contrary was hard to find anywhere in western nations.
The picture below is from a German anti-nuclear protest in 2011. The sign reads “End of nuclear power”.
Two years prior to Fukushima, in May 2009, the Ontario (Canada) Green Energy Act passed into law. It showered incentives on wind and solar, promising to close all the province’s coal-fired power plants by 2014.
But by 2010, it was clear that the Green Energy Act was a serious threat to electric reliability and affordability. Ontario tried to build natural gas plants to offset coal-fired power plant closures. Canadian “environmentalists” fought the projects, even bringing in American icon Erin Brockovich for help. Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty canceled the plants to appease Ontario’s key liberal districts (known as “Ridings” in Canada). The cancellations erupted in a financial scandal that ended McGuinty’s political career. This put nuclear back on the table in Ontario for a short period of time.
Ontario’s Liberal government abandoned plans to build two new nuclear reactors in 2013 deciding, as a CBC article, noted “the province doesn't need the power to meet its electricity demand.” The Society of Professional Engineers group President disagreed, prophetically stating what would turn out to apply across the Western world (emphasis added):
"Have we learned nothing from the recent gas plant fiasco," asked the group's president Scott Travers. "When politicians make hasty policy to score political points every Ontarian pays."
Just as in the U.S., Germany, and so many other wealthy Western nations, new nuclear projects in Canada appeared to be a cooked goose.
Commercial nuclear power generation continued to advance in Russia, in South Korea and in China over the nearly 40 years the West virtually abandoned it. Unfortunately, an entire generation of evolution in Western design, regulatory reform, technology, supply chain development (particularly fuel supply), skilled labor force and construction expertise was effectively lost. The outlook for nuclear power looked bleak across Europe and the United States.
And then, Putin invaded Ukraine. As we’ve written, this did not cause Europe’s energy crisis, it merely exposed and exacerbated it. Europe’s absurd “alternative” energy schemes and disdain for new nuclear power cemented its dependence on Russian natural gas. Putin simply exploited that choice as power-hungry Authoritarians are prone to do when given the opportunity.
For the first time in almost fifty years, the war in Ukraine returned energy security to its rightful place as a critical issue in the West. This shift has major implications – in terms of domestic politics, geopolitics, economics, industrialization, resources, and supply chains. In the global South emerging economies are rejecting two decades of calls to forego fossil fuels for alternatives and instead scrambling for coal and, where they still afford it (thanks, Europe!), natural gas.
In the advanced economies of the global North, as well as some smaller economies where one would least expect it, a new era is emerging. Energy security, grid reliability concerns and economic realities have combined to open a window for nuclear power.
Is a Newclear Day truly upon us? There are some tremendously positive signs that the answer may be “yes”. A most amazing example occurred not at the level of a sovereign nation, but a Province within one.
A grassroots effort led by ordinary citizens in Ontario, and one literal giant of a man, has proved that – despite all odds - a small, highly motivated, doggedly persistent group armed with nothing more than facts, reason, science, and logic can completely change the direction of their government’s energy, environmental and economic policy. The story of Dr. Chris Keefer and Canadians for Nuclear Energy (C4NE) is nothing short of remarkable.
Some readers may be familiar with Dr. Keefer’s story. A 6’9” Toronto emergency room physician with admittedly radical leftist political roots, he began a long journey to understand energy and its importance to his countrymen. On his Decouple podcast, Keefer has documented this journey and that of C4NE, culminating in an amazing energy policy turnaround that has deservedly captured attention worldwide.
In the space of one month, the Ontario government and its (wholly owned) utility Ontario Power Generation, from a single province in the world’s 9th largest economy (Canada), set the pace as nuclear leaders for advanced nations. They announced plans to:
· Extend the operation of the four newest operating nuclear reactors at the Pickering Nuclear Generation Station (opening the door to their full refurbishment and license renewal); and
· Expand the world’s largest operating nuclear generation station (Bruce Generation, which supplies 30% of Ontario’s electricity); and
· Install three new Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) at the Darlington New Nuclear Site
For the best summary of the amazing turn of events in Ontario, we highly recommend Doomberg’s July post Cheat Codes, in which Dr. Keefer’s and C4NE’s success is prominently and rightfully featured. For podcast listeners, we highly recommend Dr. Keefer’s outstanding Decouple podcast two-part interview with nuclear physicist James Kremmelstein discussing nuclear’s prospects in America (here and here).
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New nuclear power projects are currently being considered across Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. In February, Estonia (GDP of $38 billion, world rank #101) selected GE Hitachi’s SMR design (BWRX-3000) for its first nuclear power plant.
In March, the UK government signaled it recognized the writing on the wall. World Nuclear News reported UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s big announcement, including the launch of “Great British Nuclear” and an ambitious competition for SMRs (emphasis added):
“..increasing nuclear capacity is vital to meet our net-zero obligations ... so to encourage the private sector investment into our nuclear programme, I today confirm that, subject to consultation, nuclear power will be classed as environmentally sustainable in our green taxonomy, giving it access to the same investment incentives as renewable energy".
In Japan, Unit 1 at the Takahama reactor site was restarted at the end of July. It was taken offline twelve years ago for a routine inspection prior to the earthquake that led to the Fukushima incident. The 48-year-old reactor was given new life under legislation passed in May this year to extend the lives of certain operating reactors.
The 2022 global energy crisis was a major wake-up call for Japan, the world’s third largest advanced industrial economy (and like China, one uncomfortably dependent on energy imports). An Nippon.com article this week provides the underlying motivation (emphasis ours):
“As the government faces difficulties building new nuclear power plants, the decision was made to switch to extending the life of existing plants in order to ensure a stable supply of electricity and aim toward achieving carbon neutrality.”
It is not too early or optimistic to suggest that all of these worldwide developments are signals that it is a new day for nuclear energy. But, in the U.S., Europe, and the UK, it will not be easy, or quick. Without overturning a 1998 ban on nuclear power, in Australia it would be impossible.
In Europe, all eyes are on Germany. The government and European Central Bank subsidized industry’s and citizen’s energy costs to the tune of hundreds of billions of Euros over the last 18 months. But inflation is running hot and Germans are feeling it in basic commodities, particularly food. Energy volatility is driving de-industrialization concerns causing some German firms to look to the U.S. for energy stability. If elections in more rural areas over the last few months are any indication, the German Green party is in serious trouble, as it has – correctly, finally – begun to be painted with responsibility for Germany’s energy and economic troubles.
Ironically, Germany continues to burn more dirty lignite coal, even during periods of low load demand. Below is a screen shot of European utility RWE’s generation map for Germany on the evening of August 12th at 7:15 p.m. local time:
As the image shows, 68.8% of RWE’s electricity generation in German was coming from lignite on this evening (natural gas, not shown in chart above, was 217 MWhs, or ~7%). Far from unusual, we have posted many similar images over the last 8 months on our Twitter account (and routinely in Substack Notes posts). In many of these, the portion of German electricity coming from lignite was near or over 80%. There is no way for German Green party leaders and German political leaders to avoid the reality that all of this was caused by their foolish Energiewende (“energy transition”) from 2010.
Nuclear energy advocate Mark Nelson and Radiant Energy released a study last month concluding that eight of Germany’s closed nuclear reactors could be restarted, most within about a year, and at fractions of the cost Germany has committed toward more renewables. The report notes that (emphasis added):
“Together these reactors represent a cumulative 10.7 GW of electrical capacity, 30% of Germany’s 35 GW of annual minimum, or baseload, electricity demand.
We believe the next 2 years are an inflection point for Germany and, by extension, the rest of Western Europe. Either they are going to continue to rearrange deck chairs and play violins on the Green Energy Titanic™ or they are going to get in the nuclear power lifeboats. (Lots of them).
It is safe to predict that in America and Western Europe, “environmentalists” will attempt to block this new day’s dawn at every possible choke point. They will attack all permitting of uranium mines, use the National Environmental Policy Act and Environmental Impact Studies and the court system as weapons for plant sitings, and whip up fear over the handling, storage, and disposal of partially spent nuclear fuel by a constant cacophony using the 50-year-old trope “nuclear waste”.
Anti-nuclear advocacy groups have spent decades attacking every aspect of nuclear power generation, using the court system to challenge permits everywhere environmental impact studies are required. They have systematically succeeded in making projects take far longer and at greater cost than was necessary. Having perfected the processes of doing so, they then complain that nuclear cannot play a role in decarbonization, because it takes too long and costs too much.
Reforming the relevant portions of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, the makeup of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, design approvals, construction, mining, fuel processing/assembly, etc. are going to be slow, ugly sausage-making processes even by American political standards. Despite the slog, we can think of few exercises more important on the American – or global - energy and environmental policy front.
In our very first content piece, we wrote, “Nuclear energy is a fork in the road for environmentalism.” Environmentalists who embrace (or compromise with) nuclear energy make a conscious trade to choose decarbonization and high living standards. They refuse to accept that the latter must be sacrificed to the former, or that all human energy, environmental and economic policy should be denominated in CO2 emissions reductions.
“Environmentalists” who reject or constrain nuclear energy (concurrent with efforts to eliminate fossil fuels) at every choke point in the process also make a conscious choice. Forcing 8 billion people to rely on “alternative energy” - wind, solar, biomass, biofuels, geothermal, hydroelectric and the future of hydrogen – is an intentional effort to reduce humanity’s access to primary energy. It is the Mark of the Malthusian™. It defines their agenda as de-population, de-growth, de-industrialization, reducing human consumption, living standards, footprint, and resource extraction/use.
This is the fork in the road for environmentalists, their “for whom the bell tolls” moment. Those still clinging to Paul Ehrlich’s 1970’s statement “giving cheap energy to humanity would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun” will obstruct nuclear energy and bear The Mark. Those who understand the tradeoffs, risks and rewards and accept the best solutions allow energy to help lift 5+ billion to our living standards. Future human prosperity is their reward in finding that balance. In the process, they differentiate themselves from “environmentalists” with Malthusian, misanthropic motives.
We close with a bit of optimism buoyed by recent events. On a recent episode of Nate Hagen’s excellent The Great Simplification podcast, Doomberg stated:
“Once we exhaust all the dumb ideas, we, like Ontario, like Japan is doing now, will end up back at the good ones.”
We are hopeful it is a Newclear Day for humanity. All the dumb ideas are near exhaustion.
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