Even for a news outlet whose analyses of cutting-edge technologies are often flawed, a recent New York Times article by Farhad Manjoo, one of the paper’s in-house columnists, was exceptionally misguided. Titled “Nuclear Power Still Doesn’t Make Sense,” it is, in fact, the article itself that doesn’t make sense.
Manjoo does recognize that nuclear power is important now, citing the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “Germany, which shut down many of its nuclear plants in the past decade while building natural gas pipelines to Russia, now faces a deep energy crunch. It has had to burn more coal to keep the lights on,” which is also true of other European countries.
But his article’s basic thesis is that renewables have made continuing reliance on nuclear energy unnecessary, given its costs, lead times, and safety issues. That assertion is wrong on two counts: Intermittent sources of energy (wind and solar) cannot adequately provide continuous generation; and nuclear is only too costly and cumbersome because for 50 years, public opinion and policy have essentially shut down all but relatively meager private research and development in the field.
By analogy, if the Food and Drug Administration had decided decades ago to stop approving new drugs, how much would pharmaceutical companies have invested since then? And if the FDA were to resume approvals now, would we say it’s too late, and people who are ill should just get by with herbs and acupuncture?
Let’s consider Manjoo’s misapprehensions one by one.
First, wind and solar are not zero-emission technologies or resource efficient, nor do they offer reliable, continuous generation of power. A single wind turbine needs about 1.5 acres of area and its components require the mining and production of thousands of tons of materials, including some of the elements in short supply due to their use in batteries.
Solar is not much better, and both solar and wind turbines have significant environmental consequences when end-of-life disposal is needed. Solar produces 10,000 times the waste of nuclear, and wind generates 500 times the waste of nuclear, including abandoned infrastructure and all the toxic substances that end up in landfills.
But the primary limitation of wind and solar is intermittency; demand fluctuates but is not intermittent. This was vividly illustrated by the catastrophic West Texas freeze the winter before last, when renewable power sources and natural gas equipment failed. As reliance on intermittent sources increases, we will need to subsidize standby facilities so they can financially tolerate lack of demand when renewables are operative. In effect, intermittency demands supporting two parallel generation infrastructures, one for when nature cooperates and one for when it does not. And the alternative to this is not, at least for the near future, energy storage in batteries.
It is already challenging just to manufacture enough EV batteries. As physicist Mark Mills pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: “The [International Energy Agency] finds that with a global energy transition like the one Biden envisions, demand for key minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel and rare-earth metals would explode, rising by 4,200%, 2,500%, 1,900% and 700%, respectively, by 2040.” Not only might the planet not have the capacity to meet this demand, but many of these critical materials come from places that are hostile or that we do not control – such as China/Mongolia, the Congo, and Bolivia – leading to an unpredictable supply.
Even without these limitations, the costs of utility backup would boost significantly the effective cost of wind turbines (and solar fields). With battery costs of $100 per kWh and a typical turbine output over four days of 36-72 megawatt-hours, a single wind turbine backup battery would cost $3.6 million to $7.2 million. There are 11,000 West Texas wind turbines, so backup costs are in the tens of billions
Also, the environmental impact of battery production is significant and would offset renewables’ advantages. The production of lithium is either carbon dioxide polluting or wasteful of water — up to 500,000 gallons per ton of the mineral. Cobalt mining produces radioactive contaminants, including uranium. About 80% of the weight of a Tesla battery – 1,200 pounds gross – requires mined materials, and mining emits greenhouse gases in prodigious amounts.
Manjoo’s second assertion is that nuclear cannot be economically deployed, allegedly due to obsolete designs and processes. But even without new designs, nuclear has major advantages. Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear-engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cites findings from the IPCC (Figures 7.6 and 7.7) that over the lifecycle of power plants – which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste — per quantity of energy, the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power are impressively low — 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and one-fourth of solar. According to him, nuclear power also requires 2,000 times less land than wind and nearly 400 times less than solar.
For any given power output, the amount of raw material used to construct a nuclear plant is a small fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm. Putting it another way, nuclear power generation is far more efficient.
But far greater benefits could come from new nuclear technologies funded largely up to now by private capital, including molten-salt reactors, liquid-metal reactors, advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), and microreactors, among others. The $10 billion, 10-year planning and implementation cycle for a large nuclear plant can be cut in half with SMRs and halved again with microreactors.
SMRs and microreactors can be constructed largely in assembly-line facilities according to standardized designs and operated with standardized procedures, a huge advantage. New designs incorporate air-cooling to allow for rapid, safe shutdowns and the ability to bury major portions of prefabricated elements of a power plant for security and safety, the greater ease of managing nuclear waste; and even the possibility of shipping microreactors to a central location for refueling every five to 10 years, rather than dealing with the complex logistics of on-site refueling.
SMRs and microreactors could be especially useful in regions or communities that will need more power to charge the markedly increasing numbers of electric vehicles. (For example, California will ban the sale of all new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks beginning in 2035.) The U.S. Navy figured this out for its own needs over a half-century ago, and nuclear plants now power 166 surface vessels and submarines with a nearly flawless operating history. Even including the Chernobyl disaster, human mortality from coal is 2,000 to 3,000 times that of nuclear, while oil claims 400 times as many lives.
Despite all its promise, the traditional nuclear option has become increasingly costly, while other green technologies have become less expensive, often due to subsidies. An MIT analysis makes several important recommendations that could reverse that trend. A transition to standardized and partially prefabricated designs alone will achieve many of their objectives. But needless to say, government permitting must be streamlined and nuclear must have an equal place at the table when seeking funding.
Manjoo ends his piece with a quote from the head of the energy program at the left-wing advocacy group Public Citizen that he thinks sums up the situation “neatly”: “Nuclear power has simply been eclipsed,” he said. “It was an incredible zero-emission resource for its day. But for much of the energy system today, that day has long passed.”
He couldn’t be more wrong. Nuclear power is continuous, cheap, efficient, extremely reliable, nearly carbon-free, and should have a bright future, if the limitations of outdated designs were removed. New designs, including smaller reactors, are highly versatile and drastically reduce the risk of large-scale radioactive contamination.
The U.S. could set an example for the world with the ultimate infrastructure project: building and deploying advanced nuclear power plants that painlessly accelerate our decarbonization. The path to the future should be based on technological progress instead of the bleating of myopic anti-nuclear activists and journalists who are ignorant of the facts.
Henry I. Miller is a physician and molecular biologist. He was a consulting professor at Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Andrew Fillat, who trained as an electrical engineer, has worked for technology venture-capital and information-technology companies. They were undergraduates together at MIT.