How We Can Get Clean Energy—What Needs to Be Done?
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

How We Can Get Clean Energy—What Needs to Be Done?

Robert Zubrin
Robert Zubrin
11 min read


Editor's note: this is the third in a three-part series on how we can get clean energy. Part I explains the relationship between Fuel and Human Progress, Part II answers the question “Is Nuclear Power Safe?” and Part III provides an answer to “What Needs to Be Done?”

Nuclear power can provide unlimited safe energy for a magnificent human future. At one time it seemed like it would soon open the way to a revolution in human material circumstances. In the early 1970s, new nuclear power plants were being ordered in the United States at a rate of two per month. Had this been allowed to continue, the United States would have decarbonized its power grid by the 1990s—as France did, alone among major Western nations.

But the technological revolution nuclear power offers has, thus far, been strangled by political constraints, mismanagement, poor decisions, and outright sabotage. How can this situation be rectified?

There are four areas that need to be addressed. These include regulatory reform, waste disposal, support for research and development, and public understanding.

Let’s talk about each of them.

Regulatory reform

The most important thing that needs to be done to provide humanity with the benefits of nuclear power is regulatory reform. When antinuclear activists claim that nuclear power is a failure because it simply costs too much, they are lying. In fact, it is the activists themselves who have multiplied the costs of nuclear power by creating and exploiting a system of mendacious hyperregulation. They are like a poisoner on trial who claims that his victim died of heart failure.

Relative to the energy it provides, the fuel for nuclear reactors is extremely cheap, comprising only about 5 percent of total power costs. It is plant financing and construction costs that dominate the cost of nuclear electricity. These costs are largely determined by the time it takes to complete a plant construction project which, in turn, is controlled by the regulatory process.

The insane nature of the process governing the building of a nuclear power plant is partially shown in Figure 3, which depicts the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) 32-step construction licensing process. I say “partially shown” because many of these steps require inputs drawn from similar multi-step processes undertaken by other local, state, and federal agencies, most notably the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each of these hundreds of steps not only requires the participation of often slow-moving agencies involved but is also open to legal intervention by “the public,” that is, lawyers representing groups committed to stopping the plant. These lawyers capitalize on the numerous opportunities provided to them to both halt and vastly increase the cost of the process by throwing it into the courts.

The Nuclear Power Plant Licensing Process

Diagram

Description automatically generated
The NRC Nuclear power plant licensing process.

For example, in order to get its construction license, the utility must first perform an Environmental Assessment for the NRC. This can take a year or so. Then, the NRC, using this data as a basis but requiring more, as well as the same data updated or in an alternative form, will draw up an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for evaluation by the EPA. By law, the NRC must write the EIS within two years. However, the NRC operates as if without constraint by law and actually takes an average of four years, sometimes as long as six, to write the EIS. The EPA, itself thoroughly infested with antinuclear activists, will then take its time evaluating the EIS and coming up with demands for more information. These will not only include matters nominally related to plant or public safety but also things entirely outside the purview of the EPA. For example, it is not uncommon for the EPA to demand a comprehensive study justifying the selection of nuclear power for the plant, comparing it to all possible alternatives, including gas, coal, oil, solar, wind, hydroelectric, cogeneration, or conservation.

Imagine the situation: You buy some land and decide to build a log cabin on it. But then, when you go to the local authority to get a building permit, they ask you not just for your construction plans, but also proof that a log cabin should be built on your land rather than an A-frame, chalet, ranch house, Cape Cod, barn, apartment building, candy store, gas station, zoo, antiballistic missile defense base, or nothing at all! Then if, somehow, you provide such proof to the satisfaction of the local authority, your lifelong enemy goes to court and challenges the validity of that approval, forcing you to hire a lawyer, endure three years of discovery motions, and then throw the dice to try to win the case in court. If you win, the other side will appeal, and you will need to go to trial again.

That is what the regulatory process governing the construction of a nuclear power plant is like. This process was created by the antinuclear Carter administration in the 1970s. In the early 1970s, it took an average of four years to build a nuclear power plant in the United States. With the advance of technology and the gaining of experience, that time should have been cut to two years by now. Instead, as a result of the implementation of this bizarre process, it now takes 16 years.

Experience has shown that the cost of building a nuclear power plant increases roughly in proportion to the construction time squared. This is because the longer the project goes on, the more requirements, technical changes, and legal actions are levied on it. The slower the project moves, the more hits it takes. By multiplying the time it takes to complete a nuclear power plant, the antinuclear regulatory process has inflated the cost of nuclear power by two orders of magnitude.

But that’s just the beginning. After construction is completed, the plant must next go through a similar process to obtain an operating license. If this cannot be obtained, or if it is put in abeyance by capricious politicians allied to the antinuclear movement (as New York governor Mario Cuomo did to the $5 billion Shoreham nuclear plant in the 1980s), the entire project becomes a complete financial loss. This element of risk has greatly increased the cost of financing nuclear power plants.

The nuclear industry has not been the only victim of this process. By stopping the building of nuclear power plants or radically increasing their costs, the antinuclear activists have served the cause of protecting other more expensive (and much more polluting) power sources. This is why such groups have been funded to conduct their wrecking campaigns against nuclear power, with the generous donors ranging from oil and coal companies in the 1970s to “renewable energy” bandits in the more recent period. The resulting increased costs of electricity have been borne by the public, not only directly through increased utility bills but also, more importantly, through added costs borne by industry that inflate the costs of all its products, decrease competitiveness, and cut into wages and jobs.

There has also been a massive environmental and public health cost. If the US nuclear industry had been allowed to continue to grow at the same rate as it was experiencing in the 1960s and early 1970s, the American electricity grid would long since have eliminated its reliance on fossil fuels (as did France’s national grid, 75 percent of whose electricity comes from nuclear power). Instead, the imposition of mendacious aforementioned hyperregulation stopped the growth of the industry dead in its tracks. In short, radical regulatory reform is required.

The current absurd system should be replaced with one in which the utility applies to the NRC for a combined construction and operating license. The NRC would then have two years to grant the license, demand corrections, or present grounds for refusal. With the license granted and the plant built, operations should then be allowed to proceed following a final on-site plant safety inspection by the NRC. There should be no Environmental Impact Statement, and no requirement to explain why the utility did not decide to do something else. The EPA should not be involved in the permitting process at all. Rather, its role should be limited to holding utilities to account should they actually release any emissions to the environment. The “public,” that is, lawyers for outsiders who wish to destroy the project, should have no role in the process at all.

Limiting the EPA’s role to environmental enforcement rather than permitting may seem wildly radical to some, but it is actually common sense. When you plan a road trip, you are not required to go to the police in advance and prove to their satisfaction that you will not speed. Rather, you just go, and if you speed, the police give you a ticket. That is how regulations should be enforced. Indeed, that is how all laws should be enforced. In any civilized society, people should be assumed innocent until proven guilty and, certainly, no one should be arrested for a crime that hasn’t yet been committed.

There should be no such thing as preventative arrest, but if there were, then, clearly, such awesome power should not be placed in the hands of personal enemies of the accused. If someone thinks Americans should be using solar energy in place of the nuclear power you offer, it is legitimate for them to build a solar energy plant to compete with you. It is not legitimate for them to attempt to make use of the government’s regulatory power to shut you down or prevent you from opening in the first place. Yet this is how the NRC operates. That needs to end. Anyone found to be connected to such outside interested parties needs to be expelled from the NRC and, certainly, no one openly affiliated with them should be allowed to participate in the regulatory process at any step.

A final issue associated with regulation is financing. Right now, Russia and China are cleaning the clock of the American nuclear industry by providing aggressive financing of nuclear power plant orders around the world. The United States has an institution known as the Export-Import Bank, whose mission is to provide precisely such competitive financing for American companies seeking to sell technology abroad. But it is not providing this service to the nuclear industry. That needs to change. The World Bank has a regulation that prevents it from financing nuclear plants in the developing sector. That ban needs to be lifted as well.

Waste disposal

When the Sierra Club announced in 1974 its opposition to nuclear power, it identified preventing the safe disposal of nuclear waste as a key tactic to use to wreck the nuclear industry. As a result of this malicious campaign, nuclear waste reprocessing, sub-seabed disposal, and land-based disposal have all been blocked, forcing utilities to store their radioactive waste on site. This has added costs to the utilities’ operations, which have been passed on to the public both through higher rates and taxes to compensate utilities for these costs, as required by law. Furthermore, storing nuclear waste on sites near major metropolitan areas could, under worst-case scenarios—such as Fukushima—expose the public to dangers of radiological hazards that would be quite impossible if the waste were stored in remote areas. There is no technical obstacle to either nuclear waste processing (the French do it) or land-based disposal (the US military has been storing its waste since 1999 in salt formations in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.)

So when antinuclear spokesmen say there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, they are lying. The truth is that they have prevented the safe disposal of nuclear waste to damage the nuclear industry. In doing this, they have partially achieved their goal, as about a dozen states have passed laws banning the construction of new nuclear power plants “until a safe way to dispose of the waste can be found.”

After abandoning nuclear waste reprocessing and sub-seabed disposal, the United States Department of Energy focused its radioactive waste disposal work on the option of storing the waste in a repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. I’m not a big fan of this choice, because I think that waste reprocessing followed by sub-seabed disposal would be a better way to go. Nevertheless, it clearly would be wiser and safer to store nuclear waste under a mountain in the desert than in the suburbs of major cities. Despite all their posturing about putative concerns as to what might happen in the desert in future ages, the organizations campaigning to block the Nevada option are clearly not concerned about public safety. Rather, they are attempting to maximize the danger, or perceived danger, posed by radioactive waste to the public in order to prevent the implementation of nuclear power.

The Biden administration says it believes that climate change is an “existential crisis.” That means a crisis that threatens human existence. Yet, while saying it is interested in the potential contribution of nuclear power to solving this crisis, it has endorsed the environmentalist campaign to stop the Yucca Mountain project. Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s Secretary of Energy, says the DOE has no choice in this matter because there is too much opposition to the program. Yet the opposition is being organized and led by Biden’s own party.

Nuclear power cannot expand unless provision is made for the safe disposal of nuclear waste. If the Democrats are serious when they say that human existence is at stake in replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free power sources, they should stop being so obstructive when it comes to implementing nuclear power.

Support for research and development

In recent years, it has become fashionable in some circles to say that nuclear power would be a good thing, but only if we had more advanced systems than the pressurized water reactors that have been the industry mainstay since Rickover introduced them in the 1950s.

I do not agree with this point of view. The PWRs have been a resounding success. In the face of operation of close to one thousand units on land and sea over more than six decades, not a single person in the entire world has ever been seriously harmed, let alone killed, by a radiological release from a PWR. No other major industrial or energy technology can come close to matching that safety record.

Nevertheless, it would be a very good thing if nuclear technology were advanced further. Breeder reactors could multiply our nuclear fuel resources a hundredfold. Small modular reactors could open up new markets unsuited to large PWRs and potentially make reactors much cheaper by enabling mass production in factories. High-temperature gas-cooled reactors and molten salt thorium reactors both hold great promise. New types of fission reactors for space applications are needed. The promise of thermonuclear fusion needs to be explored and developed.

These potentials need to be brought to fruition, and it is right and proper that government should help to do so. In the case of advanced fission reactors, the Biden administration, to its credit, has continued the previous administration’s initiative to foster entrepreneurial development of advanced nuclear concepts by issuing a fair number of research and development contracts in the tens of millions of dollars range.

So far, so good. But what the new entrepreneurial companies need most is not cash but facilities to test their concepts and regulatory reform to allow the reactors to be licensed and sold. If these are provided, investment money will follow.

The required facilities are available at places like Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Livermore, Idaho National Lab, Hanford, the Nevada test site, and other federal government nuclear reservations. These should be made available on a no-cost basis to entrepreneurial fission companies. Furthermore, there is considerable expertise in nuclear technology, neutronics, and related fields at the DOE’s national labs. Such expertise should be made available for hire on reasonable commercial terms to entrepreneurial nuclear companies.

Finally, there is fusion. The United States severely damaged its fusion program by eliminating serious support for all non-tokamak concepts in the 1980s, and then killed it completely by aborting the development of any new major American tokamaks in the 1990s. Instead, the whole program was collapsed into support of the glacial ITER effort.

While the United States should participate in ITER, it needs a vibrant national fusion program, as well. The entire US magnetic fusion budget for FY 2021 was $675 million, which is about 3 percent of the NASA budget, or 0.01 percent of the federal budget overall. At a minimum, the magnetic fusion budget should be tripled. This would allow the USA to build a tokamak (probably a spherical one) capable of reaching ignition, as well as provide healthy support for diverse efforts exploring promising alternative concepts including field-reversed configurations, spheromaks, and other advanced systems that take advantage of the collective self-organizing properties of plasmas. In addition, such a proper level of funding would allow the DOE to substantially support the growing entrepreneurial fusion efforts with matching funds, research grants, and in-kind assistance from the national labs.

Public understanding

Finally, what is needed most is public understanding. This is an area where you, dear reader, can take an active hand.

The putative environmentalists have been able to institute a regulatory blockade against nuclear energy through a malicious and sustained campaign of disinformation, distortions, and fear. Through their lies, they have denied humanity enormous benefits, and if allowed to continue, they will put chains on the future. If they have their way, the hopes of billions of people to escape from brutal poverty will be denied in the name of a false imperative to constrain human aspirations to “save the planet.”

These patrons of ignorance need to be countered. Indeed, they need to be exposed for the frauds they are. As someone who now knows the truth of these matters, you need to speak up.

Nuclear Energyenergyclimate policyScience / Tech

Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer and the author of eleven books on space exploration, with a particular focus on Mars. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Washington.