Decarbonising our energy supply is vital to achieving net-zero and while we have made great strides in deploying renewables, satiating our growing energy needs requires radical thinking. In this response to a prior article published here 'The End of Oppenheimer's Dream' by Allison Macfarlane, Jan Emblemsvåg argues far from resigning nuclear to the past, the new technology of small modular reactors finally allows nuclear to exploit Fordist capitalism, and with it, potentially save our energy crisis.
Professor Allison Macfarlane discusses in these pages the state of Small Modular Reactors (SMR), and overall she draws a pessimistic picture even arguing that SMRs are ‘supported by ideology alone’. She has many valid points in her article, but to cut across all the roughly 100 different SMR concepts with a single, broad stroke is too simple. Also, what about all the small nuclear power plants operating around today? Sure, many of these concepts will have licensing problems. Sure, many will have serious waste issues. Sure, many will not be competitive due to costs, and so on. But some of them will succeed, and industrialization will define the industry, just as industrialization changed the world.
Let us remind ourselves that in 1908 there were more than 250 car manufacturers in the US alone. 40 years later, it was five. Similarly, a similar shakeout will also take place in the SMR domain. In 1908, it was at best a niche industry until Henry Ford took it the next step through industrialization. Ford Model T cost initially 850 USD in 1908 but through industrialization it fell to 350 USD in 1916! It was said that Ford extracted the iron ore on Monday and delivered the car on Friday! This is the power of industrialization, and it illustrates that we must move the nuclear industry from handcraft today to the first Model T nuclear power plant design over the next decade.
Many venture capitalists are satisfied if 1 out of 10 investments pay handsomely off.
However, the most serious shortcoming of the argument of Professor Macfarlane is that she overvalues renewables as a credible alternative and underestimates the impact of industrialization on nuclear. To illustrate that, just keep in mind that after 20 years of investments in renewables where about 3 trillion USD have been spent, renewables still only constitute merely about 4% of primary energy. This largely negligible result has been achieved despite focusing on the most easy-to-abate sector – the production of electricity. Production of non-fossil electricity constitutes about 15% of final energy consumed, which means we have still not touched the hard-to-abate sectors of fuels and high-temperature industrial thermal energy (heat) and they constitute 80% of final energy.
Consider shipping as an example of the challenge. Shipping constitutes only 3% of global emissions as it consumes about 300 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil (HFO) per year. To abate this sector using green ammonia, which is often suggested, will require 2.7 times the entire EU power production in 2022. The reason is that HFO has an intrinsic thermal energy of 11 MWh/tonne, while ammonia has only 5 MWh/tonne and it requires about 12 MWh/tonne to be produced. Then add aviation, trucking and all the high temperature processes in industry. Decarbonizing the world economy as mandated by the Paris Accord, will never take place with the current energy policies.
Renewables are also consistently underestimated in terms of costs because the costs of balancing/providing backup to ensure delivery to customers are never included. The same is true concerning the material resource situation, as highlighted by IEA when they argue we must increase mining by up to 20-40 times to meet the climate objectives! At the same time, we have major underinvestments in mining and also the gas industry despite that fact that both are necessary for renewables to work as intended. It is illustrative that if Germany had kept its nuclear power plants it would not have needed any Russian gas, and the current energy crisis would have been avoided. Note that Deutsche Bank estimates that the energy crisis has cost 1.5 trillion euros in Germany alone. This is the cost of an unreliable energy supply.
It is perhaps symptomatic of the article that Prof Macfarlane uses recent experiences from Europe and the US concerning project execution. Sure, there are huge deviations, but the projects in the US and Europe are not useful references. Technology must be judged by normal circumstances, and to find that we must go elsewhere. After all, median construction time globally is 84 months. The projects in the US and Europe are built in a highly politicized context. Also, the US and Europe lack experience, which is highly understandable since building nuclear power plants has not been done for decades in neither Europe nor the US.
Societies collapse when the marginal return on investments no longer support the complexities of the societies.
When judging technology, we should learn from the best. The best builders of nuclear power plants are perhaps South Korea. They build fast, correct, and very cost effectively because they have experience and highly standardized designs – perhaps the first Model T of the nuclear world? This insight is critical because it illustrates the potential of SMRs.
The large nuclear power plants of the past can be described as bespoke, advanced, handcraft technologies. This leads to major issues in engineering, licensing, and key construction processes such as cutting and welding due to size, on-site construction, access to people and much more. SMRs, however, represent a totally different path through industrialization of essentially a product.
Prof Macfarlane is right that the European/US experiences are largely very costly and delayed, but the fascinating fact is that if Germany had built Hinkley Point C plants (about 25 bn euros per plant) for the money they have spent on renewables (about 500 bn euros), they would today have built about 20 such facilities and largely had a fossil-free power supply. Instead, Germany has totally missed their climate goals and ended up with an energy cost among the highest in the world. In fact, the German Federal Auditors describe the whole situation as a threat to German industry and population.
Therefore, the claim that the AP1000 built in Georgia is even somewhere close to industrialization is unfounded. To achieve the level of industrialization envisioned, we must achieve a steady flow of production and the effects will take years to achieve from extraction of fuel through decommissioning of reactors something that has never been seen in the nuclear domain.
To illustrate the difference, I will use a case from my former career as General Manager of a manufacturer of advanced pressure vessels in Norway. A robotic cutting centre that can take just about all kinds of exotic metals can cut in 120 minutes all the nozzles of a pressure vessel body that we had estimated to take 3 weeks, fulltime, for two operators. Not only that, the quality is better which makes the subsequent welding also easier. The effects of industrial production versus handcraft are many more than those just mentioned and many will also have direct, time-saving effects. The challenge in an industrial setting is not the unit cost, but the cost of idle capacity. Hence, keeping an industrial plant occupied to achieve the intended unit costs requires volume. Rightsizing the supply chain for the SMRs will therefore be key.
Prof Macfarlane is right that many of the SMR companies out there primarily speak to popular imagination, however, was it not imagination that has led to almost all the major discoveries? Imagination is the driver of discovery, and without discovery, there will be no innovation. 150 years ago, an aeroplane was an object of imagination. So was the computer. Phones streaming videos were discussed in the 90s. Today, it is solved through the smartphone.
Prof Macfarlane also speaks of all the problems concerning fuel and waste. When it comes to the problems of waste, I note that many disagree strongly with her. The study she refers to is well known, but so are the limitations of it too. Again, I am sure she is right about some SMR designs, but I doubt that it will be true for all.
Once more, history may be a guide for what can take place – necessity is the mother of invention. The fact is that when it comes to the availability of fuel, Australia and Canada have more uranium than Russia. Yet, today Russia has a large share of the world market for fuel fabrication, but new fuel fabrication is being built outside of Russia.
However, the ocean itself is the biggest deposit of uranium with more uranium entering from a deep geological reactor in the core of Earth. Extracting the uranium from the ocean might sound like another fairytale, but technology is being developed at reasonable costs. It needs commercialization and perhaps pressure from there being less available uranium. The access to fuels is therefore only a temporary issue, and with a competitive solution for extraction from the seawater in the oceans nuclear fuel will be the most available fuel on Earth. I think Professor Macfarlane should be more worried about the dominating market position China has in key metals and minerals needed for renewable energy, her choice of energy source into the future, amongst other technologies.
We therefore need clean and abundant energy that both minimizes the negative impact on nature and can be built at industrial scale for the next centuries.
Finally, her note on investors reveals a possible misunderstanding of investment logic. Most innovations fail! We should therefore be thankful that investors see opportunities where others do not on the way towards producing the intended end result (energy in our case). Before a company has produced the intended end result, investors sell and interact based on expectations knowing that they take significant risks. Many venture capitalists are satisfied if 1 out of 10 investments pay handsomely off.
Again, in the history of innovation, most large innovations did not come through by a rally of the many but rather by the imagination of the few who took risks – not just financial but also reputational risk and more. Therefore, to implicitly suggest that those that support nuclear innovation are ideological or ill-informed is limiting. She should check out the investment record on the entire ESG sector where double digit losses are common. Siemens have posted record losses on their wind turbine market segment. The same has the other large manufacturers of wind turbines.
Clearly, her article has many valid points and coming from a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the USA, we should listen carefully. Yet, there are serious omissions in the article that triggered me to write this response. I hope that people will read more themselves after checking out these two articles. It is very likely the nuclear will be one of the biggest topics in decades to come simply because the option is not renewables versus nuclear despite different advantages and challenges between renewables and nuclear.
The reason is simple. The world today is predominantly fossil fueled and after 10-15 years of renewable energy investments, there has been very little change. A recent study finds the collapse of the human population inevitable on the account of resource consumption, but the study fails to connect resource consumption to energy usage. Societies collapse when the marginal return on investments no longer support the complexities of the societies. Humanity has always progressed from lower power density energy sources to higher allowing increasing level of complexity and sophistication. This progression has fueled economic growth, brought people out of poverty and fueled innovation and more. We must continue this natural progression otherwise we will end up in many difficult choices. Therefore, the relevant question is how can we safely exploit the energy source with the highest power density for the benefit for all of humanity?
The industrial revolution was not a revolution in technology alone but of equal importance were the availability of energy and capital that resulted in scale. The energy transition we are facing now is not so different except that we can no longer assume that Nature can absorb all our wastes indefinitely. We therefore need clean and abundant energy that both minimizes the negative impact on nature and can be built at industrial scale for the next centuries. There is only one answer to this call – industrialization of nuclear power in all its aspects. That means to move from the handcraft of the large, bespoke nuclear facilities to the industrialized SMRs produced on assembly lines. Now that Nuclear can use the Fordist principles that propelled the 20th century, perhaps industrial capitalism can be exactly what renewable energy needed!