Back to School on Nuclear Power

Many people think the United States should build more nuclear power plants, after a hiatus of some thirty years. We have significant domestic reserves of uranium. Fission does not generate climate-altering green house gases. Even if we build significant amounts of wind and solar capacity, we will still need more base-load capacity, the kind that operates 24/7/365. I find many of these arguments compelling. However, I remain a pessimist about the ability of new nuclear power plants to make a significant contribution to our energy needs, at least not for a very long time.

Start with the fact that we haven't built a new nuclear plant in over a generation. That means that the profession of nuclear engineering has not been much of a draw for at least that long. Our best and brightest STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students went into other fields, like computer science, biology, or even finance. The breakthroughs they achieved over the last generation have transformed the way we live, giving us the Information Age, the biotechnology revolution, and the financial meltdown. Oops, can't win 'em all.

As a consequence, we do not have the cadre of engineers to build and operate lots of new nuclear plants. People with experience are a vanishing breed: at the ends of their careers, retired, or dead. We really have only three choices: import experienced engineers, outsource to foreign engineers, or educate our own engineers.

If we import engineers, the best source is France. While the US, and most of the rest of the First World, stopped building nuclear power plants, the French kept at it. Their nukes provide most of their electricity.

They did it by completely centralizing control of the industry. Plants are identical -- just like Intel's "copy exactly" strategy. Operators trained at one plant can work at any of hundreds of plants, where their American counterparts would have to start training from scratch at new each plant, sometimes at another reactor at the same plant. There are no years of delay due to reviews and lawsuits, because the design is already approved. The French still have to deal with long-lived radioactive waste, but at least they have one place to do it.

Central bureaucracy, subsidies, strict regulation, trampling on local prerogatives: to learn from France would be pâté en croûte de rein for the American Right. That's humble pie to us Anglophones.

We could outsource. That would mean China, which has announced ambitious plans to build lots of nuclear power plants. Since China has only a few operational power reactors, they know that they have to build an industry to build the plants. Their institutions of higher education are only too glad to accept the challenge of training a new generation of nuclear engineers. But it will take a while.

In the mean time, China has entered into joint ventures with the few companies with nuclear power technology experience. They make no secret of their intention to use the joint ventures to learn the technology so that they can practice it on their own in short order. Since China already has nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, getting adept at commercial power reactor technology does not create a new proliferation threat. But one cannot be so sanguine about the shift in economic leverage.

The final alternative is to educate a new generation of nuclear engineers here at home. We still have the finest research universities in the world. And, thanks to those [expletive deleted] financial engineers, most of them need some new revenue right about now. Make that a lot of new revenue. Right now.

There are many other obstacles to renewal of the nuclear industry in this country. When we were still building nuclear power plants, it took up to ten years for a plant to get into production. Planning, permitting, public hearings, design, more hearings, re-design, more permits, construction, testing, re-building, and slow ramp up to full power meant that billions of dollars were spent before a single kilowatt-hour was delivered. Finance 101 will tell you that high up-front costs, capped revenue, and high risk do not create an attractive investment.

I saw that up-close and personal as a computer science graduate student in 1977. A group of us visited a development shop at one of the leading power plant construction contractors to see if our new-fangled computer graphics could help. After grasping that the staggering complexity of the plant was way beyond the state of our art in those days, we realized a simpler truth: the economic model of the nuclear power industry simply didn't make sense.

While public sentiment turned against nuclear power in the 1980s, the bond market is what really killed the power plant construction industry. The proposed revival of that industry cannot happen without heavy government involvement, because the bond market would still not accept the risk/return ratio without the taxpayer thumb on the scale.

Then there is the still unresolved problem of what to do with the nuclear waste. There is much to say on this topic, but I will limit myself to one observation. The amount of time we need to watch over nuclear waste is longer than the longest-lived human civilization - including China.

Maybe France's success can inspire us. But we have a lot of history to overcome, even with bipartisan political support -- itself a very endangered species. Anyone who seriously believes that the United States should build more new nuclear power plants should start with revitalizing nuclear engineering at our colleges and universities. The best way to have more nuclear power plants is to go back to school.