The climate crisis is accelerating. We have no time to waste idling in the status quo of the carbon economy. We can invest in the carbon-free, renewable energy future we need – and we must. Wrangling greenhouse emissions and taking swift, effective action to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis is the most urgent task facing Congress and the White House – a task that millions of voters and taxpayers have elected the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats to take on.
But, as climate chaos worsens, nuclear special interests are plotting to waste billions of dollars bailing out existing nuclear power plants, experimenting with unfeasible nuclear energy technologies, and incentivizing domestic uranium industries in the infrastructure legislation under development – both the bipartisan and reconciliation bills. We can’t let the nuclear industry steal resources from actual climate solutions in order to subsidize dirty, unjust, uneconomical, and experimental energy systems that fail to enact the just transition we need and deserve.
What’s in the Bills?
Congress is currently crafting two legislative vehicles addressing U.S. infrastructure and energy – a bipartisan bill and a larger reconciliation bill. In recent weeks, we have highlighted the parts of these bills that include massive subsidies for existing nuclear reactors, totaling more than $50 billion. In addition, both bills include billions more for new nuclear projects. The bipartisan bill, which has passed the Senate and awaits action in the House, includes $3.211 billion for reactor demonstration projects for years 2022-2027 (see note below for more information). In contrast, it includes only $264 million for renewable energy demonstration projects — just one-twelfth of the amount for nuclear reactor projects. And none of the renewable energy money is actually new money. All of the renewable energy dollars were already authorized in the December 2020 COVID-19 relief package.
As for the Democrats’ larger infrastructure bill under development, the industry is now pushing for even more nuclear funding. Beyond the $46 billion bailout proposal, at least $6 billion in additional spending is proposed to fund speculative and unnecessary nuclear projects:
- Up to $2.5 billion to build new “high-assay” uranium enrichment capacity, posing nuclear proliferation risks
- $1.5 billion for a “strategic uranium reserve” that would expand domestic uranium mining
- Changing federal purchasing rules to authorize federal agencies to enter into long-term contracts with new nuclear reactors at above-market prices ($1.5 billion or more)
- Directing the Department of Defense and possibly other agencies to purchase nuclear microreactors to power their facilities ($500 million or more).
In total, these proposals would waste over $50 billion in the Democrats’ bill. And along with the bipartisan bill, Congress’s investments in nuclear energy would divert nearly $61 billion from safer, cleaner, more emissions-reducing, and more job-producing energy sources.
Too Slow, Joe
Efforts to resuscitate nuclear energy research and development rely on the myth that nuclear energy is a viable solution to the climate crisis. When it comes to climate action, nuclear cannot compete with the speed, cost, and environmental benefits of renewables. Not only does nuclear power have a larger carbon footprint than renewables like wind and solar, but deploying new nuclear power is also far too slow to meet the urgent timeline required to act on climate. Current proposals to invest federal dollars in so-called “advanced” reactors would waste time and resources on speculative technologies rather than quickly and efficiently implementing renewables to justly transition away from fossil fuels.
The bottom line: nuclear power is much too slow to deploy to effectively address climate change. In fact, nuclear power investments would block emissions reductions that efficiency and renewables would achieve.
Building new reactors incurs up-front environmental and economic debts. On the front end, the massive amounts of concrete and steel required to build new reactors release immense quantities of carbon emissions before the reactor can ever generate a single megawatt of electricity. And what happens if the reactor is never completed? This was the case of the Summer 2&3 reactors, which were canceled in 2017 when they were 40% constructed. They had already consumed as much steel and concrete as it takes to build a professional football stadium, incurring $9 billion in sunk costs over 14 years and a climate debt the project can never pay off.
To contribute to decarbonization, a reactor must generate enough electricity to replace enough fossil fuel generation in order to “work off” the emissions required to build and decommission it, transport its workers to the site, mine and produce its nuclear fuel, and transport and manage its radioactive waste. This is quite the calculation. The same is also true of wind, solar, and efficiency at this point, but their lifecycle carbon footprint is lower than nuclear, and they are faster and more affordable to build (meaning that their emissions payoff is faster and greater than nuclear). Also, by shifting our energy use to carbon-free energy faster, as renewables and efficiency would allow us to do, we would be able to phase out emissions in transportation, manufacturing, and buildings more quickly and efficiently. But, with money going to nuclear instead of renewables, we miss the opportunity to quickly reduce emissions and incur the upfront costs of nuclear — and then produce long-lasting, high and low-level radioactive waste if those reactors are ever completed and operational.
The slow pace alone of nuclear implementation is incompatible with the urgent need for rapid climate solutions.
The Future is Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free
In addition to being too slow to address climate change, building new nuclear power plants has proven too expensive in the U.S. and around the world. As a result, over half of proposed reactors in the U.S. have been canceled over the last 50 years–some canceled despite being nearly complete.
It is clear that there are no prospects for building the same types of reactors the industry has used for decades: large, light-water reactors. The industry is now pinning its hopes on even more speculative reactor designs, which it has no experience building or operating. Small modular reactors (SMRs), fast neutron/breeder reactors, molten salt reactors, “traveling wave” reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and solid-state microreactors have all been explored since the 1950s, but have either been deemed uneconomical or impractical compared to large, light-water reactors; or they have been tried but never proved technically or commercially feasible.
There is no shortage of nuclear scientists, trade groups, and enthusiasts willing to believe that a major breakthrough that has eluded the industry for 70 years is just around the corner. But the truth is, we just don’t need nuclear to fight climate change. The July 2021 report by economist Dr. Mark Cooper finds that the costs of new reactors are now 3-5 times greater than wind, solar, and energy efficiency. Since the first demonstration projects will not be built until at least 2026-2030, that means we could build 3-5 times more renewable energy than nuclear years before a single new nuke comes online. In fact, Dr. Cooper reports that the costs of renewables and efficiency are already less than the average operating cost of existing reactors. Subsidies for existing or new reactors are an actual impediment to reducing emissions.
As Dr. Cooper concludes, the best energy solutions for climate change are the same in the long term, the medium term, and the short term: investing in renewable energy, efficiency, storage, and modern grid infrastructure. Any resources we spend on nuclear–whether bailing out old reactors or subsidizing new ones–is time, money, and jobs wasted.
We can’t let our leaders sacrifice the climate to false solutions. Tell President Biden, Vice-President Harris, and your representatives in Congress: “No Nuclear Power in the Infrastructure Plans – It’s Time for a Just Transition to 100% Renewable Energy.”
The $3.2 billion for nuclear demonstration projects in the bipartisan bill would likely be allocated to two projects under the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP): the Terrapower Natrium reactor and X-energy Xe-100 reactor.
DOE has selected 10 designs for the ARDP, but only Terrapower and X-energy are in the first tranche of projects, projected to be built in the 2026 timeframe covered by funding in the bipartisan bill. The other eight reactors are projected to be built in the 2030s.
So Terrapower and X-energy could end up roughly splitting the $3.2 billion. The ADRP is a cost-sharing arrangement, under which DOE and the developer split the costs 50-50. With each project receiving $1.6 billion in federal funding, the cost of each would have to be limited to $3.2 billion. This is unlikely to be enough to make these projects viable. For instance, the cost of the only new nuclear power project under construction in the US–the Plant Vogtle 3&4 reactors–is now in excess of $12 million per megawatt (MW) – a total of at least $28 billion. In addition, the latest reported cost estimate for the proposed NuScale small modular reactor project (~720 MW) was $6.1 billion (or ~$8.3 million/MW); but that project has recently been scaled back, with an attendant increase in the cost/MW likely.
Both the Natrium (345 MW) and Xe-100 (320 MW) projects are to be about half the size of NuScale. A cost estimate of $10 million/MW would result in total project costs of $3.5 billion and $3.2 billion, respectively. Of course, the developers could shoulder more of the cost themselves, but that would only make them less commercially viable.