The Climate Emergency, the Public Voice, and Nuclear Energy

William H. Young

In his March 2022 fundraising letter, National Association of Scholars (NAS) President Peter Wood indicates that “the invocation of environmental emergency has become de rigueur” in higher education.

The imaginary crisis of climate change is pervasive.

The fantasy of an imminent world-ending disaster has gripped the imagination of much of the public, especially the younger generations who have been brought up on it. …

The more plausible truth, which offers none of the existential exhilaration of world-ending catastrophe, is that we will meet our challenges, whatever they may be.

To meet them, however, we must climb out of the cul-de-sac of false beliefs. We must re-learn the old lessons that soothsayers are not to be trusted and that the past is a better guide to the future than the fantasy …

Why Nuclear Energy?

Does nuclear energy demonstrate the reliability of the past versus the fantasy of the future? Yes, if extremism had not also ruined the American ability to use the past to guide the present. Today, feelings and equity have displaced reason and merit across the board.

As it senses higher electricity prices from renewable energy and the emergence of a war-driven worldwide energy crisis,1 the American public is calling for more low cost, clean nuclear energy supplies, consistent with earlier Gallup poll trends.2

The additional nuclear energy that the public might logically expect would be similar to the approximately 100 existing nuclear power plants, with an individual plant generating 900-1,200 MWe (a MWe is 1 million watts of electric capacity), which provide about 20% of America’s electricity and are our largest source of clean, climate-friendly energy.3

Instead, those responsible for providing today’s new nuclear energy—representatives of higher education in their outposts in government, laboratories, and related organizations4—have developed fantasy solutions—never applied in the market and different than what the public might expect.

Despite the unmatched operational safety record of existing American nuclear power plants—more than 60 years with no public deaths or harm—the output of potential new plants (Small Modular Reactors or SMRs) has unnecessarily been limited to about 1/20 to ¼ the capacity of current plants, primarily to eliminate any possibility of accidental radiation release.

Nuclear power plants have high construction costs; they’re the most economical in large sizes. They have had high output to be market competitive. SMR costs are to be competitive not with market electricity costs, but with renewable (solar plus backup) energy costs. A different, higher cost standard is to be applied.5

Rather than use existing domestic technologies, a new Russian fuel system developed by Rosatom was to be supplied for the SMRs. Also, commercial nuclear plants now receive about half of their needed fuel from Russian ore. Russian uranium has not been sanctioned by the U.S., but the U.S. Secretary of Energy has suddenly announced a new “full-on uranium strategy” that is going through the interagency process.6 However, American uranium mines have all been closed, apparently for environmental reasons.7

Comparing nuclear energy costs with renewable energy costs does not provide the lower market electricity prices that the public desires. Consider the many problems with solar energy, for example:

  • Realistically, the efficiency of solar energy is 1/3 to ½ that of historic technologies.
  • The delivery of solar energy is determined by weather, not consumer demand.
  • The manufactured cost of solar technologies has been reduced substantially to produce market costs of electricity. However, solar energy still requires a backup battery or other energy storage supply for periods without sunlight to provide renewable energy. Nuclear energy costs are being compared not against the market cost of solar energy, but against the cost of renewable solar energy—including the added backup energy costs.
  • Solar panels are fabricated from higher amounts of rare metals than traditional technologies. Companies minimize these costs by buying such rare metals and minerals abroad, most notably in Russia and China. This requires America not to mine or fabricate rare metals—so we can remain Green. America is therefore dependent on foreign nations for supplies, achieves lower costs but loses jobs, leaves foreign environmental degradation abroad, and is subject to foreign control.

Unfortunately, also, the public’s desire for new nuclear power plants—mostly completed before 1990—is not something of which our memory of the past can simply produce more.

After 1982, new American nuclear energy plant orders were essentially discontinued following suppressive action by a Democratic Congress. Coal-fired electrical plants—with whatever climate effects—were built following anti-breeder/nuclear opposition from President Carter, the environmental movement, and the mainstream media beginning in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, after 1982, about 350 foreign nuclear plants were constructed, averaging more than 800 MWe each, while American industrial capabilities for new nuclear power plants atrophied.8 Experience with the Vogtle nuclear plant(1,000 MWe) in Georgia, ordered in 2004 and still not completed, could indicate that America may no longer have the competency or capability to expand nuclear energy—which demands rigorous quality.

Sadly, neither a turn to the past nor higher education’s present environmentalist fantasies seem likely to provide the expansion of safe, cost-effective nuclear energy that the nation needs and desires.

Further Insights About Nuclear Energy

Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover is known as the father of the nuclear Navy. In 1956, I graduated from college and joined his engineering group in Washington, DC to assist in the use of nuclear energy to propel submarines, working on USS Nautilus (SSN-571). Later, I became his civilian deputy for management of the production of submarine nuclear plants, also helping lead first tests of their reactors at sea.

A larger, civil version of the submarine nuclear plant, called a Light Water Reactor (LWR), was developed and commercialized by Westinghouse Electric Corporation and a few other competitors. Plant electricity outputs were generally 900-1,200 MWe. These plants used Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel for safety reasons, which requires mining and enrichment of new supplies of uranium ore.

Before proceeding further, let me explain a few principles of fission (splitting the nucleus of the atom with a neutron, producing energy), as well as the differences between nuclear energy as used by the military and civilians:

  • Nuclear energy uses uranium as fuel because its isotopes can be fissioned to produce large amounts of energy. One tiny pellet of fissionable uranium (or plutonium) can produce the same energy as a ton of coal or 17,000 cu. ft. of natural gas—while yielding no carbon dioxide.
  • Uranium ore can be processed to provide the fissionable isotope U-235 (such ore will be available for many years, but, unfortunately, U-235 is only 0.7% of ore). The Hiroshima bomb used 100% U-235, called Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). Nuclear submarines use 90% U-235 (HEU) to make the reactors small. Commercial reactors use 2%-5% U-235, which qualifies as Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), so that they can never become bombs.
  • Commercial reactors convert the LEU to energy, and through power plants produce electricity; the refuse is spent fuel to be stored or reprocessed. The use of LEU requires mining and processing of new uranium ore, which exists in America, but is more prevalent elsewhere.
  • More than 99% of uranium ore consists of the non-fissionable isotope U-238, which engineers can convert to the fissionable isotope Pu-239. The Nagasaki bomb used 100% Pu-239. The breeder reactor converts U-238 to Pu-239, and then Pu-239 to electricity. That process has been internationally confirmed to be safe. The refuse is reprocessed—think medical and industrial isotopes—or stored.
  • The nuclear breeder reactor does not require mining new ore but would use already stockpiled byproduct U-238—from the HEU utilized for nuclear weapons and ships and from the LEU produced for LWRs.
  • Breeder reactors thus have an available domestic fuel supply for more than 500 years. They were viewed as the successors to LWR reactors and do not require fuel mining—especially foreign fuel—to produce electricity.

Later, as a vice president and director of a corporation that designed and built commercial nuclear power plants domestically and internationally, I also directed corporate work on joint government/electric utility next-generation nuclear power plant development.

In 1972, the U. S. Department of Energy and a consortium of 753 American electric utility companies jointly sponsored a 350 MWe demonstration breeder reactor plant. If the demonstration succeeded, later full-size commercial breeder plants were to be the next-generation successors to LWR plants with a 500-year domestic fuel supply. Spent fuel storage would not be required; reprocessing plants were needed.

President Carter, the environmental movement, the mainstream media, and, ultimately, a Democratic Congress killed the breeder reactor and nuclear energy in 1982, on hypothetical nuclear safety grounds (disproved by the international community and safeguards analyses), over the objections of President Reagan and the unanimous disagreement of industry, government, and scientific leaders.

At the time, I published an article about the liberal arts, the media, and the political and technological aspects of the eight-year Congressional struggle, which I characterized as the “forces of transcendence” versus the “forces of experience.”9 Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s, expressed his admiration for the piece, which spurred my turn from technology to history and the ideals of Western Civilization.

The national consequences were America’s turn from building new nuclear power plants to constructing a new coal-fired generation with environmental controls to meet our growing electricity needs. Later, natural gas, especially after the discovery of fracking, became the fuel of choice for new electricity generation.

In 1984, as a nuclear management consultant heading a prudence audit for a utility company, I evaluated the reasons for the costs of nuclear power plants completed during the 1980s. Here’s what I found:

  • Plants completed by the early 1970s were built on time and on budget—at a low cost.
  • Then 1970s-80s stagflation effects set in: inflation peaked in 1981 at more than 13%. Interest rates on capital costs reached their highest point in modern history in 1981, over 20%, and labor productivity became abysmal. Nuclear construction (and other) costs rose dramatically.
  • In 1979, a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island occurred. Nuclear plants experienced long delays in construction while the effects of that accident were examined. The media, driven by anti-nuclear and elite environmentalists, conveyed to the public the unfounded opinion that radiation release had caused or would cause great harm. Meanwhile, the facts showed that radiation was retained within the reactor containment building as designed (by my company to federal regulations) and caused no harm to the public.
  • The nuclear industry refused to make its case on public media because of the fairness doctrine, which guaranteed that equal time be allotted to anti-nuclear activists to counter with opposing arguments.
  • Public trust was undermined, and unfinished plant costs were further increased by delays. The nuclear plant costs cited by anti-nuclear opponents were (and remain) the worst costs experienced by those long-delayed plants that suffered the stagflation effects of the 1970s-80s—not the costs of properly built nuclear power plants in ordinary circumstances.
  • The combination of vehement environmentalist opposition, manufactured public fear, and utilization of only such unrepresentative, unusually high, inflation-driven costs led to the avoidance of high-capital-cost nuclear power plants as viable commercial investments.

From 1989-93, I served as Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy, a position to which I was appointed by President George H. W. Bush. In addition to many other functions, I worked with the U. S. Congress to pass the first change in nuclear plant licensing legislation since the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The licensing provisions (1) required completed standard nuclear plant designs that permitted potential lower-cost prefabrication and (2) reduced financial challenges when ordering new plants.

The House of Representatives approved my licensing provisions (already passed by the Senate) by a vote of 2-1. This matched my polling of public environmentalists, who were also favorable by 2-1. But the elite leadership of the environmental movement vigorously opposed nuclear energy in general and my particular provisions in both the Senate and the House.

Only the Vogtle plant (1,000 MWe) was ordered to the new licensing requirements. Vogtle remains to be completed after many years of contemporary incompetence, which began with the rejection of extensive subcontractor prefabrication—because that work failed to meet quality requirements, which bankrupted Westinghouse.10 Earlier, Westinghouse successfully built the same 1,000 MWe design in China—which has just reordered four more such plants.

One man—Bill Gates—has kept the nuclear breeder reactor concept alive through his company, Terra Power, and some new ideas from his staff (the traveling neutron wave concept), for which he also has had little success in attracting government support. I wish him well, and in one nuclear consulting assignment passed along to his company, some of the cost-reduction experience in the planned commercialization of that technology is from the 1970s.

High-Level Nuclear Waste

To manage spent nuclear fuel or high-level nuclear waste, the electric utility industry, beginning in the 1980s, has essentially completed a fully financed (via consumer electric bills), long-term repository at Yucca Mountain, NV. I’ve toured that repository, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has positively reviewed it.

The Nevada Congressional delegation opposed the repository—train shipping of fuel casks might crimp the Las Vegas lifestyle. In 2012, the Obama administration decided to cancel Yucca Mountain and seek another site through a voluntary siting consent process—although a like process was unsuccessful as a part of the Congressional legislation that authorized the repository.11

The current U. S. Department of Energy, after 10 years of seeking voluntary consent to a site, promises results “soon”—for the spent nuclear fuel currently stored at 121 sites in 39 states across the nation. All the spent nuclear fuel from plant operations to date (stacked end-to-end) would cover a football field to a depth of approximately 12 yards—still better managed than the waste from other technologies.12

Conclusion

U.S. government and industry in the latter half of the 20th century introduced nuclear energy to America and largely demonstrated the possibility of a next generation of that clean, climate-friendly energy technology for the 21st century—one with a 500-year domestic fuel supply as well as an unmatched safety record. I consider that to be a prime example of the results that Western Civilization’s “forces of experience” could provide.

However, that was ruled unacceptable by the “forces of transcendence,” which were succeeded by climate change extremism, a dogma in much of the academy. That includes higher education’s nuclear energy fantasy, which the rest of the world has thus far not followed. For in France, the current response to the public call for more cost-effective nuclear electricity is precisely to build several more 1,600 MWe LWR plants, which its industry licensed from Westinghouse in the 1970s.13


1 Helen Thompson, “It’s Not Just High Oil Prices, It’s a Full-Blown Energy Crisis,” The New York Times, 23 April 2022.

2 Power and Operations, “New polls show substantial support for nuclear energy,” Nuclear Newswire, 7 July 2020. R. J. Reinhart, “40 Years After Three Mile Island, Americans Split on Nuclear Power,” Gallup, 25 March 2019.

3 Today in Energy, U. S. Energy Information Administration, 8 April 2022.

4 Education, “The public face of nuclear,” Nuclear Newswire, 15 April 2022.

5 Daniel Michaels, “Mini Nuclear Reactors Offer Promise of Cheaper, Clean Power,” Energy & Climate, 11 February 2021. Jennifer Hiller, “Utilities Want to Convert Coal Plants to Nuclear; Skeptics Abound,” 18 April 2022. Cherelle Blazer, Phasing ut Coal by 2030 is Critical for the Climate. And Key for Affordable and Reliable Energy,” Power, 3 January 2022.

6 Fuel, “Granholm: DOE developing “full-on uranium strategy,” 10 May 2022.

7 Fuel, “ANS webinar looked at building domestic HALEU production capacity,” Nuclear Newswire, 16 March 2022. Jennifer Hiller, “U. S. Rethinks Uranium Supply for Nuclear Plants After Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” The New York Times 22 March 2022. Fuel, “Barrasso Introduces bill to prioritize HALEU supply chain and demo reactor needs, Nuclear Newswire, 8 April 2022.

8 “Nuclear Power in the World Today,” World Nuclear Association, March 2022.

9 William H. Young, “The Saga of Clinch River,” Public Utilities Fortnightly, 2 August 1984.

10 Darrell Proctor, “Oft-Delayed Vogtle-Expansion on Track for 2022 Start,” Power, 27 January 2022. Tom Hals and Emily Flitter, “How two cutting-edge nuclear projects bankrupted Westinghouse,” Reuters, 2 May 2017.

11 The National Academy of Engineering, “Summer Issue of The Bridge on Managing Nuclear Waste,” Vol. 40, Issue 2, June 15, 1982.

12 Fact Sheet, “Safely Managing Used Nuclear Fuel,” Nuclear Energy Institute, February 2019.

13 Dan Yurman, “France Sets Ambitious Plans for 14 New Nuclear Reactors,” NeutronBytes, 11 February 2022.


The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Nicolas HIPPERT, Public Domain

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