In 2017, the V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant expansion – meant to hail the renaissance of nuclear power in the US – came screeching to a halt. The project, to build two new reactors at an existing South Carolina facility, was canceled after being delayed more than a year, costing $9 billion USD, and still being only 40% complete. Now, the only new nuclear project in the works in the U.S. is the Vogtle Plant expansion in Georgia; a project also more than a year behind schedule, and billions of dollars over budget. Still, nuclear projects remain a focus of government and think tank decarbonization strategies. Why?
Dr. Amory Lovins, adjunct professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, and international authority on the clean energy transition, joins Climate Now to explain why he thinks nuclear should no longer be considered as a source of energy. For Amory, it’s not just the chance of environmental catastrophe or nuclear proliferation that make it a non-starter, it’s the economics.
Dr. Amory Lovins
Adjunct Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University
Dr. Amory Lovins
Adjunct Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University
Amory has been an energy advisor to major firms and governments in 70+ countries for over 45 years; is the author of 31 books and more than 700 papers; and is an integrative designer of super-efficient buildings, factories, and vehicles. Time has named Amory one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and Foreign Policy, one of the 100 top global thinkers.
Climate Now Host
Climate Now Host
[00:00:00] James Lawler: You are listening to Climate Now, a podcast that delves into the scientific ideas, technologies, and policies that will help us address the global climate crisis and achieve a net-zero emissions future. I’m your host, James Lawler. If you find today’s episode interesting, subscribe to our newsletter at climatenow.com.
[00:00:23] James Lawler: There, you’ll find dozens of conversations with other experts and videos explaining key ideas related to the energy transition and climate science. Today, I am speaking with physicist Amory Lovins.
[00:00:47] James Lawler: Amory has advised major corporations and governments on energy policy in over 70 countries, and somehow has also found the time to author more than 30 books and 700 papers on a broad range of topics, including environmental economics, energy efficiency, and decarbonization. He has also lectured and written extensively about the nuclear power industry, and he’s going to explain to us why nuclear power does not need to be part of the conversation when we’re talking about a carbon-free future.
[00:01:20] James Lawler: Amory, thank you so much for joining us.
[00:01:22] Amory Lovins: Thank you.
[00:01:23] James Lawler: Could you give us a sense of how prevalent nuclear energy production is today?
[00:01:27] Amory Lovins: Nuclear power provides nearly 1/10th of world and 1/5th of U.S. electricity, which was historically significant, but it’s become stagnant in recent years. Some years, like 2020, it gains a little bit more capacity than it loses through retirements because the average plant 31or 40 years old in the U.S. So, in 2020, nuclear power added 782 times less capacity than renewables did, or 232 times less in annual output, if you adjust for how much each technology runs. Which is to say that renewables swelled, in supply and displaced carbon, as much every 38 hours as nuclear did all year.
[00:02:19] Amory Lovins: Then, in 2021, as happens upwards of half the time now, nuclear lost more capacity to retirements than it added, lost several billion watts, whereas renewables added 290 or so billion watts.
[00:02:35] Amory Lovins: So, it’s already game over just because nuclear has no business case.
[00:02:40] James Lawler: I’m really interested in learning more about why you say that, especially considering that governments, including the United States, are spending billions of dollars on projects to demonstrate nuclear power technologies. In June at the G7 Summit, for example, President Biden announced that the United States is committing $14 million towards a proof-of-concept nuclear plant in Romania. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry even said at the time that nuclear energy represents “a critical tool in the fight against climate change.”
[00:03:10] James Lawler: So tell us, why is nuclear less viable than renewable?
[00:03:15] Amory Lovins: The biggest factor is it costs too much. The top merchant bank Lazard says it costs about three to eight times more than modern renewables like solar and wind per kilowatt hour, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which tracks 24,000-odd actual projects, looks into detail what each of them costs. It costs about 5 to 13 times more than renewables.
[00:03:45] Amory Lovins: Actually, if you look at it from the perspective of the whole grid, because adding a technology to the grid may incur so-called integration costs, it’s not clear that those numbers change materially. In fact, there’s some pretty good evidence now that adding big steam raising power plants like nuclear or coal or gas to the grid adds more integration costs than adding renewables.
[00:04:12] Amory Lovins: And that’s because the big thermal plants suffer unplanned or unexpected outages, called forced outages, that are bigger, longer, less graceful, and far less predictable than the highly predictable variations of sun and wind. That means you need more reserve margin, spinning reserve, cycling costs, and so on for the big thermal plants.
[00:04:42] Amory Lovins: It is not true, as many people suppose, that because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, that means you need a huge battery backup to make sure that you have reliable power from variable renewables. In fact, they are often more predictable than electricity demand itself. They tend to work well at different times and at different places.
[00:05:08] Amory Lovins: So, if you diversify by type and location and run the grid properly, they’re perfectly capable of running most or all of our electricity needs very reliably and resiliently.
[00:05:22] James Lawler: But isn’t part of the argument that projects like the one in Romania represent a new type of advanced nuclear technology? It’s called a small modular reactor, or SMR. First, what is a small modular reactor? and what’s your opinion on these new designs, which are touted as being safer, cleaner, more reliable, more efficient, et cetera?
[00:05:42] Amory Lovins: Small modular reactors and so-called advanced reactors, and there are about 50-odd kinds of both being pursued, are the latest effort of the nuclear industry to rebrand itself as having some shiny new object you could admire that will solve all their previous problems. There are even extravagant and ridiculous claims made about how they will avoid making nuclear waste, and they won’t be proliferative, and they’re perfectly safe, so you don’t need a containment structure. You can put them right near cities and so on.
[00:06:22] Amory Lovins: Well, let me generalize a bit because there are so many kinds in play, but broadly speaking, the early units will cost at least twice as much per kilowatt or per kilowatt hour as existing reactors, which are already 3 to 13 times what you would pay for renewables to do the same thing. And then, during the many years in which you would be seeing if SMRs work right and if they can scale, the renewables will get cheaper again by another factor, too.
[00:06:52] Amory Lovins: So, you do the math, you know, 2 x 3 to 13 x 2, SMRs would have to be 12 to 52 times cheaper in order to beat renewables. It is hoped, of course, that the initial factor to cost disadvantage will be more than offset by mass production, but there is no way on earth mass production can get you to a factor of 12 to 52.
[00:07:18] Amory Lovins: In fact, you couldn’t even scale SMRs before renewables have already decarbonized the U.S. grid on existing plans. In fact, even if SMRs had free reactors, generated free nuclear steam, they still couldn’t compete because the non-nuclear parts cost too much. So, you have to look at the whole competitive landscape to see how ridiculous the idea is.
[00:07:46] Amory Lovins: The SMRs are decades behind another kind of SMR, small modular renewables. Now, they are decades ahead in exploiting their formidable economies of mass production because they’re so much simpler than a reactor. So, nuclear can never catch up. It’s too little too late, but meanwhile, as long as it’s operating or planned, nuclear hogs the market space, it jams up the grid capacity, and it diverts investments by private investors or governments that cannot be contested.
[00:08:28] Amory Lovins: The market space is closed to the more climate effective carbon-free competitors of renewables and efficiency. So, it’s actually setting us back in saving the most carbon with the fewest dollars and the fewest years. That’s what we need to be doing.
[00:08:45] James Lawler: Let’s dive more into this idea of reliability of nuclear versus renewables. The popular argument in favor of the former is that nuclear offers a consistent and reliable source of energy. I believe the concept that they refer to is ‘baseload,’ or the minimum amount of power the grid needs to produce to keep the lights on, but you’ve said the opposite. If we install the right mix of solar and wind in the right places, we can overcome this intermittency challenge that renewables present.
[00:09:14] Amory Lovins: Intermittency isn’t even the right word because the output of sun and wind is so highly predictable. The right word to use is variable. Intermittency is the right word to use for fossil and nuclear power plants because they suffer billion-watt outages in a millisecond without warning, quite unpredictably. Not very often, but often enough that they incur rather large backup costs, which are not normally considered. They’re counted as, somehow, inevitable system costs and not counted in the analysis.
[00:09:54] Amory Lovins: The term baseload has at least five different meanings. It’s not a useful term. It’s especially not useful now, it’s a kind of diffuse honorific, but it’s become antique. It was useful when the plants normally called baseload, like fossil and nuclear, were the cheapest to operate other than hydropower.
[00:10:13] Amory Lovins: So, you would use them, dispatch them whenever they were available, which was most of the time. However, they’re no longer the cheapest to run because now you can build new, renewable capacity cheaper than the total, or even just the operating cost, of those fossil and nuclear plants, and then the renewables cost almost nothing to run.
[00:10:35] Amory Lovins: So, when you run them, whenever they’re available, then the other power plants you need must be flexible enough to follow that load, or actually what’s called the net load, because demand varies a lot too. So, what you need to follow is demand, which may be altered by efficiency and timely use, minus the renewable supply available at the time.
[00:11:01] Amory Lovins: Unfortunately, the fossil and nuclear plants, especially nuclear, tend to be rather inflexible. Nuclear in particular is usually counted as a must-run resource. It’s so inflexible that with isolated exceptions, you have to run it whether you need it then or not. This means you are pushing renewables out of the grid that would be much cheaper to run.
[00:11:27] James Lawler: I’d love to ask you about this idea that wind and solar are predictably variable. Because, you know, most people understand wind as something that is hard to predict, sure. You can look at the weather, but the weather forecast is often wrong. What do you mean when you say that wind is more predictable than electricity demand?
[00:11:47] Amory Lovins: Well, I’m just looking at the data. You can look at a very squiggly forecast of French wind power output made a day ahead, and then the actual, and they’re on top of each other. It would be neat if we could forecast demand that accurately. Forecasting for wind and solar has become very sophisticated.
[00:12:09] Amory Lovins: Now, that isn’t necessarily for a single turbine or perhaps even for a single wind farm, but you have a bunch of them over a substantial area, and that’s the level that matters for the grid because it’s all connected by wires. You don’t care where the electrons are coming from at any given moment.
[00:12:27] Amory Lovins: It gets fuzzier as you go out to days ahead, but we don’t normally worry about days ahead in the electricity business, we worry about how we’re going to schedule the capacity we have. But you see, there’s been a complete reversal in how we think of the grid, how we run the grid. In the old grid, we would forecast demand, and then schedule supply to meet it.
[00:12:54] Amory Lovins: But, in the emerging new grid, we will forecast supply as from solar and wind, for example, and then schedule demand because we have the ability now, without inconveniencing the user, without the users even noticing, to alter when we use electricity for uses when the timing doesn’t matter. Like, if we were to turn off your electricity to your refrigerator for 15 minutes, you’d never know. The food will stay cold anyway, it’s in an insulated box. The same is broadly true for your air conditioner. It’s certainly true for your water heater. There are actually quite a lot of uses where the timing doesn’t much matter, and therefore you can use what’s called demand flexibility.
[00:13:40] James Lawler: It sounds like you’re describing something futuristic that doesn’t exist today. Smart refrigerators and other appliances that can interact intelligently with the grid in a complex orchestration of supply meeting demand.
[00:13:52] Amory Lovins: That’s why I refer to it as the future grid, the emergent or evolving grid, although many appliance manufacturers are starting to build chips into home appliances to let them run intelligently.
[00:14:09] Amory Lovins: So, for example, your washing machine would know that if it turns on right now, it’ll be calling on a gas plant and emitting carbon, but if it waits half an hour, it’ll be running on a wind plant, and just that intelligence, by understanding what’s going to be going on and when in the grid, can save a significant fraction of our carbon emissions, but you don’t actually have to wait for new chips to come into your appliances as you gradually buy new appliances to replace the old ones, because you could plug in your appliance through a little inexpensive box that will have that intelligence and communication built in.
[00:14:52] James Lawler: Amory, in the more immediate future, in order to scale renewable energy, don’t we need batteries or some type of central storage solution to provide the kind of flexibility that you’re describing? Wouldn’t that need to be included in the cost comparison with nuclear power?
[00:15:08] Amory Lovins: It is clearly feasible to run a grid entirely on a diversified mix of renewables, not just one. And it’s not at all clear we’re going to need batteries to do that. The places that do it now, particular countries that often have a lot of hydro, but don’t install giant batteries in general because the other nine carbon-free ways to keep the grid in balance suffice.
[00:15:37] Amory Lovins: And we already have some rather impressive examples. Germany is only about half renewable-powered, but in almost every week, they’re up in the 80+ percent range of renewables in many weeks, between 90 and nearly 100, occasionally 100, Denmark is often over a hundred and a couple years ago they were 79 percent renewably powered. Scotland, which unlike Denmark has hydropower, was 99 percent renewable.
[00:16:11] Amory Lovins: In a recent year, Portugal, around 64 percent, Spain, 46 percent. So, these are rather impressive when you remember that, some people still think you can’t go over 10 or 20 percent. And that was a very widely held view in the industry even a few years ago, in fact many said, you couldn’t go over one or 2 percent without the lights going out. But clearly that’s not true.
[00:16:37] James Lawler: Amory makes a strong case that if you compare the price of wind or solar to the price of nuclear, the economics of nuclear just do not make any sense. And yet the United States’ project in Romania that I mentioned earlier is not the only instance of newer, upcoming investments in nuclear energy projects.
[00:16:59] James Lawler: Britain, for example, has announced plans to build eight new reactors by 2030 as part of their decarbonization strategy. It really begs the question, if there is no business case for nuclear energy, why are so many people still beating that dead horse? Here’s what Amory had to say about that.
[00:17:19] Amory Lovins: I don’t want to speculate on motives, but it’s obvious that 7 of the 10 biggest economies in the world currently have leaders who are really fond of nuclear power and seem impervious to evidence that it’s not a cost-effective, practical solution to the energy problems we have. Britain has probably the least advanced energy policy of any major industrial country. I lived there for 10 years and watched it closely, and it gets less impressive with time.
[00:17:51] Amory Lovins: But notice that the British government did not commit any funding for these announced new reactors.
[00:17:57] James Lawler: Right.
[00:17:58] Amory Lovins: That probably means they won’t happen, just like most of the ones recently announced didn’t happen, because the investors don’t wanna put their money in. It is also clear, interestingly, that nuclear power is not a route to energy security for several distinct reasons.
[00:18:17] Amory Lovins: One is, it’s rather vulnerable to climate change, not only because many reactors are in coastal sites subject to flooding, but also because nuclear needs an unusual amount of cooling water that has to be cool enough. So, if you have hot spells, that becomes a big problem and it’s shut down quite a few reactors in Europe over the years.
[00:18:39] Amory Lovins: Secondly, if there is a safety problem or a major accident, large numbers of reactors can be shut down simultaneously, as we’ve seen in Japan and in France. Thirdly, as reactors get older, they get less reliable. It’s kinda like an old car. Costlier stuff starts going wrong
[00:19:00] Amory Lovins: The flag bearer for the world nuclear industry, France, is now in deep trouble on its nuclear program. In 2020, the average French reactor produced nothing 1/3 of the time. They’re having some serious safety-related corrosion problems that have required many of their plants to be closed for repair, or for new safety inspections. The result is that in 2022, as the previous December, France is losing more nuclear output and having more nuclear capacity shut than Germany has closed in total 2000 through 2021.
[00:19:41] Amory Lovins: A fourth way in which nuclear power is not a path to energy security is that when you have these immense inventories of radioactive material in the reactor and the spent fuel pools, which are much more vulnerable, that means that they’re prone to attack.
[00:20:02] Amory Lovins: Japan indeed has just asked what sorts of defense will be available against potential Chinese or Korean attack because they see what just happened in Ukraine, and they’re deeply worried about it. This is not the sort of technology you really want in a densely populated country.
[00:20:20] James Lawler: Everything you said today, Amory, would seem to refute the idea that nuclear energy should be considered as part of a portfolio strategy to decarbonize. In fact, it sounds like a waste of money.
[00:20:30] Amory Lovins: This mushy mantra of all of the above, which comes out of the mouths of a lot of people who should know better, is I think exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Because the more urgent climate change is, and the more we’re worried about it, the more necessary it is to invest judiciously, not indiscriminately, to buy cheap, fast, sure, options, rather than costly, slow, speculative options.
[00:20:55] Amory Lovins: Buying the cheap, fast sure options is the only strategy that will save the most carbon per dollar and per year. Anything that doesn’t do that makes climate change worse. So, the next time you hear some official eager to appease every constituency and offend nobody say “we support all of the above,” we’re not picking and backing winners.
[00:21:19] Amory Lovins: I would remind you what the Dean of US Utility Regulators, Peter Bradford, said to that, “no, we’re not picking and backing winners. They don’t need it. We’re picking and backing losers.”
[00:21:30] James Lawler: We have these really powerful dynamics at play with hundreds of times more installed capacity per year of renewables versus nuclear. We have more nuclear retiring, more or less than we do getting installed, we have these cost profiles that are actually worsening, not improving, with new generations of nuclear technology. We have the persistent issue of nuclear proliferation security risks around that. Is there any way that nuclear recovers from these dynamics, or is it effectively game over and should we just stop talking about it?
[00:22:07] Amory Lovins: I think it is game over. It has been for a long time, and it may take a whole generation of policy makers to die or retire before there’s fresh thinking. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be happening. There’s a new generation of nuclear enthusiasts who lack the personal and professional quality of the pioneers.
[00:22:29] Amory Lovins: So, actually the nuclear debate such as it is, is becoming less informed and less constructive than it’s ever been in my roughly 58 years of following it.
[00:22:41] James Lawler: Why is that? Why is there this lack of intellectual capital and decline in the conversation?
[00:22:47] Amory Lovins: Well, the industry has extremely powerful and adept PR machines.
[00:22:54] Amory Lovins: I think there are many interlocking constituencies and agendas that converge on this one. I think it’s very regrettable. If we had the level of nuclear discourse we had decades ago, we would have a much more sensible conversation, but it just means that the technology that is dying of an incurable attack of market forces, is going to die more slowly, more painfully, more expensively. And I don’t see any corrective forces in the 7 countries of the top 10 economies whose leaders are still promoting nuclear power out of, I think, force of habit. And, from talking to national leaders and their top advisors, I’m always astounded by the depth of disinformation that is penetrated at those levels.
[00:23:46] Amory Lovins: I remember once in a leading nuclear country, talking to the deputy head of strategy who subbed for his boss, who wanted to see me but was out of town that day. And I asked him, and this was maybe 10 or 15 years ago. When do you think distributed renewables might become an important competitor to your nuclear offerings?
[00:24:10] Amory Lovins: He said, maybe by 2030 or so we might need to start looking at it. I said, “they’ve already taken 2/3 of your market,” at that time, now it’s well over 90, 95 percent or so, “don’t you think you should be looking at them now?”
[00:24:25] Amory Lovins: He said, well, I don’t believe that number. Where’d you get it? So, I showed him the database, which is based on the best industry data from each industry on how much they’re selling.
[00:24:37] Amory Lovins: And he said, “oh, well, I just looked up this database from a service we get, and I didn’t see any of that stuff.” I asked what database it was. It turned out it was a database for utility-owned, central power plants. So, of course it didn’t include the stuff that was not a central power plant and often not utility owned.
[00:24:56] Amory Lovins: “You know,” I said, “do you wanna bet your company on looking in the right database? Because you’re not. Here is the real data.” Then I got a call from his boss when he came back who said, “thank you very much for clarifying that. Now I understand better the strange advice I was getting.”
[00:25:11] Amory Lovins: I see that around the world. I work in 70 odd countries, and it’s quite astonishing.
[00:25:16] Amory Lovins: Many people in senior positions don’t know what they know isn’t true.
[00:25:24] James Lawler: That was Amory Lovins. That’s it for today’s episode. Thank you to Amory again for joining us, and thanks to all of you listening.
[00:25:36] James Lawler: To listen to our other interviews, watch our videos, or to sign up for our newsletter, visit climatenow.com. If you’d like to get in touch with us, you can email us at email@example.com or tweet us @weareclimatenow. Subscribe where you listen to your podcast so you don’t miss an episode. We hope you join us for our next conversation!
[00:25:59] James Lawler: Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy Applied Science and Research Facility. More information on the foundation’s climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.