McClaughry: The nuclear power revival

By John McClaughry

The growing reawakening of enthusiasm for nuclear powered electricity has been a remarkable development over the past 10 years.

For decades enviros of various stripes have raged against nuclear power. Nuclear was bad, bad, bad because a plant might explode, fission products would contaminate the continent, careless security might allow proliferation of bomb material, nuclear plants were big and owned by big corporations, mining uranium was environmentally destructive, and so on.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Despite their protests, starting in 1957, 104 civilian nuclear stations went on line, ultimately generating about a quarter of the nation’s electricity that dependably supplied the grid as needed 24/7. And the nuclear stations did so without causing air pollution, a single nuclear-related death, and the emission of greenhouse gases that enviros believe are producing a coming global climate catastrophe.

This record was largely accomplished by what are called Generation II and III reactors, mostly built by General Electric and Westinghouse. Among them was Vermont Yankee (GE, 1972). In its 42 years Yankee never had a core failure or release of dangerous radiation to the public. The now six decade-old design well served its purpose, but no one would build one of that early design today.

The future of nuclear energy today was first defined twenty years ago by a 10-nation conference called the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). In 2002 it announced the six most promising new technologies — clean, safe, likely cost-effective, and resistant to diversion of fissile materials.

In January 2014 GIF’s Technology Roadmap Update projected that the Gen IV technologies most likely to be deployed first are the sodium-cooled fast reactor, the lead-cooled fast reactor, and the two very high temperature reactor technologies. The molten salt reactor and the gas-cooled fast reactor were judged to be further down the road.

Since then there has been a flood of new approaches to meet Gen IV criteria. In a 2016 article in Reason Ron Bailey listed the then most prominent: Terrapower (Bill Gates, depleted uranium, Wyoming); Transatomic and Terrestrial Energy (molten salt coolant) ; Oklo (truck-portable 2Mw micro reactors) ; ARC (100 Mw, sodium cooled) and Thorcon (LFTR – liquid fluoride thorium reactor).

The biggest roadblock to innovation, Bailey wrote, “is that under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s enabling legislation, the agency is only able to consider approving a new power plant when its application is complete. … Filing a complete application requires doing all of the engineering and legal work in advance. That generally takes a decade for conventional designs financed by giant utility companies. Entrepreneurs pursuing innovative designs don’t have the capital to endure this.”

President Obama cautiously supported some nuclear advances. In 2018 President Trump signed the bipartisan (passed the Senate 87-4) Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act to further reduce those roadblocks .

President Biden has aggressively swung behind Gen IV nuclear. In November 2021 his Department of Energy put $1.5 billion behind Bill Gates’ Natrium reactor (formerly Terrapower) and a Maryland startup called X-Energy. His Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is an enthusiastic promoter of “the next wave of nuclear technologies.”

An April 15 news release from the New York Energy and Climate Advocates urged the endorsement of “a bold and inclusive climate strategy, embracing both renewables and zero-carbon nuclear” by a coalition including the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute Dr. James E. Hansen. Dr. Hansen is the revered guru of climate catastrophe prediction stemming from his 1988 testimony before Sen. Al Gore’s committee. Unlike most of today’s climate change activists, Hansen has been steadfastly outspoken in his belief that nuclear is an indispensable component of America’s electric future.

Even Middlebury College climate activist Bill McKibben, who attracted a wide anti-nuclear following by demanding that Vermont Yankee be shut down, is cautiously moving toward nuclear. He still thinks that back then Yankee needed to be closed, but now he says for emissions reduction reasons, he does not believe that other operating nuclear plants should be shuttered.

What does this growing acceptance of Gen IV nuclear energy — smaller in scale, safe, reliable, distributed, cost effective and carbon-free — mean for Vermonters? First, we need to steer clear of emotional, irrational, and ignorant political movements and, as the climate activists repeatedly say, “listen to the science.”

On the policy level, by the end of this decade there will be market-ready small nuclear reactors that can reliably and safely support the dramatically increased electrification that the climate activists are now urging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Our present and future governors should tell their public service commissioners to begin to identify suitable sites for new small nuclear stations, starting with a field in Vernon which ratepayers have now spent $248 million to prepare.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org). In 1960-61 he was a reactor physicist in GE’s Atomic Power Equipment Division.

Images courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Entergy and John McClaughry
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8 thoughts on “McClaughry: The nuclear power revival

  1. remarkably great news!
    We have spent way too much time fiddling with artificial ways like solar and wind, silly.
    We need electricity every minute of every day, not relying on the weather reports

    Will we have the nerve to follow the science, and get cheap, clean reliable NUCLEAR electricity.??!!

  2. I spent over 40 years in the US power sector, including nuclear.

    There is no rational approach to significantly reduce CO2, without nuclear providing at least 70% of all US electricity loaded onto grids.

    France has shown the way for at least 5 decades, and will continue to do so, because having ugly, noise-making, bird-killing, health-damaging, wind and solar systems all over France would totally ruin the much-loved French country side, and would also ruin tourism, as it would in Vermont.

    • Willem……..You state that nuclear is needed to reduce C02……Many very smart people and real experts agree with you.

      How do you suppose that questionably labeled expert Bill McKibben has been so wrong on nuclear all these years…….Leading the charge to eliminate nuclear for the false energy gods of wind and solar…..A leadership role that pushed an ideology driven Shumlin Administration and a misguided legislature to effectively put Vermont Yankee out of business and eliminate hundreds of high paying jobs…….And then to turn around and buy replacement nuclear power from our neighbor Seabrook, New Hampshire.

      Now a short number of years later…….Bill McKibben is reversing his thinking on nuclear……..This country has a very serious problem with so-called experts demanding drastic energy policy changes while having limited and questionable amounts of actual energy expertise…….Resulting in a pitifully naive Vermont legislature passing economy wrecking and totally unsupported new energy laws in the name of saving the planet.

      Willem to do also remember being verbally beaten up by anti-nuclear activist John Greenberg over Vermont Yankee a number of years ago on the VTDigger?…..Wonder if Mr. Greenberg is having any second thoughts on nuclear these days?

  3. How about we hold off on Gen IV until the year 252,022, when the fissile materials now stored in dry casks at Vermont Yankee are finally no longer radioactive? Why should we foul our nest again before then?

  4. Thank you, Mr. McClaughry, for this thoughtful commentary. I recall in 2019 at an event in White River Jct. the Republican Governor of Massachusetts William Weld advocating for such modern smaller scale nuclear power plants as well. Vernon with the needed electrical infrastructure already in place would be the ideal location.

  5. Nice thought- a smaller, more modern and safer reactor. Makes total, logcial sense. But it will never happen – because you are not dealing with logical people. The Progressive-Liberal-Enviro’s. And, VT is chock full of them. These are the same Lemming-Bobble-Heads that hate oil, they hate natural gas – even though it is clean, abundant, affordable and non polluting….They fight new hydro dams for power because of damage to “fishies” and habitat….they fight new renewable wind towers – because they are loud & birds may die flying into them. VT has only one landfill, and they hate it too (hate is a word they embrace often)….and fight any landfill expansion…even though it produces easily (and cheaply) renewable methane for electricity. Solar isn’t ideal in VT…but besides that, it is basically a wealthier persons play toy (with a long payout breakeven)…and to get any solar “scale” you need massive installations – in VT’s scenic fields. Guess who is now fighting that? Loss of scenery? You guesed it :)…..If it was not so serious (what harm their actions will cause later on)…it would be hilarious to watch them flop around like the Indignent-Bobble-Heads they are,,, complete with their leftover 1960’s protest placards…Ahhhh, those were their Glory Days.

    So if the Lib-Progressive-Enviros hate almost every other form for power and heat generatuion….can you imagine the odds of them allowing a new Nuke Plant? The inmates are out…. and they have been running the Asylum (VT) for many years. And the voting populus is either too dumb, blind or indoctrinated to see any logic in what they vote for.

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