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FAQs

Atomic Bamboozle argues that although the world must move away from the use of fossil fuels, a “nuclear renaissance” is not the solution to climate change.  The nuclear power industry disagrees.  Let’s dig deeper into the arguments with questions and answers about nuclear power and its alternative—renewable energy. 

1. Do accidents at nuclear power plants demonstrate that nuclear power is inherently unsafe?

NO

Nuclear power is not inherently unsafe. Accidents are rare and getting rarer as engineers and operators learn lessons from accident causes. Moreover, if the industry moves to smaller reactors, any accidents that do happen will have smaller impact. In his book Atomic Accidents, James Mahaffey, a nuclear engineer, argues that “[a]ccidents happen when operators do not follow the correct procedures, or because ambitious plant designers overlook glaring weaknesses--not because nuclear power is inherently unsafe. In this book, the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant--triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami--is afforded fewer than 30 pages. As with his other accounts, Mahaffey quickly identifies the accident’s turning points. In the case of the plant’s Unit 1 reactor, which suffered a complete meltdown, he singles out an operator who closed two crucial coolant valves, effectively overriding an automated safety system. Mahaffey argues for a return to smaller reactors, reasoning that accidents are inevitable, so they had best be small. He extols the virtues of safer designs such as the thorium molten-salt reactor. If these changes are made and lessons are learned, he concludes, accidents like Fukushima should be behind us.”

Fukushima and Chernobyl “are the only major accidents to have occurred in over 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 36 countries.” The evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity. The risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining. The consequences of an accident or terrorist attack are minimal compared with other commonly accepted risks. Radiological effects on people of any radioactive releases can be avoided.

YES

Nuclear power gambles with disaster; even proponents acknowledge that accidents are inevitable. Smaller reactors would mostly be clustered together to generate more power and offer no more safety than larger ones. In their book 'Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster', Lochbaum, Lyman, and Stranahan argue that "Nuclear power is an energy choice that gambles with disaster… The problems that led to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi exist wherever reactors operate.” They unpick those problems in forensic detail, using multiple sources in a thriller-paced retelling. Fukushima takes a much broader view of the accident than Atomic Accidents, delving into political wrangling and the roles of international agencies. It shows how Japan's complex nuclear bureaucracy--involving power companies, an independent regulator and government departments--stymied the response. A vivid picture emerges of utter confusion in the hours and days after the tsunami. Lochbaum, Lyman and Stranahan disagree strongly with Mahaffey's stance on the benefits of smaller reactors, which would almost certainly be built in clusters: at Fukushima, simultaneous problems with multiple reactors complicated emergency-response efforts. "Nuclear power's safety problems cannot be solved through good design alone," they write. Instead, they say, “the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must accept the possibility that dam breaches, fires or terrorist attacks could trigger a nuclear accident worse than Fukushima on US soil.” Source for all of the above: “Meltdowns Redux: two accounts take contrasting lessons from nuclear accidents” Mark Peplow, Nature, February 2014.

2. Are Nuclear Accidents costly in terms of human lives? 

YES

In the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, approximately 1,000 onsite reactor staff and emergency workers and 200,000 emergency and recovery workers were exposed to high-level radiation. It is estimated that the accident will cause about 4,000 eventual deaths. One thousand onsite reactor staff and emergency workers were heavily exposed to high-level radiation on the first day of the Chernobyl accident; among the more than 200,000 (as registered by 1996 in the national registries of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine) emergency and recovery operation workers exposed during the period from 1986 to 1987, an estimated 2,200 radiation-caused deaths can be expected during their lifetime. About 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident’s contamination and at least nine children died of thyroid cancer; however, the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99 per cent. The international experts have estimated that radiation could cause up to about 4,000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, i.e., emergency workers from 1986 to 1987, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas. This number contains both the known radiation-induced cancer and leukemia deaths and a statistical prediction, based on estimates of the radiation doses received by these populations. Relocation proved a “deeply traumatic experience” for some 350,000 people moved out of the affected areas. Although 116,000 were moved from the most heavily impacted area immediately after the accident, later relocations did little to reduce radiation exposure

The Fukushima nuclear reactor accident is estimated to have caused 2,313 premature disaster-related deaths, mainly in older people who had to be evacuated from the radiation zone around the plant. Deaths from radiation exposure in Fukushima were much lower than in Chernobyl. Illnesses among four employees and the death of one former employee have been linked to radiation. However, the evacuation of residents, as in Chernobyl, was deeply traumatic. Nearby residents had to be immediately evacuated and many were permanently relocated, resulting in significant mental and physical harm to many of them. The Japanese government estimates that there were 2,313 premature disaster-related deaths caused by the evacuations, with 90% of the deaths occurring in people aged 66 and older. In addition, there was an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes. Lack of access to health care in the temporary location likely was a key contributor to these effects. The loss of social connections and family ties, and stigmatization of people from the Fukushima area, led to increased mental health issues and higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the people who were evacuated after the incident. Children showed more issues with hyperactivity, emotional symptoms, and conduct problems.

3. Are Nuclear Accidents Costly in terms of The Environment?

YES

After the Chernobyl accident, a total of 784,320 hectares of agricultural land and 694,200 hectares of forest were restricted from use. A towering radioactive plume spread over northern and central Scandinavia, negatively affecting pastureland, farming, and dairies. The spread of radioactivity from the Chernobyl accident required the establishment of an Exclusion Zone –the area extending up to 30 km in all directions around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was most contaminated by the accident. A total of 784 320 hectares of agricultural land was removed from service in the three countries (Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) and timber production was halted for a total of 694 200 hectares of forest. Restrictions on agricultural production crippled the market for foodstuffs and other products from the affected areas. "Clean food" production has remained possible in many areas thanks to remediation efforts, but this has entailed higher costs in the form of fertilizers, additives, and unique cultivation processes. In addition to the environmental destruction adjacent to the plant, the accident created a “towering plume of radioactivity” that spread over much of northern and central Scandinavia and in some of those areas, Cesium 137 which has a half-life of about 30 years, is still affecting pastures where animals graze. In Norway, most recently in 2018, values detected in meat and milk suddenly doubled. The reason turned out to be an unusually widespread crop of mushrooms that year. Fungi have the ability to absorb a lot of radioactivity, up to 1,000 times more than plants. Those yearly variations mean there will be a need for control for many years.

At Fukushima, the release of Cesium 137, which has a half-life of about 30 years, extensively contaminated the soils around both Fukushima and neighboring prefectures. The accident at Fukushima released far less cesium-137 into the environment than did Chernobyl and what was released dispersed less widely. However, Cesium 137 strongly contaminated the soils in large areas of eastern and northeastern Japan, whereas western Japan was sheltered by mountain ranges. The soils around Fukushima NPP and neighboring prefectures have been extensively contaminated with depositions of more than 100,000 and 10,000 MBq km-2, respectively. Total Cesium-137 over two domains: (i) the Japan Islands and the surrounding ocean (130–150 °E and 30–46 °N) and, (ii) the Japan Islands, were estimated to be more than 5.6 and 1.0 PBq, respectively.

4. Are Nuclear Accidents Costly in terms of the Cost of Cleanup?

YES

Chernobyl cleanup expenses were 22.3% of Ukraine’s national budget; total spending by Belarus between 1991 and 2003 is estimated at more than $13 Billion. In Ukraine, Chernobyl-related expenses were 22.3 percent of the national budget in 1991, declining gradually to 6.1 percent in 2002. Total spending by Belarus on Chernobyl between 1991 and 2003 is estimated at more than US $13 billion. In 1997, the European Bank for Research and Development established The Chernobyl Shelter Fund (CSF) to assist Ukraine in making the site of the temporary shelter over Chernobyl's destroyed reactor 4 stable and environmentally safe and to create the conditions for the eventual dismantling and decommissioning of the contaminated structure. The construction of the New Safe Confinement shelter at Chernobyl cost $1.66bn and the total budget aimed at addressing safety and decommissioning is $2.3 bn.

At Fukushima, the release of Cesium 137, which has a half-life of about 30 years, extensively contaminated the soils around both Fukushima and neighboring prefectures. The accident at Fukushima released far less cesium-137 into the environment than did Chernobyl and what was released dispersed less widely. However, Cesium 137 strongly contaminated the soils in large areas of eastern and northeastern Japan, whereas western Japan was sheltered by mountain ranges. The soils around Fukushima NPP and neighboring prefectures have been extensively contaminated with depositions of more than 100,000 and 10,000 MBq km-2, respectively. Total Cesium-137 over two domains: (i) the Japan Islands and the surrounding ocean (130–150 °E and 30–46 °N) and, (ii) the Japan Islands, were estimated to be more than 5.6 and 1.0 PBq, respectively.

5. Do the Health Consequences and Cost of Nuclear Accidents Indicate that Nuclear Power is not a Good Alternative to Fossil Fuels?

NO

In comparison to nuclear energy production, fossil fuel energy production is responsible for many more costly and deadly accidents, deaths and disease from air pollution, and environmental destruction including but not limited to climate change.

YES

Nuclear power is of course far less dangerous to human lives and the environment than fossil fuel power.  But this comparison is irrelevant.  The proper comparison of nuclear power is not to fossil fuel energy but to renewal alternatives like wind power, solar power, and geothermal power.  These are far less risky, dangerous and costly than nuclear power. Hydropower is also a renewable energy technology; however, it has proven to have unforeseen environmental costs in at least some instances.

6. Do Dangerous Leaks and Spills at Nuclear Power Plants Frequently occur?

The presence of tritrium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that is a by-product of nuclear energy production, is a concern for the Environmental Protection Agency.  Exposure to very high levels of tritium could increase risk of cancer.  The EPA has determined that 20,000 pCi/L is the acceptable level of tritium in drinking water. 

YES

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency, in 2023 there were here 54 nuclear power plant sites in the United States currently operating. “Historical records indicate 37 of these sites have at one time or another had leaks or spills that involved tritium concentrations greater than or equal to 20,000 pCi/L. Six sites are currently reporting tritium in groundwater, from a leak or spill, in excess of 20,000 pCi/L.

NO

There have been leaks and spills.  However, there is no evidence that these have caused environmental or health dangers.  According to the NRC, ”(a)lthough on site ground water may have excess tritium, no leaks and spills so far have led to tritium levels in excess of 20,000 pCi/L in off-site groundwater or drinking water. Tritium rapidly disperses and dissipates in the environment, and as a result, tritium from leaks and spills is typically not detected outside the facility boundary.”

7. Can High Level Nuclear Waste be Safely Stored?

High-level nuclear waste (HLNW) can remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, though it is likely to remain a danger to the environment for a relatively short period of half a millennium. 

YES

The total high-level nuclear waste produced in more than 50 years of operation by nuclear power plants is in fact quite small.  It would, if stacked end to end, cover a football field to a depth of approximately 12 yards. HLNW can be safely stored in cooling pools and then in rugged containers made of reinforced concrete, called “dry casks.”

“Storage of spent fuel in dry casks has a flawless record; there hasn’t been a single case of dangerous radiotoxic exposure to facility workers or local communities. Experts agree: we can safely store and transport waste in dry casks for at least a century.” The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that it is technically feasible to continue to store used nuclear fuel safely at power plant sites or consolidated interim storage facilities for an indefinite period. Used fuel storage pools are robust concrete and steel structures that are designed—like the nuclear plants they are part of—to withstand extreme events such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes…all seven pools at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan remained intact and the used fuel in the pools remained safely covered with cooling water. Nearly all U.S. nuclear plants are storing used fuel in large, rugged containers made of steel-reinforced concrete. Over a period spanning more than three decades, industry has safely loaded and placed into storage over 3600 of these containers. Industry is applying this considerable experience in the implementation of aging management programs that will continue to assure the long-term safety of this form of storage.

France reprocesses nuclear waste.  This is complicated and expensive, but it significantly reduces the volume of nuclear waste that must be permanently and safely stored. 

NO

Even nuclear proponents acknowledge the dangers of nuclear waste and the difficulty of finding adequate solutions for storage. As Jameson McBride of the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute writes: “…the challenge of nuclear waste is not “solved,” and nuclear advocates must take public concern about the fuel cycle seriously… Developing innovative solutions to the waste problem is severely needed for the past, present, and future of nuclear in the US. 

Experts don’t agree that we can safely store HLNW in dry casks over the long term. For example, an article in Chemical and Engineering News points out that “salt particles…can form chloride-rich corrosive brines, leading to small cracks that breach the cylinder and release harmful material and radiation.” Experts consider dry-cask storage safe in the short term. But because the spent-fuel containers sit in limbo, many of them will remain where they are for decades longer than originally intended. “Many nuclear power plants in the US were built along coastlines for convenient access to cooling water. Proximity to the coast means exposure to sea-salt aerosol. Because of the cask design, which blocks radiation but allows air flow—for cooling—between the steel cylinders and concrete silos, aerosols can reach the cylinder surfaces. Salt particles, which are hygroscopic and deliquescent, can settle on canister welds and other stress joints, take up atmospheric water, dissolve, and form chloride-rich corrosive brines. Those conditions could lead to small cracks that breach a cylinder and release harmful material and radiation.” Chemical and Engineering News, March 30, 2020.] Both New Mexico and Texas have rejected proposals by the NRC to establish above ground storage facilities for nuclear waste from around the U.S. in their states.

Not all nuclear waste is stored in dry casks. High Level Nuclear Waste has to be cooled in nuclear waste tanks for at least 7 years before it can be removed to dry casks. About 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors remain stranded at reactor sites, and this number is increasing by some 2,000 metric tons each year. These 77 sites are in 35 states and threaten to become de facto permanent disposal facilities. Much of this waste remains stored in pools.

In 2013 and again in 2021 it was discovered that nuclear waste tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State were leaking. Hanford constitutes the nation's largest collection of radioactive waste, located on the 580-square mile (1,502 square kilometer) site. There are two corroding cooling ponds, each the size of an Olympic swimming pool, containing some 2,000 tons of spent fuel that never got reprocessed in addition to the 56 million gallons of acidic and highly radioactive liquids and sludges, stored in 177 giant tanks, each up to 75 feet in diameter. They contain around twice the total radioactivity released from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. The tanks have been leaking for over half a century. Around a million gallons are slowly spreading toward the Columbia River. To head off the flows, engineers are constantly pumping out radioactive water. In June 2023, it was discovered that contamination underneath a building only 300 yards from the Columbia River was much more extensive than had been previously known. “Feds say Hanford’s building has more waste under it than previously known, float new plan for cleanup”.

In 2022, Washington State Department of Ecology and the US Department of Energy reached an agreement to address Hanford’s leaking underground tanks. Community activists expressed concern that the deal could allow the tanks to leak for years. “It’s been a priority for the state of Washington to address leaking tanks in a way that protects nearby communities and the Columbia River,” said Ecology Department Director Laura Watson. “We know that ongoing vigilance and commitment will be needed to fully address these risks." But state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, a long-time Hanford critic, noted the deal could allow the tanks to leak for years. "Letting a high-level nuclear waste tank continue to leak for years or decades is a dereliction of our state’s duty to protect our Columbia River, protect our groundwater, to enforce our most fundamental hazardous waste laws and adds to the history of violating Treaty rights at Hanford," said Pollet, director of watchdog group Heart of America Northwest.

Their concerns are well-founded. Currently, engineers are considering “vitrification,” in which waste is solidified by heating with glass-forming materials to create solid blocks that could one day be buried deep underground. Although proposed in 2002, the vitrification plant is still not operational. France vitrifies high level nuclear waste; however, the nuclear waste at Hanford, is unusually complex and presents apparently intractable problems. Bechtel, the company granted the vitrification contract in 2002, has not yet come up with a technique that meets requirements for safe operation. Although vitrification of low-level waste is set to begin in 2023, there are still no approved safe processes for vitrifying high level waste at Hanford.

Indigenous Communities Are More Likely to be Burdened by Nuclear Waste--for example, the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota agreed to temporarily store spent fuel from a nearby power plant. Although the Federal government promised to remove the waste thirty years ago, the repository has tripled in size. “.. .without a formal process for justly siting waste outside of reactors, tribal and other underserved communities have taken on spent fuel storage when reactor facilities cannot store on site. For instance, the Prairie Island Indian Community in Southeastern Minnesota agreed to temporarily store spent fuel from a nearby power plant on their lands. The federal government promised to remove the waste 30 years ago, but the repository has since tripled in size. “

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Southeastern Washington is now the largest Superfund toxic waste site in North America and one of the largest nuclear cleanup projects in the world. Members of the Umatilla, Yakama, and other fishing communities along the Columbia have a disproportionately higher exposure to Hanford’s toxic by-products due to their Salmon consumption. Today, there are 177 underground storage tanks on the Hanford Site, holding about 56 million gallons of highly radioactive and chemically hazardous waste – the byproduct of decades of plutonium production. The impact of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons at Hanford for over five decades has been most devastating for Native American tribes that have inhabited this region for millennia. Members of the Umatilla, Yakama, and other fishing communities along the Columbia have a disproportionately higher exposure to Hanford’s toxic by-products due to their Salmon consumption. In a 1992 article, the New York Times reported that, “[a] Government contractor's preliminary study of radiation released over the years from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation into the Columbia River has found that the radiation reached the Pacific Ocean 200 miles away, contaminating fish and drinking water along the river and exposing as many as 2,000 people to potentially dangerous doses.” The report continues, “most of those exposed to such doses were subsistence fishermen, primarily Indians who live along the river.”

Radioactive waste from uranium mining has also posed dangers for Native communities. “In the past, the waste rock produced by underground and open pit mining was piled up outside the mine. This practice has caused problems, including on Navajo lands where more than half of the small, abandoned uranium mines from the middle of the 20th century and their wastes remain. Wind can blow radioactive dust from the wastes into populated areas and the wastes can contaminate surface water used for drinking. Some sites also have considerable groundwater contamination.”

8. Are Deep Geologic Repositories (DGRS) a Solution for Safely Storing High-Level Nuclear Waste?

YES

DGRs are very safe. A DGR isolates nuclear waste underground in stable geological formations. Isolation is provided by a combination of engineered and natural barriers (rock, salt, clay) and no obligation to actively maintain the facility is passed on to future generations. This is often termed a 'multi-barrier' concept, with the waste packaging, the engineered repository, and the geology all providing barriers to prevent the radionuclides from reaching humans and the environment. In addition, deep groundwater is generally devoid of oxygen, minimizing the possibility of chemical mobilization of waste.

NO

DGR’s ARE NOT NECESSARILY SAFE. A costly accident occurred in February 2014 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the only deep geologic repository in the United States. The long-term cost of the accident could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It was constructed during the 1980’s in order to store Defense Department Transuranic Nuclear Waste which consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. The waste is placed in drums which are deposited in rooms mined in an underground salt bed layer over 2000 feet below the surface. On February 14, 2014, an explosion occurred which, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history. The long-term cost of the accident could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

YES

Nuclear Proponents Respond: The accident at WIPP was caused by unnecessary mistakes that reflected mismanagement, bureaucratic failures, and a breakdown of the “nuclear culture.” We can learn from this incident to prevent future accidents. Two Accident Investigation Boards and a Technical Assessment Team identified the immediate causes of the accidents and recommended remedial actions. The author, who served as the Deputy Under Secretary of the Energy Department at the time of the accidents and during the three years WIPP was closed, examines the larger problems within the Energy Department and its contractors that set the stage for the accidents. He places the blame on mismanagement at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; structural problems created by a statutory “fence” between the National Nuclear Security Administration and the rest of the Energy Department, including the Office of Environmental Management, which is responsible for disposing of the waste from more than 60 years of nuclear weapons production; and a breakdown of the “nuclear culture.” mismanagement at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; (structural problems created by a statutory “fence” between the National Nuclear Security Administration and the rest of the Energy Department, including the Office of Environmental Management, which is responsible for disposing of the waste from more than 60 years of nuclear weapons production; and a breakdown of the “nuclear culture.” ) duplicates what’s just above.

9. Will DRGs be Ready to Store Nuclear Waste in the Near Future?

YES

Several countries are proceeding steadily through research, licensing and outreach to prepare for the construction and eventual operation of deep geological repositories Finland’s DGR is now operational. 

Sweden is far along toward building its DGR in Forsmark and expects operation to begin in the 2030s.

France has selected its site and in January 2023 the French Radioactive Waste Management Agency submitted a construction permit.

Switzerland’s national radioactive waste disposal cooperative, Nagra, recently identified its site and will prepare applications to be submitted to the Federal Council in 2024.

DGR’s are costly to build and to operate-- in the case of Finland’s Onkalo facility, 2.4 billion euros to store nuclear waste until 2120.

NO

According to the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) most countries with large nuclear power programs, including the United States, will not be establishing deep storage repositories in the next 20 years. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board examined programs in 13 selected countries that account for 80 percent of worldwide nuclear power‒generating capacity. Of these three (Finland, Sweden, and France) are close to implementing a technically and politically accepted effort to develop a DGR. The other 10 countries are on a longer timeline, and in four countries, including the United States, the timeline is at this point indefinite.

The geological requirements for a deep storage facility are complex to identify and years of research is necessary before a suitable site can be found. As the NWTRB, points out, “it has become clear that performing convincing technical analysis in the face of considerable temporal and spatial uncertainties is more complex and challenging than earlier anticipated.” Moreover, in addition to the challenging technical issues that must be addressed in siting a DGR, there are institutional and political challenges, such as “establishing credible implementing and regulatory agencies, creating trusting relationships with local communities, and putting into place legitimate decision-making processes.”  

In many instances, local opposition to the establishment of a storage facility has either stopped or delayed many DGR projects (in the US see the failure of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada). Even nuclear proponents agree that achieving local community consent to site a DGR is challenging. Breakthrough Institute’s Jason McBride suggests that “a voluntary and competitive process for site selection — like reverse auctions at the airport gate for giving up a seat — could help minimize conflict with the local community.” For example, Switzerland’s DGR site selection process began in 2008 and faced local opposition and failed support. Switzerland’s national radioactive waste disposal cooperative, Nagra, has again identified a site and plans to submit an application for development to the Federal Council in 2024. This approval, expected around 2030, will be subject to an optional referendum, with the Swiss voters having the final say. Nagra estimates that it is likely to be another 30 years or so before it can start waste emplacement operations. In France, the site selection process for a DGR began in 1992 and it was not until 2023 that the French waste management agency identified a site and submitted a proposal. Approval of this proposal by all authorities including the French Nuclear Safety Authority is expected to take 4 to 5 years and the ensuing construction process is anticipated to take 10 to 15 years. Even if all goes as planned, the French DGR will not be ready to receive nuclear waste until the 2040’s.

In the meantime, France’s state-owned facility for reprocessing and storing nuclear waste is about to run out of space by 2030 at which time all nuclear reactors would have to be shut down. The government-owned nuclear energy company, EDF is hurrying to build an extra refrigerated pool at a cost of $1.37 billion-- but that will not be ready until 2034 at the earliest.

Considering these examples, even if the US began right now to work on a Deep Geological Repository, it would not be available for storing high level nuclear waste until 2080 at best. Meanwhile tons of dangerous nuclear waste will continue to be produced and stored above ground. Even if no new nuclear plants are built, a DGR will still be necessary just for the existing waste now sitting dangerously above ground. Any one deep storage facility can only hold so much nuclear waste—the US will need to build more than one DGR just for the existing nuclear waste. In Finland, the first country to complete a deep storage facility, the repository will hold current and future nuclear waste from six nuclear reactors and will be full in 100 years. The US has 57 plants containing 96 reactors producing high level nuclear waste. In 2020, it was reported that “More than a quarter million metric tons of highly radioactive waste sits in storage near nuclear power plants and weapons production facilities worldwide, with over 90,000 metric tons in the US alone.”

10. Can High Level Nuclear Waste be Transported Safely?

If one or more deep geologic repositories are built, nuclear waste from around the US will have to be transported there from existing nuclear plants. 

YES

Used nuclear fuel has been been routinely transported across the US on over 1300 occasions over the past 50 years for reasons other than consolidation and disposal… There has never been any release of radioactive material to the public from used fuel in transportation.

NO

The safety of transport by rail is very much in question. The U.S. regulatory system has been colonized by the corporations it is supposed to regulate. Over 1,000 derailments occur every year in the United States. And over the last seven years, the costs from derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials have increased. In February 2023, a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH, causing a raging fire and leaking cancerous chemicals. Two months later, in March 2023, another train derailment in North Dakota spilled petroleum used to make asphalt. Unlike the Ohio derailment, the North Dakota spill was in an area with few inhabitants. (Guardian article) Mosier, OR was not so fortunate. In June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific unit train carrying nearly three million gallons of oil derailed as it passed by the Oregon town. The volatile Bakken crude ignited, causing a fire that took 14 hours to extinguish ….toxic smoke and ash contaminated Mosier and the Gorge, the Mosier water system was compromised, and oil spilled into the Columbia River…. Had the high winds of a typical late spring day in the eastern Columbia Gorge been blowing, a much more catastrophic event would have occurred.

 While it is true that there has not yet been a nuclear waste transport accident, “there is little experience with managing transport operations on the scale that would be needed to move the tens of thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that have been and are still being generated by the U.S. commercial nuclear industry.”

Furthermore, much of the high-level nuclear waste that has been transported in the U.S. so far has been transported and regulated by the US military, particularly the Navy.

11. Are Small Modular Reactors a Promising Technological Alternative to the Current Reactors?

YES

The term “advanced nuclear reactor” refers to a broad category of fission reactor designs that boast considerable improvements relative to current-generation nuclear technologies. They include smaller next-generation light-water fission reactors (such as NuScale’s Small Modular Reactor) and also non-light-water fission reactors—principally sodium-cooled fast reactors, molten-salt reactors, and high temperature gas-cooled reactors.
 

According to a report by the Breakthrough Institute, “These innovations can result in a high degree of inherent or passive safety, high reliability, improved efficiency, lower costs, more complete utilization of nuclear fuel, lower generation of waste, enhanced resistance to nuclear proliferation, and versatile applicability for the production of non-electric co-products like hydrogen, high-quality waste heat, and desalinated water. Some of these improvements can be linked. For example, smaller reactor designs offer safety benefits thanks to smaller fuel loads and more efficient cooling characteristics while also reducing costs by facilitating factory assembly and transportation to the project site. Other factors, such as the ability to safeguard spent fuel, vary based on the specific design.”


Examples Include:

NuScale Small Modular Light Water Reactor (LWR) NuScale VOYGR™ SMR plants are powered by our innovative NuScale Power Module™, the first and only small modular reactor (SMR) to receive design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NuScale Power Module design is based on proven pressurized water-cooled reactor technology.

Terra Power Small Modular Sodium Cooled Reactor TerraPower’s Small Modular Reactor demonstration project is intended to validate the design, construction and operational features of the Natrium system, a 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system.

X-Energy Small Modular Gas-Cooled Reactor X-Energy’s high temperature reactors are cooled by a pressurized gas such as helium and operate at temperatures up to 800ºC, compared with around 300ºC for LWRs. X-Energy has developed a special fuel called TRISO (tristructural isotropic) to withstand this high operating temperature.

Terrestrial Energy Small Modular Molten-Salt Fueled Reactors. Terrestrial Energy’s proprietary small modular reactor (SMR) design is called the Integral Molten Salt Reactor or IMSR®. Molten salt fission technology is the heart of our innovative IMSR® heat and power (cogeneration) plant.

NO

Advanced is Not Necessarily Better. There are concerns about the safety, sustainability, and security of these new designs, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Nuclear energy requires painstaking, time-consuming, and resource-intensive research and development (R&D).  The current designs will need much more testing and development before they can be safely and reliably deployed.


Safety:  

TerraPower’s Natrium system uses sodium coolant that can burn if exposed to air or water, and an SFR (Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor) can experience rapid power increases that may be hard to control. It is even possible that an SFR core could explode like a small nuclear bomb under severe accident conditions. Of particular concern is the potential for a runaway power excursion: if the fuel overheats and the sodium coolant boils, an SFR’s power will typically increase rapidly rather than decrease, resulting in a positive feedback loop that could cause core damage if not quickly controlled.

X-Energy’s TRISO fuel has some safety benefits but is far from meltdown-proof. A recent test had to be terminated prematurely when the level of fission products released exceeded safety levels. TRISO has been designed to function at the high normal operating temperature (up to 800ºC) of an HTGR (High Temperature Gas Reactor) and can retain radioactive fission products up to about 1,600ºC if a loss-of-coolant accident occurs. However, if the fuel heats up above that temperature— as it could in the Xe-100—its release of fission products speeds up significantly. So, while TRISO has some safety benefits, the fuel is far from meltdown-proof, as some claim. Indeed, a recent TRISO fuel irradiation test in the Advanced Test Reactor in Idaho had to be terminated prematurely when the fuel began to release fission products at a rate high enough to challenge off-site radiation dose limits. Additionally, the performance of TRISO fuel also depends critically on the ability to consistently manufacture fuel to exacting specifications, which has not been demonstrated.

Terrestrial Energy’s Molten Salt Reactor fuel is highly corrosive and difficult to monitor. Not only is the hot liquid fuel highly corrosive, but it is also difficult to model its complex behavior as it flows through a reactor system. If cooling is interrupted, the fuel can heat up and destroy an MSR in a matter of minutes. Perhaps the most serious safety flaw is that, in contrast to solid-fueled reactors, MSRs routinely release large quantities of gaseous fission products, which must be trapped and stored. Some released gases quickly decay into troublesome radionuclides such as cesium-137— the highly radioactive isotope that caused persistent and extensive environmental contamination following the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents.

Feasibility:

There is skepticism about both sodium-cooled fast reactors and high temperature reactors as technologies, since both types were built as prototypes in the 1950s and 1960s –successive attempts to build demonstration plants have been short-lived failures. Previous experimental molten-salt reactors have proven to be too accident prone and their development was halted. 

Contemporary promoters of these types of SMRs have offered little evidence that they have solved the technical issues that led these experiments to be abandoned.

National Security:

“New reactors must also use new fuels, which must be licensed as well as produced, managed during use, and stored and disposed of when spent. Some new reactor designs depend on the use of fuels that require higher enrichments of uranium—material that the United States currently has little capability to produce. The higher enriched fuels have set off concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation and would require international safeguards.” 

Nuclear Waste:

SMR reactors will increase the volume of nuclear waste not reduce it. A recent study of nuclear waste streams from three types of small modular reactors being developed showed an increase in the volume of nuclear waste by factors of 2 to 30. A recent study of nuclear waste streams from three types of small modular reactors being developed by Toshiba, NuScale, and Terrestrial Energy. showed that most small modular reactor designs will actually increase the volume of nuclear waste in need of management and disposal, by factors of 2 to 30. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to lead study author, Lindsay Krall, a former MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) “These findings stand in sharp contrast to the cost and waste reduction benefits that advocates have claimed for advanced nuclear technologies.” The CEO of Nuscale disputes this study in a letter to the editor of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Furthermore, molten salt SMRs will create high level nuclear waste that presents serious disposal problems. “Waste from molten salt reactors will be highly radioactive due to fission products that were not vented in the off-gas and will include halides like uranium tetrafluoride. If such waste forms are buried without processing, and they interact with water, they would produce corrosive hydrofluoric acid (Krall and Allison 2018). Therefore, they would need to be processed before disposal using processes that will be costly and complex; moreover, such processing has never been carried out at scale.”

In any case: all small modular reactors will produce radioactive waste for which there is NO permanent safe repository in the U.S.

12. Are SMR's more cost-effective than traditional reactors?

YES

The costs of SMR’s will be lower than traditional nuclear power plants, because rather than being built on site, they will be manufactured as modular units and transported to the site. 

The term “modular” in the context of SMRs refers to the ability to fabricate major components of the nuclear steam supply system in a factory environment and ship to the point of use. Even though current large nuclear power plants incorporate factory-fabricated components (or modules) into their designs, a substantial amount of field work is still required to assemble components into an operational power plant. SMRs are envisioned to require limited on-site preparation and substantially reduce the lengthy construction times that are typical of the larger units. SMRs provide simplicity of design, enhanced safety features, the economics and quality afforded by factory production, and more flexibility (financing, siting, sizing, and end-use applications) compared to larger nuclear power plants. Additional modules can be added incrementally as demand for energy increases.

NO

Manufacturing off-site has proved not to be more cost-effective than traditional nuclear plant construction.  Westinghouse’s experiment in off-site manufacturing of nuclear plant components—the AP100—is a case in point.  The attempt to construct AP100 plants in South Carolina and Georgia was a financial disaster that led Westinghouse to declare bankruptcy in 2017. 

“The approach - building pre-fabricated sections of the plants before sending them to the construction sites for assembly - was supposed to revolutionize the industry by making it cheaper and safer to build nuclear plants. But Westinghouse miscalculated the time it would take, and the possible pitfalls involved, in rolling out its innovative AP1000 nuclear plants, according to a close examination by Reuters of the projects. Those problems have led to an estimated $13 billion in cost overruns and left in doubt the future of the two plants, the one in Georgia and another in South Carolina. Overwhelmed by the costs of construction, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy on March 29, while its corporate parent, Japan’s Toshiba Corp, is close to financial ruin. It has said that controls at Westinghouse were ‘insufficient.’”

Although construction at the Georgia plant went ahead, South Carolina cancelled construction in 2017 after sinking $9 billion into the project—a cost that will have to be paid by ratepayers.

Savings made from factory-built modules will have to compensate for the scale economies lost. A 1,600MW reactor is likely to be much cheaper than 10 reactors of 160MW.  And it will be expensive to test the claim that production line techniques will compensate for lost scale economies.

“The main claim for SMRs over their predecessors is that being smaller, they can be made in factories as modules using cheaper production line techniques. The idea is that the module would be delivered to the site on a truck essentially as a ‘flatpack’. This would avoid much of the on-site work which is notoriously difficult to manage and a major cause of the delays and cost overruns that every European large reactor project suffers from. However, any savings made from factory-built modules will have to compensate for the scale economies lost. A 1,600MW reactor is likely to be much cheaper than 10 reactors of 160MW. And it will be expensive to test the claim that production line techniques will compensate for lost scale economies. The first reactor constructed will need to be built using production lines if the economics are to be tested. But once the production lines are switched on, they must be fed. Rolls-Royce assumes its production lines will produce two reactors per year and that costs will not reach the target level until about the fifth order. So, if we assume the first reactor takes five years to build, there will be another nine reactors in various stages of construction before a single unit of electricity has been generated from the first, and the viability of the design tested. This could mean that perhaps about 15 SMRs will need to be under construction before the so-called ‘nth of a kind’ settled-down cost is demonstrated.”

The failure of NuScale’s proposed SMR power plant--a project to be built in Idaho Falls for a regional utility, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), demonstrates the difficulties facing SMR developers. 

In 2020, due to increasing costs of the project, eight of the municipalities in UAMPS who signed on to a development contract with Nuscale dropped out. 

Three years later, in January 2023, UAMPS announced that the estimated cost per megawatt-hour (MWH) of the NuScale SMR had risen from $58/MWH to $89/MWH.  This cost would be much higher without the $4 billion in subsidies from the US government.  Total cost had risen from $5.3 to $9.3 billion.

In November 2023, NuScale and UAMPS announced that they were terminating the project.

Shortly thereafter, a suit against NuScale was filed on behalf of investors, claiming that between March and November 2023

As even nuclear proponents acknowledge, the investment climate for building new nuclear projects is extremely poor.  “Almost all these kinds of MoUs and contracts, as we saw with the NuScale contract, are just not worth the paper they're written on. There are so many off ramps and outs for both sides and no one's willing to expose themselves to the downside risk of projects that go way over budget cost and take too long,” says Ted Nordhaus, Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute (quoted in “Cancelled NuScale contract weighs heavy on new nuclear,” Paul Day, Reuters, January 10, 2024)

Nordhaus argues that in order to develop and build advanced nuclear reactors, the industry will require huge subsidies and guarantees from the US government. 

“Finally, Congress needs to get serious about providing real resources, in terms of advance market commitments, not just single demonstration projects, for advanced nuclear developers to build multiples of their initial reactor technology, not just one over-budget reactor. Technological learning requires replication and current efforts to commercialize advanced reactors are simply insufficient for there to be any reasonable expectation that they will result in economically viable and scalable technologies, versus one-off white elephant demonstration projects. There are multiple models for doing so, from Operation Warp Speed to NASA’s commercial space flight initiatives to current tax credits for carbon removal and hydrogen production, that offer significant incentives contingent on actually delivering a viable product.”

13. Will costs of manufacture for SMR's likely decrease over time

YES

The costs of SMRs will fall as more experience is gained in manufacturing and construction. 

According to a study by Jessica R. Lovering and Jameson R. McBride, “[w]hile SMRs and microreactors are considered appropriate for niche markets today, this analysis shows that with significant volume, there is potential for their cost to decline enough to be competitive with large nuclear power plants. With targeted policies and fast learning rates, SMRs could reach cost parity with fossil fuels before 2050.” 

NO

There is little evidence to support the claim that the costs of SMRs will fall over time.

Learning from experience, which may characterize the history of production costs in some industries, has not occurred in building of nuclear power plants.  A study by MIT found in three out of four U.S. reactor designs, the first to be built was also the cheapest. Only General Electric's BWR-4 boiling water reactor managed to get cheaper after the first plant. But 14 out of 18 of the plants studied ended up being more expensive.

An analysis of the costs of two SMR’s currently in development, showed that even assuming economies of scale, SMR’s will remain far more costly per MWH than wind or solar.

Analyst Michael Barnard looked at two SMR’s far enough along in development that their costs over time could be calculated: Nucsale and Last Energy. Based on the companies’ current projected costs for their SMR, Barnard calculated what their costs would be once production of their SMRs had expanded enough to achieve economies of scale. “Data on the current costs of small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) is starting to roll in. As a result, it’s now possible to make some projections of how long it would take for their costs to drop to the level of renewables today. The results aren’t good for SMRs…. with massive increases in numbers in both cases and with the assumption that they’ll hit current cost projections, neither gets close to the current global averages for wind or solar. Neither gets below $50 per MWh in 2023 dollars.”

14. Can advanced nuclear reactors be deployed in time to stop climate change?

NO

Allison MacFarlane, former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, points out that “The nuclear industry is plagued by long construction delays and cost overruns..the construction time to build most reactors in the United States has surpassed 10 years… Given that climate scientists are warning that the world must end the use of fossil fuels by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, building new nuclear reactors is a waste of time and money.” 

“The Vogtle plant in Georgia is the only new build of reactors in the United States. The plant’s two reactors were initially priced at $14 billion and expected to start in 2016 and 2017 after five years of construction. Instead, construction is still ongoing and the plants may not start until 2022 at a final cost of $25 billion. And the recent new build experience in Europe is similar: the French EPR reactor design has experienced multiple delays and large cost overruns in both France and Finland. These megaprojects face challenges in program management and quality control and regulatory issues that result in lengthy delays.”

Updates: reactor 3 at Vogtle is expected to come on line in April or May 2023 and reactor 4 not until 2024. The cost of construction has gone above $30 billion.

Source

In 2022 the French government was forced to completely nationalize the French nuclear power company EDF for $10 Billion. The company suffered from unplanned outages at its nuclear fleet, delays and cost overruns in building new reactors, and power tariff caps imposed by the government to shield households from soaring electricity prices.

In December 2022, TerraPower announced that its proposed sodium SMR demonstration reactor in Kemmerer, WY would be delayed at least two years past its previously proposed 2028 completion date due to problems with supply of HALEU, no longer available due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

YES

Nuclear Energy Can Help Address the Climate Crisis in Time If the NRC Would Stop Its Over-regulation and Arbitrary Regulation of the Nuclear Power Industry: The NRC Is At Fault for the Long Development and Construction Timeline for New Nuclear Reactors.


Nuclear power advocate Ted Nordhaus argues that “In reality, the true face of the anti-nuclear movement today is a highly credentialed progressive policy wonk, a lawyer, or, academic, or journalist, who often claims not to be opposed to nuclear energy at all. The problem with nuclear energy, in this rendition, is not the risk of a “china syndrome” style meltdown, it’s that nuclear power plants are just too darn expensive to build.” Nuclear power plants would not be so expensive, were it not for the intrusive over-regulation of the nuclear power industry by the US government.

According to Ted Nordhaus, Alison Macfarlane, former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is a leading exponent of this kind of anti-nuclear argument. “Macfarlane represents what have in fact been long-standing policy choices as challenges that are intrinsic to nuclear technology itself, eliding the role that she, and other progressive experts and technocrats, have played in advocating for those choices.,,,, the entire regulatory apparatus atop which Macfarlane briefly sat, a role that she continues to trade upon for her credibility on the subject, has been the primary obstacle to nuclear innovation for decades. The way that NRC’s mission was defined in the mid-70s, the way that the commission has interpreted that mission, and the black hole of regulatory and bureaucratic processes that were constructed based on that interpretation of the mission have, practically, made it nearly impossible to commercialize a new nuclear reactor, advanced or otherwise, since the Commission’s inception in 1975.

15. Is over regulation by the NRC the cause of long development and construction time in the nuclear power industry?

YES

The NRC is driven by bureaucratic self-preservation rather than reasonable concern for safety.

Rani Franovich and Matthew Wald from the Breakthrough Institute argue that “this is a problem common to many government bureaucracies and particularly those that regulate safety, where bad outcomes can mean injury or death. The first imperative isn’t to let the public enjoy the benefits of the regulated activity (in this case, clean, copious electricity) but rather to preserve the agency. And the main sign of success is not screwing up. 

“Chasing that goal, the agency can sometimes try to preserve itself through safety estimates that are downright fanciful…. As with a plane crash, or a generic flaw in the stability of a model of SUV, or the side effects of a new drug, the pattern is the same. A private company will take some heat but the government agency that signed off on it may take a lot more. In turn, it is best to avoid all risk, even trivial risk, and stifle innovation. After all, the agency will never be called before a congressional committee to talk about an unusual event at a plant that didn’t get built. It will never have to answer questions like “what-were-you-thinking” about new machines it did not authorize.”

The cancellation of NuScale’s contract is another example of how nuclear regulations are killing innovation in the industry.  Nuclear energy remains saddled with an outdated and radically conservative regulatory framework that substantially overstates the public health risks associated with nuclear technology while failing entirely to account for its public health and environmental benefits.

The NRC will not only need to revamp its licensing frameworks but also undertake a top-to-bottom review of the material and quality control standards it applies to nuclear components and supply chains. There is no reason that a small modular reactor should be required to meet the same deterministic standards intended for a one-gigawatt pressurized water reactor. Nor is there any reason that the rebar in a hydroelectric dam or suspension bridge is not good enough for a nuclear reactor, large or small. If the component or function does not require higher standards than necessary for similar industrial or construction applications associated with other sorts of critical technology and infrastructure, requirements for ASME certification and NRC quality assurance oversight needs to be eliminated, so that nuclear developers can access the same supply chains and off-the-shelf components used by all other industries.

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