Green New Deal vs Nuclear New Deal
Over at The Bellows, Emmet Penney and Adrián Calderón take the Green New Deal brand for a spin to propose a Nuclear New Deal for solving both power grid issues and environmental concerns like climate change.
No nuclear energy program has ever launched without heavy state intervention—the capital costs are just too high for private entities to take on. The Biden campaign says it wants to rely on “innovation” and “rapid commercialization” to drive down costs for nuclear energy, but that means praying to the gods of Silicon Valley for rain.
The price-trolling is disingenuous. Other countries, especially those that at least partially subsidize their nuclear industries pay less than we do for nuclear. Russia’s Rosatom, for example, benefits from its industrial capacity and experience, the two ingredients necessary for cheaper nuclear production. Unlike most industries, innovation actually makes nuclear more expensive. As researchers Michel Berthélemy and Lina Escobar Rangel have pointed out, construction costs can only be reduced by mass-producing identical reactors, assembly-line style.
In order for this to work in the United States, the federal government could consolidate the nuclear arms of General Atomics, General Electric, Westinghouse, and others into a single public corporation. This federal entity would be mandated to decarbonize the American electricity grid.
First, the US will need to commit to an industrial policy like those of France and South Korea, which allowed them to create their own nuclear programs to manufacture the necessary reactors. These reactors (and their plants) will need to be standardized if they’re going to recoup the aforementioned benefits of repetitive construction. A substantial number of new reactors will need to be built per year, so American industry would have to increase its construction capacity, especially to provide the necessary heavy forging. Reactors already in service should undergo safety reviews that extend their licensing. They should also undergo refurbishment and retrofitting with technical upgrades to increase efficiency and safety. Alongside the reactor buildout, a strong domestic fuel cycle industry to provide the uranium would need to be developed.
Second, the US will have to train a workforce. Staffing these new plants would strain the capacity of the currently existing nuclear engineering programs in both academia and industry, which need to pass along decades of expertise to a new generation of nuclear workers. In the original spirit of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government should forgo market incentives and directly award government grants to higher education institutions, vocational schools, and students in nuclear energy and related fields to scale up along with the growing industry as quickly as possible. Not counting construction, and taking the Diablo Canyon plant as a model, an estimated 250,000 workers will be needed to operate some 230 of these plants in perpetuity.