Debunking common anti-nuclear talking points Part 1 – Nuclear takes too long to build

In BC approximately 18% of our total energy is provided by clean electricity and 61% of our total energy is provided by fossil fuels (most of the rest is industrial energy supplied by burning biomass). The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions has calculated that if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuels BC will need to expand its generating capacity from 15.6 gigawatts (GW) now to 37 GW of capacity by 2055 (or by approximately 20 Site C equivalents).

I am a strong believer in the “all-of-the-above” school for non-carbon energy alternatives. In BC we have a lot of available hydro that can be supplemented by geothermal and wind to help address our long-term electricity needs. As for solar, thanks to our low solar insolation, utility-grade solar simply isn’t the right approach for BC except for the extreme southeast, and limited parts of the Okanagan. The term you should think about is “regionally-appropriate renewables“.

Once you leave BC finding regionally-appropriate renewables gets even harder. I have detailed Alberta’s renewable energy conundrum and the same challenges apply in Saskatchewan and throughout much of the US. There is simply not enough geothermal and/or hydro to supplement wind and solar. In those places nuclear is an important option to solidify their future energy systems.

Nuclear, however, has had a public relations problem in much of the world. A combination of bad planning, over-regulation and anti-nuclear activism has poisoned the well. This has made it extremely hard to hold sensible discussions about nuclear energy.

I can’t do a lot to deal with the challenging history of mismanagement and over-regulation associated with nuclear in the US, but I can help continue the effort to debunk what I feel is the egregious misinformation advanced by anti-nuclear activists in Canada and the US (an example of what I consider problematic, taken from Twitter and anonymized for my protection, is presented below):

The list above provides a target-rich environment that I simply cannot address in one post. So I will do it over several posts.

The first of the tropes I want to address is one I have heard a lot these recent weeks. The suggestion that replacing fossil fuel energy with nuclear shouldn’t happen because building nuclear takes too long. This argument is both factually wrong and makes no logical sense.

First with the facts. Anyone vaguely familiar with this topic can discuss how the French and Swedes and transformed their energy systems in a single generation using nuclear. The activists will take the French and Swedish examples and instead point to the US experience. Admittedly, recent US reactors have been slow to build, but that is because the Americans have failed to take advantage of standardization instead building a series of one-of-a-kind facilities, which obviously cost more.

In direct contrast to the American experience, the Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans have shown that once you find a reactor-type that meets your needs you can start developing the trained workforce and specialized production lines necessary to allow subsequent reactors to be built relatively quickly.

In the last 20 years, Korea has built a total of 13 nuclear power plants. The average construction period for each plant was only 56 months. Japan built a total of eight nuclear power plants since 1996 taking on average only 46 months to build. The Chinese, meanwhile, have taken it to another level. If you want to see how standardization really pays off, look at this table I pilfered off twitter (h/t to John Randall) that uses data from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It shows that the median time to build a reactor in China is now down to 2080 days (less than 6 years) with recent plants taking just over 4 years. In much of the US you couldn’t complete the approval process for a wind farm in that timeline. So the claim that nuclear cannot be built quickly is demonstrably wrong.

Now I wouldn’t be a good Canadian if I didn’t throw in a “notwithstanding” in my blog once in a while…so here we go.

Notwithstanding that the claim “nuclear takes too long to build” is categorically false, it is also an illogical and wrongheaded argument in the first place.

Let’s use a worst-case scenario: that the approval process took a decade and the construction another decade. Would that be “too slow” to help address our energy needs? Of course not, our energy systems are going to need constant updating and replacement.

Even in my worst-case scenario if nuclear takes 20 years to build, it will still then be available for 50-70 years thereafter and can cover retiring renewables. I say 50-70 years, but frankly, it is hard to say how long a nuclear plant can operate because so many of them just keep chugging along. In the US 20 reactors, representing more than a fifth of the nation’s fleet, are planning or intending to operate up to 80 years. More are expected to apply in the future as they get closer to the end of their operating licenses.

Building energy capacity is not one-and-done it is an ongoing process. Imagine I built 3000 MW of wind turbines in 2021 and started on my ultra-slow 1000 MW reactor. When those 3000 MW of turbines were approaching their end-of-life that 1000 MW nuclear reactor would be there to replace them and could then operate through 2-4 turbine life cycles providing capacity factors 2-3 times higher than the wind projects they replaced.

Here is a simply analogy for those who still don’t get it. Every year our society spends huge sums of money to train new surgeons. Training a surgeon takes, on average, 14 years from the start of university to the end of their residency. Yet I don’t hear anyone arguing that since we currently have surgeons in our hospitals we shouldn’t go through the time and effort of training any new surgeons. No one makes that argument because we all know there will be an ongoing need for new surgeons and there will be a regular turn-over of old surgeons. Every year a number will retire and a number of new surgeons will replace them. The same is true of our energy systems.

To conclude, when I hear an activist make the argument “building nuclear takes too long” I attribute that response to either confusion or ignorance (my better angels preclude me from considering darker motivations). The simple truth is that building enough renewables to replace fossil fuels will take decades and each turbine/solar panel needs to be replaced every 20-25 yrs. Given our ongoing needs there is simply no logic to the claim that we shouldn’t build nuclear plants because they “take too long to build”.

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10 Responses to Debunking common anti-nuclear talking points Part 1 – Nuclear takes too long to build

  1. Richard Leslie says:

    And don’t forget Canadians we have a designed and built at home solution, the CANDU reactor. It uses heavy water D2O (deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen which has an extra neutron – thus D2O is heavier than H2O) making it safer than those using plain water. It’s naturally occurring in water, only needs to be separated from H2O. Let’s put the rhetoric to bed and build a Canadian design and solution where other renewables are not abundant enough.

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  2. dlo1957ca says:

    The Munk Debates Podcast has a good debate “Be it resolved: Go Green! Go Nuclear!”.

    “Arguing for the motion is Todd Allen, the Department Chair of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan. Arguing against the motion is Gregory Jaczko, Former Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Lecturer at Princeton University, and author of Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator.”

    https://www.iheart.com/podcast/962-the-munk-debates-podcast-p-52131924/episode/be-it-resolved-go-green-go-78389968/

    Spoiler alert: one of the main arguments against is “it takes too long to build a nuclear power plant”.

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  3. Jeremy Campbell says:

    Thirty years ago I would have washed my mouth out with soap before I would say, “go nuclear.” However, in the last two decades I have come to realize the modern, safe, nuclear is a major path forward. When was the last time you heard, “I am not visiting France because they have 60 nuclear generation plants! ?” Let me guess, never!

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  4. Fred Baehl says:

    Canada should use a Candu2 reactor technology using Thorium and export that technology worldwide. Much safer than Uranium, and no risk of it being used for nuclear weapons, this is a no brainer. I would love to see the Chemist do a blog on this.
    Rather than building huge Uranium reactors, smaller “industry specific or regional” Thorium reactor would be quick and relatively easy to build and install close to where they are needed. This would also reduce the added expense of building large transmission lines from large Uranium reactors or hydroelectric plants that are almost always far away from where the energy is needed.

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  5. Gras Albert says:

    More amusing to me is those countries, like for example Italy, that declare themselves a nuclear free zone and then satisfy up to 15% of their electical demand by buying it from France 🙂

    The BBC recently published an article on the 10th anniversary of Fukushima, headlining 18,000 deaths and then focusing entirely on the consequences to the powerplant. The first comment to the article asked how many fatalities at the time or since had been as a result of exposure to radiation (answer zero) and how many fatalities were expected in future as a result of exposure to radiation (answer zero).

    Green activists brook no truck with truth or logic if such conflicts with their ideology.

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  6. Ruud Hommel says:

    Looking forward to the following instalments. Types of (proven or “modern”, even modular) reactors, relative danger (minor, at least less deadly than building football stadiums in Qatar), nuclear waste treatment (Finland, France, USA, differences in approach), relevance of earlier catastrophes and the “elephant in the room” fusion reactors (France, the ITER Tokamak, commisioning 2025?).
    The people against nuclear power generation should have a look at cost-benefit equations.
    Since the Alexander Kielland disaster (offshore, 1980) the (western) price of a human life is fixed and it’s NOT expensive, at least not in places where hypocricy is not rampant.
    This last is not “nice”, but reality, sorry.

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  7. Mike says:

    Reading this has made my day.

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  8. dcardno says:

    I would just add that those who protest the “nuclear takes too long” are generally the ones who *make* it take so long both with prolonged regulatory and legal challenges (often unfounded, and based on pure ignorance and fear-mongering), and “direct action” campaigns as we have seen deployed against (non-nuclear) energy projects throughout North America.

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  9. mdander says:

    This post is informative and, to my eye, a factually correct analysis.

    However, a pragmatic environmentalist would have to point out that roughly 1% of BC’s electricity is currently generated by wind and less than 1% by solar. By your math, we need to more than double our electrical generation capacity. So although wind and solar suffer from intermittent supply, we could add 100 times the amount of wind generation and intermittent supply will not even begin to be a concern.

    Personally, I’m a fan of nuclear. Historically, it has killed many, many fewer people (on a per kWh basis) than fossil fuels. However, wind is way less expensive, minimally environmentally damaging and quick to deploy.

    Intermittent supply is the thing you worry about when you are planning how you will deliver the last gigawatt in a net-zero system — we are still trying to get our first few gigawatts done.

    A pragmatic environmentalist would obviously say that we should spend almost 100% of money available for new electricity generation on wind. Sure, there are dollars to be spent on research and we should definitely be putting a significant portion of that toward perfecting nuclear power — for when we hopefully get to that last gigawatt.

    Until then this post can be shelved.

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