Jun 9, 2022Liked by Brian Potter

I know someone who was a nuc engineer on the south carolina project that went bust... One obvious issue that you somewhat touch on is the lack of scale that nuclear power production in the US currently has. For many on the SC project, it was their first experience in construction of a new nuclear powerplant, as the expansion was the first nuclear reactor in the US to start construction in decades. Without volume in nuclear construction projects, there is nowhere to amortize the human capital development costs nor the physical capital costs required for learning such high complexity development . This impacts all levels of the nuclear power plant supply chain, not just the final stage. You cite that 1/3 of costs are services, but my guess is that those are simply the services at the final level. If one were to dig into the other 2/3, what portion of those costs would consist of engineering services and non-fully scaled processes? My guess is that these costs are still very far from the asymptotic minimum of raw materials costs that one can pursue with scale. You can't really change market labor costs but you can change labor productivity and waste. The chinese are of course right in that forcing scale enables buildup of reusable human capital, and repeatable processes, that make marginal construction costs much lower, if done properly. Time for NukeX?

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Yeah, I'll get into this more in Part II - recent US cost increases seem much less changing regulation driven, and much more "it's hard to build them and we're out of practice" driven.

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One of my longstanding questions about nuclear energy is whether and how fast it can be scaled. The fact that human capital is a large part of that and that human capital develops slowly (the engineers building plants ten years from now would have to be in school today) makes it even harder to imagine positive answers. We can’t just start building more. We would have to find new and better ways of building. That’s a long-term rather than a short-term or medium-term project, in a world where we need to start deploying answers today.

SpaceX and Tesla are examples of companies that found new, apparently better ways of doing things. They’re both remarkable successes. They’re also both 20 years old. Tesla has a global market auto market share of about 1%. I think SpaceX has about 20% of a much smaller market.

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Mass production can lower the per unit cost. Put together a package to build a hundred or so reactors and have the federal government finance it at cost. Standardize everything.

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That's not a bad idea, but I'm not sure it'd be possible to select 100 or so _sites_. And some sites might 'un-select' themselves part way thru the project. And expecting those difficulties probably increase the upfront costs were this to be tried.

I'm also not sure that it would be possible for a single organization to oversee something like this in the U.S.. Utilities seem _very_ regional.

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Have you looked at ALARA regulations' impact on costs?



"Excessive concern about low levels of radiation led to a regulatory standard known as ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable. What defines “reasonable”? It is an ever-tightening standard. As long as the costs of nuclear plant construction and operation are in the ballpark of other modes of power, then they are reasonable.

This might seem like a sensible approach, until you realize that it eliminates, by definition, any chance for nuclear power to be cheaper than its competition. Nuclear can‘t even innovate its way out of this predicament: under ALARA, any technology, any operational improvement, anything that reduces costs, simply gives the regulator more room and more excuse to push for more stringent safety requirements, until the cost once again rises to make nuclear just a bit more expensive than everything else. Actually, it‘s worse than that: it essentially says that if nuclear becomes cheap, then the regulators have not done their job.

[f.ex. regulators banned multiplexing, which resulted in this:]

A plant that required 670,000 yards of cable in 1973 required almost double that, 1,267,000, by 1978, whereas “the cabling requirement should have been dropping precipitously” given progress at the time in digital technology.

[or this:]

A forklift at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory moved a small spent fuel cask from the storage pool to the hot cell. The cask had not been properly drained and some pool water was dribbled onto the blacktop along the way. Despite the fact that some characters had taken a midnight swim in such a pool in the days when I used to visit there and were none the worse for it, storage pool water is defined as a hazardous contaminant. It was deemed necessary therefore to dig up the entire path of the forklift, creating a trench two feet wide by a half mile long that was dubbed Toomer’s Creek, after the unfortunate worker whose job it was to ensure that the cask was fully drained. [...]


The NRC does not have a mandate to increase nuclear power, nor any goals based on its growth. They get no credit for approving new plants. But they do own any problems. For the regulator, there‘s no upside, only downside. No wonder they delay.

Further, the NRC does not benefit when power plants come online. Their budget does not increase proportional to gigawatts generated. Instead, the nuclear companies themselves pay the NRC for the time they spend reviewing applications, at something close to $300 an hour. This creates a perverse incentive: the more overhead, the more delays, the more revenue for the agency. [...]

Nuclear incumbents aren‘t upset that billions of dollars are thrown away on waste disposal and unnecessary cleanup projects—they are getting those contracts. For instance, 8,000 people are employed in cleanup at Hanford, Washington, costing $2.5B a year, even though the level of radiation is only a few mSv/year, well within the range of normal background radiation."


This excellent video by Jason Crawford of Roots of Progress goes into some of the reasons for the increasing costs, you may find it useful:


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I think it's broadly correct (in that the regulations did get much stricter due to concern about radiation accidents, and they basically think that only the tiniest risk of accident is acceptable) but it will perhaps give you misleading intuitions. I think a more useful way of thinking about it is that the NRC focuses very hard on trying to prevent a serious nuclear accident.

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I think it's true that they want to make nuclear power plants very safe. But that's not what this is. The incentives are wrong, so for the regulator in the US, all the career risk is in approving anything, and there's no downside at all in delaying, increasing costs, and killing projects.

That's why they have:

- 2,868 employees

- $863m budget

- 47 years in operation


It's not part of their mandate to have a vibrant and safe nuclear power sector in the country. They just get paid by the nuclear industry to review things, so the longer they review things, the more they get paid. So the more new regulations are added.

If cars were regulated this way, there'd be no cars on the road, because you can never be sure that a car sold won't be use to drive down the sidewalk and kill pedestrians or drive into a building or be used as a car bomb, so any regulator approving cars risks their job, so best to block them all, and well, if they kill the auto industry, it's not their problem.

Even nuclear power plant operators have warped incentives, because the regulations are such that it can be more profitable to decomission a plant than to operate it...

I encourage you to listen to the podcast Decouple by Dr. Keefer, he interviews a lot of nuclear power experts, very interesting to learn about that industry:


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It sounds like the major issue is the confluence of a complicated project with a complicated ever changing regulatory process. So the way to make nuclear more affordable is to simplify the design, construction and regulations.

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This is where I am optimistic for SMRs and the approach they bring in general. The proof will be in the actual builds, but fingers crossed.

They aim to address all these issues that lead to high costs.

-Simplified designs. E.g. Natural convection not only eliminates a pump, but all the redundant systems, instrumentation, vessel penetrations, etc that are required for it as well.

Larger section shippable and thus factory build able. Get learnings on the hard parts.

Project scale is tractable for what say the chemical construction industry is used to. A $1B project with more factory work might have 500 people on site for 3 years instead of 5000 for 5 years, which also means less cascading delays if any one part has problems.

The regulators seem to be learning some of the lessons and trying to give more standardized approvals.

Shorter time from shovel to power, and once past FOAK builds and with serialized construction on site, MUCH shorter.

Less backup needed. A 300MW plant tripping offline is much easier for a grid to deal with than a 1500MW plant.

Scale suitable for "repowering" fossil sites. Even if the turbines are not re-usable stuff like cooling, grid connections, parking, roads etc may be.

I'm starting to lean towards an expectation that is they do well, the 300MW class SMRs may fully eclipse the GW scale plants.

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I don't think any SMRs will be built for utility power generation stations. The Army may get a couple to finally achieve their dream that ended with SL1, but no one outside of the government will buy any.

Look, SMRs do have a real advantage with decay heat. They are a similar size to my old retired 637 class submarine reactor and yeah, about six to twelve hours after shutdown we had to use heaters and spray to stay hot (SMRs will have a higher power history though).

Other than that, all of the proposed benefits were also advertised for the AP1000. Natural circulation safety systems, simplified design, modular construction in a factory, all that stuff. Reality didn't really turn out that way unfortunately.

Biggest hindrance for the SMRs will the ratio of support staff to Megawatt electric will make them unprofitable. Westinghouse couldn't find any buyers for the AP600 design (roughly equivalent to a 12 unit ganged SMR) until they scaled it up to the AP1000 which was the origin of a lot of problems. You still need the full security staff, possibly more, same training staff, same licensing, engineering, Emergency Response organization, Chemistry, Health physics, all the same people cost, while selling a bit over half the amount of electricity. Thats assuming the government gives them everything they ask for in control room staffing.

One trouble I haven't seen addressed yet is who will get the license to build an SMR. Currently the government licenses the utility to construct a nuclear plant, not the construction company. The recent white findings for wiring separation were issued against Southern Company, not Bechtel because the NRC doesn't directly regulate the construction, they regulate the utility who has to enforce all the NRC requirements. I don't see how the SMRs will overcome that (SNC and SCANA had trouble overseeing quality at the Lake Charles facility and got stern warnings from the NRC over it).

I'm still hopeful we will someday build a few more AP1000 and bring the cost and time down with all the learnings from Vogtle, but not confident at all.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

Your points I agree with for the smaller units or MMRs, but https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Early-site-work-to-begin-for-Canadian-SMR

As the 300MW range has been included in the definition of SMRs,I think starting site work (spending non engineering money) is a pretty serious commitment to actually building one at a utility...

Fair point on the staff requirements. I think multi unit sites will be key. If the reactors are simplified in operation they should be able use a common control room, mtce etc. I have no issues with GW class sites, but having say 4 units to get that could be fine. Then during maintenance would still have 3/4 nameplate power available.

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It would be great if they actually build them!

Any idea on the plans for operator crews? 300 MWe is really small if they each have to have a full crew but a bit large for the regulators to allow a single crew to control multiple units. 4X the number of operators as an AP1000 and that would require a slightly larger support staff, not terrible, mind you, but maybe 20%-30% more across the board. As an example, the training staff for a dual unit site is uhm, well, I think they call it optimized (really busy with lots of unpaid overtime (salary)) and with four crews the classroom portion doesn't change, but doubling the simulator time, operating exams, and initial license class simulator time would require more instructors. Too bad the Nuclear Operating Companies don't publish detailed financials; it would be interesting to see the difference in staff costs between say Farley and Palo Verte.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

I should also say, control room staff requirements should be a function of complexity and not output. A GW scale plants with multiple pumps for every circuit, back up systems etc has a lot of complexity. Natural circulation and single equipment per function at the smaller scale is what saves the operator attention.

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Unfortunately, the regulators rarely make things easier. The requirement to have a Shift Technical Advisor (STA) was added after the Three Mile Island accident. The job of the STA is to monitor the Critical Safety Function Status Tree (CSFST) after a Reactor Trip. The CSFST is a very simple flow chart of Yes/No questions that evaluates the status of the six functions (Subcriticality, Core Cooling, Heat Sink, Containment, Pressurized Thermal Shock, and Inventory) and the output is one of four colors for each (Red, Orange, Yellow, or Green). Red or Orange require the operators to immediately go to a procedure focused on restoring that safety function. That job used to be challenging, looking in the steam tables to determine if the steam generators were coupled sort of thing.

The AP1000 uses the safety computer to monitor these (simple stuff really, example is Reactor Power less than 5%) and puts the colors on a giant display and has an alarm if there is an Orange or Red path. Even so, they are required to have an STA staffed 24/7, 365. No relief even though the technology has made that job obsolete.

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Fair, we can hope we get the regulations back into a “does it actually help mindset”. Not sure if there is a noticeable difference between the Canadian and US regulator either. My worry is if we don’t, the energy transition will just stall out, and we will never actually stop increasing CO2 levels.

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Unfortunately I only know what has been publicly stated. Obviously for a single unit they won't get those efficiency improvements until the build more.

It is at a site with 4 GW scale reactors, and within commuting distance of anouther with plant (by the same owner) with 8 500MW units (2 retired, 6 set to retire shortly before this comes online, but there is a push to refurb 4 of them) so I don't think a shortage of operators or training resources will be an issue here.

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I would really love to someday see a deep dive on the difference in cost between the civilian and naval reactors. USN is getting two Virginia class submarines a year ahead of schedule and under budget. Similar, but different regulations, which ones make a difference, how much of the cost improvement is due to the repeat construction. That sort of analysis.

Interesting that you talk about how bad design changes are. When I used to talk to sailors from submarine new construction, they would always laugh at how the "silly government" would build them with equipment they knew was going to be immediately replaced after construction was complete. They told stories of huge piles of stuff already delivered, that was waiting until after sea trials, then they would immediately have another six-month overhaul to rip out and replace. Why not just put the correct stuff in the first time. Now, however, after seeing the havoc design changes cause, I think the Navy has it right!

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Meanwhile, China's cost-reduction mojo is working well, with costs less than half ours, and more advanced.

The same is true for telecoms. It is clear that, without China's help, we will not have nationwide 5G when China upgrades to 6G. Today, even Tibet has higher speed, broader 5G coverage than the Bay Area, our high tech Mecca.

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Hi, I am the general manager of the construction department of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, and is currently studying in the graduate program in US with company support. I was in charge of the construction cost of the recently completed Shin-Kori Units and like you, I was a person who had a lot of trouble with the continuously increasing cost of construction. However, I do not agree with your other position is that the construction cost of nuclear power plants in Korea was not audited and settled. Because of this, I also had numerous discussions with tax agencies and received numerous audits for tax payment issues after the construction was completed. I cannot agree with the part that Korean nuclear power plants are not subject to audit without any basis. I would like you to correct this part. As I, who suffered from numerous tax agencies and suffered a lot because of it, I cannot accept your assertion that South korea plant was not be audited without any basis. In the case of Korea, continuous power plant construction has been carried out, which has resulted in a continuous decline in unit prices. Of course, construction costs have risen since the Fukushima accident. I wish you could write an article with a clearer rationale.

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I think Brian was pretty clear in attributing the view that Korean nuclear plant construction costs haven't been audited to other people and not claiming that that was an uncontroversial fact.

You seem particularly likely to be able to share more info about that with Brian too tho! I'm pretty sure that would be appreciated. I'm curious!

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Isn't it a little besides the point to discuss tiny cost factors such as worker's wages? You state yourself that financing cost makes up the majority of costs. Also you make the point that interest is what makes delays so expensive.

Here's a breakdown for Hinkley C. Notice the huge green interest section in the pie chart. When you want to drive down costs, focus on that, e.g. with RAB:


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please squeeze in as much as you can on SMR in part II

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Very interesting. I seem to remember reading an extensive section on the burden of regulation on nuclear power in "Where is my flying car?", which identified similar themes.

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Good stuff. Similar story for large hydro projects.

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Do we have any indication on the source of these regulations? I have to imagine the coal industry went on the offensive at some point and one way to do that is to pay your legislators to wrap the future in red tape and fear.

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China is building 150 new nuclear reactors. What's their cost curve look like?

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If nuclear energy interests you, I recommend the book "Atomic Awakening". I found it informative and perhaps entertaining. I have relatives working at TVA which is what initially piqued my interest.

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