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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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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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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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 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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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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This is ALL ACADEMIC NOW... Having spent the "peak periods" of Nuclear Power.. 1970/80's till 2004 in (Electrical) Engineering of Nuclear Power Plants...

the ONLY NUCLEAR PLANT I WOULD MAKE TODAY WOULD BE THE ONE POWERED BY THE GREATEST, OLDEST AND MIGHTIEST OF ALL FUSION REACTORS... THE SUN... which in ONE HOUR provides 170,000TWhrs... TO MEET ALL THE ENERGY MANKIND NEEDS (not just Electric customers) in a year... 120,000 TWhrs... you get the idea...!!!

The Solar Energy is Free, Abundant, Non-Polluting (no 100,000+ year nuclear waste here), Reliable & Sustainable (been there since the Birth of the Earth and will continue.. with "no end" in sight as far as humans are concerned).

Now comes the REAL KICKER.. you can covert this Solar Energy to Electricity DIRECTLY (no need of Boiler, Turbine, Generator, Condensor and Cooling Water or hundreds of pumps, fans, bliwers, heaters etc...) by PV Panels... all this at a very Cost Effective/Competitive Price....

Using AgriVoltaics (AV) that provides for dual-use of Farmland... where you generate solar electricity above and continue to grow food below.. you can easily meet the above Energy Needs on less than 1Million km2 of the EXISTING 15million km2 of the Global Farmland.. with lots and lots of margin to grow and with ZERO POLLUTION TOO...

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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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