By Amory V. Lovins
Nuclear power is being intensively promoted and increasingly subsidized in both old and potential new forms. Yet it is simultaneously suffering a global slow-motion commercial collapse due to intrinsically poor economics. This summary in a US context documents both trends, emphasizing the absence of an operational need and of a business or climate case.
Thus the basic assumption that nuclear power, of any kind and size, is an effective substitute for fossil-fueled generation is simply wrong. Only if today’s three nominally carbon-free196 power choices—nuclear, renewables, and efficiency—were all equivalent in cost and speed could they be equally climate-effective, hence selectable based on other attributes like reliability, resilience, stability, and safety. Since they’re actually manyfold different in cost and speed, hence in climate-effectiveness, that difference would seem decisive in a climate emergency.
Let us not repeat past mistakes. Coal plants were built by counting cost but not carbon. Nuclear plants are promoted by counting carbon but not cost. Effective climate solutions must count carbon and cost and speed. If you haven’t heard this logic before, perhaps it’s because the nuclear industry is desperately keen not to discuss economics, still less comparative economics, and least of all climate-effectiveness. They want you to think that operating without emitting CO2 is good enough, and that relative cost and speed don’t matter because we need every option. A handwaving argument197 claims this, but shrivels in the face of data, field experience, and literature198.
Climate will be stabilized by judicious choices, not mushy mantras or nostalgic nostrums. As US nuclear critic Dave Kraft puts it, “We’re in a climate crisis, not a Chinese buffet.” Our goal must be not to choose one dish from each category, but to select the menu items that will save the most carbon with the limited time and money we have, satisfying our hunger and fitting our wallet. It’s really that simple. “All of the above” remains a popular bipartisan substitute for thoughtful analysis in US energy policy, which in the US, UK and EU are trying to reclassify nuclear power as “clean” to qualify it for new mandates and subsidies while diluting competitors’ brand and financing. But Peter Bradford cogently completed the political mantra “We’re not picking and backing winners” by agreeing, then adding: “They don’t need it. We’re picking and backing losers.”
Like a proud, stubborn, and illusion-ridden elder mortally stricken with cancer, nuclear power is slowly dying of an uncurable attack of painful market forces, yet is unwilling to accept reality and enter hospice. From powering postwar growth to displacing oil to displacing coal to saving the climate to serving the world’s poor, nuclear power has run through and now run out of reasons to live. Despite outward cheer and booming voice, its pallor and withering can be seen through the makeup. How much more money, talent, attention, political capital, and precious time will its intensive care continue to rob from the life of its vibrant successors? Will its terminal phase be orderly or chaotic, graceful or bitter, emerging by default or by design? That is our choice.