By Michael Mariotte

Generation IV reactors are not going to save the nuclear power industry.

That nuclear power’s miserable economics are pretty much killing the industry, especially in the western world, is a reality acknowledged by virtually everyone at this point. After the first burst of reactor construction from the late 1960s until the early 1980s collapsed under the weight of multi-billion dollar cost overruns and lengthy schedule delays, a decade ago the industry argued it had learned and incorporated its lessons and the result would be a nuclear renaissance.

But before even a single reactor launched by this renaissance has begun operating (for a “renaissance that began more than a decade ago, this in itself is a telling point), bloated, untenable costs and delays from Georgia to Finland have again put the kibosh on the notion of any meaningful nuclear expansion in the west. And even in China, where transparency in economic data is literally a foreign concept, there are indications that costs and schedules for new reactors are not exactly meeting expectations.

Meanwhile, nuclear utilities from Illinois to Sweden argue that new subsidies–whether in the form of higher rates or tax relief or direct deposits of taxpayer money to their bank accounts are required to keep long-ago paid-for but aging and obsolete reactors simply operating. Some of this is pure greed, of course, with the utilities just wanting more money and they see an opportunity granted by concern about climate change to get some, but some of it is real. Some of these older reactors, which supposedly benefit from all of nuclear’s purported cost advantages in terms of low fuel costs, operating experience and so on, just can’t compete with newer, cheaper and cleaner technologies.

While it seems that far too many legislators don’t yet understand all this, the nuclear industry itself certainly does, and the number one topic in industry-oriented publications these days is how to turn around its economic miseries.

I wrote about what the industry, at least in the U.S., wants for its uneconomic operating reactors–and its sometimes delusional approaches to achieve those goals, a couple of weeks ago.

But even if it attains the levels of ratepayer/taxpayer subsidies it wants–and it likely won’t–it’s not enough for the industry to simply rescue some dinosaurs from their inevitable extinction. Without new reactors, without expansion, the industry will simply wither away by mid-century. While that would be better for society, better for ratepayers, better even for the climate, that, of course is not an industry perspective.

The industry’s typical prescription for its revival revolves around a few key tenets: Build safer reactors–i.e. Generation IV designs; and/or build smaller reactors, which may or may not be Generation IV designs; have more standardization of reactor designs; use modern modular construction techniques; and so forth. And many industry pundits, at least, have derived hope from a recent Breakthrough Institute paper which argues that the industry’s experience in South Korea and elsewhere, including the UK, Germany and Japan, demonstrates that the pattern of ever-escalating reactor construction …read more

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