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Nuclear Safety and Cost: Exchange with Colin Hunt (Canadian Nuclear Society)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 11, 2023

“Commercial nuclear power is and always has been a government-subsidized, government-dependent industry. That nuclear proponents today will not trade government for the private insurance market is telling that the technology is inherently flawed in terms of cost versus safety.”

Nuclear proponents have a hard time arguing their position. They say that nuclear is a failsafe technology but refuse to consider an end to the Price Anderson Act of 1957 (U.S.) and other national laws that shield the industry from liability in case of an accident. Proponents also get vague on the cost of new nuclear capacity today, a very strange thing given 70 years since the “Atoms for Peace” speech of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Here is an exchange I unearthed from a while back that should be part of the public record. Colin Hunt (below), blocked me on LinkedIn for my efforts to get some answers.

This exchange began with this statement from a LNG developer, Rudolf Huber:

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that most power production should be nuclear. What we need is a nuclear regulatory framework that’s rooted in reality and we also need legal certainty that once all the burning hoops have been jumped through, there cant be fact-free activism that would still stop the construction of fuel treatment. We will need hydrocarbons for mobility and thermal applications as well as for chemistry. Things which are hard to do with electricity. Time to get our heads together on nuclear policy grounded in reality.

To which I responded:

New nuclear is cost prohibitive–and government dependent …

Sixteen replies followed, most by nuclear proponents. One was Colin Hunt, Secretary, Canadian Nuclear Society, a “not-for-profit, learned society across Canada whose members are interested in nuclear science and applied technology in Canada.”

Colin Hunt: Since these are purely human organization problems, do you agree these conditions should be changed?

Me (RLB): Must be something in the inherent physics. “Nuclear is the most complicated, expensive way to boil water safely.” I need the technologists to explain why (number of parts, redundancy for safety, etc.).

Colin Hunt: You can put the major contributor down to one item: the notion of no safe dose of radiation propagated by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). Even though there has never been a single fatality from a civilian nuclear power plant, the industry is handicapped by the notion of no safe dose of ionizing radiation. This false hypothesis was pronounced in 1956, and it seems not to matter how thoroughly it’s been disproved, that there is in fact a de minimis dose.

Hence nuclear power is saddled with safety requirements than no other energy industry has to live up to. It isn’t about physics; it’s about the politics of power generation.

RLB: I hear what you are saying–but can you guesstimate what the cost and timeline would be for a 500 MW or 1,000 MW plant with what you consider safe? If there a blueprint somewhere?

In Russia or elsewhere, have plants been built outside of the ICRP protocol that have a different costs and timeline?

And I assume we can get rid of Price Anderson to have the insurance industry tell us what is ‘safe’?

 Colin Hunt: Rob, I would not venture to make any such guess, That would take a skilled team of engineers and financial experts. Most of the cost of nuclear systems is in the financing.

As for Russia, the RBMK reactors, of which Chernobyl Unit 4 was one such, were not civilian nuclear reactors. They were military production reactors designed to produce plutonium for the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Their safety protocols and performance had nothing to do with civilian standards for reactor operations, let alone anything practiced in modern OECD nations, then or now.

Third, safety and its declaration is a political act. It is up to the political system to establish what is safe enough. Thus far, there’s been no need to get serious about a serious approach to energy system risk, because we have abundant fossil fuels for the current generation of the population and the one following.

So, lacking the need to do so, politicians have no interest in dealing seriously with what is an acceptable level of risk for nuclear or anything else. The principal effect of Price-Anderson is to channel all liability for any nuclear event to the operator alone – with no third party liability allowed. The second effect is to limit that liability.

To my very long reply, I would add one further serious comment. Define “safe”.

RLB: Safe” is not something a regular person can define. Maybe experts too.

I would define ‘safe’ as what the private insurance market will insure to placate investors in the plant.

Colin Hunt: That’s not really an answer, and that’s not your fault. It’s a political matter and can only be dealt with politically. And it will not be dealt with until it’s compelling for overall public policy reasons. The private insurance market does not work in the case of many industries, because no insurance is possible when the insurer is faced with the prospect of infinite risk.

RLB: I disagree. This is an economic issue as far as investors being willing to build new nuclear capacity.

If a builder cannot get private insurance after seventy years of nuclear design work (a lot by government subsidy), then the market is saying: resources should not be spent in this direction but another.
You mention “the prospect of infinite risk.” That makes the point; NGCC and coal plants can get insurance….

And in Russia or some other country, can ‘safety’ be streamlined? Surely some project somewhere can indicate how costs can be streamlined….

Colin Hunt: Economics is determined by the law, and that is a political decision. The infinite risk to which I referred has not scientific or factual basis. It is purely a construct of law and politics.

Teresa Tutt: as far as “safe”, consider the risk per unit of energy produced. Nuclear is by far the safest (fewest deaths per GWhr produced) by a very large margin.

RLB: It is a major cost item to make nuclear safe. The insurance industry is going to have to decide what is necessary to be safe, not you and me.  A ‘market test’ is a reasonable middle ground as I see it.

RLB: I asked Teresa for this–I would like to ask you too:

Can you give me an estimate of what the cost would or should be? And the timetable to build the new capacity? Just trying to get specifics rather than a big black hole of nuclear is cheap but sinister forces make it expensive. A link to a key study or a book I can buy can be great.

[Hunt then joins fellow nuclear proponent Tutt is changing the tone of the discussion …]

Colin Hunt:  Quite right. It’s just another Washington lobby group. He’s not looking for facts; he’s just looking for rocks to throw back. As Gertrude Stein once remarked, “There’s no there,

RLB:  If you go ad hominem and don’t address basic questions on cost–even under your ideal scenario–I think you are hiding something.

IER is actually a classical liberal think tank that supports private property rights, voluntary transactions between consenting adults, the rule of law, and civil society. On this foundation, we can claim to be pro-consumer, pro-taxpayer, and pro-energy.

Colin Hunt: I don’t care in the slightest what a Washington antinuclear lobbyist thinks of nuclear power.

RLB: Why are you getting ugly? I am not ‘antinuclear’ but anti-government subsidized nuclear. I have no qualms whatsoever about competitive nuclear ….

All I am doing is asking you for information on your ‘ideal’ cost to let me/others judge your competitiveness? Again, what is the cost and timeframe of new nuclear capacity under your ideal regulation (avoiding overregulation)? I have heard 5 years and $2.9 million per MW. Is this your opinion?

Final Comment:

There was no answer to the above. Nuclear advocates do not like to discuss cost or safety as judged by the market. With the continuing grim news about best-in-class new technology, there is fire under the smokescreen of competitiveness and progress.

Commercial nuclear power is and always has been a government-subsidized, government-dependent industry. That nuclear proponents today will not trade government for the private insurance market is telling that the technology is inherently flawed in terms of cost versus safety.

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