A Free-Market Energy Blog

Nuclear Power: Dangerous Hope to Soften CO2 Pricing

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- September 16, 2021

“Making nuclear safe is also why it is uneconomic. The US would not have had a nuclear industry if not for Price-Anderson and the rest of it from the federal government.” (Bradley, below)

“10 million deaths/year from the fossil fuel way of boiling water is criminally dangerous in the final degree.” (Canon Bryan, below)

Canon Bryan is CFO and a founding shareholder of Terrestrial Energy, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Mr. Bryan and Terrestrial develop advanced commercial power plants. [1]

This exchange with a sophisticated nuclear proponent is illustrative of the current debate regarding the future of nuclear power (my thoughts here). I would note the following having engaged Mr. Bryan:

  1. We talk past each other at times because I am focused on the U.S. and he internationally where most new-design nuclear plants are being built. Bryan does not address the massive problems at the Summer and Vogtle nuclear busts–his argument appears to be all about new technology.
  2. On subsidies, Bryan relies on international statistics where fossil-fuel subsidies pertain mainly to the transportation (oil) side and not electricity generation.
  3. Bryan’s holy grail is experimental first-of-a-kind technology: “Generation IV advanced nuclear power plants that use its proprietary Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR®) technology.” The company adds: “Terrestrial Energy is engaged with regulators and industrial partners to complete IMSR® engineering and to commission first IMSR® power plants in the late 2020s.”

Our exchange from several months ago follows:

Bradley: Nuclear is the most complicated, perilous way to boil water. Too many parts, too many residual issues. Gas-fired combined cycle: sooner, cheaper, flexible….

Canon Bryan: If you define “perilous” by the observable deaths per unit of energy throughout history, you are patently wrong. Natural gas = 4,000 deaths/TWh Nuclear = 90 deaths/TWh

Also, the goal of the energy system now is not simply to deliver energy, but to deliver energy without GHG emissions. NG is tremendously inferior to nuclear on its climate credentials, according to the IPCC. This too represents a form of peril. NG emissions = 480 grams CO2/kWh Nuclear emission = 12 grams CO2/kWh

Your argument about subsidies is truly laughable. According to IRENA, they conservatively (compared to other sources) estimate that fossil subsidies exceeded nuclear subsidies by a factor of 147 times in a given year, including externalities.

Here’s another source listing IMF estimates of fossil subsidies at far higher levels than even IRENA.

Bradley: “Perilous” means that it is so dangerous that a whole lot of safeguards and redundancy must be built-in for it to become safe. Making it safe, in other words, ruins the economics. And no private insurer would or will touch it as far as I know ….

Bryan: The article is about using existing capacity — so-called LTO (long-term operation) nuclear power plants — to make hydrogen. There are over 400 operating nuclear power plants in the world. They are all insured. Your point is irrelevant.

And no, perilous does not mean that. Perilous in the context of technology or infrastructure means how many deaths have been caused. Actuaries, who calculate risks for insurers, operate based on deterministic experience. The deterministic experience of NPPs shows one thing with zero ambiguity: NPPs have operated for 64 out of 65 years without causing harm to a single person or ecosystem. The exact opposite of perilous.

Bradley: That’s the Price Anderson Act in the U.S., and probably government this-or-that in other countries.

A new nuclear plant would not be able to get its own insurance, outside of special government favor. Will you admit that making nuclear safe significantly increases unit cost? That’s what I am getting at. The problem with nuclear is the next plant. Too expensive.

Bryan: A deceptively complex question.

1) New NPPs in the West are proving to be too CAPEX-intensive because they are First-Of-A-Kind or First-In-A-Generation. That is true of any new industrial development – not just nuclear. Making these the proxy for the entire industry amounts to fallacy of incomplete evidence. 49 of the 71 new plants commissioned since 2000 have been in China and Russia with an average CAPEX of sub-$3/Watt. That is competitive.

2) I do admit that making any industrial facility safe increases CAPEX. Unsafe facilities are cheap to build. To attempt to penalize nuclear safety rather than envy it is, frankly, perverse.

3) In my opinion, the safety regulations for civilian nuclear are far too strict. They could be rolled back by a factor of 1,000 and still be as safe as they are today, which is, namely, 1 incident in 65 years causing 32 deaths + up to 16,000 possible deaths, while avoiding 2.3 million deaths.

4) Advanced nuclear technologies are specifically designed to make use of passive safety, which dramatically reduces CAPEX. They are being developed today for 2020s deployment.

Bradley: Here are my answers in response to yours (thank you):

1) Nuclear is an old technology now. New experimental designs to try to achieve competitiveness after a half century of failure is risky and raises fundamental questions. And sub-$3/watt (a guess, a hope) is still not competitive. Natural gas CC is far less risky, proven, cheaper, and quicker to build.

2) I was just explaining nuclear’s inherently high costs. I am not saying build anything ‘unsafe’.

3 and 4) Related to #2: who knows? Only private insurance in a free market sans government can tell the world if such plants are safe.

And at the same time, how about getting guaranteed performance contracts as to cost and in-service and the rest of it from a deep-pocket third party? Not just the builder that can go bankrupt. Maybe Bill Gates can do something with his project–but taxpayers are already $80 million in the hole with him.

Bradley: We simply need a market test rather than external opinions and data about costs and benefits. A nuclear facility must gets its own insurance, not receive government subsidies, and be undergirded by long-term contracts and not utility ratebase. Natural gas/LNG is substantially cheaper where available, right?

Bryan: “half century of failure” If 2.3 million deaths avoided and over 75 Gigatonnes CO2 avoided since 1971 is considered a failure, I am proud to be a failure.

“Sub-$3/Watt” CAPEX is data-based, unlike any claim you have made in this discussion. And it is competitive on a life-cycle basis. NG CAPEX may be lower, but ~80% of life cycle cost for NG is OPEX. For nuclear it’s the reverse.

“Natural Gas CC is far less risky” Wrong. According to OSTI, from 1969 to 2000, NG plants have had 125 fatal accidents. Nuclear had 1. That’s not “far less risky”.

“Natural gas CC is…proven” [Wrong] The first civilian nuclear plant was commissioned in 1956. The first NG CC was commissioned in 1961. Being a younger technology does not somehow make it more proven.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s this thing out there called climate change. It happens when NG CC plants spew out 480 grams/CO2/kWh – as compared to 12g for nuclear – heating up the environment too quickly and causing massive global risks. If they can build an emission-free NG plant for the same cost as a nuclear plant, then we can talk about NG.

Bradley: I would also compute the extra, unnecessary cost with the most expensive technology to generate electricity and ask: what would have been done with the hundreds of billions of dollars to make individuals and the world better.

Do you have an aggregate statistic of cost overruns for US nuclear alone, starting with Sumner and Vogtle working backwards? Economics matters, and wealth is health.

Bryan: Fallacy of Incomplete Evidence. Again.

Bradley: Real world costs are the best evidence. Not ‘might’ or ‘could’

Nuclear is radically noncompetitive, always needing government subsidies and awaiting a new, breakthrough technology. The most complicated, dangerous way of boiling water, after all.

Bryan: Why are you so addicted to proving publicly how ignorant you are? 32 deaths from one incident in 65 years is the opposite of dangerous. 10 million deaths/year from the fossil fuel way of boiling water is criminally dangerous in the final degree.

LCOE costs are competitive with NG in China and Russia. Not might or could. But actual LCOE. I have compiled the data myself. Fossil receives several orders of magnitude more subsidies than nuclear ever did.

As usual, you provide zero evidence for your completely false claims. And I have repeated myself over and over. I’m done here.

Bradley: Control your emotions, please.

Making nuclear safe is also why it is uneconomic. The US would not have had a nuclear industry if not for Price-Anderson and the rest of it from the federal government.

Government subsidies are required to even keep existing nuclear plants online. And tell us about Sumner and Vogtle–big hopes of the latest, greatest designs that went bust.

Your company claims to have the best Generation IV nuclear technology. So where have we heard this before? Why are you sure you have it this time?

Can you compete against gas-fired combined cycle? Can you compete without the US Department of Energy as funder? Without Price-Anderson insurance?

Do you have electricity buyers who want to commit up-front to your price (what) and your term (how many years)? And if your contractor goes bankrupt (like Westinghouse)?

Final Note

The latest news is a bailout for Exelon’s 2,500 MW Byron Nuclear Plant in Illinois to the tune of $600 mm, five-years in the name of “a 100 percent clean energy future.” Nuclear, itself wounded by wind and solar, is a pawn in the ‘clean energy’ game that leaves the market less free and more expensive for consumers and/or taxpayers.


[1] Terrestrial Energy is a developer of Generation IV advanced nuclear power plants that use its proprietary Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR®) technology. IMSR® technology represents true innovation in cost reduction, versatility and functionality of nuclear power plants.

IMSR® power plants will provide zero-carbon, reliable, dispatchable, cost-competitive electric power and high grade industrial heat for use in many industrial applications, such as chemical synthesis and desalination, and in so doing extend the application of nuclear energy far beyond electric power markets.

They have the potential to make important contributions to industrial competitiveness, energy security, and economic growth. Their deployment will support rapid global decarbonization of the primary energy system by displacing fossil fuel combustion across a broad spectrum.

Using an innovative design, and proven and demonstrated molten salt reactor technology, Terrestrial Energy is engaged with regulators and industrial partners to complete IMSR® engineering and to commission first IMSR® power plants in the late 2020s.


  1. James Little  

    Nuclear is hardly wounded at a level of 18% of U.S. compared to roughly 5% of renewables generation which is only available at 25-30% compared to Nuclear’s availability at 92%. The challenge for nuclear is the use of merchant models which offer cheaply priced and subsidized spot prices ignoring the resilience and larger availability of nuclear. Nuclear also must endure the interruption of periodicity and intermittency of non- dispatchable renewables.


  2. Genevieve Davis  

    or those who love the great outdoors and make a conscious effort to conserve our natural resources, here is a place to share news and articles about how wind turbines threaten the things we hold dear.”


  3. Bob Cherba  

    Confession: I was involved with commercial nuclear industry for 30 years and am somewhat biased. I’m also a skeptic of CAGW and don’t think the world is coming to an end any time soon.

    One reason I’m a big supporter of nuclear power is that we have a near-unlimited source of power from PWRs, BWRs, breeder reactors and other reactors under development. (Unfortunately, some of these ‘new’ reactors have been in development since I entered the industry nearly 60 years ago.

    Natural gas, oil, and coal have many uses besides power generation, and shouldn’t be used up generating most of our electricity. Uranium and nuclear energy have little use besides generating power and making bombs, and I prefer using them to generate power. They have the added benefit of not producing CO2, which to some degree should make the climate worriers happy.

    In my opinion, wind, solar and batteries are mostly virtue-signaling and will never deliver zero-CO2 energy. The CO2-is-bad folks who want to electrify everything are also the ones who don’t want to mine anything. They don’t understand how much copper, lithium, steel, concrete, etc., it’s going to take to implement their dream. Then too, they think that government mandates can trump physics. So much for the state of science education in the USA and most of the world.


    • rbradley  

      It is fallacious to think that fossil fuel scarcity is a factor in today’s debates. The more we find, the more we find there is to find. Physically speaking, the fossil fuel era is still young, maybe very young.

      Your argument for nuclear is what is common from our side: wind and solar will not do, reliability is needed, and nuclear is insurance against climate change to the extent it might be a problem. And if environmentalist do not want it, they have refuted themselves and are hypocrites.

      I get these points but note that nuclear is hyper-expensive and is an excuse to build more solar and wind (a major point of the article). Carbon taxers look to nuclear as a rescue too. Not good–and certainly not a free market, government-neutral strategy.


  4. Kevin  

    “The more we find, the more we find there is to find.“

    Until we don’t. How long would that thinking have worked with whale oil?


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