A Free-Market Energy Blog

Nuclear Power: Joe Romm Goes Free Market (Again)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 6, 2019

“The nuclear industry has effectively priced itself out of the market for new power plants, at least in market-based economies. That’s why nuclear power’s share of global power generation has dropped to around 11 percent — its lowest level in decades.”

 – Joe Romm, ThinkProgress, February 4, 2019

As he periodically does, Joe Romm has again trashed nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, claiming that wind power and solar power are cheaper, can access affordable batteries for overcome intermittency, and can be scaled to the quantities needed (wrong, wrong, and wrong–a story for another day).

In “Taxpayers Should Not Fund Bill Gates’ Nuclear Albatross,” Romm states:

The reality is that nuclear power is so uneconomical that existing U.S. nuclear power plants are bleeding cash — and in many places it’s now cheaper to build and run new wind or solar farms than to simply run an existing nuclear power plant. Saving the existing unprofitable nuclear plants would require a subsidy of at least $5 billion a year, according to an analysis last July by the Brattle Group.

Indeed, the new nuclear construction in Georgia (Plant Vogtle) is a still-growing, multi-billion-dollar mess.

Romm, free-market-style, then chides Bill Gates (founder of TerraPower back in 2006 with one billion dollars of his own money) [1] for practicing nuclear cronyism:>The reality is that next generation nuclear power is still at the research phase. It is far from ready for a pilot that would be so expensive that even the world’s second richest man (after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) isn’t willing to finance it himself [via TerraPower], but has to go begging for federal money.

Romm keeps a window open for nuclear but sees this technology as a competitor, not substitute, for (politically correct) renewables:

Certainly, the climate crisis demands that we pursue all practical and economical approaches to cutting carbon pollution. And even some environmental groups are in favor of keeping existing nuclear plants running longer.

But … new nuclear power plants are just far too expensive. What’s more, major investments in multibillion-dollar pilots and reactors could actually take away funds from clean energy technologies that would reduce vastly more pollution for the same amount of money.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep investing in nuclear power research in the hope that someday it becomes affordable.

So, given existing plants are so uneconomic, it’s no shock that building and financing an entire new fleet of nuclear plants is wildly unaffordable — especially since a new nuclear plant can cost $10 billion or more.

A Civil War

There are many reasons why it is not easy being green. One is the civil war over the one mass alternative to oil, gas, and coal in electrical generation, however expensive: nuclear power. In the main, the modern eco-movement has increased, not decreased, CO2 emissions by working to reduce nuclear capacity, existing and new.

As I noted 16 months ago in reference to Romm’s dismissal of nuclear:

The irony is that to the extent that Romm et al. have been able to retire existing or block new nuclear capacity, they have  contributed to rising CO2 emissions. Environmental Progress has  documented this in these five talking points:

  • Low-carbon power declined as a percentage of total electricity by 4.2 percent between 1995 and 2016.
  • Percentage of total electricity from nuclear declined 7 percent between 1995 and 2016.
  • The percentage of total electricity coming from solar and wind only increased 5.2 percent between 1985 and 2015.
  • The world could lose up to two times more nuclear than it gains by 2030.
  • Between 2010 and 2016, public support for nuclear declined from 62 percent to 51 percent.

In any case, it is both pleasing and strange to see Joe Romm don a free market, pro-consumer, pro-taxpayer hat when it comes to nuclear (and probably hydro too). His (post-modernistic) dream is that wind power, solar power, and negawatts can usher in a post-fossil-fuel era. In reality, fossil fuels will replace nuclear to a large degree.

James Hansen, the father of last quarter-century of climate alarm, begs to differ from Romm. Calculating the vast scale of energy needs versus renewables’ energy pittance, Hansen states:

People who entreat the government to solve global warming but offer support only for renewable energies will be rewarded with the certainty that the U.S. and most of the world will be fracked-over, the dirtiest fossil fuels will be mined, mountaintop removal and mechanized long-wall coal mining will continue, the Arctic, Amazon and other pristine public lands will be violated, and the deepest oceans will be ploughed for fossil fuels.

Simple politics comes into play, continues Hansen:

Politicians are not going to let the lights go out or stop economic growth. Don’t blame Obama or other politicians. If we give them no viable option, we will be fracked and mined to death, and have no one to blame but ourselves.

To Hansen, going renewable in light of the climate challenge is  “almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”


Free-marketeers can smile and wink as Joe Romm oversells renewables and works to block the one major competitor to fossil fuels in electric generation, nuclear power. Such is the strange ideological world of the anti-industrial lobby. They are losing painfully and in slow motion. Tuesday’s post will visit some of the angst experienced by the climate-change-advocacy losers.


[1] According to the Washington Post: “Lawmakers are listening to him. Through the Energy Department, Congress approved $221 million to help companies develop advanced reactors and smaller modular reactors in fiscal 2019, above the budget request. But Gates and TerraPower, which received a $40 million Energy Department.”


  1. John W. Garrett  

    I don’t know how you do it.

    I simply do not have either the patience or the inclination to deal with ideologue crackpots like Romm.


  2. Ned Ford  

    The U.S. market has seen a steady erosion of fossil generation since 2007. Only 2010 and 2018 have been net growth years for all fossil generation and those years were small bumps compared to the entire period. What the critics of Romm’s position are missing is efficiency. Deliberate policy to install efficiency includes Federal standards and state utility efficiency programs. The Federal standards cut about 0.5% of total electricity every year while the utility programs cut about 1.2%. That 1.7% excludes a number of factors which compensate for the fact that it is by necessity an informed estimate. If 1.7% of U.S. electricity is eliminated and all of that would have been coal powered, then 2.25% of U.S. electric sector carbon is eliminated each year by efficiency.

    In 2019 a recent report found that 76% of all U.S. coal was no longer competitive with local sources of wind and solar. To be clear, that means utility scale solar, which is selling between 2 and 4 cents per KWh in most markets. Wind is cheaper where the wind is fair to good. Wind has been sold in large scale (2000 MW) contracts for 1.5 cents per KWh. By comparison a half dozen nuclear plants are unable to compete in the existing market which is about 5.5 cents per KWh with pretty big variations around the country. The Vogtle plant in Georgia is going to cost somewhere north of 18 cents per KWh just to recover its investment cost with no fuel or profit or distribution costs included. It will cause a “death spiral” which is the term for a utility that raises rates so much that it loses revenue because of customers who conserve.

    Customer self-generation is a factor too. That wasn’t the case the last time the U.S. saw utilities go into death spirals.

    Today, in 2019, the U.S. is adding wind and solar at four to five times the rate that nuclear power is closing. We need to add wind and solar at two to three times the rate we are presently adding it. Storage is already so cheap that it isn’t a barrier to a supply of electricity which is 100% wind and solar, and 60% more than we consume today. We need that extra generation because we have to provide for electric cars, heat pumps, and a host of industrial processes which are cheaper today with electricity than they are today with fossil fuels. All of this – every single bit of it – saves money today. It will save more money in the future.

    And nuclear proponents will be sitting on the sidelines as the rest of us build the future.


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