Is Nuclear Energy going the way of the Concorde?


They don’t exist unless they make money. Some people don’t like that idea, but that’s a fact of life, they are there to make money. And if they are making a product that doesn’t make them money, they’ll either stop making it or they’ll go out of business. Or both, you never know.

This is a quote from Bob Van der Linden, Curator of Air Transportation at the National Air and Space Museum, talking about supersonic transport. I fear it’s just as applicable to nuclear energy.

I’ve always been interested in flight (I actually started college as an Aerospace Engineering major), and to me, the Concorde represents an amazing feat of engineering. Vox came out with a video last year on the death of the Concorde, which I really recommend that everyone watch. But listening to the video, it really got me thinking about how the fate of the Concorde is similar to the situation nuclear energy is in.

I’m far from the first person to compare nuclear reactors to planes; in fact, just recently Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress proposed that the nuclear industry consolidate and standardize like Airbus or Boeing.

But let’s look at some of the similarities between nuclear reactors and the Concorde:
-both nuclear reactors and the Concorde program have/had huge upfront costs, in design and the cost of a unit,
-both technologies were developed in the 1950’s-1970’s, and both are technological marvels,
-both technologies have faced public protest,
-both technologies have had large, public disasters,
-both technologies are somewhat inflexible (at least as they were implemented),
-both technologies were effectively banned in certain places,
-both technologies required a highly technical staff for operation and maintenance,
-both technologies have cheaper competitors.

To expand on these last two points, when I say that the technologies are inflexible, what I mean is that nuclear reactors normally operate at 100% full power for 1.5 – 2 years straight before shutting down to refuel. Nuclear reactors can ramp up and down in power, but often don’t because it wouldn’t be economically advantageous, and because it puts extra stress and wear on the reactor. The Concorde only had a few set routes, and a set number of seats – if more people wanted to fly than were seats, those extra people were out of luck – in essence, the Concorde also operated at 100% full capacity every flight, because it wouldn’t make economic sense to do anything but that.

Both nuclear reactors and the Concorde have/had unique advantages over competitors. In the case of nuclear, the ability to operate constantly while emitting no greenhouse gas emissions; in the case of the Concorde, getting to Paris in 3.5 hours. However, they both have/had competitors; nuclear competes with fossil fuels and renewables, and the Concorde competed with subsonic (normal) airplanes.

In the Vox video mentioned above, Phil Edwards makes the case that the Concorde died because of:
1) public disasters mixed with fears of flying,
2) noise complaints (Ban the Boom protests),
3) limited market (only trans-Atlantic flights, not trans-Pacific, no routes over the US),
4) concerns about terrorism (9/11 caused a drop in airline travel),
5) lack of support (Airbus wasn’t going to support the Concorde fleet anymore, it was too old and too difficult to upgrade),
6) and the high price of flights (because of extremely high flight costs).

It’s easy to see the parallels to nuclear, public disasters and a fear of radiation, protests, having a limited market (the large size of current reactors limits them to near large population centers), concerns about terrorism, and the higher prices than fossil fuel competitors. And many of the existing commercial reactors which have closed have been for these reasons (in addition to repairs being too complex/costly).

Westinghouse will be filling for Chapter 11 bankruptcy next week, and while Westinghouse’s fate is far from sealed, this is a big blow to the nuclear community, and it does seems to signal that a different path might be needed for the future of nuclear.

Taking all of this together, it seems like the advice for the next generation of nuclear might be to:
-expand the potential market size by reducing the size of reactors,
-increase the flexibility of nuclear by operating multiple reactors at each site which can be turned on and off relatively quickly,
-find ways to reduce costs by learning while building many units.

In many ways, this is the path that Small Modular Reactor (SMR) designers like NuScale are taking. I think if they can keep the costs down, it has a good chance of working. And interestingly enough, there are also startups working on bringing back supersonic flight and they are taking a similar approach; smaller planes (45 seats vs. over 100 for the Concorde), and more of them, which potentially offer more flexibility and may cut down costs.

Hopefully nuclear reactors don’t go the way of the Concorde, a symbol of society taking another step back from technological innovation.

Photo from the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum Complex.

11 thoughts on “Is Nuclear Energy going the way of the Concorde?

  1. An interesting comparison except that the headline is misleading. Just like aircraft, there are several nuclear technology products but to compare one aircraft product to a whole cadre of nuclear reactor products seems to me to present a misleading comparison.

    To specific points of comparison you make:

    -both technologies have had large, public disasters,

    Do you mean public relations disasters? I can’t think of any Concorde disaster beyond financial insolvency.

    -both technologies are somewhat inflexible (at least as they were implemented),

    I’d say the inflexibility aspect of current nuclear reactors is really a cost issue. Nukes have high fixed costs due to labour and long-term debt load. So it’s not a technology issue (Gen III nukes are capable of load-following) so much as a financial constraint.

    -both technologies have cheaper competitors.

    True if we include fossil fuel energy. But in terms of competition in the clean sustainable power generation market sector, the only two things keeping the main competition afloat, are a) the generous subsidies programs that fund not only R&D but also deployment and b) favourable market regulation rules that allow preemption of nuclear supply in favour of wind and solar when their fuel sources happen to show up.

    It seems to me that that drawing parallels between supersonic flight and nuclear fails in that while we can forego supersonic flight, we can’t do without orders of magnitude more clean, sustainable, and reliable power generation. So an interesting thought exercise but beyond that the comparison doesn’t tell us much. Yes smaller reactors will improve flexibility however larger reactors will also be in demand in larger demand centres. Yes load-following capability needs to be preserved and of course the main thing is that costs must be reduced. That in and of itself allows lower capacity factors i.e. lower revenue stream and with smaller yet cost-effective reactors, entry into micro-grid markets. But all that is known without studying the Concorde track record.


    • On your first point, I’m essentially comparing the “air transportation” and “electricity production” sectors – one way to transport people with planes is with supersonic planes – the Concorde was the only plane of this type that was commercially successful. In the same way, nuclear energy is one way to produce electricity, and while there are many types of reactors, most of this piece is focused on large light water reactors.

      The Air France Flight 4590 accident in 2000 resulted in 113 deaths, and afterwards, the Concorde fleet was grounded for over an entire year. It was one of the reasons that the Concorde was eventually taken out of service in 2003.

      I’d also disagree with your analysis of the price of renewables – there are certainly places where it’s cheaper (even without subsidies) to build wind than nuclear, so saying that the only things propping renewables up are subsidies and market regulations is not quite right. Subsidies definitely help though, as do renewables specific policies.

      To your last point, at this rate, the only way we will get to an electricity system that is clean, sustainable, and reliable is if it’s the cheapest option (or the correct incentives are put in place that make it the most economically efficient option). Said another way, I can definitely see a future where 30 years from now, most of the nuclear reactors operating in the US today are shut down, and are not replaced with new nuclear – that’s what I wanted to get at with the quote at the top of the piece. There is no guarantee that nuclear energy will be the dominant energy source of the future, and there is no guarantee that we don’t destroy the climate through global warming. We need to be learning all the lessons we can now, and try to figure out how to make nuclear more competitive for the future.


      • Intermittent Wind & Solar electricity generation is what it is unreliable. It will always be needing baseload support. This can be hydro if it is available, but even with extreme weather it is demonstrating to be a concern for energy security. Only clean new generation nuclear power can do the job 24/365 all year round. The Korean’s can build them, cost competitive, on budget and on time.


  2. “We need to be learning all the lessons we can now, and try to figure out how to make nuclear more competitive for the future.”

    Name two activities, each of which, at a typical site, deprives government of hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.


      • First, I meant to write, “deprives government of hundreds of thousands of dollars *per day*”.

        That said, I was hoping for two examples of such activity. Maybe there is one I haven’t thought of.


  3. In the 1940’s 1950’s and early 1960’s America was a cradle for nuclear innovation. It was when every other new reactor concept were tried and tested with enthusiasm. With this environment 2 schools of reactor design emerged : The Solid Fuel Reactor and The Fluid Fuel Reactor.

    The utilities and the equipment manufacturers liked the solid fuel reactors and the scientists (including Eugene Wigner, Alvin Weinberg, Edward Teller etc..) liked the efficient and cost effective fluid fuel reactors or Liquid Fission.

    We need to listen to scientists and engineers rather than corporations and we need to rerun the 1950’s and 1960’s fluid fuel reactor experiments, create the same environment of 1950’s and 1960’s in order to be innovative.

    One does not need to look into other industries for inspiration. The Nuclear establishment of 1950’s and 1960’s provides quite a great example about real nuclear innovation.


    • The Fluid Fuel Reactors are the only class of the reactors the America is ahead of every other country. But unfortunately no one in America (not even accidentally) mentions this class of reactors in their “innovation” essays/research reports. Americans ignore their greatest innovators and scientists like Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner by not mentioning them in their essay/report about “innovation”. Also, they forget the “New Piles Committee” which consisted of America’s greatest nuclear innovators.

      Click to access 2004-11-3.pdf

      How can they write essays and make policy discussions about “innovation” without mentioning these nuclear pioneers, and without mentioning the technologies involved in both the schools of reactor design that were invented in America?

      (Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner invented the concept of Fluid Fuel Reactors. Alvin Weinberg was a co-inventor of Light Water Reactor; however, he advocated for the Fluid Fuel Reactors.)

      Gas cooled reactors – British are ahead.
      High Neutron economy/fuel efficient heavy water reactors – Canada is ahead.
      Reactors construction learning – Chinese and Koreans are ahead.
      Liquid metal cooled fast reactors – Russians are ahead.
      Gen 3+ LWRs – Russians are ahead.

      Submarine/Navy Reactors – Americans are ahead; but, it is not a civilian tech.
      Fluid fuel reactors – Americans are ahead, but unfortunately Americans do not acknowledge that they invented them!

      No mention of Molten Salt Reactors or fluid fuel reactors in many of “innovation” articles that I read recently!


      • Achalhp – maybe because they mostly have a European background. Edward Teller was a Hungarian theoretical physicist and is known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb
        Leo Szilard was a Hungarian physicist and inventor. He conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi. Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist, who created the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1. He has been called the “architect of the nuclear age” and the “architect of the atomic bomb”. Eugene Wigner was a Hungarian theoretical physicist, engineer and mathematician. A graduate of the Technical University of Berlin, Wigner worked as an assistant to Karl Weissenberg and Richard Becker at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, and David Hilbert at the University of Göttingen. The exception is Alvin Martin Weinberg was born in Chicago and educated in Chicago schools, attending the University of Chicago, earning BS, MS, and PhD degrees in physics. Ironically, his master’s thesis dealt with the infrared absorption spectrum of CO2, presaging his later efforts to warn of global warming. His PhD work in cell metabolism taught him about diffusion, which turned out to be applicable to neutron diffusion, of interest to the Manhattan Project, where he rubbed shoulders with physicists Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Arthur Compton, Eugene Wigner, and Enrico Fermi. Weinberg understood the potential of thorium as a nuclear fuel, and he preferred the thermal breeder with a slurry of thorium and uranium-233 particles in heavy water, actually built in the Netherlands in 1974. The liquid-fuel thorium thermal breeder idea dominated Weinberg’s thinking for many years and was thrilled with the success of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment that would lead to inexhaustible energy. But Weinberg’s dream was not to be achieved in his lifetime. The Oak Ridge work was stopped when President Nixon decided instead to fund work on the solid-fuel liquid-metal fast breeder reactor in California. Later Weinberg said “It was a successful technology that was dropped because it was too different from the main lines of reactor development.” Colleague Herbert MacPherson explained, “Political and technical support is too thin geographically. Oak Ridge is the only stakeholder.” Seeking “safe, clean and affordable nuclear energy technologies to combat climate change and underpin sustainable development for the world”, the London-based Weinberg Foundation’s “core objective is to rapidly re-catalyse the research, development and deployment of MSR’s first designed, built and proven by Alvin Weinberg”.

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  4. Two points: First, the need for profit is often condemned as some kind of evil capitalistic motivation. Of course it is nothing of the kind. Human enterprises consume resources to create products and services that humans need and/or want. An enterprise is not sustainable unless it produces ‘more’ than it consumes. Such inputs and outputs can only be compared when common units are used. Money is the common unit, financial accounting is the process by which they are compared. Profit means that the enterprise has created more than it has consumed. Societies that ignored this simple relationship (communist societies come to mind) eventually failed.
    Second, the Concorde and nuclear energy differ in one important way. Supersonic travel is a ‘want’, not a ‘need’. We can do OK without it though we probably cannot do without aircraft. As for energy there are many sources other than nuclear but nuclear may well be the only source that can fully provide low-carbon emission energy at the quantities advanced economies need. ‘May’, because the issue is contentious. But if it does turn out to be true then nuclear energy will be indispensable. That’s the difference.


  5. “They don’t exist unless they make money” is ThorCon’s approach to liquid fission power plants. Our design leads to low capital investment costs and produces electricity at 3 cents/kWh. The world is annually building 100 GW of new coal-fired power plants to satisfy the economic growth needs of the developing nations. ThorCon plans to steal this market from coal, attracting capital from investors who understand: they don’t exist unless they make money.

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