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.