Elon wins, Zubrin wrong

I recently promoted Robert Zubrin’s critique of the Space X plans for settling Mars. I am now convinced I was wrong.

Zubrin attacks the Space X plan in the video below and this article from New Atlantis. But after a fascinating conversation over at Reddit I am now convinced that Elon’s plan has the most robust mission parameters for the best price.

Zubrin sounds convincing. After all, he’s been in this game for decades, and has thought deeply about how to get some astronauts on the surface of Mars as cheaply as possible. At first I was taken in by some of his arguments. The main one concerns accommodation. From New Atlantis:

7. The sending of a large habitat on a roundtrip from Earth to Mars and back. This, too, is a very bad idea, because the habitat will get to be used only one way, once every four years. If we are building a Mars base or colonizing Mars, any large habitat sent to the planet’s surface should stay there so the colonists can use it for living quarters. Going to great expense to send a habitat to Mars only to return it to Earth empty makes no sense. Mars needs houses.

This initially won me over. Of course Mars needs houses! How stupid, flying houses all the way to Mars only to fly them all the way back to Earth again! But that image is too simplistic. Imagine workers on the early American railways building the first railway from New York to California, and they steam the first locomotive into California only to lift the expensive train carriages off the railway and then try and re-customise the carriages for permanent housing! Zubrin’s attack is that silly. The Space-X rocket, including the crew quarters, is over-engineered to be robust and re-used, many times, to bring the individual ticket price down. Imagine how slow movement to California would have been if passengers had to buy a new, single-use train carriage every time they moved there! Instead, we should load the train (or Elon’s great big rocket) with passengers and tools to build habitats out of the local materials once they get there. There are many plans for this. We can build better homes out of local materials without sacrificing the ship that got us there. Maybe the very first ship will be a completely unmanned supply rocket to dump tools and nuclear reactors and materials on the surface. Droids might drive around and film everything and confirm it is all operational, and an operational base could be installed before anyone even arrives! Or maybe they’ll have a few brave pioneers along to test the equipment and plug things together and get that first base up and running, and maybe even start growing their first salads and food before everyone else arrives on the next ship! They’ll have a few years before the first ship is due to return.  That’s ample time to use the ship as a base until they’ve actually assembled their first habitat.

The second ship will be full of people and materials all ready to move into their new accommodations. Again, the second ship will have 2 years before it is due to return, and it can be used for accommodation during that time. A lot can be achieved in 2 years, given enough good tools and materials and motivation (like surviving there!)

However those first few ships work, the basic point is this. Once the first settlers are there with enough tools, it would be madness to turn an over-engineered, over-expensive rocket-ship’s crew habitat into permanent ground living. It would drive up the whole cost of getting to Mars in the first place, and could  limit innovations in habitat design they might see as important. The first settlers will be constantly building and expanding their base. They’ll probably be desperate for new companions, let alone new seeds and foods and flavours that new company will bring with them! I mean, have you really counted everything you would need on Mars to make a really good pizza? 😉 When settling a new planet, you do not maroon the space-railroad that got you there. Instead, you drive the ticket price down and give the settlers all the tools they need. Mars needs houses, but it also needs people to build them! A first unmanned supply ship and second ship full of more tools and food and some settlers should do the job, and then the interplanetary ‘railway’ is established!

8. Quick trips to Mars. If we accept the optimistic estimates that Musk offered during his presentation, the SpaceX system would be capable of 115-day (average) one-way trips from Earth to Mars, a somewhat faster journey than other proposed mission architectures. But the speedier trips impose a great cost on payload capability. And they raise the price tag, thereby undermining the architecture’s professed purpose — colonizing Mars — since the primary requirement for colonization is to reduce cost sufficiently to make emigration affordable. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Following the example of colonial America, let’s pick as the affordability criterion the property liquidation of a middle-class household, or seven years’ pay for a working man (say about $300,000 in today’s equivalent terms), a criterion with which Musk roughly concurs. Most middle-class householders would prefer to get to Mars in six months at the cost equivalent to one house instead of getting to Mars in four months at a cost equivalent to three houses. For immigrants, who will spend the rest of their lives on Mars, or even explorers who would spend 2.5 years on a round trip, the advantage of reaching Mars one-way in four months instead of six months is negligible — and if shaving off two months would require a reduction in payload, meaning fewer provisions could be brought along, then the faster trip would be downright undesirable. Furthermore, the six-month transit is actually safer, because it is also the trajectory that loops back to Earth exactly two years after departure, so the Earth will be there to meet it. And trajectories involving faster flights to Mars will necessarily loop further out into space if the landing on Mars is aborted, and thus take longer than two years to get back to Earth’s orbit, making the free-return backup abort trajectory impossible. The claim that the SpaceX plan would be capable of 60-day (let alone 30-day) one-way transits to Mars is not credible. 

Here I’ll just quote Helt-Texas,


Does it cost more fuel? Of course. Does that extra fuel cut into the available space for the crew? Sure, but

  1. We’re already talking about a craft designed to hold a maximum of somewhere between 100 and 300 people.
  2. A longer duration means more food. The average human eats about 2 kg of food per day. If we assume a crew size of 100 people, increasing the duration from 80 days to 180 means 20 000 kg of extra foodstuff alone is needed. That’s equivalent to the mass of over 300 people (assuming a 62 kg average body mass). If we assume the crew size was already at 300, we’re talking about 60 000 kg of extra food. Since we can’t put greenhouses in these ships, all food consumed on the voyage must be carried from launch.
  3. Based on the above figures, every extra person you add to the 180 day journey will cost at least 422 kg (their body mass + food). This pays no mind to the extra amenities (water processing, air processing, cabin structure,) required for each person, nor the extra cargo each will require for surviving on Mars. This also pays no mind to the extra volume occupied by all the extra cargo. It’s not just a matter of mass, its a matter of space too. And lets not get into the heat considerations for extra people.
  4. As I linked above, Zubrin is wrong about there being a fourfold (not three) gain in payload capacity. The current ITS ship design is capable of delivering 200 000 kg of payload at its maximum speed. If you reduce its Δv (and therefore transit speed) to the lowest possible amount for getting to Mars from Earth, its capacity increases by 2.25 times (to about 450 000 kg). If you want, you can consult SpaceX’s Δv chart directly. He may argue the ITS could carry somewhat more after its engine capacity is decreased, but SpaceX hasn’t given us enough data to confidently talk about that. Remember, we’re talking about about SpaceX’s stuff. They’re the ones with the authoritative figures.
  5. Okay, we can count on at least an extra 250 000 kg of carrying capacity if SpaceX decided to listen to Zubrin. That’s not as much as he said, but it’s still double. How far does that get us? It’s safe to assume at least 50 comes off the top, just to feed the original crew compliment for the extra 100 days. That leaves us with around 200 000 kg of extra capacity. Since each extra 2 people would cost about 1000 kg, we have a theoretical maximum of 400 extra people. But many other life support considerations will also increase mass requirement per person (thus lowering the number of extra crewmembers who can come). And, most importantly there’s the aforementioned space considerations. The ITS ship was originally designed to hold 100 people. SpaceX later decided it could hold as many as 300. Where exactly would hundreds of extra crewmembers go? A few dozen extra people could definitely fit, but there will come a point when we just have a lot of people packed into tin can like cattle.
  6. Getting people out of interplanetary space as quickly as possible isn’t a frivolous thing to spend fuel on. We don’t know how much protection the fuel tank will provide during a solar storm.

Long story short, you’re focusing on the tyranny of the rocket equation but ignoring the tyranny of the life support equation. The extra requirements for more people very quickly negates a ship’s ability to carry more people. SpaceX could redesign the ITS concept based on Zubrin’s suggestions, but they’d be going through a lot of trouble just to make the Earth to Mars voyage much less comfortable.







Eclipse back. Lastly, Zubrin attacks Elon for wanting to build a Big Friggin’ Rocket that looks like something out of retro-futurism? If it works… build it! If you build it, they will come. The settlers. The future Martians. And if it just so happens to look like something out of an old Buck Rogers sci-fi, all the better!

There are more great discussions about everything Mars over at the Mars Reddit. If interested, please join in!

After placing this image, it must be time to go and watch the Space X Mars promo again, see below.








Ahhh, that’s better!


Posted in Mars, Space | Leave a comment

Australia adds 49 species to threatened list

The Guardian reports that Australia has added 49 species as threatened, 9 of which are *critical*. Again it’s habitat loss. Again we see the need for a ban on suburban sprawl, fast adoption of comprehensive conservation laws protecting habitats, and immediate adoption of job creating tree farms.
>Most of the species were threatened due to habitat loss, he said – and commercial activities that contributed to this were ongoing, compounding the problem of inadequate funding.
“What hope is there? … The logging continues, the habitat loss continues – it’s no surprise that the species ends up on the threatened species list.”


Posted in Biodiversity loss | Leave a comment

How low is Trump’s IQ?

Wow, Trump can’t bother to even ask his advisors how NATO works before insulting the leader of an important ally with a ‘bill’. If this is how he treats his allies in a routine diplomatic visit, how is the guy going to respond in a real crisis with an antagonist? The guy is seriously deluded and dangerous. As The Guardian reports, the American representative to NATO says…

‘That’s not how it works’


Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

This is my kind of solar!

Hi all,

I normally diagnose a fast build out of nuclear power, eventually scaling this up to GenIV breeder reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor or eventually the ultimate waste-eating reactor, the Molten Salt Reactor. (The IFR is a GREAT and very safe reactor, but the MSR has passive safety systems that I personally think are even better. EG: No liquid sodium).

But I mentioned solar? Well, this is a futuristic scenario about automation on the moon, and a series of these around the moon could provide a lot of the power they need constructed from local materials. They could also build nuclear, but if automated robots are building this, then it may be easier for them to build a number of these solar towers around the moon and overcome the fortnight night-time that way. But the best bit? Build the solar concentrators in impact craters, and they get the inwards curvature for free.


Just whack this…



In one of these…


Again, this is assuming an almost post-scarcity economy with far more sophisticated robot-labour practically for free. In today’s economy, renewables are not going to do the job here on earth, not unless something radical changes in energy storage technology. But in the future? Maybe with a lunar moon robot industry with an output a million times America’s economy today,  maybe we’ll have the sheer robot-labour to build space-based solar power systems that beam microwaves back to receiving stations on earth and get all our power from the sun. Who knows? That’s for our grandchildren and great grandchildren to decide.


Posted in Nuclear, Renewable energy, Space, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Robot cars as child rescuers?

Robot car function I just thought of: will a little kid, lost in suburbia without adults around, be able to walk up to a public robot-car and say, “I’m lost, help me!” and that will trigger facial recognition software, access the parent’s emergency contacts and emergency account protocols, and the car will go into comfort mode, invite the kid in to give them somewhere safe to sit while the car facilitates Skype calls to the parents, calls the local police , etc.  The parents comfort the kid while they approach the car in their own robot-cab.


Posted in Robot Cars | 2 Comments

Free speech not a big priority for doomers

It doesn’t take long to get banned from doomer websites. They tend to quickly recycle tired old myths to people like myself that quote peer-reviewed research into nuclear power, affordable synthetic diesel, and other matters. Then, before too long, your posts just don’t get accepted. Days later, and my post is still in the ‘awaiting moderation’ stage.

For example, Alice Friedman of the Energy Skeptic blog just posted a circular argument entitled:

Coal power plants depend on railroads to deliver coal

But, of course, my reply is still ‘awaiting moderation’, so I thought I would post it here!
Eclipse says:

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

Hi Alice,
again I think you’re making quite a few large assumptions and leaps.

“What’s interesting to me about this hearing is how vulnerable our system is due to this interdependency. If trains can’t deliver coal, then coal plants can’t make electricity, which would make it impossible to refuel trains (pumps are electric).”

That’s an enormous sweeping statement painting a very complex situation that requires tiny brushes to make out the detail, but you’ve simplified it all down with ceiling rollers wiping out all the details. I’ll explain why below.

“Climate change is likely to buckled rail (extreme heat), wash away tracks (extreme storms and flooding), leading to even more unreliable coal delivery.”

Yes, but it’s not like there’s just one rail system leading to one coal powerplant. There are multiple intersecting grids with multiple power sources. The grid generally has enough power back up for when a large 1 GW or 2 GW coal plant goes down, the rest of the grid picks up Gigawatts of power outage and takes over!

“Now natural gas and nuclear can still step in to keep the grid up,”

And don’t forget that many mines find their remote locations expensive to pipe power into, and are starting to find that even intermittent renewables can play a part out there, cutting the cost of diesel generators and only switching to diesel when it is an overcast day and the solar isn’t producing as much as it should. This is not necessarily ideal, but I’m just pointing out that there are multiple redundancies in a complex story that you appear to want to dumb down and over simplify.

“but as natural gas and uranium ores decrease,”

I can’t WAIT for natural gas to decrease so we stop burning the polluting stuff. But uranium ores decrease? Are you kidding me? There’s enough uranium in the world’s oceans to power a large civilisation for billions of years because it keeps getting topped up by erosion. It’s essentially ‘renewable’, especially if we use breeder reactors which get 60 to 90 times the energy out of the uranium.

“and up to half of nuclear power plants retire by 2030 with few new ones built,”

You’re assuming you know the future. China will mass produce breeder nukes cheaper than coal in just 6 years!

Do you *know*, for a fact, that the next decade/s will not see a rise in breeder reactor companies selling different reactors for around $1bn per gigawatt? Once they start coming off the line, they’ll start breeding all your waste up into higher and higher grades of reactor fuel. I’ve read some estimates that claim America’s nuclear waste will power you for 1000 years. But here’s Dr James Hansen:

“Both IFR and LFTR are 100-300 times more fuel efficient than LWRs. In addition to solving the nuclear waste problem, they can operate for several centuries using only uranium and thorium that has already been mined. Thus they eliminate the criticism that mining for nuclear fuel will use fossil fuels and add to the greenhouse effect.”

“the electric grid will grow increasingly fragile, until it isn’t always up most of the time.”

A conclusion that would seem to run against the evidence. There are not less ways of producing electricity, but far more as we move ahead. There are various solar and wind projects that can take the edge off afternoon ‘peaks’ in demand, and reliable baseload nukes keeping the baseload ‘mountain’ stable.

There are as many different ways of building a nuclear power plant as there are of building a house. There are fast reactors and thermal reactors, traditional light water reactors with once-through fuel cycles that can then feed breeder reactors, and dozens and dozens of varieties within each major category. The Russians have their BN-600 and BN-800 burning nuclear waste and gradually breeding it into more fuel to start up other reactors that can breed waste into fuel… and on and on it goes.

Posted in Doomer, nuclear power, Rail, trains, Transport | Leave a comment

Blargh! Nuclear industry in trouble

Straight from my email inbox comes this latest news from Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress:-

"Brace for impact."


The looming insolvency of Toshiba has set off a chain reaction of events that threatens the existence of nuclear power in the West:

— Britain’s plan to build six new nuclear plants — based on four different plant designs — in order to phase out coal by 2025 is now up in the air.

— Britain’s turmoil creates uncertainty for the French and Chinese nuclear industries — as well as for another Japanese company, Hitachi — that had won contracts to build other British plants.

— In response to Toshiba’s failings, one of India’s leading nuclear policy experts is calling for the government to scrap existing plans with Areva, Westinghouse and Russia’s Rosatom, and “Make Nuclear Indian Again” by scaling up the country’s indigenous design.

— On Wednesday Mitsubishi’s CEO told the Financial Times that the company is not considering a merger with Toshiba. The reason? Toshiba’s nuclear design “is a totally different technology” from Mitsubishi’s.

— A proposal by Southern Company to build a third nuclear plant based on Toshiba’s Westinghouse AP1000 design in Georgia is increasingly unlikely.

The Japanese and French governments will be compelled to act for economic reasons — their nuclear industries are too important to their economies to fail. The Japanese government has always played a strong role in shaping the direction of its industries, including nuclear, while the French nuclear industry is entirely government-controlled.

Even though it lacks its own nuclear industry, Britain is emerging as the strongest of the three nations because it has a significant number of planned nuclear plants that involve Japanese and French companies, and is a big player in a buyer’s market.

The new Conservative government of Theresa May has expressed more interest in industrial policy than prior Conservative governments, and has already begun talks with the Japanese government about the UK government coming in as an investor on two of its planned plants.

The question is whether anyone in the three governments will have the vision and strength to make the right choices. The right choices will be the most difficult ones because they will require standing up first to the nuclear industry and next to ideologues on the Left and the Right.

But crises bring opportunities and there are large ones for reformers within the industry and within governments to do what should have been done 40 years ago: standardize designs, reorganize and consolidate the industry, and implement a vision to scale up plants while bringing down costs.

But before doing any of that, policymakers and the public must understand why Toshiba and Areva failed.

Why Nuclear is Failing

1. Lack of Standardization and Scaling

“Everything you described in your article was true for nuclear plants built in the 1970s,” an industry veteran told me.

In my investigation, I described how Toshiba’s Westinghouse AP1000 design was radically new — it had never been tested and indeed wasn’t even complete before construction began.

And yet when it came time to build two of them in Georgia and South Carolina, all parties were afflicted with a kind of historical amnesia.

“No one involved seemed to fully appreciate just how difficult it would be to build new reactors, especially the AP1000 — a ‘first of a kind’ design,” reports the Financial Times.

It’s not unusual for big construction and manufacturing projects to go over time and budget.

Consider the San Francisco Bay Bridge. After an earthquake in 1989 caused part of it to collapse, California officials decided to replace the entire eastern span.

Construction started in 2002 and was supposed to cost $1.5 billion. The project was afflicted with challenges. In 2009, steel rods flew off the span and hit at least two cars. Faulty bolts were discovered. The problems delayed the opening by four years and cost $6.4 billion — four times more than what had been estimated.

Or consider the Boeing “Dreamliner” jet aircraft. The FOAK arrived three years late, in 2011. Immediately things went awry. Engines failed along with fuel pumps, computers and wings. Lithium batteries caught on fire. The problems were so bad that the Japanese government launched its own investigation.

Now consider that building a nuclear plant isn’t like building a bridge or a jet plane — it’s like building a bridge and a jet plane at the same time.

Except it’s not. It’s much harder than that.

The reason has to do with scale. Where Boeing is making 10 aircraft per month — allowing everyone involved to become more efficient and produce planes faster — it takes nuclear plant construction companies up to 10 years to build one plant.

Boeing knows the importance of standardization. The company is losing money on every Dreamliner it makes, and says it hopes to make money after selling 1,100 of them. Thus, when faced with a rash of problems in 2012, Boeing didn’t give up on the Dreamliner design — it fixed the problems.

The response from the nuclear industry to such problems would have been to invent yet another nuclear plant design complete with promises of greater safety and lower cost. And yet what makes nuclear plants safer and cheaper to build and operate is experience, not new designs.

What the constant switching of designs does is deprive the people who build, operate and regulate nuclear plants of the experience they need to become more efficient.

Why then does the industry keep doing it?

2. The War on Nuclear

To some extent, the 40-year obsession with innovative new designs is a consequence of an industry dominated by the engineers — the project architects — rather than by the construction firms.

But Boeing and Airbus are companies headed by engineers who don’t make the nuclear industry’s mistakes. Why?

The answer in part is that Boeing doesn’t have to deal with a powerful, $500 million annual lobby that does everything it can to deliberately make nuclear expensive.

NRDC, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, UCS, and myriad state and local groups have spent 50 years frightening the public with pseudo-science, suing utilities, subsidizing the competition, and winning regulations that do nothing for plant safety.

On the one hand, the nuclear industry responded brilliantly to these attacks. After the anti-nuclear movement landed a decisive blow against the industry in 1979, with the meltdown at Three Mile Island book-ended by the release of the hysterical film “China Syndrome” and “No Nukes” concerts, the industry got its act together.

Over the next 30 years the industry worked diligently to better train its workers and create a culture of safety that resulted in an extraordinary rise in plant efficiency from about 50 percent to over 90 percent today.

But the industry also responded by creating new and untested designs: Westinghouse’s AP1000 and Areva’s EPR.

The problem of serial design-switching is compounded by the vanishingly small number of nuclear plants being built. Just 60 plants total are currently under construction — most of different designs.

The Koreans, by contrast, prioritized efficient construction over innovative new designs, and are now leading the global competition to build new nuclear plants.

3. Too much focus on machines, too little on human beings

Areva, Toshiba-Westinghouse and others claimed their new designs would be safer and thus, at least eventually, cheaper, but there were always strong reasons to doubt such claims.

First, what is proven to make nuclear plants safer is experience, not new designs. Human factors swamp design.

The same is true of aircrafts. What made air travel safe was many decades of training and experience by pilots, air traffic controllers, and regulators — not radically different jet plane designs.

In fact, new designs risk depriving managers and workers the experience they need to operate plants more safely, just as it deprives construction companies the experience they need to build plants more rapidly.

While Boeing has touted the Dreamliner as a kind of breakthrough, it was an incremental improvement on the same jet planes we’ve been flying on since the 1950s, and did little to change the procedures of pilots and flight attendants.

To be sure, continuous improvement of jet plane technologies has contributed to making flying safer than ever.

But the key factors were executive-level commitment to risk reduction, a company-wide safety culture, better emergency trainings, inspections and accident investigations.

Second, how do you make a technology that almost never harms anybody any safer than it already is?

Fossil fuels operating normally kill far more people than nuclear plants do when they malfunction.

And given such tiny health impacts, it’s simply not clear that making plants any safer is actually possible. Long time horizons and small sample sizes will likely make it impossible to ever know — scientifically — that newer plant designs are safer.

Advocates of new designs, including the EPR and AP1000, will acknowledge this point, but point to their enhanced safety, such as the EPR’s double containment dome, the AP1000’s back-up water system, or meltdown-proof fuel-coolant mixtures.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already ruled that all new nuclear plants will be subject to the Aircraft Rule and thus require containment domes.

And containment domes are not as large of an expense as is sometimes suggested. A 2012 Black and Veatch study estimated that for the AP1000 the reactor island was just 13 percent of total plant costs. And the reactor island’s actual share of costs would be lower given the $10 billion in cost overruns of the two US AP1000s.

The key takeaway from the Toshiba and Areva debacles is that the cost overruns due to construction delays from building a highly regulated FOAK nuclear plant swamp any savings from modestly smaller amounts of necessary equipment.

Finally, the overwhelming amount of harm caused by accidents are due to fear and panic, not radiation exposure.

What made Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima the three worst nuclear accidents wasn’t the radiation released. The fire at an innovative gas-cooled reactor in Windscale, England, in 1957, and the partial meltdown of a sodium-cooled reactor near Detroit in 1966, were both far worse than Three Mile Island.

What made the more famous accidents harmful was how local and federal governments panicked and triggered dangerous over-evacuations. What they should have done was told local residents to simply “shelter in place” — as is done for things like tornadoes — until the accident was dealt with.

Contrast that to the handling of jet plane accidents.

Passengers on Sully's flight brace for impact by sheltering in place.


In the recent film “Sully,” based on a real event, an Airbus 320 loses both of its engines to bird strikes in just five minutes. With all power gone, the pilot has seconds to act. Can he make it back to La Guardia airport in New York? Or should he attempt a water landing in the Hudson river?

Captain Sully chooses the latter. He tersely announces, “Brace for impact,” at which point the flight attendants in unison begin a kind of creepy, hypnotic chant: “Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down! Brace! Brace!…”

The passengers comply. They are frightened, and some scream, but they stay seated. They tuck their heads and some put hands on the seat in front of them. In other words, they shelter in place.

And everyone survives.


How to Save Nuclear

1. Consolidate or Die

Only two companies make large-bodied jet planes: Boeing and Airbus.

Large, complicated projects like building a jet plane or a nuclear plant require very large, upfront investments that only large, well-capitalized entities can back — like an electric utility, or Boeing, which invested $32 billion making the Dreamliner.

If nuclear is going to survive in the West, it needs a single, large firm — the equivalent of a Boeing or Airbus — to compete against the Koreans, Chinese and Russians.

There will never be as many nuclear plants as jet planes, especially not during a time of low overall demand for electricity. As such, economies of scale must be achieved more rapidly.

One of the keys is making both construction and operation as efficient as possible.

Many of the big global nuclear players offer to build and operate the plants. That’s what the Korean company, KEPCO,  has done in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The four-reactor nuclear plant KEPCO is building is in UAE on-time and appears to be on-budget. In January, the UAE awarded KEPCIO with a 60-year, near-$50 billion contract to operate and maintain the plants it built.

I was told by someone in the industry that KEPCO treated the construction part of the work as a loss-leader in order to get the more lucrative operation, maintenance and refueling contract — and perhaps to advertise its construction prowess to other nations.

The Airbus of nuclear should be run by someone with significant experience in nuclear plant construction — since that’s where the cost savings (and overruns) come from — not engineering.

To some extent, consolidation is already happening. In 2006, Toshiba bought Westinghouse and Mitsubishi partnered with Areva, while in 2007, Hitachi partnered with the GE nuclear division.

Toshiba recently bought the construction firm hired to build the AP-1000 Vogtle plant, but with the latter deal, the consolidation came too late. It was done in response to, not in anticipation of, future construction and manufacturing delays.

Of course, consolidation on its own is not enough, as Areva learned. There must also be standardization, scaling and social acceptance. Consolidation is essential to achieve the repetitions required for cost reductions. And a planned scaling-up of nuclear is the key to achieving those repetitions.

2. Standardize or Die

First, the new Boeing or Airbus of nuclear should build a single design. Standard-setting is a traditional role of government, and in the past has been a huge aid in helping industries consolidate, grow and achieve continuous improvement.

The UK has key role to play here. The heterogeneity of its planned reactors is astonishing:

  • AP1000 x 3 for Moorside
  • EPR x 2 for Hinkley Point C, EPR x 2 for Sizewell C
  • Hitachi ABWR x 2 for Wylfa Newydd, ABWR x 2 for Oldbury B
  • Hualong-1 x 2 for Bradwell

The UK should scrap all existing plans and start from a blank piece of paper. All new UK nuclear plants should be of the same design.

Second, the criteria for choosing the design should emphasize experience in construction and operation, since that is the key factor for lowering costs.

Reprocessing waste should be off the table. It is unnecessary and adds to the costs.

Some emphasis should also be on mass-manufacturing modules, something the Koreans are also pursuing.

But what both Toshiba and Areva failures underscore is that all new nuclear plants, however much they are going to be manufactured, are going to require construction according to the exacting standards of strict regulators, and it was that kind of construction that helped destroy not just one but two of the world’s largest nuclear companies.

Third, the plants should be constructed sequentially so that managers and workers in Airbus Nuclear can learn from experience.

Fourth, the firm should have strong financial incentives for reducing costs.

Fifth, the program should include a significant increase in funding to test alternative reactors.

The record here is clear: governments only invest significantly in demonstrating new nuclear reactor types when their nations are building new nuclear plants. And with good reason: people believe there is a future for nuclear.

It works the same way in reverse. Long before they had achieved their goal of shutting down existing plants, anti-nuclear activists avidly sought to cut funding for nuclear innovation. They won a big victory in 1982 when Congress cut funding for the Clinch River fuel processing project. And they won another in 1993 when Congress cut funding for the integral fast reactor.

Funding for the experimental molten salt reactor developed at Oak Ridge in the late 1960s was cut before it could ever become a test reactor. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission estimated that building one would cost $10 billion (in 2016 dollars), and noted that past tests usually cost twice what had been estimated.

A long-term, global build-out of standardized nuclear plants is the only way in which states will invest the billions needed to test radically different designs.

3. Scale or Die

What’s behind the crisis facing nuclear generally and Toshiba in particular is the utter lack of certainty about any future nuclear plant builds — including those under construction.

Nations must work together to develop a long-term plan for new nuclear plant construction to achieve economies of scale. Such a plan would allow for certainty, learning-by-doing, cost declines and lower financing costs.

Risk and rewards should be pooled. Cost savings achieved through experience should be shared along with the cost overruns of the first few plants.

Governments should invest directly or provide low-cost loans. While this will inevitably be decried by anti-nuclear groups, the truth is that the U.S. and Europe have been subsidizing wind and solar for decades. In Illinois and California, subsidies for wind and solar have played a key role in threatening nuclear plants with premature closure, undermining clean air and climate goals.

Some basic fairness is in order. This starts with investment and financing as well as support for nuclear plants at risk of premature closure due to our discriminatory subsidy regime.

Others might wonder why nuclear energy should be supported when Boeing and Airbus flourished without government help. But the truth is that they didn’t: last year the World Trade Organization says Boeing and Airbus received billions in government subsidies — up to $22 billion worth for Airbus alone.

UK Labor leaders have already called for direct government investment to save the plants:

“The delay we’re seeing under the Tories is leaving thousands of nuclear workers uncertain about their future,” the shadow Labor secretary said on Wednesday. “Public investment in nuclear energy would bring huge benefits through the nuclear supply chain and energy security.”

Plus, financing is the key to opening up the global market — something that is in the entire industry’s interest.

Vietnam recently cancelled plans to build nuclear plants and is now planning to build coal plants instead. Someone close to the situation told me that had foreign nations financed the nuclear plants, they would have gone forward.

And the quantities of financing — not development aid — are trivial considering the potential benefits to nuclear supplier nations, especially when the financing is spread out over 30 years and is shared by UK, Japan, France and the United States.

And such financing would offer a decisive advantage to the Airbus of nuclear over its competitors, allowing it to win contracts and provide the certainty everyone in the industry needs.

For such an effort to work, it would need widespread support that lasts for many decades. That will require that national governments work together to increase public demand and social acceptance of nuclear. Toshiba and Areva show that declining social acceptance drives demand for unnecessary regulations, as well as the industry’s constant changing of designs.

Japan’s nuclear industry cannot survive so long as public opposition is preventing the restarting of shuttered nuclear plants.

The Japanese government and industry leaders must overcome their shame and seek help from allied nations in overcoming the public’s continuing radiophobia in response to Fukushima.

What’s needed is an independent, serious and sustained effort by health and medical professionals to help Japanese and other publics to overcome fears based on grossly unscientific information.

France, Canada and most recently Vietnam all show that this can be done.

And as an analogy, there is much more to be learned from efforts to increase support for vaccinations among skittish parents. There is an aggressive and effective effort to educate the public about vaccines that, for the most part, still works. In response to a recent measles outbreaks, for example, California started requiring students be vaccinated to attend public schools.

If millions of parents will inject their children with the polio virus because they understand that it is a weakened version of the one that cripples and kills, they are capable of understanding that nuclear plants are the safest and cleanest way to make electricity.

The truth is that human beings around the world have been victimized by fake news about nuclear power since the late 1960s. When most people learn the basic facts about nuclear they become far more supportive of it.

And yet neither governments nor industry have ever, in the 50 years of nuclear energy, made a serious effort to provide those facts.

What that means is that there is enormous potential to touch hearts and change minds, just as many of ours were upon learning why nuclear is essential to mitigating climate change.

Now Change

The crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West also offers an opportunity for a new life.

When you consider that the nuclear industry has for 40 years often done the exact opposite of what’s known to work, it’s a small miracle that nuclear is still 11 percent of global electricity, instead of zero.

Everything that’s wrong — the proliferation of designs, the delay in project starts, efficient Korean competitors, low demand, low social acceptance — is something that can be made right.

We can learn from the Koreans. We can standardize design. We can finance the necessary scale. We can go back to Vietnam with a better deal. And we can increase public acceptance.

Policymakers have a special role to play. They must seek out reformers and change agents within an industry that is dominated by the same kind of thinking that led to today’s crisis. They must reach out to their counterparts in other nations. And they must stand up to ideologues peddling pseudo-science on the Left and pseudo-economics on the Right.

Ultimately new leadership with a new vision and plan must emerge from within the nuclear industry. Toshiba has seen a succession of leaders pitching what is fundamentally the same approach. It’s not clear that Areva has yet learned the lessons from its EPR debacle, or whether anyone has really started to clean house.

But, happily, Toshiba and Areva are not the only two companies capable of exercising the leadership required to save the world’s most important environmental technology from being consigned to the long-term waste repository of history.

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