Home inFocus Agenda: America (Summer 2024) Nuclear Now?

Nuclear Now?

Mark P. Mills Summer 2024
The Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Rhea County, TN. (Photo: Alison Jones / DanitaDelimont)

There was remarkably little fanfare for the 70th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s December 8, 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations. Seven months before that anniversary, Time Magazine featured an essay headlined, “Nuclear Energy’s Moment Has Come,” by Charles Oppenheimer, grandson of the man who led the Manhattan Project. History, however, shows that scientists of Eisenhower’s era believed that moment had already arrived.

Only four years after Eisenhower’s speech, America’s first nuclear-electric generating plant was completed in Shippingport, PA. Just three years later, Illinois’s Dresden plant came online, the first to be privately funded. In 1962, President Kennedy asked the Atomic Energy Commission to take a “hard look” at the prospects for nuclear power. At that time, the nascent industry enjoyed broad bipartisan support, but even so, not everyone supported “taming the atom.”

Many will remember a 1970s mantra adopted by the global anti-nuclear movement, “split wood, not atoms,” On April 30, 1977, that slogan graced the placards of some 2,000 protesters who occupied the construction site for the planned Seabrook, NH nuclear station. That protest resulted in one of the largest mass arrests in US history. While protests and legal interventions failed to stop that plant’s completion, the resulting delays helped induce an 800 percent cost overrun for Seabrook. Similar tactics and consequential cost overruns became increasingly common.

Such protests were mounted across the country, often at epic scales. In 1978, Helen Caldicott, an Australian firebrand and physician, published Nuclear Madness, which served as a kind of new testament to the previous decade’s environmental bible, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Despite the confusing co-mingling of protests over nuclear energy and atomic weapons, nuclear construction continued apace.

Three Mile Island

Then, infamously, it all came to a crashing halt. On March 28, 1979, one of two nuclear reactors located at Three Mile Island (TMI) island on Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River suffered a meltdown.

Ironically, just weeks earlier, theaters were featuring a movie, The China Syndrome. That “B” movie, one of a spate of similar “disaster themed” movies then in vogue, was the perfect set-piece for credulous reporters. The movie, the protests and the media, made implicit and overt allusions to the possibility of an atomic-bomb-class explosion in the event of a nuclear “meltdown,” i.e., if a runaway chain reaction caused tons of uranium to superheat and melt through the steel containment vessel and continue to, ostensibly, unstoppably burrow into the earth; hence “China syndrome.”

Media coverage featured apocalyptic headlines and storylines, including “the day we almost lost Pennsylvania” in the cartoonish language of the movie’s engineers. Following that accident that captivated the world, polls found more Americans could identify, “Three Mile Island” than they could then-President Jimmy Carter.

Meanwhile, not a single human being was injured by that billion-dollar accident. Nor was an atomic-bomb-class explosion averted; it was never even a remote possibility because of the physics of nuclear reactors.

The commercial nuclear industry immediately mounted major campaigns to combat “fake news” and growing protests. Despite those efforts, public opposition soared, construction programs slowed, and every planned reactor order was cancelled.


Then, on April 26, 1986, a Russian nuclear power plant suffered a catastrophic accident. Unlike TMI, tragically nearly three dozen employees died, and a highly radioactive plume spewed into the atmosphere leading to detectable contamination as far downwind as Sweden. That Russian design was inherently unsafe (unlike the coda of “inherently safe” for Western designs). It also lacked the massive, concrete containment dome standard for all Western reactors. But such facts mattered not a whit to the alarmists.


The third accident that ended prospects for a vibrant nuclear industry, followed the tsunami on March 3, 2011, that overwhelmed the inadequate sea wall at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site. It was predictable, and predicted that no workplace or public injury would result from that accident itself. Those that occurred came from ill-advised mass evacuations. But global nuclear construction slowed or stopped. Several European nations shut down all operating reactors.

Thus, for 30 years, the number of operating global nuclear reactors has remained largely unchanged, and in the US just three new plants have been built. The split-wood activists got their wish. Today, all the world’s nuclear power plants combined supply less than half as much global energy as does burning wood.

This history of the rise and fall of “atoms for peace” is particularly relevant today, as we supposedly face the moment of a nuclear resurrection.


In the past year or so, numerous countries have announced plans to revive commercial nuclear programs, while several US states have rescinded statutory bans. The secretary of energy recently proclaimed that America needs to triple its nuclear fleet. France’s president pledged to double theirs. Japan is restarting its shut down plants. Meanwhile Silicon Valley potentates are rushing to fund startups featuring designs for tiny nuclear plants.

Even some in Hollywood, which played a pivotal role in the demise of the nuclear industry, has called for a resurgence, including a June 2023 pro-nuclear documentary from Oliver Stone, Nuclear Now, chronicling the “rise of the anti-nuclear movement.” Ironically, Michael Douglas, who directed The China Syndrome, recently said, “I have to say I changed my mind.”

Why the change? One could invoke an aphorism from Philip K. Dick, whose science fiction has inspired several Hollywood movies: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

One reality is that technological progress always leads to more electricity demand. The past couple of decades of flat electricity growth was an interregnum, not a new normal. American utilities now report expected near-term demands will vastly exceed plans for new supplies. Part of that comes from bipartisan efforts to “reshore” manufacturing, especially for computer chips, hatched without thinking about the power needed. Every $1 billion of new chip factories brings about $30 million a year in new electricity demand.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in factory spending are coming. Add to this, the implications of more electric vehicles (EVs). Every $1 billion of EVs put on roads adds about $20 million in annual electricity demand. And then there’s the epiphany that all things digital use electricity, especially artificial intelligence (AI). Roughly every $1 billion in new datacenters brings about $60 million a year in electricity demand; that demand doubles or triples if AI is used.


Second, the illusion that wind and solar energy can meet the scale of growth in today’s electricity demands has been shattered. To meet the scale of demand for reliable power, utility executives are petitioning the government to postpone plans to force the shutdown of any conventional power plants, including coal. Even stalwart champions of an “energy transition” are calling for more “dispatchable” power. “Dispatchable” simply means a power plant delivers electricity when customers’ need it, not when nature makes it available. (The fiction that batteries can solve that problem is a non-starter in the real world.)


The third reality is the (re)discovery that security and geopolitical factors matter. Despite subsidies and exhortations, China remains the primary upstream supplier of materials used to build all things “green” (wind, solar, batteries) with a market dominance that is double OPEC’s share of world oil markets. And we should expect analysts will discover that sprawling acres of wind or solar hardware are not only easy targets for potential enemy military forces but are also vulnerable to nature’s predations.

Nuclear Benefits

Nuclear power plants require comparatively trivial use of real estate and can operate continuously regardless of supply-chain disruptions caused by natural, or non-natural, disasters. No other power system can store, on-site, years of fuel supply.

Nuclear’s operational security derives from the under-appreciated energy density of nuclear phenomena. In energy-per-pound terms, nuclear fuel offers a theoretical potential one million-fold greater than hydrocarbons, and 100 million-fold over lithium chemistry, the latter being essential to convert episodic solar/wind into reliable power. Today’s nuclear technology can, so far, “only” realize a one-thousand-fold energy density advantage over petroleum (and a million-fold over solar/batteries).

Lise Meitner

Discovery of the physics of fission stands in history as consequential as Sadi Carnot’s century earlier framing the Laws of Thermodynamics. But it bears noting a name often missing from history, Jewish physicist Lise Meitner, who should have been at least co-awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in physics. While records credit Meitner as one of the research scientists working alongside Otto Hahn (who got the Nobel) and Fritz Strassmann, both chemists, it was Meitner who first published the correct theoretical interpretation in 1938, before she fled Nazi Germany. Nobel Committee records, now public, reveal they had debated including her. (One might imagine why she was left out.)

The Early Rush

The realization of the astonishing physics of E = mc2 is what inspired the wild rush in the 1950s in the first place, and not just for big power plants, but also nuclear-powered planes, trains, automobiles, ships, and spaceships.

Enthusiasms weren’t mere musings of futurists (though the Ford Nucleon car design was affirmatively silly). The US Air Force spent over $1 billion designing and prototyping a nuclear airplane, including ground testing in 1956 a GE-built ultra-compact 2.5 MW molten-salt reactor. (President Kennedy cancelled the program.) Also built in 1959, a 600-foot, 60-passenger, $600 million (today’s dollars) commercial nuclear ship, the NS Savannah (still afloat at a Baltimore, MD, pier). In those heady days, designs were drawn up for nuclear locomotives and a rocket program which ran from 1959 to 1973 entailing 20 different nuclear engines, some nearly as powerful as the chemical ones later used for the space shuttle. Tiny reactors for high-power satellites were launched into orbit both by the US and the USSR. NASA’s nuclear programs continue to this day. (The reality is, Elon Musk’s hyperbole aside, Mars missions will need a nuclear rocket.)

In 1954, the US Army deployed seven micro-nukes with electrical output of 1 to 10 MW that operated (some for a decade) in places such as Greenland, the Panama Canal Zone, Antarctica, and Wyoming. Now, a 2018 Army analysis imagines re-animating that program with up to one hundred micro-scale reactors.

Patience, Please

This history contains a lesson for today’s nuclear aspirations: in a word, patience. Foundationally new technologies take time. The advent of nuclear fission was arguably as foundational as internal combustion, realized first as the steam engine that vaulted civilization into the industrial revolution. But that took a century.

Steam engine technology involved a long march of continual engineering advances from Newcomen’s first invention, circa 1710, to the 1760 arrival of the Watt engine, followed by another five decades to the steam-age apotheosis in the mid-1800s. Steam’s successor, Rudolph Diesel’s revolutionary 1893 patent, started a new era with a similar trajectory and ultimately didn’t replace steam, but supplemented the pantheon of energy-machine applications.

The reflex, that “this time it’s different,” is belied by reality: long timelines are an inherent feature of deploying all industrial-class technologies at scale. To continue the steam analogy, nuclear energy, now with decades of improvements in collateral materials and technologies, is at a pivot comparable to the arrival of Watt’s 1760 design superseding the 1,500 Newcomen engines built after its 1710 introduction. (What will be the nuclear equivalent to Rudolph Diesel’s disruption? Odds favor micro-nukes, not fusion.)


Today we have only two nuclear options: gigawatt-scale reactors we know how to build, and those we’d like to build, someday.

The world has built over 500 of the gigawatt-scale light-water reactors (440 are still operating, 93 in the US). The supply chain, safety record, and costs are well-established, even if the necessary materials and skills infrastructures have atrophied in the US. Meanwhile, over one-third of all nuclear plants under construction are in China; in the US, none. With political willpower, we can rekindle the American infrastructure—from mines and fuel fabrication through nuclear-qualified welders. While rekindling will take time, it can happen faster than the maturation of next-generation designs.

Odds are that amongst the amazing array of dozens of new designs for smaller nuclear reactors, all will work, technically. But none are yet built, and time is necessary to meet the non-trivial engineering challenges of manufacturing at scale and cost-effectively.

Meanwhile, the US faces a near-term shortfall of hundreds of gigawatts. Some of the latest hyperscale datacenter proposals each approach one gigawatt of demand.

Gigawatt-class light-water reactors have been built overseas in five to six years. When they become available, to match the output of the big nukes, we will need tens of thousands of the tiny, multi-megawatt-class reactors. It’s not unreasonable to believe that’s possible. Industry builds several thousand of the 10 to 50 megawatt-class (gas turbine) engines annually for aircraft, a task of comparable engineering complexity. But it took decades after inception for the latter industry to expand and mature. (As a practical matter, soaring near-term electricity demands will be met, mainly, with aeroderivative gas turbines, the technology that traces its lineage to the discovery of internal combustion.)

The energy bottom line is that even if the world completes all the nuclear plants now under construction and planned, burning wood will still be a bigger global source of energy.

And Impediments

A future with far more nuclear electricity requires policymakers to embrace more gigawatt-scale nukes while also ensuring today’s operating plants are not shut down. Chip factories and datacenters can’t run on dreams of future small reactors.

The next step also falls to policymakers, not engineers or financiers. Further regulatory reforms are needed to allow American firms to build at the velocity of Chinese firms. The challenges for nuclear energy’s future are political, not technical. We’ve known how to build nuclear at scale for a long time.

Similarly, regulatory tweaks can help accelerate the work engineers and investors do to prove out fascinating, even radical new kinds of small nuclear plants. Realizing the benefits from that will require patience—a rare political virtue. But it’s worth noting the reason America’s nuclear industry is in the doldrums now is precisely because of (bad) decisions made decades ago.

Finally, back to Hollywood: Anti-nuclear activism is wired into the “source code” of the environmental movement. It is naïve to assume that’s changed. For example, a recent NRDC report has already fired a warning shot across the bow, opposing any rush to revive nuclear. They aren’t alone.

As for those environmentalists proclaiming support for nuclear because it’s “carbon-free,” such support is focused on future plants we can’t build yet. States lifting nuclear bans have done so for tiny reactors that don’t exist.

There’s a history to that. In 1962, the Audubon Society opposed the proposed Storm King Mountain hydro dam on the Hudson River, promoting instead a gigawatt-class nuclear plant, Indian Point. Activists eventually succeeded in getting that plant prematurely shut down in 2021.

History, as they say, often rhymes.

Mark Mills is a physicist and Executive Director of the National Center for Energy Analytics. Early in Mills’ career, he spent the week of the accident at the site of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.