You are here

The 'advanced' nuclear power sector is dystopian

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

"Any plant you haven't built yet is always more efficient than the one you have built. This is obvious. They are all efficient when you haven't done anything on them, in the talking stage. Then they are all efficient, they are all cheap. They are all easy to build, and none have any problems." ‒ Admiral Hyman Rickover (who played a leading role in the development of the US nuclear industry), Congressional testimony, 1957.

The 'advanced' nuclear sector ‒ comprising pretty much everything except large conventional reactors ‒ isn't 'advanced' and it isn't advancing. The next advanced reactor to commence operation will be Russia's floating nuclear power plant, designed to help exploit fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic1 ‒ fossil fuel reserves that are more accessible because of climate change. That isn't advanced ‒ it is dystopian.

Russia's enthusiastic pursuit of nuclear-powered icebreaker ships (nine such ships are planned by 2035) is closely connected to its agenda of establishing military and economic control of the Northern Sea Route ‒ a route that owes its existence to climate change.2

The deputy director of China's State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said in 2017 that China will prioritize the development of floating nuclear power plants in order to support its offshore oil and gas activities, and its presence in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.3 China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) says the purpose of its partly-built ACPR50S demonstration reactor is to develop floating nuclear power plants for oilfield exploitation in the Bohai Sea and deep-water oil and gas development in the South China Sea.4

State-owned China National Nuclear Power Co. said that a joint venture announced in August 2017 will seek to strengthen China's nuclear power capabilities in line with its ambitions to "become a strong maritime power".3 As many as 20 floating nuclear power plants are planned.3

Further, floating nuclear plants could provide power for artificial islands in the South China Sea that were built to project military power in the region.3 Thus floating nuclear power plants become embroiled in the ongoing international controversy over China's artificial islands and might be in the firing line if, for example, a US "freedom of navigation operation" turns into a freedom of navigation shooting battle. Carlyle Thayer from the Australian Defense Force Academy said the floating nuclear plants would "raise the cost of the conflict" in the region because of the potential release of radioactive materials from a damaged floating nuclear plant.3 Military assets on artificial islands will be used to protect floating nuclear power plant/s.3

The floating nuclear power programs of China and Russia, along with their nuclear-powered icebreaker programs, are advancing fossil fuel mining and the projection of military and geopolitical power in support of those operations.

Small reactors might advance Canada's greenhouse emissions ‒ one potential application is providing power and heat for the extraction of hydrocarbons from oil sands.5 (That said, costs and other factors make it unlikely that reactors will be deployed for oil sand mining.)

Fusion could provide another example of 'advanced' nuclear advancing climate change. In 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a detailed critique of fusion power written by fusion scientist Dr. Daniel Jassby, a former principal research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.6,7 Dr. Jassby says that the "massive energy investment" to half-build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France "has been largely provided by fossil fuels, leaving an unfathomably large 'carbon footprint' for site preparation and construction of all the supporting facilities, as well as the reactor itself."7 ITER is a test reactor and will never generate electricity ‒ so the energy investment and carbon debt will never be repaid.

Dr. Jassby's description of ITER borders on the dystopian:7

"ITER will be, manifestly, a havoc-wreaking neutron source fueled by tritium produced in fission reactors, powered by hundreds of megawatts of electricity from the regional electric grid, and demanding unprecedented cooling water resources. Neutron damage will be intensified while the other characteristics will endure in any subsequent fusion reactor that attempts to generate enough electricity to exceed all the energy sinks identified herein. When confronted by this reality, even the most starry-eyed energy planners may abandon fusion."

Nuclear's greatest potential contribution to climate change would be through the displacement of technologies (esp. renewables) and programs (esp. energy efficiency) that can make a greater, faster, cheaper contribution to climate change abatement. The latest Lazard report on levelized costs of electricity finds that nuclear (US$118–192 per megawatt-hour) is more uncompetitive than ever compared to utility-scale solar ($32–42/MWh) and onshore wind ($28–54/MWh).8

Advanced nuclear will likely make the economic problem worse. A 2015 article by the International Energy Agency and the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency states that "generation IV technologies aim to be at least as competitive as generation III technologies ... though the additional complexity of these designs, the need to develop a specific supply chain for these reactors and the development of the associated fuel cycles will make this a challenging task."9

Amory Lovins comments on the endless clamor for ever-greater subsidies to rescue nuclear power from economic oblivion:10

"Such anti-market monkeybusiness cannot indefinitely forestall the victory of cheaper competitors, but it can delay and diminish climate protection while transferring tens of billions of unearned dollars from taxpayers and customers to nuclear owners. That would save less carbon, more slowly, than letting the best buys win, yet some politicians fervently favoring climate protection mistakenly endorse it, and most journalists reinforce their misconception."

Nuclear waste

Some 'advanced' reactors could theoretically consume more nuclear waste than they produce. That sounds great ‒ until you dig into the detail.

An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, co-authored by Lindsay Krall and Prof. Allison Macfarlane (a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission), states that "molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors – due to the unusual chemical compositions of their fuels – will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues."11

A separate, less technical article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ‒ also co-authored by Prof. Macfarlane ‒ explains the problems in simple terms:12

"It's tempting to believe that having new nuclear power plants that serve, to some degree, as nuclear garbage disposals means there is no need for a nuclear garbage dump, but this isn't really the case. Even in an optimistic assessment, these new plants will still produce significant amounts of high-level, long-lived waste. What's more, new fuel forms used in some of these advanced reactors could pose waste disposal challenges not seen to date.

"Some of these new reactors would use molten salt-based fuels that, when exposed to water, form highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid. Therefore, reprocessing (or some form of "conditioning") the waste will likely be required for safety reasons before disposal.

"Sodium-cooled fast reactors ‒ a "new" technology proposed to be used in some advanced reactors, including the Bill Gates-funded TerraPower reactors ‒ face their own disposal challenges. These include dealing with the metallic uranium fuel which is pyrophoric (that is, prone to spontaneous combustion) and would need to be reprocessed into a safer form for disposal.

"Unconventional reactors may reduce the level of some nuclear isotopes in the spent fuel they produce, but that won't change what really drives requirements for our future nuclear waste repository: the heat production of spent fuel and amount of long-lived radionuclides in the waste. To put it another way, the new reactors will still need a waste repository, and it will likely need to be just as large as a repository for the waste produced by the current crop of conventional reactors.

"Recycling and minimizing ‒ even eliminating ‒ the waste streams that many industries produce is responsible and prudent behavior. But in the context of nuclear energy, recycling is expensive, dirty, and ultimately dangerous. Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel ‒ which some advanced reactor designs require for safety reasons ‒ actually produces fissile material that could be used to power nuclear weapons. This is precisely why the United States has avoided the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for the last four decades, despite having the world's largest number of commercial nuclear power plants.

"Continuing research on how to deal with nuclear waste is a great idea. But building expensive prototypes of reactors whose fuel requires reprocessing, on the belief that such reactors will solve the nuclear waste problem in America, is misguided. At the same time, discounting the notion that a US move into reprocessing might spur other countries to develop this same technology ‒ a technology they could secretly exploit to produce nuclear weapons ‒ is shortsighted and damaging to US national and world security."

The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment in the US left a troubling legacy of radioactive waste streams.13 Krall and Macfarlane state:11

"In 1985, the Energy Department thought that the used Molten Salt Reactor Experiment fuel could be safely stored for decades. But by 1994, workers observed that radiolytic decomposition of uranium tetrafluoride had generated fluorine gases and uranium hexafluoride enriched in fissile isotopes, which had migrated throughout the offgas system and generated corrosive hydrofluoric acid. The likelihood of a criticality accident was high under these conditions."

Likewise, US government agencies are still working on the problem of what to do with waste arising from testing thorium and uranium reactor fuel at the Consolidated Edison Indian Point-1 reactor in New York in the 1960s.14

The subclass of sodium-cooled fast reactors called 'integral fast reactors' (IFRs) could theoretically gobble up nuclear waste and convert it into low-carbon electricity, using a process called pyroprocessing. But an IFR R&D program in Idaho ‒ the Experimental Breeder Reactor II ‒ has left a mess that the Department of Energy (DOE) is still struggling to deal with. This saga is detailed in a 2017 article15 and a longer report16 by the Union of Concerned Scientists' senior scientist Dr. Edwin Lyman, drawing on documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation.

Dr. Lyman writes:15

"Pyroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem. … The FOIA documents we obtained have revealed yet another DOE tale of vast sums of public money being wasted on an unproven technology that has fallen far short of the unrealistic projections that DOE used to sell the project".

Krall and Macfarlane discuss the same fiasco:11

"Furthermore, the Energy Department discovered impediments to the geologic disposal of their sodium-bonded fuels after the Experimental Breeder Reactor and the Fast Flux Test Facility were defunded in 1994. Citing repository criteria of the NRC and the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management that prohibit the presence of pyrophoric and/or chemically reactive materials in waste packages, the Energy Department decided to electro-metallurgically treat the sodium-bonded spent fuel using the Idaho National Lab pyroprocessing technology before emplacement in a repository.

"The department explained its reasoning this way: '[T]he metallic sodium is highly reactive. The metallic uranium is also reactive and potentially pyrophoric, and in some cases the fuel contains highly enriched uranium, which would require criticality control measures.'

"Several parties, including the Environmental Protection Agency, noted the underwhelming scientific and economic bases for the decision to chemically deactivate the fuel by electrometallurgical treatment. Nevertheless, the Energy Department dismissed direct disposal or alternative treatment options, then planned to pyroprocess 26 metric tons of sodium-bonded fuel by 2013 at a cost of approximately $550 million; the process would include conversion of the byproducts – metallic uranium and a sodium chloride-based mixture of plutonium and fission products – to oxide and zeolite-based waste forms, respectively.

"Neither the deadline nor the budget was met, and internal Energy Department documents have revealed that the untreated fuel is degrading in storage, after corrosion of stainless-steel claddings allowed oxygen and moisture to penetrate some of the fuel elements. In at least one case, reaction between water and metallic uranium caused the fuel to burn (literally). The compromised fuel pins are no longer candidates for pyroprocessing and so will remain in storage indefinitely."

Small modular reactors and nuclear waste

Claims that small modular reactors (SMRs) based on conventional light-water reactor technology are advantageous with respect to nuclear waste have no logical or evidentiary basis.

The 2015/16 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission said in its Final Report that "SMRs have lower thermal efficiency than large reactors, which generally translates to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes over the life of a reactor."17

Likewise, M.V. Ramana notes that "a smaller reactor, at least the water-cooled reactors that are most likely to be built earliest, will produce more, not less, nuclear waste per unit of electricity they generate because of lower efficiencies."18

A 2016 European Commission document states due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMRs "will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher)."19

Fusion and nuclear waste

Dr. Jassby writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the neutron radiation damage in the solid vessel wall of a fusion reactor is expected to be worse than in fission reactors because of the higher neutron energies, potentially putting the integrity of the reaction vessel in peril.6 Moreover, fusion fuel assemblies will be transformed into tons of radioactive waste to be removed annually from each reactor. Structural components would need to be replaced periodically thus generating "huge masses of highly radioactive material that must eventually be transported offsite for burial", and non-structural components inside the reaction vessel and in the blanket will also become highly radioactive by neutron activation.6

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor under construction in France will eventually produce "a staggering 30,000 tons of radioactive waste," Dr. Jassby writes.7

Nuclear weapons, nuclear winter

Some 'advanced' reactors could theoretically consume more fissile (explosive) nuclear material than they produce. That sounds great ‒ until you dig into the detail.

After Russia's floating nuclear plant, the next 'advanced' reactor to commence operation may be the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) in India. The PFBR has a blanket with thorium and uranium to breed fissile uranium-233 and plutonium respectively ‒ in other words, it will be ideal for weapons production.

India plans to use fast breeder reactors (a.k.a. fast neutron reactors) to produce weapon-grade plutonium for use as the initial 'driver' fuel in thorium reactors (which would themselves prevent further proliferation risks through the breeding of fissile uranium-233 or plutonium-239). As John Carlson, the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, has repeatedly noted, those plans are highly problematic with respect to weapons proliferation and security.20

India's 'advanced' reactor program isn't advanced. It is dystopian and dangerous, and it fans regional tensions and proliferation concerns in South Asia ‒ all the more so since India refuses to allow International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards inspections of its advanced nuclear power program.

And if those regional tensions boil over into nuclear warfare, catastrophic climate change will likely result.21 Fossil fuels provide the surest route to catastrophic climate change; nuclear warfare provides the quickest route.

Advanced reactor types and weapons proliferation

Krall and Macfarlane raise proliferation concerns about 'integral fast reactor' and molten salt reactor concepts: "Pyroprocessing and fluoride volatility-reductive extraction systems optimized for spent fuel treatment can – through minor changes to the chemical conditions – also extract plutonium (or uranium 233 bred from thorium)."22

There are broader proliferation risks associated with fast neutron reactors (including their use to produce fissile material for weapons) and associated facilities, especially reprocessing.23 Japan's experience is nothing if not dystopian. The country's plutonium program ‒ reprocessing and fast reactors ‒ clearly fans regional proliferation tensions. The Monju reactor rarely operated and has been shut down. The Rokkasho reprocessing plant is more than 20 years behind schedule and cost estimates have rocketed. Altogether, Japan is spending roughly ¥3.7 trillion (US$34 billion) on Monju (¥1.5 trillion) and Rokkasho (¥2.2 trillion) ‒ for a reactor that rarely operated and a reprocessing plant that has not yet been completed, that worsens regional proliferation tensions, that will serve no useful purpose if it ever operates … and that accomplishes all that at enormous expense.

Claims that thorium reactors would be proliferation-resistant or proliferation-proof do not stand up to scrutiny.24,25 Thorium irradiation produces fissile uranium-233, which can be and has been used in nuclear weapons. The initial driver fuel (typically plutonium or enriched uranium) poses additional proliferation risks ‒ as the above-mentioned example of India demonstrates. John Carlson, former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, states: "Arguments that the thorium fuel cycle is inherently proliferation resistant are overstated. In some circumstances the thorium cycle could involve significant proliferation risks."26

Fusion has yet to generate a single Watt of useful electricity but it has already contributed to proliferation problems. According to Khidhir Hamza, a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq's weapons program in the 1980s: "Iraq took full advantage of the IAEA's recommendation in the mid 1980s to start a plasma physics program for "peaceful" fusion research. We thought that buying a plasma focus device ... would provide an excellent cover for buying and learning about fast electronics technology, which could be used to trigger atomic bombs."27

Dr. Jassby notes that fusion reactors could be used to produce plutonium-239 for weapons "simply by placing natural or depleted uranium oxide at any location where neutrons of any energy are flying about" in the reactor interior or appendages to the reaction vessel. He further states that a fusion reactor fueled only with deuterium would be a "singularly dangerous tool for nuclear proliferation".6

There are disturbing connections between small modular reactors, weapons proliferation and militarism more generally, as discussed in Nuclear Monitor #872‒73.28-30

A non-exhaustive list of those connections includes:

The potential use of SMRs to produce fissile material for weapons (they could be the proliferator's technology of choice) and the history of small reactors being used for just that purpose (e.g. North Korea's 'experimental power reactor' or India's research reactors).28

A subsidiary of Holtec International has actively sought a military role, inviting the National Nuclear Security Administration to consider the feasibility of using a proposed SMR to produce tritium, used to boost the explosive yield of the US nuclear weapons arsenal.31

The fuel requirements of SMRs can be and has been used to justify the development of enrichment technology (thus increasing the risk of civil enrichment plants being used to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons). A case in point is the US government's funding allocation to kick-start a domestic uranium enrichment project in Ohio. The HALEU Demonstration Program will aim to produce 19.75%-enriched 'high assay low enriched uranium' (HALEU) using US-designed and operated centrifuge technology. The project is being sold as a step towards domestic production of enriched uranium for 'advanced reactors' (including SMRs) but there is also a military agenda ‒ accommodating the Navy's long-term 'need' for additional highly enriched uranium to fuel its reactors.28

Another 'advanced' research project in the US ‒ a proposed 'versatile test reactor' ‒ also poses proliferation and security risks. Dr. Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists states: "What may not be clear from the name is that this facility itself would be an experimental fast reactor, likely fueled with weapon-usable plutonium. Compared to conventional light-water reactors, fast reactors are less safe, more expensive, and more difficult to operate and repair. But the biggest problem with this technology is that it typically requires the use of such weapon-usable fuels as plutonium, increasing the risk of nuclear terrorism."32

Some SMR companies in the UK are promoting the case for subsidies by talking up the potential contribution of an SMR program to the weapons complex.33 For example, Rolls-Royce states that "the expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability."34

SMRs are being promoted for potential use to power military bases and even forward operating bases in the US.30

As mentioned, Russia1 and China3 are deploying floating nuclear power plants (and nuclear-powered icebreakers) to project military and economic control over various regions (the Arctic, South China Sea, etc.).


1. Jan Haverkamp, 28 May 2018, World's first purpose-built floating nuclear plant Akademik Lomonosov reaches Murmansk, Nuclear Monitor #861,

2. Kyle Mizokami, 28 May 2019, 'Meet 'Ural,' Russia's New Nuclear-Powered Icebreaking Behemoth',

3. Dan Yurman, 13 Aug 2017, 'China to deploy floating nuclear power plants to support geopolitical goals in S. E. Asia',

4. CGN, 'Small Modular Reactor', accessed 13 Feb 2019,

5. Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap Steering Committee, 2018, 'A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada',

6. Daniel Jassby, 19 April 2017, 'Fusion reactors: Not what they're cracked up to be', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,

7. Daniel Jassby, 14 Feb 2018, 'ITER is a showcase ... for the drawbacks of fusion energy',

8. Lazard, Nov 2019, 'Lazard's Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis ‒ Version 13.0',

9. International Energy Agency (IEA) and OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), 2015, 'Projected Costs of Generating Electricity',

10. Amory Lovins, 18 Nov 2019, 'Does Nuclear Power Slow Or Speed Climate Change?',

11. Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane, 2018, 'Burning waste or playing with fire? Waste management considerations for non-traditional reactors', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:5, pp.326-334,

12. Allison Macfarlane and Sharon Squassoni, 8 July 2019, 'Recycle everything, America ‒ except your nuclear waste',

13. Helen Caldicott, 4 Sept 2019, 'New nuclear power proposal needs public debate',

14. John Huotari, 27 Aug 2017, 'DOE disposing of uranium-233 waste stored at ORNL',

15. Ed Lyman / Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug 2017, 'The Pyroprocessing Files',

16. Edwin Lyman, 2017, 'External Assessment of the U.S. Sodium-Bonded Spent Fuel Treatment Program',


18. M.V. Ramana, 23 June 2018, 'The future of nuclear power in the US is bleak',

19. European Commission, 4 April 2016, 'Commission Staff Working Document, Accompanying the document: Communication from the Commission, Nuclear Illustrative Programme presented under Article 40 of the Euratom Treaty for, the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee',

20. John Carlson, 2014, first submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, inquiry into Australia−India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, Parliament of Australia,

See also: John Carlson, 2015, supplementary submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, 'Suggested revisions to the text of 5 September 2014, as requested by JSCOT at the hearing of 9 February 2015',

21. Tilman Ruff, 2019, 'Nuclear weapons and our climate',

22. Lindsay Krall and Allison Macfarlane, 2018, 'Burning waste or playing with fire? Waste management considerations for non-traditional reactors', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:5, pp.326-334,

See also Nuclear Monitor #876, 27 May 2019, 'Integral fast reactors: fact and fiction',

23. Nuclear Monitor #763, 13 June 2019,

24. Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015, 'Thor-bores and uro-sceptics: thorium's friendly fire',

25. Dr. Rainer Moormann, 2018, 'Thorium ‒ a better fuel for nuclear technology?', Nuclear Monitor #858,

26. John Carlson, 2009, 'Introduction to the Concept of Proliferation Resistance', or

27. Khidhir Hamza, Sep/Oct 1998, 'Inside Saddam's Secret Nuclear Program', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 5,

28. Nuclear Monitor #872‒73, 7 March 2019, 'Small modular reactors and nuclear weapons proliferation',

29. Nuclear Monitor #872‒73, 7 March 2019, 'A military bromance: SMRs to support and cross-subsidize the UK nuclear weapons program',

30. Nuclear Monitor #872‒73, 7 March 2019, 'SMRs to power military installations and forward bases in the United States',

31. Thomas Clements, 2012, 'Documents Reveal Time-line and Plans for "Small Modular Reactors" (SMRs) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) Unrealistic and Promise no Funding',

32. Ed Lyman, 15 Feb 2018, 'The "Versatile Fast Neutron Source": A Misguided Nuclear Reactor Project',

33. Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone, 23 Oct 2018, ', A global picture of industrial interdependencies between civil and military nuclear infrastructures', Nuclear Monitor #868,

34. Rolls-Royce, 2017, 'UK SMR: A National Endeavour',