… for both weapons and power. Nuclear weapons have been the great looming threat for most of my life. These were devices built to end civilization. So it’s startling to see how fast they have been declining:
The nuclear arms race was always considered to be madness, and it looks like everyone realized that by about the 80s. Their numbers peaked in 1985 at about 64,000 and now they’re down to less than a quarter of that. The US stopped increasing much earlier, but the USSR had an overshoot in the Cold War and then a collapse. A few minor states are still working on them, but all the major states and even Israel appear to have stopped their efforts. The last tests, aside from North Korea, were by India and Pakistan in 1998.
Richard Rhodes has been chronicling their history in a magisterial four-volume series, and brought it up to the present in “Twilight of the Bombs” (2010). He notes how even the Bush administration was not that interested in them. They, like everyone else, realized that nuclear weapons are useless for actual military operations. They’re not even that good for threats, as North Korea has discovered. He estimates that the total spent on them by all sides since 1945 is about $8 trillion in current dollars.
What’s more surprising is that peak nuclear power has passed too:
The peak was in 2006, and the world is presently down about 11% from that, to the same level as 1999.
To put this in perspective, the US consumes about 3700 TWh of electricity a year from all sources, or half again what the worldwide output is. US nuclear plants generate about 750 TWh a year, or about 1/3 of the world’s output.
The total number of reactors has been flat at about 440 since 1995. Another 60 are supposedly under construction, of which half are in China, but it’s not clear how real all those projects are. There are only two underway in the developed world, one in Finland and one in France. Like nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors are only popular among rather desperate countries.
The reason is clear – cost. Reactors take too long to build and their costs are too uncertain. You can put up a wind farm or a solar array in a year, and start making money then, but a reactor is just a dead expense for five years, and probably ten. Then a Fukushima happens and you’re on the hook for managing a radioactive waste dump forever.
It’s too bad, since nuclear has lots of advantages over wind and solar. It doesn’t clutter up landscapes, it doesn’t endanger desert habitats, it doesn’t kill birds, it has a fairly predictable output, and the plant is good for 30 to 40 years. They just take too long to build and fail too spectacularly. Wind and solar costs are dropping all the time, and nuclear just can’t keep up.
It reminds me of the race between zeppelins and aircraft. The zeppelins had longer range and could carry more people, but they were too slow to evolve compared to the much cheaper and smaller aircraft. In the time it took to build a zeppelin, you could try out three different aircraft configurations. And then a Hindenberg happens, and the tech is finished.
Yet people are still working on zeppelins (or rather, dirigibles), and there are lots of good ideas for reactors still to be tried. They’re in a shrinking industry, though, unlike their renewable competitors, and that makes big R&D efforts hard to justify.