Jesse - I want to address the following question:
"What barriers to nuclear power deployment cannot be solved by policy and why? What factors are most likely to overcome these barriers (or are they intractable)?"
One hurdle - not really a barrier - associated with deploying any new energy source that is not going to ever disappear is the fact that the energy industry is the largest industry in the world. That industry is full of powerful people who do not like competitors taking away their markets and driving down prices. They have well over a century of experience in fighting interlopers; not always with open and visible tactics.
By its nature as a ubiquitous commodity where many different methods exist to produce a fungible, tradable unit (either heat or electricity) there has been a history of radical price oscillations driven by changes in the supply-demand balance.
Our recent history, which some people consider to be unique, where energy prices increased by 400% over a several year period and then fell by 75% in a month is nothing really new. Back in the Titusville era, the price of petroleum dropped like a rock once production exceeded the capacity of the barrel producers to keep up. Spindletop resulted in a time when oil cost as little as 10 cents per barrel within just a year or two after it had traded for several dollars per barrel.
The top leaders of established enterprises in the energy business recognize very clearly the risks to their existence of any new supply that will upset the balance. Over the years of working together and in competition with each other, they have formed a number of "clubs" like ERCOT, OPEC, EPRI and API that establish policies in one form or another that are designed to smooth the market and prevent price destruction. The industry has a running history of competition among fuel suppliers and fuel choices between coal, oil and gas that are often along national or regional battle lines.
There was an excellent, thought provoking article in The New York Times yesterday that discussed the entry of oil majors back into Iraq. The article discussed how disruptive it would be to the market if Iraq increased its daily output from less than 2 million barrels of oil per day to more than 7 - which some people have described as its potential production level. That increase would only represent an increase of a couple of percent of world energy supply.
Here are the "fighting words" that make up the conclusion to that article:
“The production from these three fields will surely threaten other oil-producing countries and will show the world that Iraq can match Saudi Arabia’s production,” said Mr. Hassani. “Our share has been taken by other countries, and we will gain our share again from the countries that took it.”
During the first nuclear building boom, the output from nuclear plants around the world steadily chipped away at fossil fuel's share of the energy market until it achieved our current production level of the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per day. Nuclear energy is not "the Saudi Arabia of" anything, it already has a 30% larger share of the world's energy market than the largest oil producer in the world and it has an almost infinitely larger quantity of "shut-in capacity".
It is a very safe bet to assume that there will be continued strong opposition - that may be disguised in many ways - against the deployment of energy production systems that result in compact, low marginal cost, reliable, emission-free, geographically flexible energy that can displace coal, oil and natural gas on a massive scale. (The bolded words are points of departure from other alternatives.)
It will not be a near term policy change that will overcome that opposition. My analysis has led me to the conclusion that the best way to turn over the hurdle is to keep exposing the true nature of the opposition until people recognize that the discussion is not a moral one about safety, weapons proliferation or waste longevity - it is simply an economic competition. It is one that pits a very powerful and wealthy group of energy suppliers against the interests of a much larger population of energy customers.
The emotional words of the discussion should be understood by observers in the same way that they understand Apple versus Windows ads or Coke versus Pepsi taste tests. Of course, the energy war of words has far more consequence for the future of human society.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.