Thoughts on “The optimal amount of nuclear power Generation”

Matthew Kahn has this interesting question:
If the optimal amount of nuclear energy is positive but only very few nuclear plants get build, then potentially no students will become nuclear engineers and subsequently human capital in this field dries up. As a result, nuclear power plants become less safe leading to a higher probability of disasters.
My thoughts on this are:
He is absolutely right, but let’s think this further. Quite interestingly, if there is less human capital in the nuclear energy sector and this increases the probability of nuclear disasters, then this also has an additional feedback effect on the optimal amount of nuclear energy: It should decrease then! And that is interesting, since that means that fewer nuclear plants –> fewer researchers/ nuclear engineers –> higher probability of disasters –> lower optimal amount of nuclear plants –> fewer nuclear plants, etc… So the question is: since there is this vicious circle here and we can indirectly affect the optimal number of power plants by affecting the probability of a disaster, then really what IS the optimal amount of nuclear energy?

Assuming this human capital channel is very large/important, then the following argument should apply: The more plants we build now the more students will become nuclear engineers, the lower the probability of a nuclear disaster and the higher again the optimal amount of nuclear energy. This feedback loop leads eventually to a very large amount of nuclear energy. Or, the other equilibrium will be that fewer plants are expected to be build, leading to fewer nuclear engineers and a higher probability of disasters and potentially a zero optimal amount of nuclear energy in the future. Thus, two equilibria are possible in this scenario, one with and one without nuclear power.
This could make a nice research question indeed. Anyone interested in joining in? 😀

However, I have to say that it is a strong assumption that fewer nuclear engineers implies a higher probability of disasters in the future. That should only happen if a) knowledge is lost or b) other engineers cannot quickly learn the existing knowledge needed for a nuclear plant. Since I am not an engineer, I don’t know how large the synergies or overlaps are with other fields.

Finally, one way to break the vicious circle that leads to an optimal amount of zero nuclear energy is if the governments invest in (nuclear) human capital. Thus, if a potential nuclear engineer student knows that he will be paid (or get a job) by the government whether a plant will be built or not, then this should give enough incentive to keep that kind of (nuclear) human capital intact.


  1. Remember the lifetime of a single nuclear power plant is nearly the same as the worklifetime of its builder…
    What we need in Germany now is engineering knowhow in bringing down closed nuclear power plants, geologists for looking for places for nuclear waste and engineers to build and maintain those places for the next 1000…. years.


  2. FG said:

    I’m glad to see that people are still keeping an open mind on this subject. Had Global Warming not been a concern I would have been generally against the risks of having more nuclear power. However Global Warming has contributed to far more deaths and property damage in the last 10 years than nuclear power and bombs have ever done in history and it is getting much worst. So I am now a proponent of nuclear power as one of many alternative energy sources. “Optimum” should not be used as justification for nuclear power. One must balance the benefits vs. the potential harm from nuclear power compared to the production of carbon emissions which is the real killer and enemy due to Global Warming.

    Nothing is more efficient at producing energy than the atom, infinitely more efficient than solar or wind power. That is a scientific fact. There are many nuclear solutions available from the various fission reactor designs now in use using U235 to Thorium fission reactors yet to be developed to various breeder reactors designs being developed using very safe and abundantly cheap U238 fuel and producing far fewer storage problems. The US moratorium on nuclear power plants is preventing a very viable power alternative from being developed here to replace carbon producing power plants. Had we placed a moratorium on air jet travel because of all the crashes that were killing people 30 years ago it would not have developed to the lucrative and safest mode of transportation it is today with orders of magnitude more aircraft and orders of magnitude greater safety. Same for cars and many other technologies we use today. Nuclear plant could be built and operating in 2-3 years if built in large quantities since certification procedures would be much more improved than today. Other countries such as China, Russia, and India are ramping up their nuclear power development especially with breeder reactor development. So nuclear power is here to stay. It produces an abundance of clean energy.


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