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The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Power

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Temperatures are rising, the Antarctic is melting, and a million animal and plant species face the risk of extinction, all driven by the climate crisis. To save us from the coming climate catastrophe, we need an energy hero, boasting limitless power and no greenhouse gas emissions (or nearly none).

So it’s time, say some analysts, to resuscitate the nuclear energy industry. Doing so could provide carbon-free energy. But any plan to make nuclear power a big part of the energy mix also comes with serious financial risks as well as questions about if there’s enough time to enlist an army of nuclear power plants in the battle against the climate crisis.


In the roughly five years since the Paris Agreement, there’s a growing sense of risk as countries around the world fall further and further behind their stated climate goals, which weren’t even that strong to begin with. Nuclear power, a zero-emissions form of energy, could offer an avenue to make up ground. Today, nuclear power accounts for 11 percent of electricity generated worldwide. But if the world is going to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—a target set by the EU and other nations—it can’t be squeamish about nuclear energy.


“By 2050, the world must increase electricity generation by 100 percent while reducing emissions from electricity generation by 100 percent,” Daniel Poneman, the Deputy Secretary of Energy under President Obama, told Earther. “We can’t do that by leaving our most prodigious source of carbon free electricity sitting on the sidelines.”

Poneman is now CEO of Centrus Energy, which supplies enriched uranium for nuclear power plants. He put the issue succinctly: “If you agree that climate change is an existential threat, shouldn’t we throw every solution we have at it?”

“We’ve got 30 years to make or 30 years to break it,” Kirsty Gogan, the co-founder and executive director of Energy for Humanity (EFH), an NGO focused on decarbonization with an emphasis on using nuclear power, told Earther. EFH led a delegation of climate scientists to make the case for nuclear energy back at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

Gogan has spent more than a decade advocating for the use of nuclear power to help us get out of the greenhouse gas death spiral, working for the UK government and arguing for the safety and reliability of the technology. But she and other nuclear proponents say there’s an irrational prejudice against nuclear power dating back to the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979. The safety concerns, she said, have been further exaggerated by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 following a tsunami. No one died at Three Mile Island, and only one person directly died of radiation poisoning at Fukushima. (How many people died due to the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl is still debated, but at least 54 were killed in the immediate aftermath and estimates are much higher when factoring in cancer deaths linked with exposure in the decades since the disaster.)


Still, Gogan pointed out, coal is exponentially deadlier, and the death toll rises every single day that we continue to use coal fired plants. That calculus is generally based on the effects of pollution due to the use of coal, which include mercury and other heavy metals that can mess with human health. A 2010 report from Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, for example, estimated that coal plants kill approximately 13,200 people in the U.S. alone each year.


But at an Intelligence Squared debate in New York City earlier this year, Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) argued that the issue isn’t about nuclear safety any more. When it comes to addressing the problem of climate change, it’s about time and money.

“I don’t think [the danger] matters because if you have $100 to go and do carbon-free electricity, you can build far more with renewables than you can do with nuclear and you can do it faster,” he said. At the NRC, Jaczko saw the nuclear industry’s reaction to Fukushima first hand.


His 2019 book, Confessions of A Nuclear Regulator, is largely a critique of the lack of oversight and safety technology in the nuclear power industry. Yet he also argues that the safety concerns are now moot. The problem for him with nuclear power, rather, is simply that it can’t help us in time.

“We have a shortage of time and we have a shortage of money, and nuclear energy is bad for both,” Arjun Makhijani, the head of Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, told Earther.


Pointing to numbers from investment researchers at the financial firm Lazard, Makhijani said nuclear power is too expensive to be practical. According to Lazard, a new nuclear power plant ends up producing electricity that costs $112 per megawatt hour while solar currently costs about $46 per megawatt hour. Based on the same report, Makhijani said that combined solar and wind costs even less at just $40 per megawatt hour.

While nuclear proponents claim they can bring the costs down, Georgia Power’s Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant expansion near Waynesboro, Georgia is a warning sign of how costly and time-consuming it can be to construct new nuclear power. Units 3 and 4 are the first new reactors to be built in the U.S. in over 30 years. Initially approved in 2009 with an estimated price tag of roughly $14 billion for 2,200 megawatts of generating capacity and planned launch in 2016, the Vogtle expansion has faced numerous delays and price increases. Now, the first tower isn’t expected to come online until the fall of 2021 with the second slated for 2022. The estimated cost now? A cool $27.5 billion.


“To get more, we need to build thousands of plants, and it takes 10 to 15 years to build a nuclear plant,” said Jaczko. “You also need engineers, the supporting infrastructure and that adds another five to 10 years to the process.”

In short, nuclear power can’t get online in time to begin to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avert a climate catastrophe.


Renewable sources of energy, including hydro, can be deployed faster and in places like developing countries, which may lack an existing power infrastructure but need electricity. The largest solar facility to be built in the U.S., for example, will be the Gemini project in Nevada. It will be a 690-megawatt plant, cost just $1 billion, and be fully operational in less than 3 years. That’s a fraction of the cost of the Georgia nuclear plant expansion in absolute price and price per megawatt.


To accommodate such facilities, there is the added expense of ramping up smart grids, said Makhijani. But contrary to what nuclear advocates often claim,the move to renewables does not necessarily entail building more transmission lines.

Nevertheless, trying to solve the climate problem with just renewables will cost 60 percent more than if it is supplemented with nuclear power, according to Poneman. He pointed to a 2018 MIT report. The study concludes that nuclear power is essential to the process of decarbonizing the energy business, but its authors also assume that reactor construction costs can be radically improved to make nuclear practical.


Gogan said that such improvements are happening now and that they will lead to an expected 30 percent drop in construction costs as the industry builds on lessons learned finishing its first generation of new reactors. Furthermore, she argued that overruns like those in Georgia are the exception, rather than the rule. She pointed to less expensive plants recently built in France and Finland, and the promise of new reactor designs.

Small modular reactors have been touted for years as an alternative to bigger plants. The fission reactors use passive safety systems which are triggered automatically to prevent meltdowns and are built in pieces like a pre-fab home and then assembled on site to reduce costs. NuScale, a small modular reactor company, recently passed the fourth stage of its Nuclear Regulatory Commission review and has plans to build its first project within two years.


There’s also the promise of traveling-wave breeder reactors, which in theory could run unattended for decades without the need for refueling or removing spent fuel. TerraPower’s traveling-wave reactor, which uses liquid sodium cooling for example, has been in development for over a decade. But liquid sodium designs have been plagued by cooling leaks, and traveling-wave designs have failed to meet their promised efficiency goals, according to Makhijani. He said that such a new reactor design or a practical modular design is still 15 to 20 years away, which again, is far too late to start drawing down emissions.

In contrast, developments in solar seem to be advancing more quickly. Two solar module manufacturers, for example, recently debuted 500-watt, 72-cell photovoltaic modules. That’s a roughly 25 percent increase compared to the 380-watt modules typically installed today. The companies, Risen Energy and Trina Solar, expect the 500-watt models to become common in the marketplace within five years.


Radioactive waste from uranium mining and milling as well as spent fuel continues to be an issue, although practically speaking, both the experts who spoke with Earther agreed that if other issues could be resolved, then remediation efforts would follow.

From Grogan’s point of view, nuclear power is the next best replacement for existing power sources, comparing it to the Impossible Burger as a meat-free substitute for carnivores without the emissions. That’s because it supplies on-demand electricity and requires little change in consumption habits.


But, Jaczko, said, the investors aren’t there, the technology’s not there, and consumers are not there.

“It cannot compete in the marketplace,” Jaczko said.

JQ writes about science and technology for publications such as The New York Times and is the editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter.