Can atomic energy help us win the war against global warming?


Photo by Jeremy Blakeslee

Photo by Jeremy Blakeslee

The Nuclear Option

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

We’re not a major. We’re a minor,” says Chris Peters, 47, a nuclear scientist with the College of Engineering at Drexel University.

He’s sitting in the unremarkable lab where his students will learn this year about nuclear science, as well as electrical and computer engineering. The ceilings are low, the lighting is bad and scattered throughout the room are machines whose faces are crammed with dials, switches and knobs surrounded by all manner of wires. It’s not a glamorous place. But it’s an increasingly popular one. 

Five years ago, the nuclear engineering program didn’t exist at Drexel. But companies are hiring nuclear scientists at a growing rate, and students are taking note. 

At schools like University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and Idaho State University, demand for nuclear science degrees is booming. “I’ve been in touch with Michigan. They’re full,” says Peters of his alma mater, and he notes that Drexel’s nascent program already boasts 30 students. Professor Kenan Unlu, 60, is the director of the Radiation Science and Engineering Center at PSU.  He says that typical nuclear science classrooms there have grown over the past decade from approximately 15 students to 100. 

While the Drexel nuclear engineering program is only a minor, nuclear power is a major part of the energy mix in Philadelphia already. A surprising 40 percent of Philadelphia’s energy, delivered by the East Subregion grid powered by ReliabilityFirst Corporation, is fueled by nuclear energy. 

 Nuclear is also an energy source that think tanks are looking to when creating scenarios to reduce greenhouse emissions. One such study, prepared by Drexel University in November 2015, outlines power mix options to help the city achieve its greenhouse gas reduction targets. It shows nuclear power contributing 27 to 40 percent of our electricity in 2050, when Philadelphia hopes to have reduced emissions by 80 percent over 2012 levels. 

Philadelphia, like it or not, is an atomic town. 

The shadow of nuclear energy

“The future of nuclear energy is bright,” Peters says, “if it’s done properly.” In his cautious optimism, you can hear both the promise of nuclear power—a domestic, low-carbon energy source—as well as the dark echoes of its Cold War history.

Environmental groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) are skeptical about nuclear power’s cost and safety, and Greenpeace is still staunchly opposed to any further investment in nuclear power, period. They cite chronic cost overruns to build new plants, safety concerns with operations and spent-fuel storage, unproven technology in next-generation atomic power, and an increasing risk of proliferation, in which facilities in our country and others that enrich uranium used for fuel can also produce nuclear weapons. Edwin Lyman, 51, senior global security scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says, “Once you have that capability, then it’s really just the word of the country that has it that it’s just using it for peaceful purposes.” 

Greenpeace also believes that investing in nuclear energy won’t help the world decarbonize our economy fast enough. “If you want to have an impact on climate change,” says Jim Riccio, a nuclear analyst for the organization since 2001, “you have to do things that are fast and affordable, and that rules out nuclear power.” Most of all, he argues, if we ramp up wind and solar production, we won’t need to split atoms.

Yet, nuclear power has some new champions. To an increasing number of vocal scientists and academics who also consider themselves environmentalists—the stereotypical kind who drive electric cars, have solar panels on their homes and write checks to the Sierra Club—nuclear power is a piece of the energy mix that will help us decarbonize our economy without destroying the planet in the process. 

A cohort of high-profile climatologists such as James Hansen, scores of aligned conservation biologists and other thought leaders have begun to argue that an intractable opposition to nuclear power is no longer a tenable position. This past November, The Boston Globe ran an opinion piece called “Inconvenient Truths for the Environmental Movement,” written by political scientist Joshua Goldstein and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. They argue that denial of facts cuts both ways: Environmentalists can’t ridicule climate-science deniers and then cherry-pick facts about nuclear energy to suit their politics.

Our strategies for using nuclear power may be determined by many factors. Energy prices, as they have for decades, will likely be a primary motivator. Increasingly, we may see shifts in the risk tolerance of individual communities presented with the choice between nuclear power and gas-fired power plants. Regulation will be key, and that is fueled by an unreliable and intermittent power source: political will. 

A divided public

While Greenpeace’s Riccio says that both “Wall Street and Main Street have abandoned nuclear power,” it’s clear that, as a nation, we are divided on the issue. Even after the 1979 reactor meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island facility and the subsequent accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, a 2015 Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans—51 percent—support nuclear energy, down from a high of 65 percent five years ago. An earlier poll shows that support is higher in areas that already have a nuclear power plant, which shouldn’t come as a surprise: They create high-paying jobs. The economic rewards are without the health issues that accompany the burning of fossil fuels, which produce air pollution and, in the case of coal, more radiation than a nuclear plant. (Disclosure: I grew up near the PPL nuclear power plant in Berwick, Pennsylvania, where my father worked. Family friends, including George Imel, quoted later in this article, work or worked as nuclear scientists.)

 Losing an already-operating nuclear power plant can be like losing a military base or any other large employer in a small town: Residents worry about the loss of high-paying jobs, tax revenues and the patronage to local businesses. A plan to shutter the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Scriba, New York, is causing significant concern in the community, which may not survive the closure. Low natural gas prices have rendered the FitzPatrick plant unprofitable.

Not every community has embraced a nuclear plant. In South Carolina, Greenpeace’s Riccio says that small business is suffering because of the ongoing construction of a new nuclear power plant. “You actually have a rate revolt going on by the small business association in South Carolina,” he says, “because they’ve had about a 25 percent rate increase and at least six rate hikes since they started building.” The plant is still under construction and isn’t producing energy yet, so taxpayers are essentially paying for energy they aren’t yet receiving.

For others still, the promise of nuclear energy will never justify the safety risks. For years, activists tried to shut down the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon, Vermont, and the new governor was elected in part on the promise to close its doors. It finally closed this year, with approximately 20 years still left to go on its operating license, but it was economic forces—specifically, the low price of natural gas—that dealt the fatal blow. 

“I just visited the Vermont Yankee plant,” says Joshua Goldstein, 62, an emeritus professor of inte
rnational relations at American University, and one of the authors of The Boston Globe editorial that implored the environmental community to reconsider nuclear power. “The company said, ‘Well, we just can’t compete with natural gas, cheap natural gas.’ So, that’s another story about needing to put a price on carbon pollution—so that natural gas doesn’t get a free ride.”

He says that after the plant shut down, “They ended up buying nuclear power from Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant next door in New Hampshire, because they needed the electricity,” and that they also now rely on natural gas.  

“We shut down Vermont Yankee, and we’re burning Pennsylvania natural gas instead,” Goldstein says. 

Environmentalists are loud. Energy prices (and government support) are louder.

Energy cost and demand are the pivot point of nuclear power’s short and up-and-down history, but its origins are important to consider.

“Nuclear power was developed by the government, for the government,” says Erik Conway, 50, a historian with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt. “And then, in the 1950s, there’s an effort by the government to commercialize the technology. During the same era, there’s very rapid growth of electricity consumption.”

The U.S. broke ground on its first full-scale nuclear reactor used for peacetime purposes on Labor Day, Sept. 9, 1954, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The Shippingport Atomic Power Station was located about 20 miles from Pittsburgh, and its core was taken from an atomic-powered aircraft carrier whose construction had been cancelled. An admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hyman G. Rickover, was in charge of operating the plant, a reminder that America’s investment in atomic energy was for wartime purposes. Seven years after breaking ground at the Shippingport plant, it began generating power for the grid operated by Duquesne Light Company, and the plant operated until 1982, with stoppages only for routine core changes. In the 28 years the plant operated, the market for nuclear power shifted dramatically.

One factor was an economic slowdown, and the other was purely political. “Due to the [oil] embargoes,” Conway says, “there’s increased efforts at both conservation of energy and efficiency throughout the 1970s. There’s also a deep recession, so there’s less production—and therefore industrial consumption. One result is that the rate of growth in electricity consumption goes to nearly zero, making it hard to finance new power plants.” 

As a result, says Conway, “a great many of the nuclear power plants that were under construction in 1970 and 1971 are cancelled, purely for economic reasons.” The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Phipps Bend plant was one such casualty: The decline in demand for energy, coupled with revised economic growth rates for the region, left the plant less than half-built when they stopped construction in 1981. The Times-News of Kingsport, Tennessee, reported that there were protests, but not against the safety of the plant: They wore yellow armbands at the construction deferral meeting to signify that they were “hostages” to the TVA’s budget. Despite billions of investment funded by taxpayers and ratepayers, not a single watt of electricity was produced.

Rainwater and plant life have begun to take over the TVA’s half-built reactor containment cores and cooling towers. If you’re an anti-nuclear activist, the pictures of these abandoned reactors reclaimed by nature probably look like victory, but the Tennessee story isn’t over.

In August of 2015, President Barack Obama proposed the Clean Power Plan, which outlines cuts to carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and also includes incentives for deployment of renewables and investment in energy efficiency forlow-income households, among other features. 

The White House fact sheet on the plan announces, “The Clean Power Plan establishes the first-ever national standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants. We already set limits that protect public health by reducing soot and other toxic emissions, but until now, existing power plants, the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States, could release as much carbon pollution as they wanted.” 

Based on a formula, each state has specific emissions cuts and will have flexibility about how they plan to achieve reductions. Pennsylvania’s emissions reduction targets will be in the 31 to 40 percent range, which is also the range that Tennessee is required to make. As of October 2015, 24 states and a coal company are suing over the regulation, according to The Hill.

That same month, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tennessee, had received its operating license. The TVA is one of four entities in the country completing construction on a nuclear power plant, and officials at TVA believe that a return to nuclear energy will help the state comply with the Clean Power Plan. It’s a slight mischaracterization to call the Watts Bar plant “new.” It took 43 years to complete, because construction was suspended from the mid-198os until 2007. The final phase of construction cost $4.5 billion. 

“While the Clean Power Plan is an incentive mechanism, it’s not a magic bullet,” says Edwin Lyman, from the UCS. “It can’t itself change the fundamental economics in each state. What it does is provide a motivation for state and local policies to try to change, to try to shape, the electricity mix that will meet the requirements of their plan. So, that’s where the debate is, largely, with nuclear power. And the fact is, as it stands, it’s just not an economic source of electricity.” 

Lyman goes on to argue that the Clean Power Plan could incentivize states to subsidize low-carbon energy, including nuclear power. “If you want to subsidize low-carbon energy, how do you want to spend your money? And then the other externalities should come into play. Mainly, is nuclear power really a reliable, safe electricity source that you select preferentially? If you have enough renewable options, you could also deliver low-carbon electricity, but without the fiscal risks.” 

The high cost of heavy safety regulation and lack of standardized designs

As is evidenced by the cautionary tale of the halted construction at Phipps Bend, the decades required to complete the Watts Bar plant, and the more recent plans for closures in Vermont and New York, massive infrastructure investments whose viability depends on fluctuating energy prices are a risky move. “I tend to see wind and solar deployment as more evolutionary. It’s done in smaller steps, which means the grid doesn’t have to be reconfigured all at once,” says Conway, referring to the system that transports energy from the various places where electricity is produced. “Even people who should know better, like Jim Hansen, can look at the cost figures and realize that solar and wind are a lot cheaper.” 

Cost is one of the first things out of the mouth of Greenpeace’s Riccio when he’s asked to give the organization’s position on nuclear power. He agrees with Conway on the current economics of building new plants. “You’ve had a number of plants announce shutdowns in the past year,” he says. “Not because of environmentalists, not because of anything other than the fact that they couldn’t compete with the price of renewable energy and the price of natural gas.” 

“The first 75 reactors built in this country had a $100 billion cost overrun,” he says. “Even the one you look at at TVA—TVA just loaded fuel into a reactor that they’ve had under construction since the 1970s.”

But Goldstein says he isn’t sympathetic to the Greenpeace rhetor
ic on cost over runs. “That’s a little bit disingenuous, if I may say so. The major reason why it’s not scalable so fast and why it’s so expensive is that Greenpeace has been out there blocking every permit and lying down in front of every bulldozer, trying to get the whole thing regulated to the point of zero-risk. If we had a more reasonable approach to it, such as the French have had, it’s really not so hard to get these things built, and they’re not so expensive.” 

Nuclear plants in the United States are essentially bespoke, each one built to suit, whereas the French—who get nearly 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power—have standardized designs. It’s a point with which Professor George Imelfrom the Nuclear Engineering Department at Idaho State University is very familiar. Imel, 67, has worked for both U.S. and French national research laboratories as a nuclear scientist, and he explains, “They built a fleet of nuclear reactors, all standardized…[whereas] we give every utility, every customer, the chance to custom order their reactor.” It’s one of the factors that contributes to high construction costs.    

Imel also explains that we handle our waste differently than France does. We have a “once through” fuel cycle, whereas the French take spent fuel, clean up the fission products that have built up, and reuse it. “In America,” Imel says, “we don’t recycle, which is interesting because we’re supposed to be environmentalists.” He says a quick way to compare the waste loads is to think about the French storing their waste in a facility the size of a basketball court, and Americans using a space more the size of football field. “If we recycled spent nuclear fuel, we would reduce our waste by at least a factor of 10,” he says. 

Imel says the biggest difference between France and America is that France doesn’t have a choice. 

“They don’t have a natural coal reserve…they have no natural gas to speak of,” he says. Not wanting to be dependent on a foreign country for their energy needs, France chose to invest in nuclear energy. 

New, purportedly safer and more efficient technology—such as molten salt reactors—could address some concerns by using passive safety design features that don’t require electricity, or a human operator, for a nuclear reaction to slow to a stop during an emergency. Small modular reactors that would be built much more inexpensively—and on a community scale—are also on the horizon, but these new approaches aren’t coming fast enough for some. 

“We’re staring down the barrel of two degrees celsius,” Riccio says, referring to the global average temperature rise that climate negotiators are using as their ceiling to prevent catastrophic consequences from climate change. “And waiting another decade for the nuclear industry maybe to show up with a reactor design really is not a viable option when you have solutions that are fast and affordable and available now.” When asked why the United States hadn’t yet taken advantage of wind and solar, his answer was emphatic. 

“Political will,” he says. “We have a very entrenched nuclear industry and coal industry that would like to see us continue to burn coal and split atoms. … You have major industries that are fighting against solar and wind. Sadly, they offer us our best hope of keeping this planet in a livable condition. The good news is that we can actually get there. The bad news is we have to fight the politicians to do it.” 

UCS’s Lyman has a more tempered view of the nuclear industry’s lobbying power, but the same take on politicians. “The industry is pretty powerful in certain ways. It’s got an enormous amount of support, in principle, for nuclear energy on both sides of the aisle in Congress. But that hasn’t always translated into useful legislation, which is sort of tied up in the fact that Congress doesn’t do that much for anyone these days.” He says that while the industry got some incentives through the 2005 Energy Policy Act, “It was really small potatoes compared to what would really be needed to greatly expand nuclear power in the United States.” 

Is nuclear power a bridge to meeting our decarbonization goals, or unsafe at any speed?

Cost seemed to be a more significant issue than safety for many of the experts interviewed for this article. However, safety is the bigger concern in the American psyche at large. 

In continuing to relate the history of nuclear power, NASA’s Conway is clear about the fact that energy prices ruled, but that public opinion did hold some sway as its fortunes declined in the ’70s and ’80s. “The coup de grace in the U.S. for the nuclear power industry,” he says, “is a combination of Three Mile Island connected with a movie that came out at the same time.” He’s referring to the 1979 film “The China Syndrome,” a fictional account of a news crew who witnesses an almost-accident at a nuclear power plant in California, and then uncovers critical safety problems at the plant. The title comes from the fantastic idea that a core meltdown in the U.S. would cut straight down through earth and find its way out the other side in China. 

“Since then,” Conway says, “There’s been a kind of mythology built up in the environmental movement about nuclear power, when it actually died because of economics. Again, one simply doesn’t build large, new nuclear power generating capacity in the face of flat electricity demand.” 

Political scientist Joshua Goldstein says he used to have the same knee-jerk reaction against nuclear power as other environmentalists, but when he started worrying more intensely about climate change and doing research on nuclear power, he began to change his mind. As an example, he relates that contrary to his conception of the event, no one died from radiation exposure during the Fukushima disaster. “There are a lot of myths about nuclear power that simply don’t stand up to the light of day,” he says.  

There has never been a death caused by the commercial operations of a U.S. nuclear power plant. But it is easier for human minds to imagine a disaster at a nuclear power plant than to conceive of the slow emergency of global warming: Our minds are better at seeing specific and immediate threats. Principal Research Scientist Charles Forsberg, from the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, puts it this way: “It scares people very efficiently, but it’s not very good at killing people.” 

While we’re debating our energy choices, how we assess the risks of our energy sources may play an increasing role, and there are real risks with nuclear power. 

Plants must be managed as tightly as possible to prevent an accident, and they must be designed with unlikely catastrophic incidents in mind. The waste from nuclear power plants must be sequestered for millennia before it isn’t radioactive anymore, and the same enriched uranium that is used for fuel can be made into nuclear weapons. All of these issues must be acknowledged and managed if we continue to rely on nuclear power, for the short or the long term. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists does not advocate against nuclear power altogether, but it does think that the industry should continue to be tightly regulated, and that cutting corners on safety to bring down costs would be misguided. “Phasing out nuclear power or operating plants overnight,” says Edwin Lyman of UCS, “that’s not our objective. Our concern is about the current level of safety and security of operating plants as governed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. … The danger is complacency and the industry starting to believe its own rhetoric about how safe it is.” He doesn’t believe that reforms after Fukushima went far enough. 

NASA’s Conway says that you have to ask the safety question “as an economi
st would” and compare nuclear with other options. “Nuclear power is a lot safer than coal, and yet we burn enormous amounts of coal, about a billion tons of it a year in the U.S. I’m actually skeptical of nuclear power because of its cost… but I’m not per se opposed to it on safety grounds.”

That comparison is one that several people make, including Goldstein. “Fossil fuel is killing a lot of people,” he says. “Coal is killing, like, a million people a year in the world—nuclear isn’t killing anybody. But we have this drastic double standard where nuclear power is held to kind of ‘zero-risk.’ If anything happens anywhere it shows that we shouldn’t have nuclear power. … We wouldn’t have any energy if we applied that standard to fossil fuels.” 

Lyman disagrees. “I’m not a big fan of trying to compare the number of deaths from small particulates from coal plants to the number of deaths from Chernobyl,” he says. “I think that’s misleading and doesn’t really provide the whole picture.” 

In an exercise to try to prove that we will tolerate some risks, but not others, Goldstein ticks off a list of other dangers we’ve accepted in order to have the energy and products we want. “The oil trains that go off the tracks and blow up the whole town. The Bhopal chemical disaster, the coal mining disasters, the hydroelectric dams that break and flood and kill tens of thousands of people. This stuff happens all over the world with all of our energy sources,” he says, “and we want to make a kind of risk/benefit analysis of it.”

Goldstein’s conclusion shows how far he’s come personally in his view of nuclear power, “When you do that dispassionately, nuclear power turns out to be the safest, the cleanest, potentially the cheapest.” 

The shift happening in the minds of some environmentalists is coming in part because something that used to be perceived as a threat—nuclear power—is competing with the threat of catastrophic consequences from climate change. 

A second change is that, as the world began preparations for the Paris climate talks, it began to look like this time there was the possibility of consensus. That also meant action,  and so research teams around the world started running scenarios about how to achieve deep cuts in carbon emissions without hampering the growth of developing nations or the thriving economies that had caused the current crises in the first place. 

The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) has been serving as an umbrella for that work, and some of the team’s contributors are also involved in work with the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The methodology they’ve been using is based on work that has been happening in California to prepare plans for deep reductions in carbon emissions. Jim Williams has been a consultant to the state during that work, and he’s the head of the U.S. DDPP team. 

“The timing,” he says, “always did have the [United Nations Climate Change Conference] in mind.” He believes that in the past, “a key problem in climate negotiations was that they simply were not very concrete about what it would take to decarbonize the energy system. For 20-some years, the negotiators, who are diplomats and lawyers, have been arguing over principles, and therefore the debate has been about… burden sharing and things of that sort, without understanding what is technically involved in physically changing the energy system, or what it might cost.”

The U.S. DDPP report identifies possible energy generation mixes that include renewables, nuclear, fossil fuel generation (equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology) and biomass. The range of options explored has nuclear power providing between 9.6 percent and 40.3 percent of our power.

Drexel’s report outlines similar power mixes that will help cut Philadelphia’s carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, and it leaves the nuclear option up for discussion. 

The report states, “Whether nuclear energy’s… advantages (low-carbon, base-load power reliability) can overcome its liabilities (facility siting, waste disposal, weakening long-term demand) is very much an open-ended question.” It also raises a scenario whereby if nuclear power electricity generation declined because we chose to decommission existing plants, “electricity generation might—absent other developments—become more carbon intensive rather than less carbon intensive.”

Professor Patrick Gurian, 49, is the lead author of the report. “[The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability] had done some shorter-term planning and goal setting on greenhouse gas reductions,” he says. “But they knew that the 80 percent reductions by 2050 was a really important target that’s out there that other cities have looked at ways of meeting, and they wanted to do some longer-term planning.” 

The report was funded by the Drexel Institute for Energy and the Environment, and it has an important difference from some other studies when it prices nuclear power. Their methodology includes considering the cost of producing nuclear power, as well as externalized costs that are avoided. They essentially ask and answer the question that both Conway and Goldstein propose: What are all of the cost differences between one electricity source and another, including carbon emissions that harm the planet and pollution that harms human beings and other life? 

UCS’s Lyman urges caution about pricing externalities. “I would be skeptical of that kind of a study, because there are just too many disparate endpoints, externalities. So, to try to come up with a common metric to compare them—which people have tried to do for decades—really, is probably not a meaningful way to go. Trying to fold all those complexities into a single number, you lose too much information.” 

Gurian says that the the report outlines several strategies for achieving carbon emissions, including efficiency measures and changes to the transportation sector and low-carbon energy mixes. 

“When you start to say, ‘OK, how can we make the electricity low carbon?’ there are a lot of options there, and certainly nuclear is one of them. And from our point of view, how could we not put it in the report? It is available commercially, it is cost competitive and it is not intermittent. It’s frequently used for the baseload demand.”

But he’s clear that the report is simply a starting point for discussion. 

“The whole point,” he says, “was not to issue recommendations, but to come up with options… This is a good time to talk about this and maybe have a more nuanced discussion and try to get a little more detail about what options are out there.” 

The scenario with the most aggressive renewables has a mix of 49 percent renewables, 40 percent nuclear power, 10 percent natural gas and 1 percent residual oil; it eliminates coal altogether.

Not everyone will be happy about that high number for nuclear power, not least of which advocates who believe that we can scale renewables to 100 percent and avoid investment in nuclear altogether. “Greenpeace has opposed nuclear power and nuclear weapons since we were founded,” Riccio says. “And nothing between 1971 and now has convinced us that we should revisit that position.”

A New “China Syndrome”

The for-or-against, renewables-vs-nuclear, Democrats-vs-Republicans framework probably isn’t going to work when we get down to the day-to-day practicality of decarbonizing our economy. Goldstein believes that targeting symbols of industry and influence won’t help us at this point.

“It’s kind of too easy to just blame the Koch brothers,” Goldstein says. “The fundamental truth is that it’s made worse by the Koch brothers, but it’s really caused by all of us, and by a pretty fundamental problem with industrialization, and one that we need to find
our way out of collectively.”   

While “The China Syndrome” was fiction, and the idea that a nuclear reactor meltdown could burn through the center of the earth from America to China is pure fantasy, it does illustrate the nature of our connected world. Twenty-five years later, looking at images of Beijing shrouded in pollution—in part from factories making products for Americans—it’s hard not to think about pollution and climate change as a new China Syndrome. 

Increasingly, we are seeing that we’re all in this together: If the U.S. meets its emission targets, but India and China fuel their economy with coal plants, humanity still loses. 

With the agreement from Paris this past December, the world’s countries have finally come to consensus about the first steps to collectively addressing climate change, and each country will go about reducing its emissions with various means; within our own country, those decisions will also be made at a state and city level. Nuclear power may well be one of those means, if only as a bridge to a future filled with renewables.

In Philadelphia, there is no buzz about abandoning our heavy reliance on nuclear power, but as the city moves to reach its carbon-reduction goals and keep its economy growing, it’s only a matter of time before the nuclear option is part of the discussion. Local plants will need to be relicensed in the coming decades. 

Who stands on either side of that debate stage when the time comes may well be two people who both consider themselves environmentalists. If we are able to get our renewables portfolio up to nearly 50 percent, the question they may be considering is where we get that second half of our electricity from: nuclear energy or fossil fuels, the latter of which, if they are used at all, will hopefully be equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology.

Since it doesn’t look as though there will be a price on carbon any time soon, the availability of cheap natural gas may be the single factor that decides whether we invest in nuclear power in the U.S. Other factors in the discussion will include demand for energy, the regulatory landscape and how the public views the risk of each of these options. 

A discussion is exactly what Drexel’s Chris Peters wants to have with local people who are concerned about atomic energy. And he wants them to know that he’s an environmentalist, too.

“I want to embrace the environmental groups or bring them in or actually go to them and have a long discussion and see what the issues are,” he says. 

“We need to have a dialogue on this. There’s a valid concern from any new technology, you know? We can’t just go on into the future blindly.” 


  1. “If you want to have an impact on climate change, you have to do things that are fast and affordable, and that rules out nuclear power.”

    Riccio kind of ignores scale here.

    The people building nuclear power plants right now are Chinese, and they’re banging out ~1.5 GW plants with an average build time of ~5 years – a build rate of ~300 MW annualized / year / project. The equivalent build rate for solar is 42|99|140 MW annualized / year / project (282|386|476 MW capacity / year), while the same for wind is 32|42|57 MW annualized / year (107|128|143 MW capacity / year).

    They’re also doing it cheaply. The last five Chinese nuclear builds came in at about $2.5/W annualized ($2.6 / W capacity), with very low price variance. Compare that to solar’s, worldwide, which has a range* of $16|20|66 / W annualized ($3|5|10 / W capacity) and wind: $6.8|$12|$23 / W annualized ($3|4|7 / W capacity).

    Yes, there’s a long lead-time for nuclear compared to solar – but there’s also a long lead time for growing trees compared to bushes – does that imply we should only eat fruit of bushy origin?

    The old proverb says, the best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago; the second best time is right now. Objectively, building nuclear is potentially the fastest way to get carbon-free power on the grid, and it’s cheaper than renewables; it may not be very granular, like wind and solar are, but if we’re serious about climate, we have to treat it like an orchard, and invest in the trees AND the bushes.

    • Barred sets are minimum|mean|maximum
  2. Excellent reading! A really clear, informative and generally well balanced piece.
    If I could just add some extra weight to the following quote:
    “A cohort of high-profile climatologists such as James Hansen, scores of aligned conservation biologists and other thought leaders have begun to argue that an intractable opposition to nuclear power is no longer a tenable position.”
    This still sounds as though they are few among the many but this is actually consensus science. That’s right – the understanding that nuclear power is a low-carbon, high performer in decarbonizing our electricity supply is now the consensus view among the scientific community. The IPCC ranks nuclear power’s life-cycle emissions to be lower than solar and equal with off-shore wind. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cyclegreenhouse-gasemissionsofenergy_sources (Taken from this IPCC report, pdf p569: "IPCC Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change, Annex II I: Technology – specific cost and performance parameters" (PDF). IPCC. 2014. p. 10. Retrieved 1 August 2014.)
    The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014) includes nuclear power as one of the major low-carbon technologies at our disposal and while they express reservations about certain aspects of nuclear power (mostly political) they equally express reservations about renewables, making it clear that it is unlikely we can decarbonise with renewables alone. Bottom line, the IPPC finds that all low-carbon technologies must be pursued and that: "Achieving deep [emissions] cuts will require more intensive use of low-GHG technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS."
    Other international organizations concur, for example: According to the Pew Research Centre, 65% of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – the world’s largest international scientific society – and 79% of working PHD Physicists within their membership favour building more nuclear power plants: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/07/23/an-elaboration-of-aaas-scientists-views/ . What’s more, according to the International Energy Agency (or IEA – an O.E.C.D. agency), the world must double its nuclear capacity by 2050. Scientific American outlines the report here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nuclear-power-needs-to-double-to-curb-global-warming/ .
    I also have to add that it’s pretty disappointing to see Greenpeace cheering over the fact that high GHG emitter like gas won over an ultra-low carbon alternative like nuclear.

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