Nuclear power: Why the divide in expert views?

By Joan Blades, John Harte | October 6, 2023

Nuclear cooling towerPart of the bridge to zero emissions?

Within the large community of scientists who share deep concern over climate change and accept the urgent need to greatly reduce carbon emissions, there is a sharp divide over the future role of nuclear power in the global energy mix. Among these scientists, arguments for nuclear power’s necessity, desirability, dangers, and impracticality abound.

The case for nuclear power as a necessary component of the fight against climate change typically assumes that sun, wind, and increased efficiency cannot meet future energy needs, particularly baseload demand. Those making the case for the desirability of nuclear power emphasize the relatively small amount of land needed to obtain nuclear fuel and site reactors, and the near absence of the pollutants associated with fossil fuel burning during operation.

Those warning of unacceptable dangers associated with nuclear power generation point to accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl, to increasing threat of nuclear war among nations if more and more nations have the capability to produce weapons-grade isotopes, to stages in the fuel cycle that could be vulnerable to diversion of radioactive material by terrorists, and to potential leakage from spent fuel storage sites. Those arguing that increased use of nuclear power is impractical mainly emphasize its relatively high cost, its lengthy deployment time, and the absence of widespread public acceptance.

To try to determine whether these viewpoints reflect factual disagreements, one of us (Blades) organized an expert “Living Room Conversation.” The objective was to bring knowledgeable people with diverging views together, in a private setting, to talk with each other, learn whether there is common ground on the future role of nuclear power in reducing carbon emissions, and if not, to try to identify the kind of information needed to achieve agreement on key facts. Such small, structured Living Room Conversations are designed to encourage curiosity and listening across political and other differences.

This conversation was held in July. The six conversants included two environmental scientists whose research emphasizes climate change; one has argued that nuclear power is key to an emissions-free future (argument from necessity), and one has argued that the costs will remain prohibitive while alternatives to nuclear power are adequate (argument from impracticality and lack of necessity). The other four participants included one who had expertise on the US electric grid, one who was a radiation protection specialist, and two who were progressive climate action organizers concerned because the trusted experts they have relied on were telling them conflicting stories about the best path forward with regard to nuclear energy.

There were substantial areas of agreement in the conversation beyond consensus about the need to reduce emissions as much as we can, as quickly as we can, and as cheaply as we can, without causing unacceptable impacts on human welfare. There was consensus about the need for reliable baseload power, and for modernizing the electric grid in the United States. There was general enthusiasm for future improvements in energy efficiency to reduce overall demand. And of course there was support for continuing research, particularly on safety issues at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, and in the design and performance of small modular reactors.

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More interesting, not a single factual disagreement arose during the two-hour conversation. Nobody claimed that waste storage demonstrably poses large and inevitable risks to the public, or that the waste problem has been solved. Nobody claimed that future Fukushimas and Chernobyls are practically unavoidable or that they are virtually impossible with current safeguards. There was really nothing to argue about … except what the future will look like!

Those arguing from nuclear’s necessity or desirability were fairly confident that future costs will drop substantially, that construction can be expedited, and that safeguards can be developed and put in place to insure public safety. Those arguing from the perspective of nuclear power’s dangers or impracticalities believe future costs will remain prohibitive, risks will remain unacceptably high, and baseload requirements can be met without nuclear power. These diverging views of the future reflected, primarily, different wishes, not possession of, or belief in, different facts. A fact checker cannot mend these differences.

The main take-home message from the conversation was the extent to which only unabashed speculation separated the two viewpoints on nuclear: One side speculates that the price will come down, that terrorists can be prevented from intercepting nuclear fuel supply chains, and that expanded nuclear power will not dangerously increase the likelihood of nuclear war; the other side speculates that the price will remain non-competitive, diversion of nuclear materials will remain a serious threat, and public opinion will continue to resist this solution. One side speculates that solar and wind cannot meet future baseload power needs, while the other hopes that a modernized grid that coordinates solar and wind power across regions, new developments in storage technology, and future development of deep, dry-rock geothermal for baseload power will be sufficient.

The issue of baseload supply emerged as particularly in need of further analysis. There is a need for more discussion of possible ways in which greater temporal flexibility in electricity use can be promoted and achieved, thereby lessening the need for a large baseload supply. The future role of baseload geothermal energy looks promising, but far more analysis and discussion of that option are needed. And finally, the vulnerability of nuclear power’s cooling needs to prolonged and intensive heat waves that could make nuclear power unreliable as a baseload electricity supply also deserves more thought.

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Six conversants is not very many; we expect that if many such conversations were held today, some areas of factual disagreement could arise. But the conversation left us confident that the major divide over nuclear power stems from differing speculations about two questions: Can the cost of nuclear power and its risks be reduced substantially, and can essential baseload needs be met without it?

Given that differing hopes and fears are what mainly separates the two sides of the nuclear power debate, what should today’s energy policy look like?  The following is our view, not the consensus from the conversation.

Under uncertainty, some seek to minimize the chance of a worst-case outcome, while others favor policy that promotes a best-case outcome. To minimize the likelihood of a worst-case outcome, we might compare a future in which nuclear power has contributed to the outbreak of nuclear war with a future in which the economy is at times severely disrupted by a lack of sufficient base load power. That unhappy choice would compel most people to plan for a non-nuclear future.  To maximize the likelihood of best-case outcomes (safe and affordable nuclear power; solar, wind and enhanced efficiency, with sufficient baseload supply), the much lower land requirement for nuclear power should be compared with the inherent advantages of decentralized energy systems—systems less vulnerable to human error. In this light, a nuclear future is not the clear choice today in either worst or best cases.

Moreover, solar and wind power are rapidly expanding today, but around the world their output is generally far below the level at which inadequate baseload is limiting their use. Thus in the interests of reducing the climate threat, it makes sense now to greatly and rapidly increase investment in the deployment of those technologies, while investing in a modern grid and improved storage technologies.

Further research and development may provide persuasive evidence that baseload power needs can be met in a carbon-free, non-nuclear future. It might also show that both the cost of nuclear power and its hazards can be greatly reduced. Research and development are the only way to replace, with facts, the hopes and fears that currently dominate the debate.


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TJC
TJC
7 months ago

The crucial fact driving a requirement for SMR’s as a large part of our decarbonization architecture is land use opposition. Today, the U.S. get 1.5% of its electrical energy from solar and 5% from wind. Opposition to land use for wind and solar projects has grown fierce across the country. Many love to demonize ranchers and farmers for their opposition position without understanding the legitimate reasons these people have.

Mitch Mcfarland
Mitch Mcfarland
7 months ago
Reply to  TJC

Commercial buildings, retail superstores, and military buildings alone would likely provide all the space we need for solar. Each are already grid tied. This is not to mention the millions of homes with roof space.

Henry sokolski
7 months ago

Perhaps you should’ve had a panelist who worked at Zaporizhzhia? Something about nuclear plants is targets in war?

Charles Winfield Forsberg
Charles Winfield Forsberg
7 months ago

Let see. Had a discussion about supplying electricity that is less than 20% of the energy to the final customer: residential, commercial, industrial and transportation. However, the industrial sector needs primarily steady-state heat and the peak heating demand is on the coldest day of the year that occurs near minimum solar output and near zero wind. Extreme cold fronts have low wind conditions. It’s going to be a real shock when people realize what a small fraction of the energy system is associated with electricity and most of the energy demand is providing heat. Nuclear reactors provide heat, PV and… Read more »

GHarbour
GHarbour
7 months ago

I find it concerning that nuclear waste disposal was not discussed more clearly. When you have a fuel that provides power for years but requires tens of thousands of years for the waste to become safe, you find yourself with the classic bathtub problem. The inflow is so much faster than the outflow that the bathtub overflows. Think about having century’s worth of waste depleting to safe levels over millennia. Just the power required to run cooling water on all that waste would at some point outweigh the power provided by the technology. This is not a long term viable… Read more »

Charles Forsberg
Charles Forsberg
7 months ago
Reply to  GHarbour

Decay heat from spent nuclear fuel decreases rapidly so can put in dry cask (no water) storage in 3 to 5 years. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico was designed for disposal of all types of long lived radioactive waste—however it is only used for plutonium weapons waste. That is because nuclear weapons are far more important to the U.S. government than commercial nuclear power. Waste management is purely a political question where when get serious about nuclear energy, we will get a geological repository and safely dispose of the waste. The advance solar cells are made of… Read more »

Alan Bromborsky
Alan Bromborsky
7 months ago

I strongly support geothermal power plants. With regard to Nuclear power I think it is critical to do the research (mainly materials research) to see if a liquid salt Thorium power reactor (air cooling) is feasible both from a safety and economic viewpoint and how it would compare to current advanced pressurized boiling water reactor technology.

SW
SW
7 months ago

The research has been done repeatedly by many experts. Listen to one of the expert engineers who has studied energy issues for >40 years, Amory Lovins: “Nuclear power has bleak prospects because it has no business case. New plants cost 3–8x or 5–13x more per kWh than unsubsidized new solar or windpower, so new nuclear power produces 3–13x fewer kWh per dollar and therefore displaces 3–13x less carbon per dollar than new renewables. Thus buying nuclear makes climate change worse. Fashionably rebranded “Small Modular” or “Advanced” reactors can’t change the outcome. They’ll initially at least double existing reactors’ cost per… Read more »

Gordon Edwards
Gordon Edwards
7 months ago

Proliferation of nuclear weapons remains an existential threat to the survival of human civilization, and nuclear plants both small and large create the only nuclear explosive material – plutonium – that cannot be denatured or rendered unusable for nuclear weapons use. Pressure for “advanced” fast reactors and fuel cycles requiring reprocessing will make human-made nuclear explosive materials more readily available world-side. This is a recipe for ultimate disaster as any conflict, anywhere in the world, may turn into a nuclear war and trigger armageddon. And, although arguments its on either side may be balanced, consequences of being wrong are not… Read more »

Jon Fogelberg
7 months ago

The problem is the scope of the discussion. It does not take into account the inevitable depletion of fossil fuel. When that happens.. only nuclear provides a solution.

Jess H. Brewer
7 months ago

Sounds like you took a side, which is not surprising based on your history of opposition to anything nuclear. One thing you missed: nuclear power may be great for supplying stable power for the grid, but as you say, the grid isn’t everything; what you missed is the variety of energy-intensive projects that have nothing to do with toasters, lights or washing machines — and everything to do with massive carbon sequestration, sea water desalinization, carbon-neutral synfuel production and a huge variety of industrial processes that will never be adequately served by wind, solar, hydro or geothermal power. We need… Read more »

Ed Reames
Ed Reames
7 months ago

As a former Navy nuclear power plant operator, the discussion above covers the perils and promise of nuclear power. Hopefully, new power plant designs can take care of the nuclear power plant operational issues. The key however is how to handle the waste that is inevitable with nuke plants.

John Kutsch
7 months ago

You might want to do some basic math when it comes to resources like Copper, Tellurium, Rare Earths, even steel and concrete – we would need 5 more earths to supply (Misnamed) renewables with the materials needed to make terrible power and store it at vast expense – what we know for sure is that UCS and Bulletin Etc. are really trying to drive de-industrialization as the solution to environmental problems.

John Wefel
John Wefel
7 months ago

This piece mentions, but does not dwell on a critical fact, namely public opposition to nuclear. This has/was developed over many years, in large part by scientists themselves, from “radiation is bad for you; nuclear power plants produce radiation; ergo nuclear plants can/will hurt you.” Then, along came Three-mile island and Chernobyl that this group held out as proof. Nuff said, the nuclear power industry pretty much dried up. This still seems to be in the background of the conclusions of this article. So, when the numbers that I have seen show that you cannot produce enough energy from wind… Read more »

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