Increase reliance on nuclear energy to cope with climate change?

December 18, 2015

I would not increase our reliance on nuclear energy.

On its face, nuclear energy appears a natural answer to global warming. Nuclear generation could replace hydrocarbon fuels in electric plants, and in vehicles, too. That was the US Atomic Energy Commission’s goal 50 years ago. It was supposed to have been reached by now, but of course it wasn’t, because in going from principle to practice things got messy. Real life nuclear power comes with lots of headaches. Migraines.

For one thing, the technology is very expensive, which is why the vaunted US nuclear renaissance fell flat. The cost reflects the minimal demands of safety. Light water reactors, the standard nuclear workhorses, use oxide fuel that melts quickly if cooling is interrupted. To prevent this, the plants are designed with multiple safety systems that have to meet exceptional quality standards. The latest light water reactors (LWRs) reduce complexity somewhat, but there is no getting away from the intrinsic high cost.

Fukushima reminded us that LWR safety remains an open issue. The Japanese regulators got criticized for failing to require a higher seawall. It’s hard to believe the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would have acted differently in similar circumstances. The agency has yet to respond to some of the obvious lessons of the Fukushima accident. It is telling that in nearly two decades, there has hardly been a word of criticism of the NRC from the nuclear industry.

Top government officials still blithely assure citizens that nuclear accident risks are negligible. It’s doubtful they understand the assumptions and limitations of the probabilistic estimates they rely on. The people who certainly do, at Westinghouse and General Electric, made clear they aren’t about to bet their companies on such estimates. They insist on total freedom from accident liability. A mayor or governor should be able to do the same—to insist on assurances that his city or state will not suffer radioactive contamination, no matter what.

My main reservation, however, concerns the international security consequences of a worldwide expansion of nuclear generation. If we turn to nuclear plants to limit climate change, we will need lots of them, thousands, inevitably in dozens of countries. It’s been understood from the beginning that civilian nuclear programs give countries a leg up on conversion to military uses. It is foolish to encourage worldwide nuclear expansion when we can’t get international agreement on even a minimal margin of safety between civilian and military applications. For example, in 1976 President Gerald Ford proposed a ban on recycling plutonium "until there is sound reason to conclude the world community can effectively overcome the associated problems of proliferation." The world nuclear community resisted, and continues to resist.

Nuclear electric generation was an amazing scientific and engineering accomplishment. But LWR technology has too many problems to make it a sensible model for large-scale worldwide replication. I would broaden President Ford’s statement: We ought to hold off increasing our reliance on nuclear energy until we have the technology and national and international institutions to assure it will do more good than harm.