Nuclear power isn’t going to blow up your house. But it could help save the world.
Editor’s note: Today, Choose Energy reporter Jenna Careri concludes a series of articles on nuclear energy, where it stands in the U.S. and where it’s going. Click here to read from the beginning. Or jump to Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4.
When the first nuclear reactor split its first atoms in Chicago in 1942, the scientists couldn’t possibly have imagined the controversy they were about to unleash.
“Nuclear energy faces many of the same challenges that all large, centralized power generation projects face today,” explained Bryan Jungers, a nuclear expert from the energy efficiency research company E Source. “Building and operating nuclear power plants is incredibly capital- and labor-intensive, requiring billion-dollar investments and hundreds of employees to operate.”
And it’s not just a question of cost and manpower. In its short history, nuclear energy has been both vindicated and condemned, hailed as our greatest source of power and our greatest weakness, depending on the political and societal whims of the moment.
“Couple this financial climate with fears sparked by the Fukushima disaster in Japan and more recently the popular new HBO show Chernobyl, and the proposition of building a new nuclear power plant sounds like a bad idea to the average person,” Jungers said.
But the science hasn’t changed. The steam keeps pumping, the turbines keep whirring, the silent war continues on both sides, with most people caught somewhere in the middle of a fight the scientists of 1942 could never have imagined.
Negative feedback and public fear
There is very little link between the nuclear weapons the American public has come to fear and the nuclear plants that generate 20 percent of the country’s electricity. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still linked in the American psyche.
While the majority of the public supported the atomic bomb just after it dropped, that’s not the case anymore. And studies now show Americans are loath to associate themselves with nuclear in any form.
“These studies are not unique or new,” said Steven Curtis, a national security consultant with the NevadansCAN team to promote safe uses of nuclear power. “However, the premise the study alluded to here is that people simply fear what they do not know.”
And what they don’t know, in this case, is that their fears of nuclear power plants don’t come from the realities of nuclear energy but from their own misconceptions.
“This should be said over and over: a nuclear explosion and what was seen at Fukushima have nothing in common,” said CarbonExit Consulting’s French energy expert François Le Scornet. “The small explosion seen at Fukushima was just a hydrogen explosion. Reactors at risk of such hydrogen explosion in case of severe accident have been equipped with hydrogen recombiners to mitigate this risk.”
Nuclear power plants, he says, cannot function like nuclear bombs. They aren’t built the same way and have far more safeguards in place, thanks to lessons learned during the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
But Three Mile Island, adds Energy Impact Center founder Bret Kugelmass, caused its own host of perception issues.
“The public assumed if nuclear power plants truly required a 6-foot-thick concrete dome, 100 machine gun-wielding security guards, and a 50-mile evacuation radius, that such plants must be proportionally dangerous.”
“This is one of the great ironies of history,” he explained. The plant’s safeguards functioned exactly as they should have, but seeking to calm the public’s terror, regulators created additional safety requirements. Many of these requirements were unnecessary and economically unfeasible. They were for show, and it backfired.
“The public assumed if nuclear power plants truly required a 6-foot-thick concrete dome, 100 machine gun-wielding security guards, and a 50-mile evacuation radius, that such plants must be proportionally dangerous,” Kugelmass said.
It’s a negative feedback loop, and nuclear power has been stuck in it for half a century.
“Nuclear can be cheap and omnipresent, both of which create a positive feedback cycle inducing favorable public sentiment,” Kugelmass said. “But first, it must break through its shackles of defensiveness and self-imposed economic burdens.”
Setting the record straight
Nuclear power doesn’t have to be an enemy. With the right marketing, it can be a powerful player in the green revolution.
“While there are stories of countries (most prominently Germany) backing away from nuclear, the reality is that many more are embracing nuclear energy in a bigger way,” Curtis said. “Again, the perception issue.”
Even Germany is seeing the importance of nuclear power with increasing calls to postpone the phase out, if only to avoid the use of coal power until renewables can catch up. The general consensus: Nuclear power might not be the ultimate solution to a green world, but it is an efficient solution for now.
“Most policy and energy experts recognize nuclear power as not only the most efficient path to decarbonizing global energy demand but also as a foundational element to a robust industrial economy (à la South Korea, Sweden, France),” Kugelmass said.
This can be seen in the willingness of some states to subsidize nuclear instead of disbanding it, in the willingness of the national legislature to introduce not only a nuclear bill but a bipartisan nuclear bill.
That is not to say there aren’t glaring issues with the nuclear industry as it currently stands. Cost concerns, a lack of disposal options for plant waste, and the tolls of mining are all very real barriers.
“Some of the lifecycle implications of nuclear power plant operation – specifically, the impacts associated with mining nuclear fuel and the need to carefully store spent nuclear waste for 10,000 years after its use – have led some citizens to question the environmental friendliness of nuclear,” Jungers said.
But as the country and the greater world enter a critical period in the battle against climate change, nuclear is a viable low-carbon energy source that is ready for mass use now, when others have years of development in front of them.
“One should not systematically oppose the different low-carbon energies – solar, wind, hydropower, nuclear energy – as they all have their advantages and drawbacks,” Le Scornet said.
It isn’t about vilifying certain energy sources, Le Scornet says, but rather using the ones that make sense in the moment and in that specific environment. Sometimes nuclear will be the right fit. Sometimes it won’t. But it has a place somewhere.
“In my experience, not only do the majority of Americans put little thought into where their energy comes from, those who do and are most informed, motivated, and passionate on the topic skew toward the climate-concerned, younger generations.”
“In my experience, not only do the majority of Americans put little thought into where their energy comes from, those who do and are most informed, motivated, and passionate on the topic skew toward the climate-concerned, younger generations,” Kugelmass said. “They overwhelmingly view nuclear as a critical solution to climate change.”
Regardless of nuclear power’s long-term future, the climate realities of today require a more realistic evaluation of its abilities and limits. The Arctic is literally on fire, so it’s time to get serious about the energy options available now. Nuclear is one of them.
“What happened to the nuclear issue is similar to the Salem witch hunts, the Spanish inquisition, and even the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.,” Curtis said, “in that all were exaggerated scare tactics used on uneducated people as a ‘fear factor’ to support a political control goal.”
One can hope the next maneuver for political control will rely a little more heavily on the truth.
Jenna Careri is a writer covering the environment and energy industry. She is a Massachusetts native and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and French.