Debating Nuclear Energy: The Promise & Problems

Jul 11, 2017

Nuclear provides about a third of New England's electricity, but that's changing, as old plants in Vermont and Massachusetts shut down.  Still, there's huge debate over whether to build the next generation of nuclear.  Is it a reliable, carbon-free energy source...or is it too dangerous and expensive?


GUESTS:

  • Armond Cohen - Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force.
  • Jim Connell - Associate professor of physics at UNH; teaches about myths and misconceptions in nuclear energy. 
  • Raymond Shadis - Consulting technical advisor for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution and Vice President for Legal Initiatives. 

Conversation Highlights

For some environmentalists, nuclear power has been an acquired taste:

Armond Cohen: I actually was part of the legal coalition that fought against the licensing of Seabrook back in the eighties, but I've changed my views on that, on nuclear in general, because of the climate challenge. We are moving towards climate disaster pretty rapidly and nuclear energy, for all of its concerns, is the world’s largest non-carbon source of electricity.

Nuclear has been rethought by folks in the environmental movement, including me, with all the concerns and caveats that need to be addressed, as probably an extremely important tool in combating climate change by displacing fossil fuels.  

The current generation of nuclear power plants look not really to be the future. There’s  a great deal of technological development that promises much greater safety, much lower cost, and much less problematic waste profile. 

Is there a split among environmentalists on this question of nuclear power?

Cohen: There are a number of folks who don’t like nuclear almost on principle. But there’s a great deal of discussion now among climate advocates as to the role of nuclear. It helps that the Obama Administration's mid-century climate plan had a very large role for nuclear.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has put nuclear forward as part of a solution set, along with wind and solar. So the conversation is getting a lot more fluid, looking at the up sides and downs sides, not trying to glamorize the technology either. 

Some insist nuclear power's downsides outweigh any benefits, even in the face of drastic climate change.

Raymond Shadis:  Nuclear might provide a tiny portion of the solution to global warming but it cannot be a major player, simply because of the cost of setting up a sufficient number of nuclear plants to offset gas emissions.

Ray: Nuclear plants may be beautiful physics, but they are a plumber’s nightmare. Tens of thousands of valves, some automated, some not, relay switches that go bad just like the ones in your household. The plants are complicated beyond belief.  The ones that have been shut down have been shut down for two reasons: One,  nuclear accidents around the world resulted in increased safety requirements – nuclear safety is expensive and the wear and tear on nuclear components has far exceeded early expectations so that maintenance costs have risen to a point where nuclear can’t compete with natural gas, coal, or hydro, or wind power.

One professor has found his students are dispassionate on the matter.

Jim Connell: What I think is interesting is (students) are less polarized; they are less avidly pro, less avidly negative nuclear power. I've seen this change over the past 15 years I've taught this class. They tend to be more open to the notion that there are pro-aspects and negative aspects to the technology, and they tend to be less doctrinaire about these issues. 

We operate a radiological airborne monitoring network since Seabrook went on line in 1991.  We’re funded to do that in Massachusetts by the department of public health. Not yet in New Hampshire, where we’re hoping to change that. The plant is aging and there are some serious concrete problems at the plant as well. There are definitely public safety concerns for people living near a nuclear power plant and there's also the issue of waste that never goes away.  -- Natalie Hildt Treat, of the C-10 Research & Education Foundation. 

How carbon free is nuclear power? 

Listener email:   When you look at the fuel cycle alone, you see that the mining, milling and enriching processes require massive amounts of energy (currently coal generated energy that has a massive carbon footprint). Then, let's look at construction - years of use of carbon generating energy used to build, hundreds of thousands of tons of cement (one of the highest carbon footprint construction materials), gasoline fueled construction vehicles. Some estimates are that a nuclear plant needs to run at 100% power for 20+ years to make up for its carbon footprint. What plants operate at 100% for 20 years?

Cohen: The  IPCC in its last mitigation report looked exactly at this issue and looked at hundreds of studies. Their conclusion was, with all of the energy inputs and associated carbon, nuclear ranks right with wind and solar in terms of life-cycle analysis.    

Future nuclear power

Cohen: The real radical change were seeing is in the fourth generation coming forward… these take water out of the equation entirely. Water is the common denominator of the Three-Mile island and Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. You had a boil off situation. Coolant disappeared and couldn’t cool the reaction. These fourth-generation plants use very different coolants that are much more stable, don’t have the boil-off capability at the kind of temperatures we’re talking about.  Massive deployment of these has yet to be seen but there’s a fundamental physics embedded in this fourth generation that promises not only greater safety but lower cost.