In an interview with Al Jazeera Digital, former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman and self-proclaimed nuclear agnostic Allison Macfarlane said that untested advanced reactor designs and the high cost of building new power plants will limit nuclear’s ability to play a critical role in fighting the climate crisis, at least in the near future.
“Almost 19 percent of the power [in the United States] right now is produced by nuclear power. That’s carbon free. That’s really helpful. We don’t want to shut that off,” Macfarlane told Al Jazeera Digital’s managing business editor Patricia Sabga. “But I live in a pragmatic, realistic world. And I don’t think, at least in the next 10 or 20 years, that nuclear power will be able to have a big impact on reducing carbon emissions because we can’t build new plants fast enough.”
Macfarlane, who served as NRC chairman from 2012 to 2014, is currently a professor and director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.
High costs: Using the new Vogtle units in Georgia as an example, Macfarlane said that high capital costs, compounded by long construction schedules, are hurting nuclear’s ability to compete with other energy sources.
“Now there are claims made about the small modular reactors that they’ll be cheaper,” Macfarlane added. “But because nobody’s ever built one, and nobody’s established the supply chains to build them and to operate them, we really have no idea what those will cost.”
Paper designs: Of other advanced reactor designs, Macfarlane said that many of them currently exist only on paper and have not gone through all the necessary steps of building and testing full-scale operating reactor designs. “And those steps take years,” she said. “And when you get to the full-scale model, that’s really expensive. Where’s that money coming from?”
The future: While admitting to not having a “good crystal ball,” Macfarlane said that nuclear will likely remain an important part of electricity production in a number of countries for many decades, and that if policymakers were serious about decarbonization, nuclear power would be part of the energy mix. “But it means a lot of money,” she said. “So, somebody has to pay for this.”