Nuclear energy was the focus of a recent NPR 1A podcast episode, hosted by journalist Jenn White, who welcomed guests to discuss the role of nuclear energy in the future of the United States. The guests—Joe Dominguez, chief executive officer of Constellation Energy; Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution; and Edwin Lyman, director of Nuclear Power Safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists—participated in the episode, titled “Where Does Nuclear Energy Fit in a Carbon-Free Future?”
Nuclear pro and con: At the top of the program, White noted, “When it comes to carbon-free energy, many people think of renewables, like solar or wind. But there's also the nuclear option.”
She then played a recording of a woman who feared nuclear power because of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, followed by a recording of a man who is a neighbor of the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois: “I have nuclear in my backyard, and I’m grateful I do every day,” he said, “and I know me and my neighbors would be happy to have more. We have to get over this irrational fear of nuclear and adopt new-build nuclear for our future.”
Nuclear basics: Dominguez explained the basic process by which nuclear power plants generate electricity, pointing out that each of the 93 operating reactors in the United States produces an average of about 1,000 MW of power, with 1 MW being enough for about 1,000 family homes.
Gross observed that while many people are still “quite scared” of nuclear energy because of the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the health and environmental risks of fossil fuels are worse than those of nuclear. ”So if you look at it in terms of overall harm to human beings, burning fossil fuels for power is much more dangerous and harmful to people than nuclear has ever been,” she said.
Concerns: Lyman said that his “biggest concern” about the currently operating nuclear power plants is degradation and corrosion that go undetected. He said, “Half the reactors had to be shut down” in France last year because of unexpected, unusually severe corrosion problems.
He observed that maintenance and inspection processes in the United States are very expensive. Therefore, “there is constant pressure to reduce the frequency and intensity of inspections.”
NRC effectiveness: Gross described the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as “one of the finest organizations in the world that does this kind of [regulatory] work.” Dominguez told White that NRC regulators are “constantly” coming to plants to conduct inspections, adding that the regulators are “effectively living with us” as they review the plants’ data and operations.
Lyman countered that the NRC’s regulatory and oversight activities “are going in the wrong direction because of the cost pressures that the industry is under.” He claimed that the industry has been urging the NRC to reduce inspections and that “almost every inspection turns up problems.” He implied that problems with the fleet might be worse than regulators realize because “inspectors can’t see everything.”
Waste issue: Regarding radioactive waste, Lyman said the failure to find a long-term solution to the storage of waste is “another Achilles’ heel of the industry. Spent fuel storage is both a technical and political problem, he continued.
Dominguez spoke to the safety of nuclear, citing mortality rates of different energy sources, per the World Health Organization, which reviewed the environmental and health aspects of different forms of energy. These data indicate that nuclear energy is the safest form of energy, when looking at deaths per billion kilowatt-hours.
New nuclear: White asked her guests for their views on the much-publicized cost overruns of the new reactors at Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia.
Gross answered, “I think I can confidently say that you’ll never see a large nuclear power plant built like [Vogtle} again. Never mind political or public opinion, it’s simply a cost question. I don’t think any utility will take on that risk.”
Dominguez added that replacing the currently operating large nuclear power plants is going to be difficult in the United States—unlike in China, which has the infrastructure in place to tackle such massive projects. “In this country, I think that [new nuclear projects] are going to be the small modular reactors that Bill Gates [via his company TerraPower] and others have been strong proponents of.”
Reliability: Gross emphasized the difference between nuclear and other renewables, namely wind and solar, in terms of reliability. “Nuclear can provide electrons whenever you need them,” she said. “Power is available whenever you want it, whereas wind and solar are intermittent. They generate when it’s windy and sunny. And so reliable sources of power that can generate all the time are going to be really important for the grid going forward, as will be storage and other technologies. That’s why we think of a grid that includes many kinds of technologies.”
Regarding storing the additional electricity needed in a clean-energy future, Dominguez said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, the ability that we have from a technology standpoint to power the grid, which requires power to always be on, with solar or wind . . . we’re less than a 1 on that trajectory. That is why every single analysis that has been done on dealing with the climate crisis concludes that we need a form of energy that does what nuclear does today, and that’s provide zero-emission energy predictably at all times of the day.”
Gross agreed, saying, “We do not have solutions for that today.” She elaborated on some of the energy infrastructure problems in the United States, especially the difficulty of getting permits to build facilities for generating power and transmitting electricity and suggested that new legislation is needed to address these issues.
Technology gap: Dominguez argued that new energy technologies are needed. “I think we’re going to need to figure out a way to burn natural gas and separate and sequester, in the earth or in some sort of dry method, all of the emissions. And there’s a great deal of work being done on that, as well as small modular reactors, to figure out this technology gap. This isn’t just a permitting issue or a will issue. This is, flatly, we don’t have the technology yet to power a grid with all zero-emission technology.”
In response to White’s query about when the use of fossil fuels will end, Dominguez emphasized that fossil fuels will need to remain part of the U.S. energy picture, along with all other technologies. He said, “We’re not going to run airplanes, for example, on batteries. They’re too heavy. . . . We need to use fossil fuels that are created in a carbon-free environment.”
Gross added, “There is no environmentally perfect solution to climate change. Everything we do is going to involve tradeoffs.”