Future Hindsight’s Look at Nuclear Power

We spent most of 2020 (so far) looking at climate change from various angles and talking to some of the world’s most passionate activists, scientists, and public policy experts about how we can create a green future. Many of our guests agree that the technology is there, and political will is the main obstacle we face in the struggle against climate change and sea-level rise.

Nuclear energy has been touted as a way to use existing technology to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewable energies that would satisfy demand and partisan hankerings. To that end, we set out to discover if nuclear power was indeed the answer to our question. Can it help us usher in a green new age? Here is what we found.

We started our look at nuclear power with Professor Joshua Goldstein. Goldstein is the co-author of the book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow.

Check out our interview with Joshua here:

He talked with us about the potential to use nuclear energy to ween ourselves off of fossil fuels, which produce much more carbon emissions. He argued that nuclear is green, and the risks posed by malfunctioning plants or waste byproducts are vastly outmatched by the health risks caused by coal power’s air pollution or the impending doom of some climate change scenarios. He is right about the damaging impact of coal on civilian populations; you can check out our blog post on it to learn more.  He explained how Sweden cut its emissions in half by transitioning to nuclear, and Germany—who transitioned away from nuclear power—is seeing a rise in CO2 emissions thanks to their policies. 

Goldstein also acknowledged some of the problems that later guests would reference. The most important of these is the length of time it takes to bring a nuclear power plant online, and the huge costs associated with them. His nuclear future rests in the hands of small modular reactors currently in development in the US and China. These reactors, once fully developed, could be scaled quickly and moved to the parts of the world that need power most. It’s an enticing idea and one that very well could shape energy in the future, but they won’t ready until the middle of this decade before we’ll know for certain.

Next, we sat down with Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, a Senior Fellow of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He disagreed with Goldstein’s nuclear prognosis for a few key reasons.

You can listen to Mila’s full conversation with him here:

The biggest issue with nuclear as a savior was the timetable. According to Jacobson, nuclear reactors take between 10-19 years to complete and are often subject to cost and time overruns. If we started building new plants today, the earliest we would see even one completed reactor is 2030, and more likely 2035. Meanwhile, Jacobson noted the need to transition to 80% green or renewable energy by 2030. Even if we fully pivoted from fossil to nuclear tomorrow, we would continue to burn fossil fuels while the new plants come online in the 2030s, at which point it’s too late.

Instead, Jacobson argued for a massive renewables buildout, coupled with aggressive electrification in industries like transportation, manufacturing, and construction. Moving away from gas-powered cars and gas-heated homes towards green electricity on the road, in factories, and in homes is the best way forward. Even if small modular reactors work and are fully scalable, the delay in operation may be too much for us. Instead, we can use existing technology to start electrification now, immediately cutting fossil fuel emissions and saving money with renewable energy sources.

Jacobson admitted nuclear was the perfect energy source on paper, much as Goldstein had said. In practice, however, nuclear took too long, cost too much, and brought with it the specters of nuclear meltdowns, waste dumps, and weapons.

Now that we’d looked at the potential future of nuclear energy as an environmental savior, we wanted to see what the existing impacts of nuclear technology are in nature. For that, we turned to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler. Ken has made a career investigating the impact radiation has on our oceans.

You can listen to our full episode with Ken here:

He emphasized one of the points that Goldstein made—radiation in small doses is fine, and we all live with radiation. The problem with radiation comes when humans receive large doses of it, a relatively rare occurrence. He also noted the compounds that release radiation vary significantly, and many radioactive particles decay very quickly, meaning even large concentrations of radiation may only be harmful for a short time.

To illustrate this, he examined the Pacific Ocean in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima reactor meltdown. Immediately after the accident, high levels of radioactive cesium leaked into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan. By 2014, levels of radioactivity had decreased to the point that all fish caught off Japanese waters were below the safe threshold for human consumption. Today, the Pacific Ocean is less radioactive than it was in the 1960s after the weapons tests conducted by the US government in the Marshall Islands. Swimming in the Pacific Ocean for 8 hours a day is still significantly less risky than one dental x-ray, he told us.

Of course, radiation in places like the Chernobyl exclusion zone or a waste dump is dangerous for humans, but radiation shouldn’t concern us much in our everyday lives. A common theme through all of our interviews on nuclear technology was the fear it elicits in civilians. We should be afraid of nuclear war or catastrophic meltdowns, but the current and historical threat caused by radiation is low. Finally, we wanted to inspect the legacy of nuclear power. For this, we turned to Fred Pearce, a renowned environmental journalist and author of Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age.

He opened the interview by proclaiming the end of the Nuclear Era. The societal fear of nuclear technology thanks to the Cold War, accidents like Chernobyl, and the culture of misinformation surrounding nuclear technology were the largest nails in its coffin. Nuclear has a bad public reputation, and democratic nations are opting for other green energy sources that come without stigma.

The three largest legacies for nuclear technology are radioactive waste dumps, weapons stockpiles, and an atmosphere of secrecy and distrust in scientists. The first two are obvious—waste is a factor in any nuclear reaction, and nuclear technology was, after all, invented in bomb form. Pearce hopes disarmament can occur in the next 30-40 years to purge the world of what he calls “a Faustian pact.” The distrust in scientists comes from the mixed messages, lies, hidden information, and mistakes nuclear technology has spawned over the last 70 years. Pearce hypothesizes that much of the mistrust leveled at science these days can trace its roots back to the nuclear movement. In fact, the distrust of science may be the most damaging part of the Nuclear Era.

Thanks to these four authors and scientists, we have a broad overview of the science, and its benefits and detriments. In the end, we agree that nuclear power looks great on paper but leaves a lot to be desired in actuality. Although most plants are safe and radiation levels are low, the risks are large. The most damning arguments against powering the world with uranium are simply time and money. Using current nuclear systems and climate projections, we simply do not have enough time to transition without devastating consequences. Renewable energy like solar or wind is cheap and getting cheaper, while nuclear power is becoming more costly. If small modular reactors enter the market and are proven viable, we will revisit our determination. Until then, we must advocate for the rapid expansion of renewable energy and the electrification of market sectors, before it’s too late.

Works Cited

“Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).” Energy.gov, www.energy.gov/ne/nuclear-reactor-technologies/small-modular-nuclear-reactors.

“A BRIGHT FUTURE.” A Bright Future, www.brightfuturebook.com/.

“Ending the Nuclear Era: Fred Pearce.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/ending-the-nuclear-era-fred-pearce/.

“A Nuclear Future: Joshua Goldstein.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/a-nuclear-future-joshua-goldstein/.

“Our Radioactive Ocean: Ken Buesseler.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/our-radioactive-ocean-ken-buesseler/.

Pearce, Fred. “Fallout by Fred Pearce: 9780807092491: PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books.” PenguinRandomhouse.com, Beacon Press, www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/561465/fallout-by-fred-pearce/.

“A Renewable Future: Mark Z. Jacobson.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/a-renewable-future-mark-z-jacobson/.

“Why Do We Still Use Coal?” Future Hindsight, 2 Apr. 2020, www.futurehindsight.com/why-do-we-still-use-coal/.

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