Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman says nuclear power is not a climate solution
Former heads of nuclear regulators in Europe and the United States released a statement this week expressing their opposition to nuclear power as a climate solution.
The debate over the benefits and risks of nuclear energy has been polarized for years, but it is intensifying as world leaders strive to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy. On one side of the debate, some argue that renewables alone are too dependent on the weather to provide a constant power supply. Nuclear technology, which today provides about half of America’s carbon-free electricity, can reliably support it, they say. And new nuclear technology is unlikely to trigger disasters like the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters that have frightened the public in the past, proponents say. But not everyone is convinced.
Nuclear power is still too expensive and risky to be a viable clean energy source, write the authors of the statement. Among them are Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and former heads of similar agencies in Germany, France and the UK.
To learn more about why some nuclear power experts oppose the power source as a climate solution, The edge spoke with Jaczko, who chaired the NRC from 2009 to 2012 and since then has been open about his concerns.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The debate over whether nuclear power should play a role in climate action has been going on for years. What prompted you to release a statement this week? Why now?
I think there has been a lot of misinformation about the role nuclear power can play in any climate strategy. Much attention has been paid to nuclear as a technology that will solve many problems when it comes to dealing with climate change. I just don’t think that’s true. And it takes debate and discussion away from areas that can play a role and that need focus and attention.
I’ve certainly seen nuclear energy make a lot of headlines lately. there was a leak Rough draft of the European Commission plans to qualify nuclear energy as a green investment. And here in the United States, the Infrastructure Act is meant to channel Billions to support nuclear energy. What goes through your mind when you see this?
I think it is money that is not well spent. Nuclear has shown time and time again that it cannot deliver on deployment and cost. And that’s really the most important factor when it comes to climate.
What I find a little confusing is why all of a sudden it’s getting attention when in fact what’s really happening is really, really bad for nuclear. You see nuclear plants that, when I was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, were supposed to be commissioned—these plants are not commissioned anywhere in the world. There are a few new plants that came online much later. Then you have the complete fiasco of new nuclear reactor construction in the United States. You had four new design reactors that were licensed when I was president, which were supposed to start production in 2016 and 2017.
Two of these reactors were canceled, which involved federal indictments for fraud among the heads of the company that led the development of this reactor. Then the other two reactors are in Georgia, and those reactors keep getting pushed back and are now expected to start in 2022 or 2023. And they’re looking at a price tag of over $30 billion, more than double the original estimate. for the cost of this reactor.
[Editor’s note: Federal and state grand juries have charged the developers of an expansion project at South Carolina’s V.C. Summer Nuclear Station with fraud. They were charged with lying about progress on plans to build two new nuclear reactors at the site, which were abandoned in 2017 after ballooning costs that left utility customers to foot the bill.
The same company that was contracted to build the reactors in South Carolina, Westinghouse Electric Company, was also hired to build an additional two new reactors at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. Costs for the Vogtle project similarly skyrocketed, and Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in 2017.]
Speaking of that Georgian project, the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, you cast the only dissenting vote on the NRC in 2012. Looking back, was there anything that surprised you?
I opposed this particular plant for a very specific reason: I thought that the agency I headed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, should have demanded that as part of its development process adopt all the reforms that were made to coping with the Fukushima nuclear accident. . If you had asked me then that I expected the plant to be five years behind schedule and more than double its budget, I would have said no. The reason I would have said that is because the industry at the time was assuring me and everyone associated with nuclear politics and everyone in the financial community that the industry controlled costs and construction. They groped it beyond even my expectation of how they could grope it. [Editor’s note: costs for the Vogtle expansion were initially estimated at $14 billion.]
People like to characterize me as a very ardent opponent of nuclear energy. I don’t really see myself as that. I consider myself a kind of realist. But even if you had asked me at the time, I would not have said that it would be so far from budget and so delayed in its realization. And you know, I think right now you can definitely wonder if this will ever be over.
What to do with old reactors? Some experts say premature shutdowns of nuclear power plants are leading natural gas and coal-fired power plants to fill in the gaps.
We have to get the facts right. And the premise of your question is not true. First of all, there is no direct one-to-one replacement.
Renewables and the amount of renewables going on far exceeds shutting down a nuclear plant in the United States. Thus, nuclear is simply not being replaced by fossil fuels. We still see natural gas playing too large a role in our electricity sector. This is a question in itself that has nothing to do with the closure or not of nuclear power plants. So that’s where I say a lot of this discussion around nuclear is focused on the wrong thing. The good thing we need to focus on is what do we do to get rid of the gas?
What are your concerns about next generation nuclear reactors, given that they are very different from the old technology that we have?
It just depends on the need. I don’t see a place where these reactors will play a role because they don’t meet the requirements for electrical space right now.
Stop believing the hype. Nuclear has never lived up to the hype, and somehow tying the future of the planet to an unproven design is just, I think, irresponsible, and we have to recognize that , otherwise we’ll be throwing money at technologies that are just never going to deliver.
The window in which nuclear technology could deliver on a climate pledge closed a year or five years ago, realistically. It closed when the VC Summer plant decided to close. It closed when Vogtle was years and years and years over budget. And everyone decided to try to make a hole in the house and try to build a new window.
That’s what they’re trying to do today and say, well, that’s going to be the solution. This is simply not the case. None of these designs will be ready to deploy, even as a prototype, for 2030. By 2030 you need the decarbonization of the electricity sector, not getting a brand new technology will build its first to l ‘time and then you’ It will take another 5 to 15 years before we can deploy this technology on a large scale. We need to deploy on a large scale today. And it just won’t come from these advanced reactor designs.
Your statement says that nuclear power as a climate strategy is “[m]illegitimately dangerous since newly promoted reactor designs increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Can you explain?
The simplest way to think about it is that the difference between a nuclear weapons program and a nuclear energy program is really intentional. Much of the technology used for nuclear power generation can be used to make the materials you need for nuclear weapons. For a long time, one of the promises of advanced reactors was that they would be somehow more resistant to proliferation issues, that is, they would be more difficult to transition from a strictly power-generating technology to a technology that could be used for the production of weapons. . And as technologies have developed, these problems have not really reproduced themselves in the same way that many different reactor designs have been touted. It will therefore always be there as a concern.
And there are some interesting new players entering the arena – private companies studying small modular reactors for their own operations. I think the last one I saw is Rolls Royce. What do you think of this trend?
I think it comes down to the same issues, which is to say I’m skeptical that it’s going to happen, because you’re not producing electricity at prices much above market rates, just to prove a point.
Rolls Royce is looking to develop its own design of small modular reactors. You know, I think he still suffers from the same problem, which is that these designs don’t meet the needs of the electricity market – namely price, deployment, operational flexibility, and they have potential risks of accidents, although small modular reactors have less consequence than a large reactor. There is nothing about the benefits that outweighs any of these risks.