For those who don’t keep up with the weekly jabs published in the Review’s Opinions section, here’s the short of the nuclear energy debate that has graced the past two editions: College third-year Leo Lasdun wrote a pro-nuclear energy article in which he cited a NASA study claiming that nuclear energy saved 1.8 million lives between 1971 and 2009; this was in support of his broader claim that “the future is nuclear” (“Nuclear Represents Best Option,” Sept. 13, 2019). The following week, College second-year Shogo Ishikawa penned a broadside in response, casting doubt on NASA’s analysis and aspersions on Lasdun (“Lasdun Overlooks Downsides of Nuclear,” Sept. 20, 2019). Not only are Ishikawa’s claims unfounded, they perpetuate a tired and dangerous sentiment: Nuclear energy is not a part of the solution to climate change.
The first red flag in Ishikawa’s piece is when, in consecutive sentences, he admits that he “does not know how and with what methods NASA calculated the value of 1.8 million” and then claims that such a value “cannot be calculated accurately in any way.”
NASA’s methodology is quite simple. Nuclear energy did not actively save lives per se, but its use in place of fossil fuels — which were and remain the dominant source of global energy production — eradicated the potential for 1.8 million additional air pollution- and carbon emissions-related deaths. This analysis does not depend on “phenomena that have happened in a parallel reality,” as Ishikawa puts it. It depends on our understanding of the effects of fossil fuel use on public health, which are well-documented and catastrophic.
Ishikawa’s dismissal of NASA’s study distracts from the more critical flaw in his piece: He presents no evidence to counter Lasdun’s claim that humanity requires nuclear energy to avert climate catastrophe. Lasdun’s claim isn’t for lack of evidence. At least in the U.S., the current nuclear infrastructure needs serious upgrading. For one, there is no long-term repository for nuclear waste, despite the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which in 1982 entrusted the Department of Energy with the mandate, and a stream of capital, to handle virtually all nuclear waste disposal. Combine that with the fact that 31 of the U.S.’s 99 operating sites are holding more nuclear waste than their capacity allows, and Ishikawa’s alarm becomes more understandable. However, recent developments may relegate these safety issues to history.
One way nuclear plants have already addressed waste issues is by using on-site dry cask storage. Instead of overstuffing the on-site cooling pools with excess fuel rods, some plants put the older, spent rods in concrete cylinders. Removing these extra rods prevents buildup in the pools, buying the plants more time to operate safely until the federal government builds a waste repository. As of 2018, 85 of the 99 operating U.S. reactors employ dry cask storage. On top of that, after decades of stop-and-go, there’s some movement among U.S. legislators to approve the long-considered Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.
Even if those measures aren’t enough, new developments in nuclear technology may ax fuel-based concerns entirely. The horrifying Fukushima disaster was the result of fuel rods overheating and reacting with water-based coolant to create explosive hydrogen. New fuels and coolants eradicate this possibility. Researchers have developed replacements for zirconium and uranium — the rod casing and fuel respectively — that don’t react with water the way traditional fuels do. Liquid sodium coolant also shows promise, as it precludes the possibility of generating heat-borne, explosive hydrogen. There are even new cooling systems that function when a plant loses power or coolant stops circulating.
These technologies will need to phase into the current nuclear infrastructure, but luckily they require minimal retrofitting, especially the fuels. While I find adopting the profits and efficiency-based lens that Ishikawa is rightly skeptical of uncomfortable, there’s no denying the economic upside of these technologies. The fact that these fuels are also much more efficient means that, for once, safety and profits could go hand in hand — i.e., overcoming safety hurdles won’t require a Herculean economic commitment from the government.
But why nuclear over other renewables? I think this is the wrong question. Any serious solution to climate change will require firing on all cylinders — no contribution should be dismissed out of hand. That said, nuclear has an answer to one problem that has plagued other renewables for decades: matching energy supply to demand.
Wind farms produce energy only when the wind is blowing, and when the sun goes down, solar energy production grinds to a halt. Promising innovations in grid-level battery technology may solve these challenges, but nuclear already has an answer: small modular reactors. Where current reactors are big and flood grids with a constant, immense flow of energy — not ideal when electric companies charge producers back for overloading the grid — SMRs allow plants to output energy at a variety of levels. The plants can match demand in near real-time. SMRs also allow areas that can’t afford a massive plant to invest in high-return energy options, as these smaller reactors are assembly line-produced and require much less infrastructural prep to set up.
Ishikawa’s sentiment comes from a valuable place. Nuclear disasters loom over our history for good reason, and we would do well to learn the lessons they offer. This goes for all energy avenues, including renewables like solar, which often duck scrutiny despite producing heaps of electronic waste that poison economically disadvantaged communities. But everything comes down to this simple truth: we have a rapidly shrinking window of time to solve the climate crisis, and nothing should be off the table. If we don’t get to work now, our indecision will close that window — probably forever.