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We need nuclear to really limit carbon emissions

Last year, the Group of 7 nations promised “urgent and concrete action” to limit climate change. Which actions were not specified. Activists hoped for answers from the United Nations climate conference in Paris, but it produced meaningless promises.

The single most important climate action we can take is an aggressive carbon-free nuclear energy policy. If we are serious about replacing fossil fuels, we are going to need nuclear power. This is most obvious in poor countries, where billions dream of living like Americans. Today, the easiest way to satisfy this energy demand for a better life has been to burn more polluting coal.

The push for alternatives

The push for energy alternatives saw major funding into so-called renewable technology during the early 2000s. The money was there, but the technology wasn’t. The result was a series of financial problems like Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer in California that went bankrupt in 2011 after receiving federal support of hundreds of millions of dollars. Wind and solar together provide less than 3 percent of U.S. total energy, and they aren’t strong enough or reliable enough to replace fossil fuels.

We already had a nuclear plan back in the 1960s to reduce fossil fuel consumption without any need for erratic wind or solar. But after years of nuclear cost overruns, the bizarre coincidence of an accident at Three Mile Island, and the 1979 release of the Hollywood horror movie “The China Syndrome,” about a hundred proposed reactors were canceled. If we had kept building, our power grid could have been nearly carbon-free years ago.

Instead, we went in reverse. In 1984, Ohio’s nearly finished William H. Zimmer nuclear plant was converted into a coal-burning facility.

The 2011 Fukushima disaster confirmed old fears. 15,000 people were killed by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Nobody in Japan died from radiation, and U.N. researchers predicted that “no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected in Japan.”

A new generation, new designs

Now, climate anxiety may be overcoming nuclear fears. Visions of flooded coastal cities and warmer weather pests are overshadowing nuclear fears — especially since our 100 reactors have operated safely for years. A new generation of nuclear scientists is producing designs for better reactors. These new designs may also overcome a big obstacle to the success of nuclear power: high initial cost for the plants. Designs using molten salt, alternative thorium fuels, and small modular reactors have all attracted interest from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists like Bill Gates.

Our new president, whatever his limits, seems inclined toward nuclear energy. If this president clears the path for a new atomic age, American engineers are ready to build it.

Rolf Westgard is a geologist who teaches classes on energy subject for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/18/2017 - 03:17 pm.

    The Price-Anderson Act, and The Altar of the Free Market

    Were it not for the expansion of the federal government into the nuclear electric power generation market via the Price-Anderson Act, we would have no private utility nuclear plants in this country. Private liability insurers have never been willing to sell insurance at amounts acceptable for utilities.

    In a socialist move, the federal government allows profits to remain private, but assumes the risk private insurers and their stock holders are unwilling to take. That’s a good deal, if you can get it.

    Those who worship at the alter of the free market (and it often seems to be a religious devotion) would do well to oppose this continued subsidy, which dwarfs the subsidies that solar, wind, coal, and natural gas receive.

    I am not necessarily opposed to the nuke plants the writer supports, but to not mention this generous big government subsidy is to not tell the whole story.

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 05/18/2017 - 08:58 pm.

      Price Anderson

      is a guarantee which hasn’t cost the government anything. The safe operation of our reactors has seen to minimum risk. In the meantime nuclear has prevented large amounts of coal emissions from entering the environment.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/20/2017 - 08:40 am.


        It is government interference in the marketplace, and should be opposed all good economic conservatives. Whether or not it has cost the government anything does not negate my argument.

        If the risk is so minimal, why do private insurers continue to shun that potential market?

  2. Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/18/2017 - 09:33 pm.

    All the talk of technological improvement

    Mr. Westgard. Yet the only solution for waste remains a landfill, toxic for 10,000 years. I know, I know, you’d built it in your backyard, but the with the status of our society being what it is, I barely trust things past 10 days, and you want me to trust something for twice (give or take) the span of recorded human history? Pass.

    • Submitted by Alan Medsker on 05/19/2017 - 11:47 am.

      Spent nuclear fuel is not the problem

      Mr Haas, have you researched what is in spent nuclear fuel (the nuclear “waste” to which you refer)? Do you know how it is handled now? I’m assuming that you don’t know as much about it as you need to in order to overcome your fear of it.

      Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is tiny in volume, and virtually all of it is currently stored at nuclear plant sites. It cools off for a few years in an earthquake-proof pool, after which it is stored in dry casks that are well shielded and built to last 100 years or more. We know where every gram of this is, and it has never hurt anyone. The most important thing to remember, though, is that it still retains over 90% of the energy that it had when it was first put into the reactor, and next generation nuclear reactor designs will be able to use this as fuel to harvest the rest of the energy in it. The result, after it is recycled and reused, is that the remaining unusable isotopes need only be protected for around 300 years. Compare that to the mercury and arsenic that are emitted by coal plants (which are still the world’s fastest growing energy source), which will remain poisonous forever, and which are not kept track of with anywhere near the care that is given to SNF.

      Climate change requires us to use all the tools we have. Nuclear is by far the best and biggest one we have, and, while not perfect, it is not nearly as problematic as is often thought. So join me in setting aside our irrational fears and supporting ALL our clean energy sources.

  3. Submitted by Daniel Burbank on 05/18/2017 - 10:37 pm.

    Nuclear may not be best offset for variability in renewables

    Electricity provided by wind and solar has some inherent variability. As wind and solar generation becomes more geographically spread out, this problem is mitigated but not eliminated. To offset this variability, as I understand, progressive utilities like Xcel have turned to gas turbine powered electric generators because they can ramp up and throttle back fairly quickly. Large nuclear and coal fired power plants cannot ramp output up or down quickly enough due to time required for their immense thermal mass to heat up or cool down. Dr. Westgard doesn’t explain how the new nuclear technologies address this issue. It seems to me that pursuing utility-scale battery storage and utility controlled loads (like electric water heaters and air conditioners) would be more effectively addressing renewable variability.

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 05/22/2017 - 03:57 pm.

      Offsetting variable renewables

      Nuclear is not good for this; natural gas is best. Nuclear plants like to run continuously. reactor #2 at Prairies Island recently ran continuously for 22 months between fuel change stoppages.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 05/19/2017 - 07:25 am.

    Price Anderson

    costs the taxpayers nothing as our safe nuclear plants haven’t generated liabilities. That act has resulted in a lot of low cost energy without the pollution from coal plants. Price Anderson is a brilliant idea.

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