Former heads of nuclear regulators across Europe and the US issued a statement this week expressing their opposition to nuclear power as a climate solution.
The debate over nuclear power’s benefits and risks has been polarizing for years, but it’s escalating as world leaders work to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. On one side of the debate, some argue that renewables are too dependent on the weather alone to provide a steady supply of power. Nuclear technology, which today supplies about half of America’s carbon-free electricity, can reliably support this, they say. And new nuclear technology probably won’t lead to disasters like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima that have scared the public in the past, proponents argue. But not everyone is convinced.
Nuclear power is still too expensive and risky to be a viable clean energy source, the authors of the statement write. They include Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the former leaders of similar bodies in Germany, France and the UK.
To learn more about why some nuclear energy experts oppose the energy source as a climate solution, The edge spoke to Jaczko, who chaired the NRC from 2009 to 2012 and has been candid about his concerns ever since.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The debate about whether nuclear energy should play a role in climate action has been going on for years. What prompted the release of a statement this week? Why now?
I think there has been a lot of misinformation about the role nuclear energy can play in any climate strategy. A lot of attention has been given to nuclear as somehow the technology that is going to solve many problems when it comes to dealing with climate change. I just don’t think that’s true. And it diverts the debate and discussion from areas that can play a role and that do need focus and attention.
I’ve certainly seen nuclear power making a lot of headlines lately. There was a leaked drought of the European Commission wants to label nuclear energy as a green investment. And here in the US the infrastructure law goes to the funnel billions in supporting nuclear energy. What goes through your mind when you see this?
I think it’s money not well spent. Nuclear has shown time and again that it cannot deliver on its commitments and costs. And that really is the most important factor when it comes to the climate.
What I find a bit baffling is why this is suddenly getting attention when what is actually happening is very, very negative for nuclear. You see nuclear power plants that, when I was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, had to come online — those plants haven’t come online all over the world. There are some new plants that came online at a much later date. Then you have the complete fiasco that is the construction of nuclear reactors in the United States. You had four new design reactors that were licensed under my presidency and should begin production in 2016 and 2017.
Two of those reactors were canceled, and they were federal charges of fraud against the heads of the company that managed that reactor development. Then the other two reactors are in Georgia, and those reactors are still being pushed back and are now scheduled to start in 2022 or 2023. And they’re looking at a price tag of more than $30 billion, which is more than double the original estimate for the cost of that 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 Georgia project, the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, you cast the only vote against the NRC in 2012. Looking back, has there been anything that surprised you?
I was against that particular factory for a very specific reason: I felt that the agency I headed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, should have required part of the development process to approve any reforms being made to deal with the Fukushima nuclear accident. to grab. If you had asked me at the time that I expected the factory to be five years older and more than double the budget, I would have said no. The reason I would have said that is because the industry at the time assured me and everyone else involved in nuclear policy and everyone in the financial community that the industry was in control of costs and construction. They even sorted it out beyond my expectations for how to screw it up. [Editor’s note: costs for the Vogtle expansion were initially estimated at $14 billion.]
People like to characterize me as a very fervent opponent of nuclear energy. I don’t really consider myself that. I consider myself a realist. But even if you had asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have said that would be so far over budget and so delayed in its completion. And you know, I think right now it’s definitely questionable whether it will ever be completed.
What to do with older reactors? Some experts argue that premature shutdowns of nuclear power plants are causing natural gas and coal plants to fill in the gaps.
We need to get the facts straight. And the premise of your question is not true. There is no such thing as a direct one-to-one replacement, in the first place.
Renewables and the amount of renewables in the pipeline far outweigh any nuclear plant shutdown in the US. Nuclear will simply not be replaced by fossil fuels. We still see that natural gas plays too large a role in our electricity sector. That is an issue in itself that has nothing to do with whether or not nuclear power plants are closed. So this is where I say that so much of this discussion about nuclear is focused on the wrong thing. The right thing to focus on is what are we doing to get rid of gas?
What are your concerns about next-generation nuclear reactors as they are very different from the older technology we have?
It just comes down to need. I don’t see a place where these reactors will come into play because they don’t currently meet the requirements of the electricity space.
We have to stop believing the hype. Nuclear has never lived up to the hype, and to make the future of the planet somehow depend on unproven design is simple, I think, irresponsible, and we have to recognize that or we’re going to throw money at the technologies that just never going to deliver.
Realistically, the window in which nuclear technology could deliver on a climate promise closed about five years ago. It closed when the VC Summer factory decided to close. It closed when Vogtle was years and years and years over budget. And everyone has decided to try to punch 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’ll be the solution. It just isn’t. None of these designs will be ready for use, even as a prototype, before 2030. You have to need the decarbonisation of the electricity sector by 2030, if you don’t get brand new technology then you will build the first one at a time and then you have to’ You will have to wait another five to fifteen years before you can deploy that technology on a large scale. We need to deploy on a large scale today. And it just doesn’t come from these advanced reactor designs.
Your statement says that nuclear energy as a climate strategy”[m]military dangerous, as newly promoted reactor designs increase the risk of nuclear proliferation.” Can you explain?
The easiest way to think about it is the difference between a nuclear weapons program and a nuclear energy program that is actually meant to be. So much of the technology used to produce nuclear energy can be used to make the material you need for nuclear weapons. For a long time, one of the promises of advanced reactors was that they would somehow be more resilient to proliferation problems, namely that it would be more difficult to make that transition from strictly a technology for energy production to a technology that can be used for arms production . And as the technologies have evolved, those problems haven’t really been solved in the way many different reactor designs have been advertised. So it will always be there as a concern.
And there are some interesting new players entering the arena — private companies exploring small modular reactors for their own operations. I think the last one I saw is Rolls Royce. What do you think of that trend?
I think it comes back to the same issues, which is that I’m skeptical if that will ever materialize because you’re not generating electricity at prices way above market rates just to prove a point.
Rolls Royce wants to develop its own design for small modular reactors. You know, I think it still suffers from the same problem, which is that those designs don’t meet the needs of the electricity market – namely price, deployment, operational flexibility, and they have the potential accident hazards, although small modular reactors have a have a lower impact than certainly a large reactor. There is nothing about the benefits that outweigh any of these risks.