As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) wraps up and countries prepare to throw a lot more money towards decarbonising their economies, the debate over the role nuclear energy should play in achieving net-zero targets is heating up.
Nuclear power plants have been around since the 1950s. The technology is relatively basic: Atoms are split and the energy that’s released heats water to produce steam that moves electricity-generating turbines.
Of course, when things go wrong with that 20th-century technology – whether due to nature or human error – they can go horribly wrong. Chernobyl. Fukushima. Three Mile Island.
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Nuclear power is also notorious for cost overruns and is relatively more expensive compared to renewables like solar and wind.
But some countries are embracing nuclear power in a big way. China – the world’s biggest carbon emitter – is planning to build at least 150 nuclear reactors over the next 15 years, Bloomberg News reported (paywall). That is more than the entire world has built over the past three and a half decades.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that his country “will for the first time in decades revive the construction of nuclear reactors” to reach its net-zero goal.
United States Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm reportedly told an audience at COP26 that the US is “all in on nuclear” as part of its clean electricity plans.
There are also business A-listers throwing their weight behind nuclear power. Through firms TerraPower and PacifiCorp, billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are championing a type of advanced small modular reactor (SMR) known as a “fast” Natrium reactor.
Even the UN is throwing its support behind SMRs and advanced reactor technology, lauding its benefits in a recent technology brief (PDF).
So should countries go nuclear to save the planet?
Allison Macfarlane is a professor and the director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Before that, she was chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
She wrote an article for Foreign Affairs (paywall) this summer on the subject of nuclear energy and climate goals. Her arguments generated some pointed pushback (paywall) as world leaders descended on Glasgow, Scotland for COP26.
Macfarlane describes herself as neither a proponent nor a detractor of nuclear power, but an analyst who prefers to give a “measured analytical response” to questions surrounding nuclear energy.
She recently shared her views with Al Jazeera Digital’s Managing Business Editor Patricia Sabga about nations building more nuclear power plants to battle the climate crisis.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Patricia Sabga: Proponents of nuclear energy say it has a bigger role to play in decarbonisation plans. Does the world need more nuclear power plants to fight the climate crisis?
Allison Macfarlane: Almost 19 percent of the power [in the United States] right now is produced by nuclear power. That’s carbon free. That’s really helpful. We don’t want to shut that off right now. But I live in a pragmatic, realistic world. And I don’t think, at least in the next 10 or 20 years, that nuclear power will be able to have a big impact on reducing carbon emissions because we can’t build new plants fast enough.
PS: And why is that? Why can’t we build new plants fast enough?
AM: It’s complicated. These are mega projects, and they require a level of quality control and programme management that doesn’t exist in a lot of other industries. And though people may promote some of the newer reactor designs as being easy to produce in factories, if we look at the existing reactors that have been produced in factories – for instance, the ones that are under construction in Georgia, the Vogtle plant [where two additional reactor units are under construction] – the experience in factories has not been good.
The factory that built the modules for the Georgia plant built them incorrectly for years. They welded them incorrectly and they had to be rewelded at the reactor site. That factory led in large part to the bankruptcy of Westinghouse.
We can’t build new plants fast enough.
PS: You mentioned newer reactor designs. What are these designs and what challenges do they face?
AM: First of all, a lot of them aren’t new. A lot of these designs are 70 years old or older. But given that, there are new sorts of twists to some of these designs.
Many of them exist only on paper, or as small-scale models. And the way engineering works is that you design something – these days, it’s computer-assisted – and then you build a scale model. When you build the scale model, you see where you are wrong in your computer design, and so you fix that. Then you have to build the full-scale design. And when you scale up again, there will be things that you’ve gotten wrong in the scale model, and you’re going to have to fix that.
And so, for many of these designs, we’re still at the computer model stage. We haven’t done the other steps. And those steps take years. And when you get to the full-scale model, that’s really expensive. Where’s that money coming from?
PS: Let’s talk about expense then. In terms of just cost, how does nuclear stack up to say wind or solar?
AM: It’s significantly more expensive. Of course, it depends on what solar you’re talking about. But if you look at Lazard’s recent analysis of levelized costs of energy [an analysis that takes into account how much it costs to finance and build a power plant and to keep it running throughout its lifetime and then divides that cost by how much energy it kicks out each year] and you look at solar PV [photovoltaic] utility scale, and wind, they are significantly cheaper than nuclear.
That’s not true of solar PV rooftop. It’s as expensive or maybe more expensive than nuclear.
These plants are very expensive to build.
PS: Why is nuclear so expensive compared to wind and utility-scale solar?
AM: Expenses are dominated by the capital costs of plant construction. These plants are very expensive to build. I think we’re up to at least $14bn a plant for the Vogtle plants in Georgia. That’s for a thousand gigawatts generation capacity. They’re just really expensive to build and they take a long time to build. And so not only do you have the cost of the capital of building the plant, but you have the cost of the interest on the capital, which becomes a big cost.
That’s really what hurts nuclear. Now there are claims made about the small modular reactors that they’ll be cheaper. But because nobody’s ever built one, and nobody’s established the supply chains to build them and to operate them, we really have no idea what those will cost.
PS: You wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in July. Subsequently, you’ve been criticised by Armond Cohen [of the Clean Air Task Force] and Kenneth Luongo [of the Partnership for Global Security] for comparing the lifetime cost of a nuclear power plant with the lifetime cost of wind and solar because wind and solar are not “always on” energy generators, whereas nuclear is.
AM: There’s a point that wind and solar are intermittent, and nuclear is not. I think the larger question is, how relevant is intermittency now?
Ten years ago, it was a really big deal. It’s becoming less of a deal, I think. What’s interesting to note is that when you talk to utility companies, they are really interested in having plants be load following [responding to surges and ebbs in power demand]. They’re really orienting themselves towards dealing with intermittency. But that means they need a plant that can ramp up and down quickly. Nuclear can’t do that. The existing nuclear fleet can’t do that. They’re either on or they’re off, and it takes a long time for them to ramp up to full scale on.
PS: What about when you factor in energy storage, because it’s still expensive? It’s still not where it needs to be to make solar and wind reliable 24-7. Is that a big concern?
AM: It is a legitimate concern. But there are storage options that you can go and buy right now and build in the next couple of years. But that kind of rapid construction and ability to have stuff that’s available on the shelf, pull it off right now, doesn’t exist [for nuclear energy], especially for these advanced reactor designs.
There are claims made about the small modular reactors that they’ll be cheaper.
PS: What about proliferation concerns? Do you think that those should factor into arguments about whether nuclear energy should be part of the new energy mix to respond to the climate crisis?
AM: Absolutely. We have to consider proliferation and the connection to nuclear weapons when we think about nuclear energy. We should be working to devalue nuclear weapons. That means getting rid of them. But we have to be careful. And there is an international structure set up to do this through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the safeguards agreements that countries fall under.
So there is a structure. It’s been in place for many, many decades. But we do have to be cognisant of this. The light-water reactors that exist in many countries today don’t pose big proliferation risks. But some of the new designs that are being talked about may produce materials that could be used directly in nuclear weapons. And so those we have to be more careful, and understand the proliferation implications better, and make sure that there are safeguards in place to ensure that materials aren’t diverted.
PS: What role do you see nuclear power playing in the future of energy, not only in the United States but globally?
AM: Right now it plays a fairly significant role in electricity production in a number of countries. I imagine that will continue for many decades. And then we’ll see what happens. I don’t know. I don’t have a good crystal ball. I can just tell you that we’re going through a massive change. I don’t know whether there’s the will, globally, to move away from fossil fuels as seriously and as quickly as we need to. We need to do it yesterday. And nuclear power would be part of that mix, potentially, if we were really, really serious. But it means a lot of money. So somebody has to pay for this.