In the popular imagination, the central character in the decades-long campaign against nuclear energy is a hippy with a No Nukes sign. This caricature has served both nuclear advocates, who use it to characterize opponents of nuclear energy as hair-shirt wearing opponents of progress, and many “very serious” skeptics of nuclear energy, who use it to accuse nuclear advocates of being “hippy-punching nuclear bros” while simultaneously distancing themselves from the extreme claims and wild exaggerations that the “according to Hoyle” anti-nuclear movement has long trafficked in.
In reality, the true face of the anti-nuclear movement today is a highly credentialed progressive policy wonk, a lawyer, or, academic, or journalist, who often claims not to be opposed to nuclear energy at all. The problem with nuclear energy, in this rendition, is not the risk of a “china syndrome” style meltdown, it’s that nuclear power plants are just too darn expensive to build.
I was reminded of this after writing a response to Allison Macfarlane's recent essay in Foreign Affairs about nuclear energy and climate change. Macfarlane was, for about fifteen minutes, the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during President Obama’s second term, placed there to clean up the public relations disaster after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid convinced Obama to appoint an obvious anti-nuclear ideologue, Gregory Jazko, as chair to begin his presidency. Macfarlane was a kinder, gentler, more reasonable seeming face for a progressive establishment that has, since the mid-1970s, been at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the future of nuclear energy.
That hostility dates to a time before most people, even environmentalists, had heard of global warming. With the United States and Russia pointing thousands of nuclear warheads at one another amidst the Cold War and at a time when the effects of radiation on human health were much more poorly understood, progressives and environmentalists broadly viewed nuclear energy as far worse than fossil fuels.
Today, environmentalists and progressives have shifted their focus to climate change, promoting a future powered primarily, if not entirely, by wind and solar energy as the solution. But the origin of that vision dates well before climate change was a major concern. What was then known as the soft energy path, invented by Amory Lovins in the mid-1970s, was proposed not as an alternative to fossil fuels but to nuclear energy. Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, which he founded to promote the soft energy agenda, in fact, for many years, well into the 1980s, advocated for small, home-based coal-fired generators, as part of a decentralized power system that would be an alternative to both nuclear energy and large, centralized electrical grids.
Unfortunately, political and ideological commitments can be every bit as path-dependent as energy systems. Even though most of the relevant context and facts that informed 70’s era opposition to nuclear energy have dramatically changed, attitudes towards the technology among many progressive and environmental elites have not.
Today, it is clear that fossil fuels, not nuclear energy, represent the primary environmental threat to the biosphere and to human flourishing. By contrast, over sixty years, nuclear energy has had an extraordinary record of safe operations. There is little evidence that developing civilian nuclear energy capabilities leads to nuclear weapons proliferation. Despite decades of public support and subsidies and notwithstanding great progress on the cost of manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, there is little reason to believe that electrical grids can be powered entirely by wind and solar energies anytime soon. Meanwhile, in the wake of dozens of nuclear plant closures over the last decade, and in contradiction to claims by nuclear opponents, it is clear that clean nuclear energy cannot be replaced predominantly with renewable sources.
And yet, progressives and environmentalists keep recycling reasons to dismiss nuclear energy, even as a complement to other sources of clean energy, most especially wind and solar. That brings me back to Macfarlane.
Her original essay in Foreign Affairs made a range of what can charitably be described as misleading arguments. In response to my essay, and several others, she doubled down on many of those claims. But more broadly, Macfarlane represents what have in fact been long-standing policy choices as challenges that are intrinsic to nuclear technology itself, eliding the role that she, and other progressive experts and technocrats, have played in advocating for those choices.
Among the Democrats who installed her at the NRC, Macfarlane’s primary qualification to be the NRC chair was that she had published critically about the suitability of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository. Opposition to Yucca Mountain was, for many years, the primary litmus test for Democratic nominees to the NRC. Federal policy support for advanced nuclear demonstration and commercialization was stalled for the better part of two decades as Harry Reid, as the ranking Democratic member of the Senate, insisted upon blocking all serious proposals to develop advanced nuclear energy technologies until the Yucca Mountain project was canceled.
Notwithstanding the pros and cons of Yucca Mountain, my point is that until very recently, nuclear was so far off the table for progressives and environmentalists as a solution to climate change and clean energy technology that the Democratic Party’s entire agenda with regard to it largely began and ended with the effort to prevent Yucca Mountain from being built. Having been a partisan of an effort that, for the better part of a generation, blocked nuclear innovation and deployment, not just as a scholar but as the chair of the NRC, Macfarlane now insists that nuclear can’t be built fast enough to save us from climate change. By “fast enough”, what Macfarlane actually means is cutting emissions fast enough to limit warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels, a target that the international community has not actually adopted and that most sober analyses conclude is not plausible with or without nuclear energy. This represents bad faith at an almost cosmic level.
More broadly still, the entire regulatory apparatus atop which Macfarlane briefly sat, a role that she continues to trade upon for her credibility on the subject, has been the primary obstacle to nuclear innovation for decades. The way that NRC’s mission was defined in the mid-70s, the way that the commission has interpreted that mission, and the black hole of regulatory and bureaucratic processes that were constructed based on that interpretation of the mission have, practically, made it nearly impossible to commercialize a new nuclear reactor, advanced or otherwise, since the Commission’s inception in 1975.
Those policies were not intrinsic to the atom or the light water reactor. The fact that NRC’s mission, as stipulated by Congress, was to consider only reactor safety and not cost or practicality was a choice. The commission’s decision to assume that all radiation exposure, no matter how small, creates actionable risk that must be regulated was a choice. The decision to, hence, regulate potential exposure to as close to zero as possible, even though that practically means regulating away infinitesimal and theoretical levels of risk that could never be observed in an actual human population, was a choice. The decision to consider all of those risks without any explicit consideration of the risk associated with the provision of energy from alternative technologies, be they fossil-based or, for that matter, wind and solar, was a choice.
Only with all of these choices submerged is it possible for Macfarlane to tout the NRC’s recent efforts to simplify its licensing processes as a notable achievement with a straight face. For those scoring at home, it took a billion dollars and almost a decade for Westinghouse and Southern Company to secure a design certification and combined operating license for the two new AP1000 reactors at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. This for an incremental evolution of a large light water reactor.
Over a decade after it began its initial pre-licensing discussions with the NRC for its small modular light water reactor, and five years and half a billion dollars after submitting its design application, which ran to 12,000 pages, NuScale has only just received its design certification and will spend several more years, under the best of circumstances, securing a combined operating license. This for a small light water design that the simple physics of using much less fissile material dictates will have much less risk of a catastrophic accident than a large light water reactor.
What has been clear, from the beginning of the nuclear era is that when nations decide that they want or need nuclear energy, they can and have repeatedly taken steps to put programs and regulations in effect that allow them to have it, safely and at a reasonable cost. This has been true in France, Korea, Japan, even Germany, and today in China. The US was always to some degree an outlier. Our great nuclear build-out in the 1960s and 70s was less a response to energy scarcity than a Cold War showpiece. There were always abundant fossil fuels available domestically. When environmental opinion, and then elite opinion more broadly, turned against it, there were plenty of cheap, albeit dirty alternatives available - first coal then, from the late 80’s onward, oil and gas.
Opinion on the subject has started to turn again, largely driven by concern among left-of-center folks about climate change and rising concern, more generally, about energy prices, as natural gas prices have risen substantially and the realities of attempting to operate a grid primarily with intermittent sources of renewable energy have begun to hit home. It turns out that the only thing more costly than trying to build out a zero-carbon grid with nuclear energy, even with all the challenges associated with building large, current generation, light water reactors in the current regulatory and political environment, is trying to build out a zero-carbon grid without nuclear energy.
The problem is that the constituencies most committed to tackling climate change are also those most ambivalent about nuclear energy. Similarly, the elite technocrats and experts most skeptical that nuclear energy can overcome the many significant obstacles it faces to broad commercialization have in fact been the architects of most of those obstacles. Of these, the elites, in my opinion, are the greater problem, because they provide the rationalizations that many left-of-center generalists follow and are deeply embedded in universities, environmental NGOs, Democratic politics, and the NRC itself. If nuclear is to have any future in the United States and play a role, as it almost certainly must, in the effort to deeply decarbonize the US economy, they will need to be confronted.