Nuclear Energy Policy: Agree to Disagree?

May 3, 2017

The recent news of Westinghouse Electric Company filing for bankruptcy protection reminds us of the odd state of nuclear energy production in the United States and around the world. With trouble arising from construction delays and rising costs, Westinghouse’s problems illustrate the broader issues surrounding nuclear energy production, such as long construction timelines and evolving safety regulations, not to mention recent disasters like the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi. If things were not already bad enough for nuclear energy, natural gas, wind, and solar energy are seeing reductions in costs, while nuclear energy seems to be getting more expensive, presenting a negative learning curve. Despite recent mounting evidence showing nuclear energy production in a bad light, there are still proponents who see nuclear energy as a valuable alternative to burning fossil fuels. Both sides have legitimate evidence to argue for or against nuclear energy production, but is there a vision on which we can all agree?

Some would point to the list of factors working against nuclear energy and suggest we should step away from it. Many European countries are making concerted efforts to reduce their reliance on nuclear energy. For example, Germany went from producing about 30% of its energy from nuclear reactors in 2000 and had cut that in half by 2014. In addition to nations declaring non-nuclear pathways, some academic research, like this paper from the William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, supports pursuing alternative energy sources over nuclear power for a number of reasons including lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, construction costs, the direct impacts and externalities associated with large scale uranium extraction, as well as the safety concerns occupationally and for the surrounding area of a reactor.

Others recognize the need of consistent energy sources outside of burning fossil fuels as climate change concerns escalate. Renewable energies like solar and wind cannot generate electricity consistently and so rely on battery technology to reach their maximum potential. While battery technology continues to mature, with concepts like aluminum air batteries or redox flow batteries, building and scaling these concepts will not happen as fast as we need to rely more heavily on solar and wind generated energy. This gap at least allows a time period for nuclear to prove valuable as a consistent energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases during generation. This along with advancements in increasing the safety of nuclear waste have some nuclear energy supporters feeling optimistic, especially as the gravity of climate change continues increase.

Experts, academics, policy-makers, and citizens are divided on the topic of nuclear energy and for good reason. The scale, impact, potential danger, and potential innovation are huge on a global scale, so proper discourse around an issue like this is necessary to make informed decisions. Global consensus may not be reached any time soon, but this could be a good thing. While policies and institutions continue to further innovations in nuclear energy, so do other policies and institutions continue to advance cost efficiency and battery capabilities of renewables like solar and wind. In other words, the disagreement about nuclear energy’s place in the future of global energy production may help to diversify risk as stakeholders around the world pursue different pathways to improve climate change mitigating energy agendas. Certainly, this is an optimistic view of a complex subject, but whether or not the world utilizes more or less nuclear energy, we must step away from fossil fuels regardless.