In a speech to science writers in 1954, Lewis Strauss famously predicted that every U.S. household would soon be powered by abundant nuclear energy, “too cheap to meter.” In the rose-colored optimism of mid-century America, his vision took hold; some 200 plants were built, under construction, or being planned for by the late 1970s.
Fast-forward twenty years and by 1990, harsh economic realities and public outcry meant over half of those plants had been canceled or shutdown, more than were ever built.
But trends die hard and a new generation of nuclear power advocates are staging a climate-fueled comeback. Books with titles like Power to Save the World and Nuclear 2.0 are excitedly passed around, while well-funded activists and industry front groups cast nuclear as clean and safe but misunderstood.
What are we to make of this? Is nuclear the solution that environmentalists need?
Probably not. For one thing, nuclear power still isn’t economical. The bulk of nuclear energy’s cost is front-loaded—nuclear power plants require multi-billion dollar capital investments—yet even older established plants struggle to remain economically competitive, 40 or more years since their heavily-subsidized construction.
Atom-splitting also carries some very unique—and profound—risks. Proponents tend to shrug off the devastation of nuclear accidents, citing their relative rarity and over-exaggerated health impacts. But no other low-carbon energy source has the potential to so violently and suddenly impact so many lives. This is as much a political issue as it is an environmental or humanitarian one—Three Mile Island and Chernobyl helped shape popular opinion of nuclear power for decades. Four years after Fukushima and Japan’s government is still debating whether or not to bring their reactors back online. Long-term climate solutions should be politically resilient: nuclear isn’t.
Waste is another risk. Safely and securely storing the 12,000 metric tons of waste produced every year isn’t a simple technical matter: radioactive byproducts remain dangerous for periods of time that dwarf recorded human history. Reprocessing it into new forms of nuclear fuel isn’t a viable solution, as it creates plutonium—the single most important element to would-be nuclear terrorists.
“New” nuclear designs1 may help solve some of these issues. Maybe. Like Strauss’s vision, they may also be falsely utopian. And again, there’s a huge cost problem—a problem that, if it’s to be solved, will likely take money away from renewables, not fossil fuels.
The urgency of climate change and the limited capacities of government demand solutions that are affordable, politically resilient, safe beyond questioning, and quick to scale. In the energy-generation game, wind and solar match those criteria; nuclear simply doesn’t.
Read my opposing perspective, “The Argument for Yes,” here.