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Nuclear Power: Fading Away Or Powering Up?

Smoke billows from two active cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa., Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005. (AP)

Smoke billows from two active cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa., in 2005. (AP)

After the disaster in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, many nations shelved their plans for increasing nuclear power generation.

But with growing concerns about global warming, some nations are now giving nuclear a second look.

One of the largest construction projects in the U.S. is just outside Augusta, Georgia. Two giant nuclear power plants are being built at a cost of about $14 billion.

Those two reactors are going up at the same time that two nuclear power stations in Southern California are being shut down permanently.

So what’s going on with nuclear energy? Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, says the answer isn’t clear.

However, “without an expanded commitment to nuclear energy, our chances of avoiding some of the most serious consequences of climate change are going to be much reduced,” he said.


  • Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.



And while we're talking energy, in Japan today, some nuclear power operators applied to restart their reactors after being shut down following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Japan is weighing the costs and benefits of nuclear power, and a similar debate is going on here in the U.S. In Georgia, two giant nuclear plants are being built at a cost of about $14 billion, while in Southern California, two nuclear power stations are being shut down permanently.

So what is going on with nuclear power? Well, to help sort us - sort this all out we're joined now by Richard Lester. He is the head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. Professor Lester, welcome to the show.


HOBSON: Well, so first of all we have this strange situation where we have a power plant shutting down in California and two new ones being built in Georgia. So I want to start by asking: Are we at the end of nuclear power or the beginning?

LESTER: Well, I'm not sure we really know. Certainly these two events do seem to be pointing in opposite directions. The San Onofre plant was shut down mainly because the operator, owner-operator, thought that it would cost too much to figure out whether it could re-open again after having been shut down earlier.

In the case of the Georgia plants, and by the way there are four reactors that are now under construction in the Southeast, will take several years to build, and they'll be operating probably before the end of the decade. But what does it all add up to? It's not clear.

The one thing we do know, I think, is that without an expanded commitment to nuclear energy, we're going to have a lot more difficulty than we otherwise would, and it's going to be a very difficult task even with nuclear energy, but without it, our chances of avoiding some of the most serious consequences of climate change are going to be much reduced.

HOBSON: Well, explain that in the context of San Onofre. When you shut down a plant in California that apparently has contributed about eight percent of the state's power generation, how do you make up for that?

LESTER: You have to hope first of all that demand will not grow as fast it might have once been thought. And actually that is the case in California. The Californians have been very effective in energy efficiency, and so demand is growing relatively slowly, but not slowly enough to be able to do something about this. So they will need to reinforce transmission lines from other parts of the state so they can bring power in.

Probably some of it will have to come in from out of state. Some of it undoubtedly will be natural gas fired, and that will mean that the Californian economy will be producing more carbon dioxide than it otherwise would have, had those nuclear plants continued to operate.

HOBSON: Well, and of course the irony there is that the opponents of San Onofre are angry about environmental impacts.

LESTER: Indeed, and, you know, this is an example, a very clear example, of how you can't have everything in energy. And we might want to have everything, we certainly want low-cost energy, we want reliable energy, we want clean energy, and we want jobs. We want all of those things, but to get them all, we have to make some pretty tough choices.

And in California, they've chosen, effectively, not to have nuclear as part of the mix. They have two other reactors further up the coast at Diablo Canyon that they no doubt will also be looking at, but it's going to be very difficult for them to meet all of their environmental goals and not have nuclear power.

HOBSON: Could wind and solar make up any of the difference?

LESTER: They can certainly make up some of the difference, and indeed, Californians have been installing a lot more wind and a lot more solar. But of course nuclear provides something that neither wind nor solar can provide, which is steady power. It's on 24/7. And any power system needs not only the benefits of wind and solar and other intermittent sources, but it does need base load power that you can rely on 100 percent of the time.

HOBSON: Well, and I assume you would need a lot of wind turbines to make up for just one nuclear power plant. I've seen in the state of Texas you can drive for tens of miles, and it's just endless wind farms, and yet I figure you'd probably be able to do that with one nuclear reactor.

LESTER: If there's a single benefit that you could point to with respect to nuclear power - there are many - but if there's one that sort of stands out above all the others, it's the extreme compactness of the technology. You don't need a lot of fuel, for example. And just to give one indication of that, we generate now about 40 percent of our electricity from coal. If you take all of the coal that we use in those plants around the country, and you add up all of the coal that you - and put it all on a single train, that train would be 50,000 miles long.


LESTER: If you take the nuclear plants, which provide about 20 percent of our electricity, and put all of the fuel they need on a single train, it would be about a mile long. That's the difference.

HOBSON: It does bring up the question of nuclear waste, though, what you do with this fuel afterwards. Have we made any strides there?

LESTER: Well, in this country we seem to have been striding backwards. We've had, for 25 years, a program, a project, I suppose, at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that was supposed to be the nation's high-level waste repository. That's now off the table. And we're essentially back to where we were 20 or 30 years ago.

In other countries there are advances. In Sweden and Finland, and one or two other countries, we're likely to see operating nuclear waste repositories within a reasonably short period of time.

HOBSON: How important is public opinion on this issue?

LESTER: Well, we live in a democracy, and so public opinion is always important. And the public view of nuclear is obviously mixed. It goes up and down. It came down after Fukushima. It seems to be heading in a somewhat different direction now. People are looking again at nuclear.

HOBSON: You think even since Fukushima, people are starting to look again at nuclear?

LESTER: I think there's some evidence for that. And one of the reasons, of course, is - and maybe the biggest reason is the concern over climate change. The president, to his great credit, has brought that subject back onto the table after a few years of not talking about it. I think it reflects public concerns about the issue, and I think as people reflect on the climate change problem, look at the options we have, they're starting to take another look at nuclear.

HOBSON: Richard Lester heads the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. And when we come back, we'll talk about nuclear power around the world right now.


And of course your thoughts are welcome. A listener has already commented on hereandnow.org: Many people believe that only solar energy is subsidized. They're oblivious to the extent that nuclear industry is subsidized by the federal government. So again, your thoughts at hereandnow.org, on Facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

Also later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the latest on Saturday's plane crash in San Francisco. But we'll be back with our look at nuclear energy in one minute, HERE AND NOW.


HOBSON: Welcome back to our conversation about nuclear power with Richard Lester, who is the head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. Before the break, we were talking about the future of nuclear power here in the United States. But I want to ask now about Japan because it's very interesting what is happening there.

After Fukushima, Japan shut down nearly all of its nuclear plants, but just today utility companies want to start the process of reopening those plants. The new prime minister supports that, and the reason it seems, Professor Lester, is really economics. It's just too expensive to import energy.

LESTER: That's absolutely right. They've been importing lots of natural gas, lots of coal, to try to deal with the fact that they lost 30 percent of their electricity output from those 50 - from those 50 nuclear plants. But obviously it's going to be politically very, very tough for any leader, any prime minister, to reopen those plants, in part because the decision on reopening those plants actually has to be made in Japan at the prefectural(ph) and local levels.

So the prime minister can only do so much to make that happen, even if he wants those plants to reopen.

HOBSON: And Japan is obviously a very unique situation because of what happened there. When you look at the rest of the world, which direction are we moving?

LESTER: Well again, it's a mixed picture. You have some countries, the best known are Germany and Switzerland and Italy and some European countries, which decided after Fukushima that that's it for them, they didn't want to do nuclear. On the other hand, you have other countries that are going more or less at the same rate that they were before the accident.

And the biggest example of that is China, but it also includes India and Russia and to some extent South Korea.

Building a lot of nuclear plants.

Building lots. There are about 65 or so nuclear plants under construction, and those four countries - China, India, Russia and South Korea - account for about 80 percent of those plants that are under construction. But in addition we have a fairly significant number of countries that haven't done nuclear before that are thinking, now, very seriously, about starting, or in some cases are getting started.

Some of those countries are not the kinds of places where you would normally think of seeing very high-tech, advanced facilities.

HOBSON: Like what?

LESTER: Well, there are countries in Africa that are thinking quite seriously about this now, Kenya and Nigeria for example. South Africa already has nuclear power, but other African countries are thinking about it.

HOBSON: Even oil-rich Nigeria.

LESTER: Even oil-rich Nigeria, which sees nuclear as a way to deal with the fact that their electricity system is extraordinarily primitive, has - more than 100 million people live in Nigeria, but the capacity of their electricity grid is about 2,000 megawatts, which is not much more than we have here in the city of Boston.

HOBSON: Well, Richard Lester, you're the head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. Is there something beyond nuclear that we're getting towards that will replace it and be as efficient and compact as nuclear?

LESTER: Well, I think that the most important thing that we have to work on over the next few decades is to transition towards a low-carbon, low-cost energy system. We simply cannot continue to emit carbon in the quantities we have been doing and hope to avoid the worst ravages of climate change.

So we're going to need everything. We're going to need for the next several decades at least nuclear as part of the mix. We'll need solar, wind, geothermal and much more energy efficient industries and homes and offices and so on. It's hard to see beyond the next several decades. You know, one of the things that people hope for, and certainly in my department people hope for, is a commercially competitive fusion technology.

HOBSON: And I was going to say I remember playing SimCity 20 years ago, and that was the one that came after nuclear, the fusion power plant. And it did like 10 plants of nuclear plants.

LESTER: Well, it's a struggle to get to a technology that can compete because it's a very, very technically challenging thing to do, nuclear fusion. It's essentially bringing the energy of the sun to Earth. Progress is being made, we're making progress at MIT, others are, too, but that's really a long-term proposition, several decades, I think, away still.

HOBSON: So what's your prediction 10 years from now? Are we moving more in the direction of what's happening in Georgia with these new plants being built, or what's happening in California with a plant being shut down?

LESTER: It's hard to predict, but in my view unless we move towards more nuclear over the next 20 or 30 or 40 years, we'll have very little chance of achieving our ambitious, appropriately ambitious goals for carbon emission reduction and low-cost reliable energy. So I hope we move in the direction of more nuclear.

But I also hope that it will be different kinds of nuclear, that we will find a way to move in the direction of smaller, less capital-intensive, easier-to-build, modular kinds of reactors, which are now being developed both in the U.S. and around the world.

HOBSON: Because right now the costs are prohibitive. I mean, that is one of the reasons, as you said, that they're going to shut down San Onofre.

LESTER: And even more so if you want to build a new, large, new nuclear plant, you are talking about several billions of dollars of front-end capital. And for most electric power companies, even in the United States, that's just not feasible economically or financially. So we have to find ways to make nuclear power lower cost and do it faster. Reducing the cycle time is probably the key to the whole future of nuclear energy.

HOBSON: Reducing the cycle time?

LESTER: Reducing cycle times, everything in nuclear takes a long time. It takes a long time to build nuclear plants, it takes a long time to license them, of course it takes a very long time to figure out what to do with the nuclear waste because we're still trying to figure it out. And we have to reduce these cycle times because whether we're talking about nuclear or solar or wind, the key is to accelerate this transition to a low-carbon energy system, and that means reducing cycle times everywhere in the energy system, including, in particular, nuclear.

HOBSON: When you see all of this activity going on in the world of natural gas and this pipeline potentially being built, does that make you happy or sad?

LESTER: Well, it's, again, a mixed picture. Gas, in the short run, is helping us reduce our carbon emissions, but in the long run it won't be the solution. Even if we were to replace all of our coal plants with natural gas, and I think that's very unlikely, that would reduce our carbon emissions by just 20 percent. What we need to do is to reduce those emissions by 80 percent. So gas isn't going to get us the whole way there.

HOBSON: Well, Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, thank you so much for coming in.

LESTER: You're very welcome.

HOBSON: And we would love to hear your thoughts on this. Where do you come down on nuclear power? Should we be building more plants or decommissioning them? Go to hereandnow.org, and leave a message there. You can also tweet us, @hereandnow, @jeremyhobson, @hereandnowrobin. Let us know what you think. There's already a lively debate going on at our website, hereandnow.org. So go join in there. News is up next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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