As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) comes to an end and countries prepare to spend significantly more money on decarbonizing their economies, the debate over what role nuclear energy should play in achieving it net zero goals is stepping up.
Nuclear power plants have been around since the 1950s. The technology is relatively basic: atoms are split and the energy that is released heats the water to produce steam that moves the turbines that generate electricity.
Of course, when things go wrong with this 20th century technology – whether due to nature or human error – they can go horribly wrong. Chernobyl. Fukushima. Three mile island.
Nuclear power is also known for its cost overruns and is relatively more expensive than renewables like solar and wind power.
But some countries are massively adopting nuclear power. China – the world’s largest carbon emitter – plans to build at least 150 nuclear reactors over the next 15 years, Bloomberg News (paywall) reported. This is more than what the whole world has built over the past three and a half decades.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that his country “for the first time in decades will relaunch construction of nuclear reactors” to meet its net zero target.
US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm reportedly told an audience at COP26 that the United States was “deep into nuclear” as part of its clean electricity plans.
There are also A-lister companies that are putting their weight behind nuclear power. Through the companies TerraPower and PacifiCorp, billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet defend a type of advanced small modular reactor (SMR) known as the “fast” Natrium reactor.
Even the UN is lending its support to MRS and advanced reactor technology, praising its benefits in a recent Technology Note (PDF).
So, should countries go nuclear to save the planet?
Allison Macfarlane is Professor and Director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Prior to that, she was president of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
She wrote an article for Foreign Affairs (paywall) this summer on the topic of nuclear energy and climate goals. His arguments generated some paywall as world leaders traveled to Glasgow, Scotland for COP26.
Macfarlane describes herself as neither a supporter nor a detractor of nuclear energy, but an analyst who prefers to give a “measured analytical response” to questions surrounding nuclear energy.
She recently shared her perspective with Patricia Sabga, editor-in-chief of Al Jazeera Digital, on which countries are building more nuclear power plants to tackle the climate crisis.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Patricia Sabga: Supporters of nuclear power say it has a bigger role to play in decarbonization plans. Does the world need more nuclear power plants to tackle the climate crisis?
Allison Macfarlane: Almost 19% of the power [in the United States] is currently produced by nuclear power. It is carbon free. It is really helpful. We don’t want to close this at this time. But I live in a pragmatic and realistic world. And I don’t think, at least in the next 10 or 20 years, that nuclear power can 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 factories fast enough?
A M: It is complicated. These are megaprojects, and they require a level of quality control and program management that is not found in many other industries. And while people may promote some of the newer reactor designs as being easy to produce in factories, if we look at existing reactors that have been produced in factories – for example, those being built in Georgia, l ‘Vogtle factory [where two additional reactor units are under construction] – the experience in the factories was not good.
The factory that built the Georgia plant modules has built them incorrectly for years. They welded them poorly and they had to be re-welded at the reactor site. This factory led in large part to the bankruptcy of Westinghouse.
We cannot build new factories fast enough.
PS: You mentioned more recent reactor designs. What are these views and what challenges do they face?
A M: First of all, many of them are not new. Many of these models are 70 years or older. But given that, there are new kinds of twists and turns in some of these designs.
Many of them exist only on paper or as scale models. And the way engineering works is you design something – it’s computer-assisted these days – and then you build a model to scale. When you build the model to scale, you see where you go wrong in your computer design, and so you correct that. Then you need to build the design on a large scale. And when you increase the scale again, there will be errors in the scale model, and you will have to correct that.
And so, for a lot of these designs, we’re still at the computer model stage. We did not do the other steps. And these steps take years. And when you get to the full-size model, it’s really expensive. Where does this money come from?
PS: Let’s talk about expenses then. In terms of fair cost, how does nuclear power compare to wind power or solar power?
A M: It is significantly more expensive. Of course, it depends on the solar energy you are talking about. But if you look at Lazard’s recent analysis of discounted energy costs [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] at the scale of public services and wind power, they are much cheaper than nuclear power.
This is not the case for the photovoltaic solar roof. It’s as expensive or maybe more expensive than nuclear.
These factories are very expensive to build.
PS: Why is nuclear so expensive compared to large-scale wind and solar?
A M: Expenses are dominated by the capital costs of building factories. These factories are very expensive to build. I think we’re down to at least $ 14 billion per plant for the Vogtle plants in Georgia. This is for a production capacity of one thousand gigawatts. They are just very expensive to build and they take a long time to build. And so not only do you have the cost of capital to build the plant, but you have the cost of interest on capital, which becomes a significant cost.
This is really what hurts nuclear power. Now, it is claimed that small modular reactors will be cheaper. But because no one has ever built one, and no one has established the supply chains to build them and make them work, we really have no idea what it will cost.
PS: You wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in July. Subsequently, you were criticized by Armond Cohen [of the Clean Air Task Force] and Kenneth Luongo [of the Partnership for Global Security] to compare the life cycle cost of a nuclear power plant with the life cycle cost of wind and solar, because wind and solar are not “always on” energy generators, whereas nuclear is.
A M: There is a point that wind and solar are intermittent, and not nuclear. I think the bigger question is, what’s the relevance of intermittency now?
Ten years ago, it was really a big deal. It’s less and less of a big deal, I think. What’s interesting to note is that when you talk to the utility companies, they are really interested in having the power plants loaded afterwards. [responding to surges and ebbs in power demand]. They are really moving towards managing intermittency. But that does mean they need a factory that can move up and down quickly. Nuclear cannot do that. The existing nuclear fleet cannot do this. They are either on or off, and it takes a long time for them to reach full scale.
PS: What about when you factor in energy storage, because it’s still expensive? This is still not the right place to make solar and wind power reliable 24/7. Is this a big concern?
A M: It is a legitimate concern. But there are storage options you can buy now and build over the next couple of years. But that kind of quick build and the ability to have stuff available on the shelf, take it out right away, doesn’t exist. [for nuclear energy], especially for these advanced reactor designs.
Some claim that small modular reactors will be cheaper.
PS: What about proliferation issues? Do you think these should be factored into the arguments as to whether nuclear energy should be part of the new energy mix to respond to the climate crisis?
A M: Absoutely. We need to consider proliferation and the link with nuclear weapons when we think of nuclear energy. We should be working to devalue nuclear weapons. It means getting rid of them. But we have to be careful. And there is an international structure put in place to do this through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the safeguards agreements to which countries are subject.
So there is a structure. It has been in place for many, many decades. But we have to be aware of this. The light water reactors that exist today in many countries do not present a great risk of proliferation. But some of the new designs we’re talking about may produce materials that could be used directly in nuclear weapons. We therefore need to be more careful, better understand the implications of proliferation and ensure that there are safeguards in place to ensure that materials are not diverted.
PS: What role do you see nuclear power playing in the future of energy, not just in the United States but around the world?
A M: It currently plays a fairly important role in the production of electricity in several countries. I imagine this will continue for many decades. And then we’ll see what happens. I do not know. I don’t have a good crystal ball. I can just tell you that we are going through a huge change. I do not know if there is a will, on a global scale, to move away from fossil fuels as seriously and as quickly as necessary. We have to do it yesterday. And nuclear power would be part of that mix, potentially, if we were really, really serious. But that means a lot of money. So someone has to pay for it.