You may have read (say in coverage of the recent COP26 meetings) that we will need nuclear power to deal with climate change. You may have seen some of the buzz about plans for new, smaller, modular reactors, SMRs. You may remember the spectacular nuclear meltdowns at Three-Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011), and you may know there’s an ongoing fight about storing nuclear waste and spent fuel inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
So what’s the deal? What are the arguments for and against nuclear power now?
These three pieces offer good summaries of both support & opposition:
- Is it green, or forever toxic? Nuclear rift at climate talks (AP, NBC News).
- When it comes to nuclear power, could smaller be better? (Lois Parshley, Yale Environment 360).
- First U.S. small nuclear reactor design is approved (Dave Leviton, Scientific American).
As supporters often seem to simply assert that nuclear power is safe and necessary if we are to rein in climate change, opponents generally make more varied and nuanced arguments:
- The false promise of nuclear power in an age of climate change (Robert Jay Lifton and Naomi Oreskes, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).
- Why small modular nuclear reactors won’t help counter the climate crisis (Environmental Working Group).
- Small modular nuclear reactors are mostly bad policy (Michael Barnard, Clean Technica).
One main argument in favor of nuclear power is that we’ll need it to even-out the variations in energy from such things as solar and wind. Here’s an interesting response to that argument: Three myths about renewable energy and the grid, debunked (Amory Lovins and M.V. Ramana, Yale Environment 360).
Why are the pro and con views so divergent? In a highly readable article foundational to the field of risk perception (as opposed to risk assessment), psychologist Paul Slovic noted that “experts” calculate “risk” with direct deaths, disregarding ripple effects. Lay persons, he maintained, take a wider view, emphasizing such things as what is unknown and what produces dread. Though it was published in 1986, this study remains surprisingly relevant to today’s debates. (It also sheds some light on the fear of Covid-19 vaccines.) Here is Slovic’s paywalled original in Science; and here is a pdf posted for educational purposes.
These and other typical differences are visible in a pair of opinion articles from the independent online Wyofile. Responding to the current plan to put small reactors near Kemmerer, Wyoming, Dave Dodson says yes and Kerry Drake says no.
Whether to retire older nuclear power plants is a separable issue, and the arguments differ from those about building new ones:
- The simple argument for keeping nuclear power plants open (David Roberts, Vox).
- Climate change worries fuel nuclear dreams (America Hernandez, Politico).
- Union of Concerned Scientists calls for policy to preserve nuclear (World Nuclear News).
This last headline is misleading: the UCS may favor keeping older plants working, but it is much more skeptical of new plants, both small and large. For a deeper dive, these two UCS reports, by Edwin Lyman, are illuminating:
This series is curated and written by retired Colorado State University English professor and close climate change watcher SueEllen Campbell of Colorado. To flag works you think warrant attention, send an e-mail to her any time. Let us hear from you.