Outlook: 5 myths about nuclear energy

Mar 16, 2011

Michael A. Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and director of the CFR program on energy security and climate change, will be online Wednesday, March 16 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss his latest outlook piece, "5 myths about nuclear energy."

Join us as he discusses his Outlook essay and what the nuclear crisis in Japan means for the future of nuclear energy.

Good afternoon! My name is Michael Levi. I'm a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan, non-profit research institution, where I study energy, environmental, and national security. I'm looking forward to the next hour's discussion.

Could you please explain what a nuclear meltdown is? I read the Post chat with another expert yesterday and he gave easy to read, brief, technical answers - I didn't have any context to really make those answers meaningful. If there's a meltdown does that automatically mean a nuclear explosion like a bomb? I understand that stuff is seriously hot so does it mean melting everything in its path like lava from a volcano and thereby contaminating stuff? Does it mean the containment systems have failed so if there are other non-nuclear explosions they're probably still throwing nuclear radiation into the atmosphere? What does happen/what does it mean for a reactor to fail? For me, not understanding these things is what makes the disaster so scary.

A nuclear meltdown is completely different from a nuclear bomb or a nuclear explosion. It is dangerous, but far less dangerous. A meltdown does not involve a large explosion like a nuclear bomb. It also does not involve a "chain reaction", which is the process by which a nuclear bomb generates huge amounts of radiation. There is simply no comparison.

A meltdown will also not melt anything in the surrounding areas. There is simply not enough heat any material that might be released to come anywhere close to having that effect.

Beyond that, the situation is more complicated. Reactors can fail in many different ways; the consequences of containment system breaches are also complex. I want to leave questions like that to honest-to-goodness experts in the specific engineering features of specific reactors, which are complex and idiosyncratic. But you can be rest assured that this is nothing like a nuclear bomb.

The waste products produced by nuclear power generation must be entombed or reused, which I think is what the French do. Hasn't development of nuclear power facilities in the U.S. lagged because of the disposal problem exemplified by Yucca Mountain?

Nuclear waste disposal is certainly a challenge, but so far, it hasn't been what's stopped nuclear power from progressing in the United States. Operators have been able to store nuclear fuel on site in spent fuel pools. Of course, after Fukushima, there will be a lot of scrutiny of that practice. There are cost-effective alternative approaches to mid-term spent fuel storage, though, most notably storage in special casks above ground, which is done in Germany (among other places). 

The first detailed cost estimate, filed by Florida Power & Light (FPL) for a large plant off the Keys, was $12 billion to $18 billion. Progress Energy announced a $17 billion plan for a similar Florida plant. Georgia's Votgle 1 & 2 plants were constructed at a cost of $19 Billion. All these costs do not include nuclear fuel and waste disposal. Does MIT plan to update their study to reflect these estimated and actual costs?

I can't speak for MIT! I should be clear that I referenced MIT for the per-killowatt-hour costs of nuclear power, not for the per-plant costs. Those costs vary enormously. The bottom line is that nuclear is currently far from cost-competitive with other sources. At a minimum, one would probably need significant climate regulations and/or higher natural gas prices before nuclear became stronger. (The MIT study also assumes a fairly high price for natural gas.) Even then, though, there are big questions as to how big a role nuclear will be able to play.

First question: With the winds blowing towards the Pacific ocean in Japan, how is the seafood going to be impacted with the radiation levels. Can we say that for some time, that part of the planet will be warmer than normal.

I should be clear that I'll chat about nuclear policy in this discussion. It's extremely important to go to the right specialists as we sort out what's happening. I'd try to get a health physicist to answer your question. And for those who want to know more about what's actually going on at the reactor, nuclear engineers are essential.

You assert that nuclear power cannot further replace petroleum in electrical production. Wouldn't nuclear power serve to further replace petroleum if plug-in electric vehicles were more common?

This is a tricky question. (I had hoped to write about it in the piece but was short on space.) My bottom line is that, while this is true in a narrow technical sense, it is true in any sense that is all that meaningful for policymaking. If the US starts using a lot more nuclear, but we don't start using a lot more electric vehicles, we'll still depend on oil the same way we do today. In contrast, if the US starts using a lot more electric vehicles, but doesn't start using more nuclear, it will still become a lot less dependent on oil. To me, that means that it's the electric vehicles, not the nuclear power, that's the key to that particular equation.

In your list of myths, you repeated the myth that nuclear is only for electricity. It can be used to propel ships and also for industrial heat. Electric heat pumps are also worthy competitors to oil based heat for homes. Why put nuclear into a box?

This is similar to the last question. Yes, nuclear can be used to propel ships, but that's not what policymakers are talking about when they talk about "energy independence"; it's also not what the current debate is about. (The current debate is about nuclear power plants.) As for home heat, it's the choice to move to electricity that matters, not the source of that electricity. Switch to electricity and oil use goes down, regardless of whether the electricity comes from nuclear or something else. Obviously, when you get to greenhouse gas emissions, there's a separate set of considerations. But it's important to separate that from the question of oil consumption.

How can you say that nuclear power isn't cost competitive with other sources when as we speak, 20% the US grid is being powered by nuclear reactors that were built and paid for decades ago? Could the problem be the narrow vision of US utility execs who can't see beyond their 2 year tenure and instead opt only for projects with quicker payoffs? Didn't the utility execs of the 80's and 90's supply these utilities with cash cow reactors that cost next to nothing to operate as they generate power 24/7?

This is a great question. It's essential to distinguish between the costs of operating a reactor and the costs of building a new one. It is very cheap to operate most nuclear reactors. (Fuel is not expensive.) As a result, once the plant is built, it's very cost competitive. (The only caveat is if the operator needs to continually spend lots of money to maintain and/or upgrade the plant.) But for new plants, you need to fold in the cost of construction (someone needs to pay off the loan that financed the reactor), which sends the total cost way up. Even with a very long time horizon for utilities, that puts a big cost burden on nuclear.

Why do many commentators ignore the competition between fuel sources, including between fossil fuels and nuclear? Do you think that the oil and gas industry like the idea of nuclear replacing them in near term? They have the means, motive and opportunity to fight the idea - and sometimes build interesting alliances among those who do not like nuclear energy.

It's important to distinguish between oil and gas. As I wrote in the piece, and explained a bit more earlier in this chat, nuclear and oil are not competitors. The story is somewhat different for natural gas. Cheap gas is certainly part of the reason that nuclear is currently having trouble competing on cost. Nuclear and gas often fill different roles -- nuclear is "baseload" power, which means it's on all the time, while gas often provides "peak" power, which means that it can surge to meet high demand for electricity. With cheap natural gas, though, a lot of people are talking about using gas for baseload electricity more. That puts it into direct competition with nuclear.

There is a debate in this country over whether nuclear power is economically viable without subsidies such as loan guarantees. Are there any believable figures on the actual cost (say per kilowatt hour) of nuclear in the US, France, japan and elsewhere? I assume that in Japan, the cost of nuclear (including clean-up) just went up by a lot.

The International Energy Agency publishes a survey of costs; alas, it isn't available online. Nor are the many proprietary cost surveys done by consulting firms. But you introduce a bigger question: what role might loan guarantees play in affecting the cost of nuclear?

I try to think about two possible roles for loan guarantees. One is to provide insurance to developers when the private market can't. That can happen simply because individual insurers are too small to be able to insure such big projects. When government steps in here, though, it can charge just as much as a private insurer might have, which puts (potentially large) costs on the utility. I think this role is important.

The other possible role is to reduce the cost of nuclear power more directly. To do that, the government would provide the guarantees at a cheap price. That would be an honest to goodness subsidy. I suspect that the real debate should be over this, i.e. how much the government should charge for its loan guarantees, rather than over whether guarantees in general are good or bad.

Should Americans be buying potassium iodide drugs as a precaution?

No. Any radioactive material that might make it to the US from Japan will be so enormously diluted by the time it gets here that there will not be real dangers.

In myth no. 4 you state "the opportunity to substitute oil with nuclear power is gone." I'm no expert, but I believe vehicles use a significant amount of oil in the US. Couldn't we use more nuclear electricity if we made greater use of available electric vehicle, especially car and train, technology? If so, then nuclear power does relate, and may even be key, to energy independence and security.

I'm fairly sure I answered this one up top. Please take a look and follow up if that answer didn't make sense. Basically, it's the electrification that matters. Once you've done that, you've displaced oil, regardless of the source of the electricity.

The only question I have is; What do we safely do with all the waste when we are through using it?

I must admit that I'm less concerned about long-term waste disposal, at least in a technical sense, than about several other aspects of nuclear power. The dimensions that I prioritize are safety, cost, and weapons proliferation (not necessarily in that order).

One thing I've noticed in the global coverage about the Fukushima plants is the wildly differing assessments of the threat. The Japanese authorities generally say there's a problem, we're working on it, there's a slight chance of major disaster but don't worry too much about it and follow standard preventive measures. The British have repeatedly downplayed any risk of radiation exposure at all. But the Germans have been apocalyptic, literally calling the situation that and openly speculating that there might be a widespread disaster. Who's right? Thanks.

I hate to say this, but outside of Japan, too much of the reaction is driven by preexisting biases about nuclear power (in both directions) and by political posturing. In Germany, for example, nuclear power is a very hot political issue. But the authorities in Japan don't have the luxury of playing politics -- they are focusing on the immediate situation and on the safety of their people. That makes me inclined to listen to them before I focus on the others. Of course, they aren't perfect, and they've made some missteps. But they generally seem to be getting things right.

Does Westinghouse's AP1000 design offer a solution to the design flaw Japan faced?

I don't want to pretend to be a nuclear engineer and give a comprehensive assessment of the AP1000. But it is worth noting that that reactor uses a "passive cooling" approach. That means that even if on-site power (including backup power) goes out, as it did in Japan, the systems designed to cool the reactor can still work (something that obviously wasn't the case in Japan). That said, while it's important to make sure we learn specific lessons from Japan (ie, don't rely on backup power), it's also important to learn a general one: it's impossible to fully predict the situations a reactor might face. Policymakers and engineers need to think broadly about the dangers that plants might face, not just about how to fight the "last war". 

Though people who believe that 30% direct subsidies for solar and wind are justified to make those source somewhat more competitive, they beat up nuclear on cost. In early 2008, I met with a lot of investors who were excited about nuclear - nat gas was in excess of $12 per mmBTU. Now, Rowe says cheap gas will save us. It has only been two years and nuclear costs have actually declined with a lowering of other commodity costs since 2008. Nuclear is seen to be too expensive when there is cheap gas, but look at the price history of gas and think about the impact of actually regulating shale gas plays under federal CWDA.

You make some important points. A few thoughts:

  1. There is a case to be made for solar (and maybe wind) subsidies that can't be made as easily for nuclear: these are (sometimes) quiet immature technologies, and deploying them at scale provides opportunities to learn and thus bring down costs. The subsidy is basically for technology development in that case. Nuclear, in contrast, is pretty mature; experience certainly suggests that we need more than large scale deployment to drive costs down. The one possible exception would be if loan guarantees helped prove the regulatory process works, and thus made future nuclear construction cheaper.
  2. You are right that shale gas regulation will have big consequences for the competitiveness of natural gas, and hence for the future of nuclear. I have been, and will continue, to watch that carefully; if you're interested in this area, you should too.
  3. That said, in the near term, it's a much easier risk for developers to put their money into gas. Gas-fired plants are relatively cheap. If a utility builds some, and the price of gas turns out to be higher than expected, they can write off the cost of the plant. It would hurt, but not terribly in most cases. In contrast, if someone builds a nuclear plant, and gas turns out to be cheap, they can't just scrap the nuclear plant -- their initial investment will simply have been too big. It's this risk profile that is what ultimately steers investment away from nuclear and toward gas, at least for now.

Pretty much ALL the next plants being built are natural gas plants. Yes, we have a lot of natural gas here (but we can't drill for some of it, and for the stuff in alaska, well, we can't get it here from there). This isn't a good idea - to have one source...and nuclear gives you a diversity of sources of energy...which is a good thing...

I agree that diversity is very important. Right now, abundant natural gas will give policymakers some flexibility in responding intelligently to what they've learned about nuclear power in the last week. In the future, having the nuclear power option may help them respond intelligently to developments in natural gas (or coal or renewables). Diversity is not some sort of master guiding principle -- there may be reasons why you want to keep one source or another out of your system -- but it is an important consideration in energy planning.

After three major nuclear events in a span of only thrity-two years, it may be extremely difficult to convince the public of the safety of nuclear power. The burying of the fact that the Fukushima plant is a GE design similar to many facilities in the US is both an interesting development and a depressing reminder of the impotence of the corporatized Fourth Estate. Regardless of any real or imagined media efforts to quell fears stateside, will we see an public outcry against nuclear that stymies the industry as it did after Chernobyl and TMI?

I think it's too early to see what the broad public response will be -- and even harder to see how that will filter into policymaking. I wrote a short piece the other day looking at how policymakers and the public might respond; if you're interested, it's at http://www.cfr.org/japan/japans-impact-us-nuclear-power/p24370

One other note: The industry was in bad shape before TMI and Chernobyl (as I discuss in my piece). Of course, one might argue that it could have made a comeback absent those events. Perhaps historians will be debating that question vis-a-vis Japan in twenty years.

Are you familiar with algae research? Algae produces more fuel than does corn, cane sugar, oil. etc. If we could produce more algae for fuel, wouldn't this reduce the demand for oil and gas for energy sources, thus giving our energy policies more long term leeway?

It's impossible to predict how algae will play out. Once again, though, it's important to separate this from the nuclear question. Algae biofuels may have the potential to replace lots of oil. The do not, however, have the potential to directly replace nuclear.

How would you rate the performance of Japanese emergency response organization, especially in regard to communication and coordination with international stakeholders?

It's hard to say -- I assume that much of that communication has been private. I would say, though, that clear and honest communication is generally a key requirement to crisis management, particularly in situations like this. There is a tension for authorities -- they want to get information out fast (lest they be accused of hiding it) but they also want to get it right (which may mean that they have to slow down a bit). I'm not going to second guess the Japanese authorities. But I do think it's important that US authorities be as transparent and forthright as they can be.

What does "Daiichi" mean

I'm told that it means "Number One". I'd double check that with a Japanese-speaker, though.

Against what kinds and - perhaps more relevantly - combinations of natural disasters does NISA require its licensees to design nuclear plants to safely withstand? Did this event exceed their expectations of a worst-case natural disaster?

I can't say that I have a good answer for you. I'd recommend that you read a piece from earlier this week by James Acton, a thoughtful analyst on these issues. Even if you don't agree with his bottom line, it's a useful discussion of how we think through (or should think through) the threats and disasters we plan against. It's at http://bit.ly/eVMbu0. 

We have been reassured that nuclear energy plants can survive earthquakes, floods, airplanes flying into them, etc. Obviously what has happened in Japan has reduced our confidence that what we have been told in the past remains true. How would you reassure us, or can't you, that what we've been told in the past is still correct?

This is a really tough -- but really important -- question. I'm not here to provide assurances one way or the other. I'd like to see some thoughtful Congressional hearings on the issue (no, that's not necessarily an oxymoron). Only by having an open discussion of the risks and benefits of nuclear power will people be able to trust what they're hearing and make sensible decisions for the future.

I think our time is up. Very sorry to those whose questions I wasn't able to get to. Hope you learned something new!

In This Chat
Michael Levi
Michael A. Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and director of the CFR program on energy security and climate change. He is an expert on climate change, energy security, arms control, and nuclear terrorism. He blogs at CFR.org.

Before joining CFR, Dr. Levi was a nonresident science fellow and a science and technology fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Prior to that, he was director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Project.

Dr. Levi holds a BSc (Hons.) in mathematical physics from Queen’s University (Kingston) and an MA in physics from Princeton University, where he studied string theory and cosmology. He holds a PhD in war studies from the University of London (King’s College), where he was the SSHRC William E. Taylor fellow. He lives in New York.
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