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Is nuclear power clean energy? Stanford debate focuses on economics

Nuclear Debate
June 9, 2016

More Fukushimas or unbridled climate change? Are the options so dire? Maybe we can generate nuclear power safely. Alternatively, renewable energy alone may contain global warming with less risk, cost and time.

That was the essence of a major debate at Stanford University’s annual Silicon Valley Energy Summit featuring two Nobel Prize-winning physicists in favor of nuclear power and—in the other corner—two energy experts in staunch opposition. The rules of the debate rewarded the team that convinced more members of the audience to change their position. Before the debate began, the pro-nuclear crowd outnumbered the anti-nuclear crowd approximately two to one.

“Very broadly speaking, people who argue that the world needs a nuclear Renaissance often do so on climate change grounds,” moderator Jeffrey Ball said in framing the debate. “Nuclear energy is essentially a carbon-free energy source and, unlike other carbon-free energy sources like wind or solar, nuclear energy runs basically all the time.”

Steve Chu and Burt Richter
Steven Chu (left) and Burton Richter
strategize mid-debate.  (Photo: Steve Castillo)

People who argue against nuclear energy often do so on grounds of safety and high costs, said Ball, scholar in residence at Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy & Finance.

“We all agree that the goal is to get greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2050,” said Nobel laureate Burton Richter, former director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford.

But after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power disaster of 2011, Japan shut down its extensive system of reactors, said Richter, “and now the Japanese are importing coal like crazy.”caption goest here Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur sadipscing elitr, sed diam nonumy eirmod tempor invidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliquyam erat, sed diam voluptua. At vero eos et accusam et justo duo dolores et ea rebum. 

Pro-nuclear argument
The health impacts of air pollution from coal-fired generators—even without considering greenhouse gases—are much worse than those of nuclear power, said Richter. In 2012, Richter calculated how many years of human life would have been lost if the Fukushima power plant had run on coal rather than nuclear fuel. Coal would have cost almost five times as many years of life as Fukushima’s actual operation including the meltdown, he found.

“Why do you want to get rid of something that is doing so much for you,” Richter asked, “in favor of a technology that hasn’t been invented yet?”

Nuclear accidents are major events, conceded Richter’s teammate and fellow Nobelist Steven Chu, a Stanford professor of physics, and of molecular and cellular physiology.

“But we don’t say, ‘Cars crash. Airplanes crash. People died, therefore we shouldn’t use them,’” said Chu, President Obama’s former Energy Secretary. “The number of car fatalities has plummeted down to one-fourth or one-fifth of what it used to be.”

Chu sees a similar march to safer and safer nuclear power. The next generation of nuclear plants are designed so that operators could lose control of them forever, yet they will not melt down, said Chu. And a number of technical improvements can be made with existing reactors and next-generation reactors, he added, like annual simulator training at plants worldwide as is done in the United States and placing backup diesel generators just a couple meters higher than they were at Fukushima.

Anti-nuclear argument

Ralph Cavanagh with anti-nuclear teammate Daniel Kammen
Ralph Cavanagh with anti-nuclear teammate Daniel
Kammen (right) appeals to the crowd.
(Photo: Steve Castillo)

The two anti-nuclear debaters—University of California-Berkeley Professor Daniel Kammen and Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of NRDC’s energy program—mostly conceded that burning fossil fuels is worse than nuclear power, and that new technologies and practices could make nuclear energy more safe. When Chu said that he would rather live next to a nuclear power plant than a coal-fired plant, Cavanagh replied: “As would I.”

Kammen, a physicist with appointments in Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering Department, Energy & Resources Group, and School of Public Policy, said that “nuclear wins the physics story. It is entirely workable.”

Instead, Kammen and Cavanagh argued against nuclear power largely on economics.

“Nuclear fails today—and is almost surely to fail for the decades to come—the systems story,” said Kammen, who has analyzed electricity systems in many countries to see how they can meet their decarbonization goals for 2030 and beyond. He has consistently found that electricity producers if pushed to drop fossil fuels would switch to wind, solar and other renewables, not nuclear— even if new nuclear technologies develop as well as nuclear proponents hope.

March of time
The debate had its lighter moments. Richter rebutted Kammen's studies by pointing that many other studies, including one Richter co-authored for the State of California, conclude that climate goals cannot be met without nuclear power.

“Dan and I disagree,” the 85-year-old Richter told the audience, “so you're going to have to decide whether an old guy like me is more credible than a young puppy like him.”

“I wish I was a young puppy,” the 54-year-old Kammen replied.

Time, nevertheless, remains a serious matter. Demand for electricity globally is growing. while avoiding the worst of climate change requires greatly decarbonizing energy by 2050, Kammen said. Renewables and energy storage technologies are much closer to commercial viability than next generation nuclear power, he added.

“We clearly do not know the Chinese (costs for building new reactors), because there isn’t any transparency there, but all the reactors built outside of China have come in well over cost,” said Kammen. But within 10 years, he added, the costs of solar power integrated with energy storage devices are likely to equal the average rates U.S. utilities charge consumers.

“To invest a huge amount in nuclear and not build out these other technologies,” said Kammen, “is a risk that climate change and energy access don’t allow us to do.”

Cavanagh, who is also a senior attorney at NRDC, argued that electric utilities, which pay to build power plants, stopped ordering reactors in 1979 due to higher costs. Those costs rose in part due to the tougher regulations following America’s largest nuclear accident, Three Mile Island, he said, but the reactors were becoming uneconomical anyway.

“That’s a market judgment, which by the way is not simply in the U.S.,” said Cavanagh. “Sixty reactors are under construction worldwide now, but in 1979 there were 240 reactors under construction worldwide.”

When Richter said that he favors the Obama administration’s “all of the above” strategy, Cavanagh called that approach unaffordable.

“We have to make some decisions,” Cavanagh said. “The most important thing is to avoid the magical thinking or the centrally imposed visions that try to anticipate three-and-a-half decades worth of innovation, integration and good management, and to substitute instead some kind of single purpose judgment that one technology is the solution.”

“In the end, we four are not going to make the calls. What is going to make the calls in the United States is a competitive market,” he said. “Let's let the competition proceed, but I think we can see where it's going.”

The debate showed how entrenched people’s views on nuclear power can be, as the New York Time’s Andy Revkin pointed out. In an audience of about 400, eight people changed from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear, while nine went the other way—handing the win to Cavanagh and Kammen.

The result was far from scientific, though. As Chu noted at the beginning, given the large majority of pro-nuclear members of the audience, “It’s ours to lose.”

The Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, a Stanford research program, organizes the annual Silicon Valley Energy Summit. This year’s conference was held on June 3. The debate on YouTube can be seen here:

Media contact:
Mark Golden, Precourt Energy Efficiency Center: (650) 724-1629,