This month, the first new nuclear reactor in the United States in two decades came online. The new reactor at the Watts Bar power plant in Tennessee is expected to power 650,000 homes.
For those interested in reducing the greenhouse gases that are a major contributor to climate change, that’s very good news. Nuclear power generates no greenhouse gases at all. In fact, nuclear power may very well be the key to end coal use and switch to clean energy.
The first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant came online in Great Britain in 1956 at Calder Hall. According to a BBC report broadcast at the plant’s opening, the then-Lord Privy Seal Richard Butler predicted that, by 1965, every future power plant would be nuclear. That clearly did not work out.
The world soured on nuclear power after three disasters:
- 1979 Three Mile Island disaster: A cooling equipment malfunction led to the partial meltdown of the No. 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania. However, the reactor’s containment building remained intact and very little radiation was actually released into the environment. The incident led to new rules from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission governing everything from training of plant operators to new reactor designs.
- 1986 Chernobyl disaster: A power surge during a reactor -systems test destroyed Unit 4 of the Chernobyl power plant in what is today Ukraine. The accident and the resulting fire released massive amounts of radiation into the environment. The fire was put out by Soviet Army helicopters that dropped sand and boron. The remains of the reactor were covered in a concrete structure to prevent the release of further radiation. The area within 30 kilometers of the plant was evacuated by the Soviet government. The majority of those suffering from radiation effects either worked at the plant itself or were involved with the cleanup. So far, the radiation effects on workers and residents of the area have been far less severe than the worst case scenario, which could have been tens of thousands of deaths. The reactor design itself has been blamed as the cause of the accident.
- 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster: The tsunami caused by Tohoku earthquake destroyed the emergency generators that cooled the reactors. Three reactors melted down, releasing high amounts of radiation. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from the area around the plant. Although there were no deaths or illnesses as a result of the meltdown and radiation release itself, an estimated 1,000 have died as a result of the evacuation, which has been maintained to this day. A study in 2015 by the University of Southern California found that design flaws, regulatory failures and negligence by the operator of the Fukushima plant led to the disaster.
The Fukushima disaster led Germany to announce that all nuclear power plants in the country would be closed by 2022. Germany reduced its reliance on nuclear power from 23 percent to 16 percent of its energy supply from 2010 to 2014, but it has increased its reliance on renewables from 17 percent to 28 percent. However, coal has remained 43 percent of Germany’s power supply. According to Deutsche Welle, electricity prices have increased by 12 percent from 2009 to 2014. The replacement of lower-cost nuclear by higher-cost renewables will only push those prices higher still.
Switzerland also decided to phase out nuclear power after Fukushima. But earlier this year, the Swiss Parliament decided to reverse course on that decision. They declined to set a date to decommission nuclear power plants.
The United States should not entertain a nuclear phase-out, as Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested on the presidential campaign trail. Ending nuclear power, which generates 19.5 percent of all U.S. energy, would increase greenhouse -as emissions. Instead of renewables replacing most of the shuttered power plants, they would be largely replaced by fossil-fuel burning power plants, because they’re a more stable source of power.
How can the United States get more nuclear power in the grid? For starters, nuclear reactor builders need to standardize designs. This has been the key to nuclear’s success in places such as China and South Korea. Even the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission encourages this.
There also needs to be a regulatory regime to encourage more innovation with nuclear reactors to make them safer and smaller. The accidents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were due to design flaws. New reactor technologies that can reduce the risk of meltdown should be explored.
Finally, there needs to be a stable regulatory environment for nuclear. Nuclear will always be the most regulated form of power generation because of its outsized risks. But that doesn’t mean that rules have to suffocate the industry. If regulation is predictable, companies would not be deterred from entering the market.
Nuclear can be a major part of a clean, carbon-free power grid. But the regulations and the technology need to catch up in order for costs to be lowered. Perhaps one day we can get to the point where most new power plants will be nuclear.
Guest blogger Kevin Boyd is a freelance writer based in Louisiana.