The danger from climate change no longer outweighs the risks of nuclear accidents.
By Gregory Jaczko
Gregory Jaczko served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005 to 2009, and as its chairman from 2009 to 2012. The author of “Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator,” he is the founder of Wind Future LLC and teaches at Georgetown University and Princeton University.
Nuclear power was supposed to save the planet. The plants that used this technology could produce enormous amounts of electricity without the pollution caused by burning coal, oil or natural gas, which would help slow the catastrophic changes humans have forced on the Earth’s climate. As a physicist who studied esoteric properties of subatomic particles, I admired the science and the technological innovation behind the industry. And by the time I started working on nuclear issues on Capitol Hill in 1999 as an aide to Democratic lawmakers, the risks from human-caused global warming seemed to outweigh the dangers of nuclear power, which hadn’t had an accident since Chernobyl, 13 years earlier.
By 2005, my views had begun to shift.
I’d spent almost four years working on nuclear policy and witnessed the influence of the industry on the political process. Now I was serving on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where I saw that nuclear power was more complicated than I knew; it was a powerful business as well as an impressive feat of science. In 2009, President Barack Obama named me the agency’s chairman.
But fission reactors have a dark side, too: If the energy they produce is not closely controlled, they can fail in catastrophic ways that kill people and render large tracts of land uninhabitable. Nuclear power is also the path to nuclear weapons, themselves an existential threat.
As the certainty of climate change grew clearer, nuclear power presented a dilemma for environmentalists: Was the risk of accidents or further spread of nuclear weapons greater than the hazard of climate change? In the late 2000s, the arguments in support of nuclear power were gaining traction with Congress, academia and even some environmentalists, as the Chernobyl accident faded into the past and the effects of climate change became harder to ignore. No new plants had been proposed in decades, because of the industry’s dismal record of construction oversight and cost controls, but now utilities were beginning to pitch new reactors — as many as 30 around the country.
Most have not returned, because only select areas have been remediated, making the surrounding region seem like a giant chessboard with hazardous areas next to safer ones. The crisis hobbled the Japanese economy for years. The government estimated that the accident would cost at least $180 billion. Independent estimates suggest that the cost could be three times more.
The industry wanted the NRC to say that everything was fine and nothing needed to change. So my colleagues on the commission and supporters of the industry pushed to license the first of these projects without delay and stonewalled implementation of the safety reforms. My colleagues objected to making the staff report public. I ultimately prevailed, but then the lobbying intensified: The industry almost immediately started pushing back on the staff report. They lobbied the commission and enlisted allies in Congress to disapprove, water down or defer many of the recommendations.
Within a year of the accident at Fukushima — and over my objections — the NRC implemented just a few of the modest safety reforms that the agency’s employees had proposed, and then approved the first four new reactor licenses in decades, in Georgia and in South Carolina.
In the months after the accident, all nuclear reactors in Japan were shuttered indefinitely, eliminating production of almost all of the country’s carbon-free electricity and about 30 percent of its total electricity production. Naturally, carbon emissions rose, and future emissions-reduction targets were slashed.
Would shutting down plants all over the world lead to similar results? Eight years after Fukushima, that question has been answered. Fewer than 10 of Japan’s 50 reactors have resumed operations, yet the country’s carbon emissions have dropped below their levels before the accident. How? Japan has made significant gains in energy efficiency and solar power. It turns out that relying on nuclear energy is actually a bad strategy for combating climate change: One accident wiped out Japan’s carbon gains. Only a turn to renewables and conservation brought the country back on target.
In 2016, observing these trends, I launched a company devoted to building offshore wind turbines. My journey, from admiring nuclear power to fearing it, was complete: This tech is no longer a viable strategy for dealing with climate change, nor is it a competitive source of power. It is hazardous, expensive and unreliable, and abandoning it wouldn’t bring on climate doom.
The real choice now is between saving the planet and saving the dying nuclear industry. I vote for the planet.