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Why America should go nuclear for energy | Column
For reliable, carbon-free power, nuclear is the best option.
Indian Point Energy Center is seen on the Hudson River in Buchanan, N.Y., on April 26. The nuclear power plant permanently stopped producing nuclear power last month. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Indian Point Energy Center is seen on the Hudson River in Buchanan, N.Y., on April 26. The nuclear power plant permanently stopped producing nuclear power last month. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) [ SETH WENIG | AP ]
Published May 10, 2021

The United States and the world needs a renaissance of nuclear energy to mitigate climate change. Using natural gas to generate electricity is cheaper than nuclear energy if you exclude the cost of economic externalities. But using fossil fuels creates massive externalities when it comes to carbon emissions which leads to damaging climate change. The damages over long periods of time will run into the trillions of dollars, not to mention the loss of life. So, if you include long-term externalities, nuclear is the better option.

Murad Antia is a finance instructor in the Muma College of Business at USF
Murad Antia is a finance instructor in the Muma College of Business at USF [ USF ]

According to Fareed Zakaria of CNN, 21 percent of U.S. electric power is generated from nuclear energy. But many of the plants will be decommissioned over the next 10 years, leaving only 7 percent of U.S. electricity generated by nuclear energy unless new plants are built.

Nuclear energy skeptics chirp that wind and solar can make up the difference. But the wind does not blow all the time and the sun might not shine for days at an end when huge winter or summer storms decide to park over your city or town. And electricity storage technology is not advanced enough to cover the deficit.

One approach, according to MIT researchers, would involve designing nuclear plants that could be built en masse in factories — to realize economies of scale — and trucked to the site. Rather than today’s huge plants built from the ground up on site, modular and smaller reactors could be completely self-contained and delivered to their final site with the nuclear fuel already installed. Numerous such plants could be ganged together to provide output comparable to that of larger plants, or they could be distributed more widely to reduce the need for long-distance transmission of the power.

The more of the construction process that can be bought into manufacturing plants, the more it can be standardized and therefore, cheaper. That kind of increased standardization is partially what has led to a 90 percent cost reduction in solar panels and in lithium-ion batteries. This is how South Korea builds nuclear power plants to keep costs low.

Bill Gates claims that the company he partly founded and financed — TerraPower — in collaboration with GE-Hitachi, has developed the technology to provide safer and cheaper nuclear power. The Department of Energy has awarded this consortium and Bechtel, an engineering company, $80 million to demonstrate their new reactor. Other companies have developed similar technologies.

There is a significant movement in the United States to shift to electric cars to reduce our carbon footprint. But if the electricity used to charge the cars is partially generated by carbon-emitting fuels, won’t we to some extent be defeating the very purpose of driving electric cars?

Switching gears, I have come up with some definitions of risk events. A “compressed” risk event is one in which all the death and damage happens in a short period of time. An “expanded” risk event is one in which the death and damage happens over an extended period of time.

Are there risk involved. Yes, and some of them are “compressed” risk events, although they are low probability events such as the risk of a nuclear accident or terrorists attempting to blow up a plant. Based on history, the chance of both seem to be low.

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France, which has been bedeviled by terrorist attacks, generates 75 percent of its electricity with more than 55 nuclear power plants, has been able to keep them safe from attacks. The US has 94 plants and our authorities too have kept them safe.

Nobody has died from a nuclear power plant accident in the United States. But just suppose we had one such event and, say, 30 people died. The hue and cry to shut down the nuclear power industry would be deafening. Why? Because all the people died within a day, maybe a few days; a “compressed” risk event.

Parts of the news media would be pummeling us about all the death and destruction with so-called experts predicting a dire future. The industry’s future would be bleak if not doomed. If such an event should occur, we should all take a deep breath and put it all in perspective. Why, you say?

Because about 100 workers in the fossil fuel industry die every year from work related accidents; an “expanded” risk event which does not grab the headlines because it does not all happen in a day.

Workers are taking risks that put their lives in danger every day in a whole host of industries. Did you know that law enforcement is not in the top 10 of riskiest jobs? We as citizens also need to do our part by not get overly cautious and oppose it by saying NIMBY — not in my back yard.

America may put astronauts back on the moon by 2024. Like the moon shot, how about reviving nuclear energy along the way too? It is incumbent upon us to bequeath a carbon-freer planet to future generations. Now is not the time to get wobbly. There is a huge risk in doing nothing.

Murad Antia teaches finance at the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business.