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Episode #50: 'The Increasing Role of Nuclear Energy to Meet Climate Change Challenges’ with Rudy Shankar of Lehigh University [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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  • Aug 17, 2021

Through pressure from federal and international governments to market forces, the move towards a carbon-free power sector seems to be on a critical path. The need to decarbonize and replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources is close to undeniable at this time, but as anyone who spends time in the thick of debates in the utility sector (including those taking place every day in the Energy Central Community) knows, we’re far apart from a consensus on exactly what tools are the best ones to tap into to meet these climate change challenges. And while renewable energy and energy storage are often grabbing the mainstream headlines, many in the industry find that the most important tool to tap into is one that’s been around for decades longer: nuclear energy.

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Nuclear energy has its fair share of detractors, from those who worry about repeats of the disasters on Fukushima and Three Mile Island to those with environmental concerns about nuclear waste to others who simply aren’t sure the economics add up to build new nuclear plants. But today’s guest on the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, Rudy Shankar—Director of Energy Systems Engineering at Lehigh University—opined in a recent Energy Central article that it’s well past time for the U.S. power grid to embrace a renaissance of nuclear power and tap into it as the readily available, carbon-free, and economic clean energy source that it is. While Rudy understands the hesitations some feel about nuclear energy and recognizes the need for renewables to continue to grow as well, he shares with podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester the outline of why nuclear energy needs to be embraced to play an increasing role in the fight against the climate crisis.

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Thanks to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

Key Links

Rudy Shankar’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/rudy-shankar

The Increasing Role of Nuclear Energy to Meet Climate Change Challenges: https://energycentral.com/c/cp/increasing-role-nuclear-energy-meet-climate-change-challenges



Jason Price: 

Welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast. The show where we invite thought leaders in the energy and utility industry to share about their passion projects, solutions, and thought leadership. Today, we're pulling in the author of a recent piece on Energy Central to dig deeper into the hot topic. One that's prone to spark enthusiastic discussion among our audience. Climate change is commonly accepted to be one of the most critical issues facing the energy sector, if not the defining challenge of our lifetime. That fact is not in dispute and neither is the role of the power sector in contributing to the issue and as such the industry's responsibility to take action. However, the best path forward to fix the solution drives impassioned debate.

Jason Price: 
My name is Jason Price of West Monroe, and I'm coming to you from New York City. Joining me once again is producer of this podcast, Matt Chester from Orlando, Florida. Matt, you're also an Energy Central community manager so you see the debate firsthand from all our utility contributors. What is the general reaction from the Energy Central community?

Matt Chester: 
Hi Jason. There's no doubt that our community is passionate about climate change and clean energy. And when it comes to advocating for which types of carbon free generation are best, well, like you said, that certainly sparks some heated debate.

Jason Price: 
Yeah. Well, our guest today is here to add fuel to that fire with his assertions that nuclear energy is one of the most critical tools that the utility leaders should be embracing to meet emission reduction in overall climate goals. The long time mainstays of baseload generation, coal and gas, are guilty of spewing untold amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Popular alternatives like wind and solar energy promise to bring emission free power generation, but they suffer from intermittency, challenging economics and potential environmental question marks at the end of their lifetime. So capturing the best of both worlds, many find nuclear power will be the optimal solution that does not require the burning of fossil fuels. Also allowing for the type of constant basal generation with which renewable energy struggles.

Jason Price: 
From current technologies in practice today at nuclear reactors to exciting upcoming deployments like small modular reactors, our guest today contends that the time for nuclear power to experience a renaissance in the United States power grid is here. We're here to dig into the opportunities of nuclear power, as well as some of the commonly cited challenges that cause opponents to lear away from nuclear power. And to guide us in that journey, we have one of the most eminent academic minds in this area.

Jason Price: 
But before we introduce our guest, we have to acknowledge the Energy Central partners who are making today's episode possible. To West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric, gas, water utilities and their telecommunication grid modernization and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics and cybersecurity. To Esri. Esri is an international supplier of geographic information, GIS software, web GIS, geo database management applications. To Guidehouse, formerly Navigant Research. A premier market research and advisory firm covering the global energy transformation.

Jason Price: 
To Anterix. Anterix focuses on delivering transformative broadband that enables the modernization of critical infrastructure for the energy, transportation, logistics, and other sectors of our economy. And to ScottMadden, a management consulting firm, serving clients across the energy utility ecosystem. Areas of focus include transmission and distribution, the grid edge, generation, energy markets, rates and regulations, corporate sustainability and corporate services. The firm helps clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize departments and entire companies and implement a myriad of initiatives.

Jason Price: 
And now on today's guest. Joining us today is Rudy Shankar, the Director of Energy Systems Engineering at Lehigh University. Rudy is developing the next generation of utility and power system engineers. He's more than qualified given his extensive background with 20 plus years at EPRI as founder and CEO of a number of startups in the energy space and serves on several boards in the power industry. It's that forward-looking vision that has made him one of Energy Central's most respected contributors, even being named as an honorable mention on our list of 2021 innovators in the industry.

Jason Price: 
As part of his dedicated contributions to the community, he recently submitted an article entitled the increasing role of nuclear energy to meet climate change challenges. In this piece, it convincingly positions nuclear power as a critical agent in the energy mix and challenges regulators, politicians, and utility executives to rethink the role of nuclear energy in the US. He also anticipated some of the common arguments against this carbon free energy source. As much of the content about nuclear power on Energy Central, this piece garnered some great conversation and informative debate. So we thought it only appropriate to bring Rudy into the podcast so we explore this topic even further. Rudy Shankar, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.

Rudy Shankar:  
Thank you, Jason and Matt. I'm honored to be here and in conversation with you on this topic. Thank you.

Jason Price: 
Welcome. Let's start by giving some background to our listeners who maybe haven't read your piece yet. Rudy, can you give us a quick summary on what argument you're making here regarding nuclear power and why you felt this was an important time to write about it?

Rudy Shankar: 
Yes. I'll be glad to. Renewable energy is here to stay with us. It has made tremendous advances in the last two decades it has been deployed here in the United States and all over the world. You cut costs by an order of magnitude. There's another criticism on renewable energy as such, but I am concerned about the scale in which it can displace carbon based fuels. Decarbonization is really the big challenge to meet climate change issues. So the de-carbonization needs to occur not only on the supply side, how we generate electricity, but also in other uses of energy where we are using carbon based fuels. One glaring example is transportation where the fuel that's used for transportation is more than 80% to 90% carbon based. I know electricity has got a lot of promise, but to generate that electricity in a clean manner is a big challenge. And not to talk about the other big industries we are very much dependent upon. The making of concrete and cement, which are also very highly dependent on carbon based fuels.

Rudy Shankar: 
To meet climate change challenges, we need to look at a consolidated way to be able to displace this and displace this in a timely manner. We're not meeting the Paris Accord climate goals, and we are kind of falling behind right now. And so we can rely on nuclear energy, which has been used for almost seven decades in the United States. We have good operating experience with nuclear energy. And so I see that as a very strong candidate and also in the developments that are taking place in nuclear energy with small modular reactors and so on. So that's really the argument I'm making Jason.

Jason Price: 
Well, thank you for that. It'll be no surprise to you that some people feel strongly against nuclear energy. I'd love for you to take a look from the other side as well. What are some of the challenges of nuclear power that you do agree with?

Rudy Shankar: 
Yes. Good point. I think one of the primary challenges is nuclear waste. It is the nuclear waste is 90% of the fuel is still radioactive. So there's a big problem in storing the nuclear waste as it is. And so that is a definite challenge to the use of nuclear power. And the other very powerful, but very amorphous is public perception of nuclear power. Nuclear power, nuclear bomb. They seem to go together. And it's so far from the truth, but that's a public perception and sometimes perceptions are very hard to change. So I see these as two very formidable opponents to nuclear energy.

Jason Price: 
One of the key points of your argument is the coming availability of small modular reactors, SMRs. What opportunities do SMRs bring that current nuclear plants cannot?

Rudy Shankar: 
Well, there are many dimensions in which SMRs can bring a lot of value. One of the big mistakes we made in the original deployment of fission-based nuclear reactors is they weren't a standard design. And we always were surprised at varying costs and regulatory problems. I think the SMRs now afford you to do something very standardized, cookie cutter approach almost. Can be transported on 18 wheelers to the site and completely built. So it very much standardizes the design and deployment of nuclear reactors. That's a big plus.

Rudy Shankar: 
The other big plus is that these modules can be stitched together. Six packs or four packs. And the advantage there is you could utilize each reactor in the packs for a different function. Each pack could be like 45 megawatts each. Considerable, but not as big as the original nuclear reactors. You could use a set of packs to generate hydrogen, which would be utilized as a clean fuel to substitute carbon-based fuel for making cement, for example. The other packs could be utilized for generating electricity. So it makes it very versatile. So what SMRs bring to the table is standardization and flexibility in utilization.

Matt Chester: 
So, I'm curious, what are the energy sources that you anticipate SMRs are going to be best suited to replace? Is it going to be used to replace existing baseload coal or peaker fuels like gas, or is it more just going to be able to keep up with the rapidly increasing demand?

Rudy Shankar: 
Well, the short answer is all of the above. SMRs are miniature fission reactors. So fission reactors can replace coal-based and fossil based fuels. So, generation of electricity, SMRs could replace coal and natural gas. SMRs, because they are modular, they can be transported. Cement is being manufactured for example using carbon based fuels. You could substitute it with an SMR in place right there. So it has a potential. I'm not saying it won't have any controversies, but it has a potential, and it's something that we can do starting today. And so that's why I see where nuclear energy has a lot of promise in answering decarbonization goals.

Jason Price: 
Given your position, you must be tracking what's going on in DC, and even state governments around energy policy. What's the conversation regarding nuclear, especially as a climate fighting tool. Can you talk about that?

Rudy Shankar: 
Yes. In fact, I was very heartened to see that the Biden administration has a very ambitious clean energy plan, of which nuclear plays a dominant role. They're acknowledging that nuclear reactors have been very reliable sources of electricity. And so many of the utilities have submitted license renewal to extend the operation of existing reactors from their original 40 year license to 60 years. Nearly all of them have submitted except some of the single unit owners. And now they're thinking about extending the 60 year license to 80 years because they feel very strongly that this can still be operated safely and reliably. So that's another piece of good news. And of course, we talked about SMRs. The Biden administration is supporting SMRs. I've seen some very good press on SMR startups that are quite deeply involved looking at different coolant. Instead of looking at water, looking at molten salt, molten fluoride salts. I think this adds to the excitement that nuclear energy can bring in introducing new technologies that could support climate change challenges. So I feel very bullish about what can happen.

Jason Price: 
Since you brought up molten salt, can you say a few words about it? What exactly is molten salt reactor and what's the role it plays here?

Rudy Shankar: 
Well, I'm not an expert in this, but really it's an alternative coolant which has a lot of desirable properties for it. Being safe to operate with. I think they talked about it in the past, but only recently have they talked about putting it into reality, but that's the extent that I know Jason.

Jason Price: 
So, let's see here. We have the backing of the Biden administration. We've got climate change unfolding and the hazards of climate change unfolding right in front of us. We're living it almost every day now, especially on the west coast. We saying that nuclear power is the answer here?

Rudy Shankar: 
There's never a silver bullet, Jason and Matt. I don't want to give you the impression that we can dump everything and rely on nuclear power. I think all of the above strategies always worked for us and we should continue developing renewable sources. We hear about offshore wind is going to be coming to New York and New Jersey. They'll be three gigawatts of capacity. I think we should welcome that. And offshore wind's capacity factor is higher than onshore wind. So that's something very promising to look forward to. There are also advances in PV solar where some advanced designs, they haven't really come into practice yet, but they could boost the efficiency from what it is today to a high 30%, 35%, which is also very useful. But the intermittency of renewable hasn't been answered. I think nuclear can play a bigger role in making sure that we address the big gap here where renewables cannot match the scale of central generation as yet. It may one day, but not yet. And so nuclear could be not only a bridge, but a constant partner as we continue addressing climate change challenges.

Jason Price: 
Is it just generation or isn't there also a transmission issue here? So with a small modular reactor, you can site it closer to where it's needed, but maybe not and you'll need to rely on transmission. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship as well as what is the average megawatt generation from a small modular reactor and how does that compare to what we have today?

Rudy Shankar: 
It's smaller. Conventional nuclear that we're used to is roughly 700 to 1000 megawatts, or one gigawatt. It's quite big. So when you think about SMRs, they come in, as I mentioned before, six packs, each of them can be 30 to 45 megawatts. So if we do the math, anywhere between 180 to 250 megawatts. That is sizeable. Now, if you want to think about a 250 megawatt solar plant, it would need so much land and so much territory that to cover, not to talk about environmental permits you need to have to support a 250 megawatt solar plant.

Rudy Shankar: 
In contrast, the space that's occupied by a 250 megawatt SMR would be a fraction of the space that would be occupied by a wind and solar asset. So you can see there are advantages there that SMRs can introduce. And you talk something about transmission lines. If you were to substitute coal-based plants, which have their existing transmission lines with SMR. So you have built-in infrastructure that would be able to support an SMR being at the same locality as where the coal plant was, for example. So, obviously you have transmission infrastructure in place, but there's no doubt that nuclear energy needs safety vines that are solely dedicated to safe operation of the nuclear reactor. And that will be an expense that will have to be born if SMRs were used in large quantities. Yes.

Jason Price: 
Let's talk for a moment about these technologies and how they're basically perfected inside the United States versus outside. Who's taking a lead on this? Where are the best minds going to? Have we lost our edge in this category? Can you talk about it?

Rudy Shankar: 
Yes. By far, US has the brain power in the operation of nuclear power. And also in the design. In the new designs, the SMRs are being designed here. But you can't count out countries like China who have taken existing designs of US gen four plans for nuclear reactors but actually implemented it in China itself. The only close equal that we have to the Chinese gen four reactors is what's being developed at Southern Company Plant Vogtle. So we have the intellectual power. We have the knowledge. We have the operating experience. I think it puts us head and shoulders above our competition, but nations are catching up. China being one of the more prominent ones, which I think has made a lot of advances in nuclear reactor design.

Jason Price: 
Yeah. Well, I think in this category we probably want China as well as other countries to catch up because of the climate change race. Well, this was fascinating. Rudy, it's now time for our lightning round. This is the fun change of pace where we ask a couple of questions to let our listeners get to know you a bit more on a personal level. Your response will just be one word or one phrase. Are you ready?

Rudy Shankar: 
I'm ready.

Jason Price: 
Okay. If you're going on a road trip or a plane ride, what's the one thing you won't leave without?

Rudy Shankar: 
My tennis racket.

Jason Price: 
If you weren't working at Lehigh and on energy systems, what do you think you'd be doing instead?

Rudy Shankar: 
Mentor new energy startup companies.

Jason Price: 
For your money, what's the best way to spend a Friday night?

Rudy Shankar: 
With my wife at a quiet restaurant, eating any kind of food. We are not partial to any particular type of food. And then of course, relax at night with a Netflix movie.

Jason Price: 
Have you picked up any new skills over the pandemic?

Rudy Shankar: 
Yes. Listen more carefully of people's concerns. There was stories to tell.

Jason Price: 
And last, what inspires you?

Rudy Shankar: 
I'm really inspired by people who can combat adversity. Seeing a young athlete with prosthetic limbs competing. You can see that this kid is going to give his all, so why can't we take inspiration from something like that?

Jason Price: 
Well-stated. Thanks for some real insight into what makes you tick. So for being a good sport, we'll give you the last word here. What core message do you hope our listeners will keep with them when they've done listening to this podcast episode?

Rudy Shankar: 
Well, thank you again, Jason and Matt. You know, we've been talking about climate change and it's not an easy battle. It also involves changes in behavior. And even though technology may be our ultimate savior, it's also interaction with human beings. It's a human problem. We can't have technology without the human interaction. And I think we need to keep that forefront as we go forward. It's a difficult challenge, not just from a technological standpoint, but from a human standpoint too.

Jason Price: 
Thanks for your wisdom and insight, much appreciated and I'm excited to see what the Energy Central community has to say about it. If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to head to Energy Central to let Rudy know. Rudy, thank you again so much for sharing your insight with us on today's episode of the Power Perspectives podcast.

Rudy Shankar: 
Well thank you for inviting me, Jason and Matt, and look forward to further interactions.

Jason Price: 
Fantastic. We welcome that. Once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com and see you next time at Energy Central's Power Perspectives Podcast.


About Energy Central Podcasts

As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is always looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community to invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics. Posting about twice per month, we'll seek to connect with professionals in the utility industry who are engaging in creative or innovative work that will be of interest to their colleagues and peers across the Energy Central community. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 17, 2021

Matt and Jason, thank you both for presenting Rudy's important and valuable perspective on this subject, as well as providing a transcript. There are many of us who can read a transcript in a fraction of the time it takes to listen to a podcast. No doubt inflection and emphasis in a speaker's presentation are important, but in our era of information overload they're expendable. Unfortunately.

Working with professional nuclear engineers, radiation biophysicists, and physicists on a daily basis has given me a perspective on this subject that might compensate a bit in breadth what it loses in depth. And more important than nuclear waste, proliferation, expense, or any of the other challenges faced by nuclear energy is a lack of perspective - even among respected academics who are, to some degree, victims of the same misperceptions as the general public.

For example:

"I think one of the primary challenges is nuclear waste. It is the nuclear waste is 90% of the fuel is still radioactive. So there's a big problem in storing the nuclear waste as it is."

In fact, storing nuclear waste has never been a challenge. Since the 1960s, nuclear engineers have recognized spent nuclear fuel is dangerous (as one might expect of the class of fuels with more potential energy than any other).  Given not a single human, animal, or plant has ever been harmed by spent fuel is a testament to the vigilance of the professionals who work with it.
The big problem is convincing the public their fears are irrational ones. Given the threat of climate change, those fears are orders of magnitude more dangerous than the fuel itself.

"I've seen some very good press on SMR startups that are quite deeply involved looking at different coolant. Instead of looking at water, looking at molten salt, molten fluoride salts. I think this adds to the excitement that nuclear energy can bring in introducing new technologies that could support climate change challenges. So I feel very bullish about what can happen."

The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s-early 1970s successfully produced an 8-megawatt nuclear reactor that was, for six years, cooled by molten flouride salts. After the pressured-water reactor (PWR) meltdown at Three Mile Island, many were attracted to the idea of a nuclear reactor that couldn't melt down - its fuel, in the form of powdered Uranium-233 mixed with salt, was already melted. If it became too hot, a metallic plug in the bottom of the reactor would melt, and fuel from the reactor would empty into separate holding tanks (and "freeze" again). 
Physicists at the time envisioned a breeder reactor which would convert benign thorium-232 to uranium-233 in situ, and avoid the need to re-fuel it with highly-radioactive uranium. This configuration had its own host of challenges, and the MSR concept was eventually dropped as impractical.
When physicsts Edward Teller and Ralph Moir wrote a 2005 paper describing an MSR located underground, it re-ignited interest in the concept, and inspired several startups. But when confronted with the same challenges, most went bankrupt.

As a veteran nuclear engineer explained to me:

"A utility-scale molten salt reactor is theoretically possible, but it's solving a problem that's already been solved for decades - avoiding a release of radiation from a reactor core meltdown. By 1994 that problem had been solved using an entirely different technology, the Integral Fast Reactor. But like many other hangups about nuclear energy, old obsessions die hard."

"Wasn't Fukushima the result of several PWRs melting down?", I asked.

"I expected that question. The answer is yes - and no. Fukushima's experience was nearly identical to another Loss Of Coolant Accident (LOCA) at Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, but U.S. nuclear engineers had already envisioned the possibility of a meltdown. As a precaution, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had required reactors be surrounded by a 4-foot-thick, reinforced-concrete containment dome to prevent any leakage of radiation to the surrounding environment. Because of their foresight, and that dome, Pennsylvania avoided a massive release that would have turned the eastern half of the state into a radioactive exclusion zone. Without the containment dome required over every U.S. nuclear plant, Fukushima was an accident waiting to happen."

Maybe in 40 years, 20 years, or even 10 years MSRs will prove to be viable. That's already too late - we need to be building safe, pressurized-water reactors now,  and building them as fast as possible.

Rudy Shankar's picture
Rudy Shankar on Aug 19, 2021

Bob, thanks for the comments. Many perceptive and relevant but let me see if I can address them.

Nuclear Waste As Bob correctly points out the fuel rods removed from conventional reactors have still remaining 90% of the fuel. These are stored  cast metal casks on site. An earlier project to store them at Yucca mountain did not work out. As Bob mentions-- nobody in the US has been affected-- is very true, it remains a problem but nothing of the magnitude projected by commentators. A popular description of the total amount of waste is that "it can  fill the Patriot football field up to 3 feet". It is not  much, but yet cannot be ignored. The Terraway reactor now currently under demonstration phase with DOE funding purports to utilize spent fuel to create energy. It is promising technology.

SMRs Although not new,  certain nuclear reactors-- the Kairos design, for example--use fluoride salts. What is more up to date are materials, welding technologies that did not exist 5 decades ago to maintain structural integrity of materials under high temperature conditions. As for the proliferation of SMR designs, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_small_modular_reactor_designs.

Some of them are specifically designed for complementing renewable energy resources and retain high level of flexibility in the amount of energy produced, being able to dedicate some of them to produce hydrogen as carbon-free fuel for industrial use.

Fukushima The reactor design was well above the design basis to withstand a "500-year" event.. But unfortunately in the era of climate change such events will occur more frequently.  A LOCA event was underway and the instrumentation to  manage the spent-fuel pool were disabled due to flooding and caused radioactive release. It was a "nightmare" scenario. Although US reactors are not threatened by tseunami-like events, many readers would be comforted to know the the USNRC has "Fukushima-mandates" for reactors to withstand flooding caused by possible nearby rivers or dams. And the accident has spurred development of novel sensing technologies, robotic devices to be able access high radiation areas.

Academic Bias? I am not sure there is any specific bias, but it is easy to be influenced when the energy industry (us!, me!) does not communicate in simple English how electricity is delivered in your house? why energy is such a critical infrastructure? and why climate change has/will have a world-wide impact with every corner affected, as the IPCC report states. It is the younger generation that will have to wear the brunt of the impact of climate change. We must start educating young minds and develop world-class leaders in energy.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 20, 2021

"An earlier project to store them at Yucca mountain did not work out."

Rudy, long-term storage at Yucca Mountain has not worked out - yet - due to concerns of local residents about contamination of their state by radioactive materials. Their fear stems from radioactive contamination spread from the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons were detonated in the open air in the 1950s-1970s. For reasons too involved to explain here, the risk of radioactive contamination from Yucca Mountain is infinitesimal compared to the risks Nevada faces from climate change. Without immediate, effective policy to address climate change, within 100 years Nevada will be uninhabitable, with daytime summer temps approaching 160°F.

"[Nuclear waste] cannot be ignored."

Spent nuclear fuel from U.S. power reactors has never been ignored.

"The Terraway reactor now currently under demonstration phase with DOE funding purports to utilize spent fuel to create energy. "

The Integral Fast Reactor, "ready for prime-time" decades ago, would be utilitizing spent fuel to create electricity now if it wasn't for cancellation of the project in 1994. It was cancelled due to irrational public fear after the Chernobyl accident.

"The reactor design [Fukushima] was well above the design basis to withstand a 500-year event."

The General Electric reactors at Fukushima did even better than that: they withstood the Tohoku earthquake, the strongest in Japan in 1,600 years.

What failed was not the reactors, but their careless implementation. A scant 5 meters above sea level, it wasn't the earthquake but the ensuing tsunami which washed out backup generators, leading to the "LOCA". Fukushima didn't happen at Three Mile Island because, thanks to rigid standards developed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it couldn't happen there.

As you can see, there is a common denominator serving as an obstacle to rapid adoption of nuclear energy. It has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with irrational fear.

Heather Hoff's picture
Heather Hoff on Aug 19, 2021

I love that you're talking about nuclear energy - I will listen to this episode soon! I run Mothers for Nuclear, and would love to talk with any of you about why I think nuclear is vital to our future on this planet.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 25, 2021

Seems to me that to win over the public, reactors need to be easily recognized as passively fail-safe and cost effective. That technology group is small and may not exist.

As a group, fast reactors are technically very challenging, historically extremely expensive while requiring the reprocessing of fuel. The later is an extremely costly affair in and of itself.

Using statistics to convince the public of small probabilities of disaster tends to cause folks eyes to glaze over, particularly in light of Fukushima.

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