Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs

For 28-year-old Leslie Dewan — and for a growing number of other young scientists interested in energy — nuclear energy isn’t about meltdowns and catastrophe. They see atomic power not as an existential threat to the planet but instead as the best way to save it, and they’re trying to revive the stalled industry with next-generation reactor designs that could change the way a skeptical public views atomic energy. Dewan just finished her doctorate* in nuclear engineering at MIT, and in her spare time she co-founded a start-up called Transatomic Power, which has plans to build a safer and cheaper nuclear reactor, one that couldn’t melt down like the older plants at Chernobyl or Fukushima. “I’ve always been concerned about global warming,” she says. “It seemed to me like working in nuclear power was a logical way to do something to help the environment.” But the nuclear industry today faces major challenges. Yes, there are scores of nuclear reactors being built around the world — including in the U.S., where new construction ceased for more than three decades beginning in the mid-1970s. But existing nuclear plants are being shut down out of concern for safety and cost. Germany has already announced that it will be phasing out all of its atomic plants over the next decade, and the U.S. has seen plants close early — including the San Onofre nuclear plant in southern California, which is being decommissioned because of equipment failure. The Fukushima disaster — while unlikely to have a measurable health effect — could cost more than $100 billion to clean up. This past weekend brought news of a scandal in South Korea over faked safety tests and bribes at nuclear plants. Last week Duke Energy shelved a planned new plant in Florida because of licensing problems and concerns about cost recovery. With fracking keeping the cost of natural gas so low, any new nuclear plant faces both economic and safety headwinds. (MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?) So if nuclear is going

Deep Disposal Wells from Oil and Gas Drilling Linked to Earthquakes

The headlines were clear: fracking causes earthquakes. Yesterday an important study came out in Science that found a strong link between the injection of wastewater into deep underground wells and nearby earthquakes. Hydraulic fracturing—used in the process of developing shale gas and oil wells—also involves pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground, in an effort to essentially pry fossil fuels out of tight layers of rock. Therefore, fracking causes quakes. Right? Not exactly. The Science study, led by researchers from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, looked at deep wastewater disposal wells, which are different than the shale gas wells where fracking actually takes place in the way that a landfill is different from a garbage can. Injection wells are designed to hold the wastewater created by drilling many wells—for that reason, far more water goes into a deep injection well than into a fracked gas or oil well. The researchers found that the pressure created by pumping millions upon millions of gallons underground seemed to put extra pressure on nearby fault lines—so much so that when major quakes struck  thousands of miles away, like the March 2011 quake in northern Japan that caused an epic tsunami, the resulting seismic waves could trigger swarms of small quakes near the injection sites. It’s the injection wells—not the fracking per se—that are specifically linked to those temblors in this study. Does that mean fracking is off the hook? Not really. Many of the fluid-injection wells studied by the Science researchers—in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arkansas and Ohio—have been in operation much longer than shale gas and oil fracking has been active. But each shale gas well can produce several million gallons of wastewater, and in much of the country, that wastewater is disposed by being pumped into one of the more than 30,000 deep disposal wells around the country. As the oil and gas industry likes to point out, underground disposal wells are an accepted way to dispose of wastewater, and they’ve been used for decades. But as the shale gas and oil boom ramps up, the industry will be

Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?

Is it safe? That’s what most people — brought up on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and The Simpsons — want to know about nuclear power. And for the most part, the answer is yes. Accidents are rare, and those that have occurred — including the partial meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 — have resulted in few deaths. On a megawatt-per-megawatt basis, nuclear kills fewer people than almost any other source of electricity — especially compared with air pollution from coal, the single biggest supplier of electricity in the U.S., which contributes to the deaths of 14,000 Americans each year. And nuclear energy, unlike every other form of electricity — save hydro and renewables, doesn’t contribute to man-made climate change. But while nuclear energy supplies about 13% of global electricity — and dozens of new reactors are being built in countries like China, India and Russia — in the U.S. and much of the rest of the developed world, nuclear energy is in retreat, with new reactors on hold and aging ones being retired. And while fears of accidents and radioactivity clearly play a role in that decline, cost is an even bigger factor. Existing nuclear reactors produce inexpensive electricity, but the price of a new nuclear plant keeps ballooning, with reactors running billions over budget, forcing some utilities to abandon projects in midconstruction. Nuclear plants — most of which are derived from Cold War–era designs — actually became more expensive as they scale up, with larger plants requiring bigger and stronger containment domes that used expensive concrete and steel. Outside of France, nuclear plants largely weren’t standardized, which meant that nearly every reactor was produced bespoke — much like buying a suit from a tailor instead of off the rack. Add in the fact that the economic costs of an accident could be enormous even if the human costs weren’t — the Fukushima meltdown, which killed no one, could cost more than $100 billion — and you have a very expensive way to generate electricity. With the fracking revolution

From Forests to Fossil Fuels: U.S. Energy Consumption Since 1776

What did the Founding Fathers use to power the American Revolution? Pretty much one fuel source: wood. And until the late 19th century, forests remained America’s chief energy source. Since then, it’s been mostly fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — with a little bit of hydroelectric, nuclear and a smidgen of renewables like wind and solar. That’s the takeaway from a neat infographic put out yesterday by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the invaluable — and too often underappreciated — statistics arm of the Energy Department. The EIA has been keeping close tabs on U.S. and international energy use going back several decades, but obviously there was no U.S. of A in 1776, let alone an EIA. So Tyson Brown, the analyst who put together the brief, estimated energy use in the colonial era based on population at the time. Wood was just about the only fuel source early Americans had access to — whale oil for lamps would have been another one — which is one reason why the great forests of the eastern U.S. were systematically cut down. Wood may qualify as a renewable resource, but it’s an inefficient one with the rather significant side effect of deforestation. It’s notable that U.S. energy consumption as a whole didn’t increase all that much until the late 19th century, when coal — powering the trains that crisscrossed the country — and then petroleum began to enter the economy in a big way. Even today, renewables produce more energy than the U.S. as a whole would have used during the Civil War. But the energy story of the electrified 20th century is the story of fossil fuels: petroleum, natural gas and coal, which produced 87% of total U.S. primary energy over the past decade alone, even as renewables began to creep up. “What you have from the 1970s on is a parity between the existing technologies, with some tweaking on the edges,” says Brown. We’re still a carbon-based society. And we’re unlikely to declare our independence from fossil fuels

Radioactive Green: Pandora’s Promise Rethinks Nuclear Power

Early in the new documentary Pandora’s Promise, which opens nationwide today, British environmental writer Mark Lynas travels to the Japanese town of Fukushima, now famous as the site of a 2011 nuclear meltdown. Lynas is a longtime nuclear critic who has since rethought his opposition to atomic power. Dressed in protective equipment and carrying a radiation detector, Lynas roams the spooky, abandoned streets of Fukushima. The desolation is apparent, and it touches even a staunch atomic advocate like Lynas. “There’s no other energy source that does this, leaves huge areas contaminated by its strange invisible presence,” he says. “I could see why we’d want to do without nuclear power.” That dread is why nuclear power—which provides nearly 20% of U.S. electricity—is considered so dangerous by so many. Yet the Fukushima example actually shows something else. According to a recent U.N. report, there will likely be no detectable health impacts from the radiation released by the Fukushima meltdown. The biggest catastrophe in nuclear power since Chernobyl has turned out less catastrophic than it seemed. And that’s one of many reasons that nuclear energy, which has long been demonized by environmentalists, deserves a fresh look. That fresh look is precisely what Pandora’s Promise sets out to offer. Loosely following the stories of a handful of writers and environmentalists who have reconsidered their knee-jerk opposition to nukes, the film makes the case that nuclear energy really does have the power to save the world. “It’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about,” says Robert Stone, the director of Pandora’s Promise (and the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker of the nuclear weapons documentary Radio Bikini). “They’re ringing a five-alarm fire bell on the climate crisis, so it’s time to rethink that fear of nuclear.” (MORE: What Open-Air Nuclear Tests Tell Us About the Brain) Nuclear plants are the only source of power—other than hydroelectric, which has largely hit its limits—that can supply base-load electricity on a mass scale without producing greenhouse-gas emissions. Renewable sources like wind and solar are important and growing, but