Winning Hearts and Minds in the Battle for Nuclear Power

By Patrick Griffin

“Nuclear was going to cook us, now it is going to save us.” There is a powerful statement, and the scientific evidence on the potential for nuclear energy is very compelling. As Bill Gates has publicly declared at TED and elsewhere, new technology could turn the nuclear waste that we are currently storing could power the United States for hundreds of years. What could be preventing us from harnessing what could be argued is one of science’s greatest achievements to raise the basic standard of living of everyone in the world and stop emitting greenhouse gases?  What is the catch?

In making the case for a new round of nuclear power plants, nuclear scientists will often stress that recent improvements would make the disastrous events Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima exceedingly unlikely. Today, engineers would no doubt be able to build plants that are much less prone to dangerous meltdowns than these first-generation plants, which contemporary engineers reminds us were designed with slide rules. The other benefit that nuclear advocates like those at Terrapower mention is the reduced “proliferation risk,” which Terrapower explains on its site by saying: The TWR simplifies the nuclear fuel cycle, containing it within the core of the reactor. It requires no chemical reprocessing capabilities and eventually no enrichment capabilities. This eliminates key points that traditionally provide opportunity for proliferation. However, there is so much history and emotion packed into the phrase, “opportunity for proliferation” that it requires a concerted educational effort beyond what has been done to date.

Proponents of nuclear power need to confront the entire history of nuclear technology head on to get the opportunity to “save us.”In Negotiations courses earlier this year, many Harvard Business School students read 13 Days, which is Robert Kennedy’s account of the harrowing stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. My cohort was baffled as we tried to imagine the mindset of Americans watching President Kennedy’s address and understanding that nuclear war was a clear possibility. For this reason, the legacy technology that the nuclear power advocates need to confront first is the nuclear missile, not the pressurized water reactor.

As a 30-year old American with only foggy memories of Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall, I have never seriously contemplated a two countries using nuclear weapons on each other. It seems the ultimate “lose-lose” scenario. But for “baby-boom” Americans, the threat of weaponized nuclear technology played a huge role in the the first 40 years of their lives, and those with memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis will be a force in American politics for decades to come. To complicate matters further, as developed nation-states seemed to have iron-clad agreements to never use a nuclear weapon, warfare has changed again. In the mid-1990s Cechen separatists first threatened (but never executed) a “dirty bomb,” a conventional weapon mixed with radioactive material. The “dirty bomb” coupled with emergence of sophisticated transnational terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda keep the specter of a nuclear attack alive even in an era of nuclear disarmament.

So is there any hope? thanks to Google, we can see that people have been searching for “nuclear power” and “plant” more often than “nuclear weapons” and the names of countries who wish to acquire them Exhibit 1. While North Korea and Iran continue to make headlines, perhaps the tide is turning when people can decouple “nuclear power” and “nuclear weapons” in their minds. As TerraPower claims:Removing enrichment from nuclear energy production [with TWR technology] allows a clear separation between countries pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear energy and those who are not. 

Sustainably lighting classrooms and powering businesses in developing countries with nuclear energy is a dream born out of a nightmare. It is both a more effective technology and a more compelling story than its more popular renewable counterparts (see the search results for “solar” in Exhibit 2). We must continue to press this message in every channel until it takes hold, and not underestimate just how long, hard, and worthwhile this campaign will be.

Exhibit 1. Google AdWords Search Volumes for “Nuclear Weapons” and “Nuclear Power”

screen shot 2013 02 19 at 1 38 26 pm

screen shot 2013 02 19 at 1 39 45 pm

Exhibit 2. Google AdWords Search Volumes for “solar”

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About macomberjohnd

HBS Finance faculty interested in sustainability in the built environment including devices, structures, townships, and cities.

5 Responses to “Winning Hearts and Minds in the Battle for Nuclear Power”

  1. The transition from a nuclear weapons mindset to one of nuclear power has been underway for a long time. A great example of this is the Megatons to Megawatts program. The program came about with the the 1993 Russia-US nonproliferation agreement. Since 1995, 472.5 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (nearly 19,000 nuclear warheads) have been downblended into commercial nuclear fuel for power generation. Currently, one in ten homes is powered by the downblended fuel from this program.

    I’d be willing to bet that 99 percent of Americans do not even know of this programs existence, which is a large publicity failure. The symbolic representation of the shift of the word “nuclear” from the realm of weapons to power requires more effort to win over the population. The Megatons to Megawatts program recently ended at the end of 2012. While the fuel provided by it will continue to create electricity for several years, there is more that still can be done. I believe the next step in continuing this effort is for the program to continue with the downblending of US stockpiles. This step would not only be a huge asset in the counterproliferation effort worldwide but would also be a good source of energy for the American people.

  2. Even more so than the negative imagine associated with nuclear weaponry, I think the greatest obstacle standing in the way of wide-scale nuclear power generation is lack of attention, both in politics and by the public at large. These Google AdWords exhibits are very telling. While clean energy is a topic of wide discussion today, as well as the target of many incentive programs in the US and abroad, nuclear power is largely excluded from both. Instead, all of the attention is being given to renewables, such as wind, solar, biomass, and others. From an economic point of view, this is baffling. While electricity generated from renewables is currently much costlier than traditional sources, and cannot compete in most markets without additional incentive payments provided by governments, nuclear energy is a proven technology which can compete with traditional sources. If Gen IV technologies such as those we explored in class can come to market, it will become many times cheaper.

    As it stands nuclear energy is just not on our governmental radar, leading to a lack of much-needed government support for new nuclear projects. I think Mr. Rothrock was correct in proposing that a new Nuclear Power Agency is crucial for the success of these Gen IV nuclear technologies. However, given the fact that nuclear power is just not on the radar of most politicians, not to mention current fiscal concerns, it is highly unlikely that such a proposal would receive political support today. Since politics are slow to change without significant external pressure, I think the best bet is to start by educating the public on the benefits of nuclear power. A significant step in this direction would be to shift the topic of discourse within organizations such as the NRDC from their excessive focus on renewables, and towards a greater recognition of Gen IV nuclear as a promising (in my opinion, the most promising) technology for cheap, clean, and reliable energy.

  3. I’m not sure that the Nuclear Weapons vs. Nuclear Plant comparison is the one we should be focusing on here. What seems more relevant is the impact of the Nuclear Disasters on public perception. I would hypothesize that the reason American, European, Japanese and other developed nations aren’t initiating large scale Nuclear Plant building projects is that the public don’t want Nuclear Power plants in their own backyard. They have safety concerns that have been entrenched by the impact of nuclear disasters.

    For instance, as this article (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-16/germany-abandons-nuclear-power-and-lives-to-talk-about-it.html) in Bloomberg points out, much of the German population is negative towards Nuclear Energy. As we all know that impacted German Energy Policy drastically after Fukushima and the Japanese Tsunami.

    So for me, the real question is how can we persuade the general public that Nuclear is now safe after widespread public disasters? Kofi Annan, for one, strikes a cautious note and believes it will haunt us for generations to come….

    “Chernobyl is a word we would all like to erase from our memory. It [opened] a Pandora’s box of invisible enemies and nameless anxieties in people’s minds, but which most of us probably now think of as safely relegated to the past. Yet there are two compelling reasons why this tragedy must not be forgotten…First, if we forget Chernobyl, we increase the risk of more such technological and environmental disasters in the future. Second, more than seven million of our fellow human beings do not have the luxury of forgetting. They are still suffering, every day, as a result of what happened 14 years ago. Indeed, the legacy of Chernobyl will be with us, and with our descendants, for generations to come.”
    – Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General

    • I’m not convinced that public perception around nuclear weapons vs. power is the major impediment to new plant construction. Rather, if the total cost per MWh of a new nuclear plant was expected to be significantly lower than coal-fired or gas generation, I suspect we’d see several utilities break ground on plants. NIMBYism (“not in my back yeard”) is a real and powerful force in some places, but the fact is that a nuclear power plant isn’t a daily inconvenience. Having moved from a region powered by nuclear (I lived ~15 miles from the plant), I can attest to a plant location far enough from homes not to cause noise or be an eyesore, the air remains clean, the plant creates jobs, and local discontent seems quickly quieted by the cheap electricity provided (I paid $0.7 cents/kWh), assuming capital costs could be controlled, and assuming a utility company isn’t betting the house on a one $15B+ nuclear plant. And herein lies the real rub I think.

      Looking at the HBS Duke Energy case exhibits, U.S. nuclear capital costs were some of the highest in the world as of 2007 (after Japan). The $17 capital cost per U.S. nuclear kWh compared to $10 for coal, and $5 for natural gas at the time, which totaled $30/kWh total cost for nuclear, versus $27 and $39 for coal and natural gas, respectively. That total natural gas cost has since dropped considerably, as we all know, in line with the ~50% drop in natural gas prices (so we could estimate total nuclear of $30/kWh to now compare to $24/kWh for natural gas. And if a ~30% higher unit cost for nuclear isn’t enough to utilities from maintaining nuclear for the sake of diversified portfolios of fuel sources, the business-risking $15B+ capital spend and extremely long approval and construction timeline (~20 yrs) is surely a large nail in the coffin.

      If, suddenly, U.S. nuclear construction timelines and required capex shrank by 30%+, and if regulators provided greater certainty around what to expect from the permitting and approvals timeline, I’d wager that nuclear NIMBYism might be stronger for a new neighborhood wireless tower eyesore than for a new, cutting edge nuclear power plant in the local region, particularly in states that already live with nuclear. Either way, I’m betting that, in this lower cost scenario, utilities are well versed in dealing with NIMBYism, and would find a way around it to add the next low cost power source to their portfolios.

      And here we come full circle to blogger’s point about nuclear fears. What exactly is impeding the streamlining of the permitting and regulatory processes that make nuclear so costly? Is it government officials’ fears of new public outrage, and legitimate fears of weapons proliferation? Or is it more that government agencies simply better at creating gobs of red tape – as they did around nuclear technologies during the Cold War era – than they are at disposing of old tape?

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