The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Do We Need Nuclear?

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More people appear to be saying "yes" these days, even if grudgingly. The question is: Is it too late?

The Public Policy Institute of California has been tracking public support for expanded nuclear power over the past several years. Survey participants are offered a menu of four potential energy options, one at a time.

The question posed is: "Thinking about the country as a whole, to address the country’s energy needs and reduce dependence on foreign oil sources, do you favor or oppose the following proposals?" Then the four options are offered, including: "How about building more nuclear power plants at this time."

As recently as 2002, adults surveyed in California opposed the idea by a margin of 59% to 33%. But that gap has been closing steadily in the years since and by this July, Californians were split just about down the middle on the question, with 46% in favor and 48% opposed. The poll has a margin of error of about 2%, making it a virtual tie.

When you dig into the numbers a little deeper, some demographic preferences emerge: support increases with both age and education. Californians 55 and older support more nuclear by a wide margin (58% to 36%) as do college graduates (50%-43%).

Many people use cost as an argument against nuclear but just as the PPIC was phoning around for opinions on the matter, the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute was finishing up its own report , concluding that trying to reach greenhouse gas reduction goals without baseload technologies like nuclear power, could end up costing much more. Dan Kammen, who runs an energy lab at U.C. Berkeley, would appear to agree. He said in a recent interview for Climate Watch that "Without knowing exactly where things will come down on nuclear, I think that it absolutely has to be part of the equation in a way that it has not been in the past. Energy costs from fossil fuels are rising at almost 5% a year now, and the damage we are doing and are going to do more of, if we don’t stop our fossil fuel expansion, in terms of greenhouse warming, is so large an issue that these technologies have to be back on the table.

But there's a serious question of whether the nation– let alone the state– is in a position to embrace nuclear as it did in the 1960s. Kammen is also a professor of nuclear engineering, and noted with some alarm the rate at which the industry is "graying." Now in his mid-forties, he told me that when he attends technical meetings for nuclear engineers, he's often "the youngest guy in the room–by 20 years." Since the U.S. more or less abandoned its nuclear hopes following the Three Mile Island debacle, the nation has ceded most of its nuclear industrial capacity to other nations, and few young people have chosen to enter the field.

The effective ban on new nuclear plants that California has had in place since 1976 could be reconsidered. But ultimately electric utilities will have to want it and I sense a certain "nuclear fatigue" in that arena.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) shut down its only reactor in 1989, after a thumbs-down referendum. When I called to ask for an interview on the prospects for a nuclear revival, they declined. They didn't even want to talk about it. Managers at PG&E, whose twin reactors at Diablo Canyon produce nearly a quarter of the utility's output, still claim an interest in nuclear. But when I asked CEO Peter Darbee about it recently, he said he had the sense that most people in California would prefer to look elsewhere for energy solutions. Of course, that was before the latest PPIC poll.

Listen to the New Nuclear radio report online.

Check out an interactive "atomic timeline," marking some of the milestones in nuclear power history in the U.S. By former Climate Watch intern Amanda Dyer.

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Category: Engineering, Environment, Radio

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About the Author ()

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.
  • http://home.comcast.net/~bobfflannery/wsb/html/view.cgi-home.html-.html Robert Flannery

    http://home.comcast.net/~bobfflannery/wsb/pdf/NuclearPoweronQuest.pdf

    has the full response. The main highlight is:

    Sometime you may wish to count the dead and maimed left by this oh so clean technology. It is impossible to accurately calculate those who have yet to be conceived and born and yet will go through cancer or genetic disease, will suffer or die or both as a result of radiation from nuclear technology. The cost has been largely shoved into The Future for them to deal with. The scale is nearly impossible to imagine. It is difficult as well to imagine as well an animal eager to visit such pain and sorrow onto children, great grand children and generations for THOUSANDS OF YEARS! How is it possible?

  • http://www.kqed.org/climatewatch Craig Miller

    Certainly a valid point, though beyond the scope of this particular piece, which was more technical in nature.
    One would like to think that moving forward, both government and industry would be far more attentive to safety issues than they were at the dawn of the "Atomic Age," when people were told, for example, that there was no danger from above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. Recent coverage of the legacy of uranium mining on Native American lands is equally disturbing, so your skepticism is understandable. And if I learned anything from doing this report, it's that the finer points of nuclear technology–including many that do have a bearing on safety–are not easily conveyed to a general audience.

  • http://www.kqed.org/climatewatch Craig Miller

    By the way…

    Bill Halsey, the nuclear engineer I interviewed at Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab, sent over a point of clarification for the companion radio story to this post. In juggling the half-dozen different families of Gen-IV technologies, I mixed up two of them. The reference I make to "GFR" should've been to "HTGR," a different approach to Gen-IV and the type that is currently being built at a DOE lab in Utah.

    We've made that correction in the version of the radio story for broadcast 9/4 on The California Report's weekly magazine.

    Halsey was nice enough to say that the distinction would be meaningless to anybody but a nuclear engineer but nonetheless, I regret the error and apologize for any confusion it may have caused.

  • Scottar

    I noticed this chart concentrates on 2nd gen accidents but not on 5th gen alternatives. Pretty narrow discussion on nuclear alternatives