Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2019

Currently: 46° — Complete forecast

Sun editorial:

Former NRC chairman remains clearly opposed to nuclear energy


Georgia Power via The New York Times

In an undated handout photo, one of two new reactors under construction at Georgia Power’s Vogtle station, near Augusta. As of August 2017, these are the only nuclear reactors under construction in the United States.

In a perfect world, nuclear energy would be a perfect tool for combating climate change. Nuclear power plants don’t burn fossil fuels, don’t emit greenhouse gases into the environment and don’t speed global warming.

But with some groups reversing their former opposition to nuclear energy, former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko is going on the offensive to explain why nuclear energy is nowhere near a perfect solution to the climate crisis.

In a new book, Jaczko reiterates his longstanding criticism of the nuclear industry and his opposition to development of traditional nuclear power plants, which he says are unsafe despite technological improvements designed to make them safer.

Exhibit No. 1 in Jaczko’s argument is the Fukushima disaster. While Japan and other countries used nuclear power to limit their carbon emissions, he contends that the catastrophe at Fukushima wiped out environmental gains that Japan made by burning less fossil fuels.

“What happens after Fukushima is they shut down all of their nuclear plants over time,” Jaczko said during a phone interview with the Sun. “So then what did they do? They had to turn to polluting fossil fuels. So you wind up with this solution where it’s kind of boom or bust: You’ve got nuclear power, but once you turn it off then now what do we do? Well, we have to turn to dirty fossil fuels.”

Jaczko said the fundamental problems with development of nuclear energy included that the basic design of plants hadn’t changed and that the industry wouldn’t pay for technological improvements that would reduce the damage from accidents.

A case in point involves eliminating the kind of hydrogen gas blasts that many people likely remember seeing in footage from the Fukushima disaster.

The gas builds up when steam inside the reactor interacts with one of the metals used to contain nuclear fuel. Jaczko said new container materials have been developed that would limit the gas buildup, but the industry hasn’t adopted them because they’re prohibitively expensive.

Meanwhile, he says, the cost of generating electricity through natural gas and renewables is lower in most parts of the country than nuclear generation. Although nuclear proponents point out that renewables can’t provide continual power — turbines don’t generate when the wind doesn’t blow and solar panels don’t generate when the sun isn’t shining — Jaczko calls that argument a red herring. He points to innovations that are making power storage more affordable — not just advancements in battery design but such methods as pumped-storage hydroelectricity, in which water is pumped to a higher elevation during overnight hours when electricity demand is low and then is released to operate turbines during peak hours.

“So to me, the idea that somehow we’re going to preserve these reactors and that’s a climate solution is just wrong,” he said.

Then, of course, there’s the issue with nuclear waste — a hazard we’re familiar with in Southern Nevada. Jaczko, whose concerns about the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository were a leading reason he was hand-picked for the commission by former Sen. Harry Reid, hasn’t grown any fonder of the waste facility since he left the commission. He continues to be alarmed about the long-term safety of the site and the prospect of transporting high-level waste from across the country to Nevada.

Jaczko’s bottom-line assessment is that despite decades of development, nuclear energy remains too hazardous and costly to be a viable source of power.

“There’s going to be an accident,” he said. “The only question is when and where.”

It’s a compelling argument, and anyone who may be warming to nuclear energy in the fight to reverse climate change should examine it. The book, “Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator,” is available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other outlets.