Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast where we talk about what we need to do to address the climate crisis and how we make those things happen.
Alex: I want to play a game of word association with you.
Ayana: Ooh, I like that game!
Alex: You ready?
Ayana: I'm ready.
Alex: Solar power.
Ayana: Photons! Glorious, glorious photons.
Alex: And, like, how does it make you feel when you hear the word "solar power?"
Ayana: It makes me feel like photosynthesis is the OG renewable energy, and so why would we not get on board with that?
Alex: Okay. Wind power?
Ayana: You know how I feel about wind power. It's, like, my favorite thing. [laughs] Especially on the ocean.
Alex: Okay. So so far I'm hearing two pretty positive responses.
Alex: Nuclear power.
Ayana: Ooh, I have, like, a gut reaction that's like, do we really need to do that?
Ayana: That's my reaction. Like, do we really need to do that? Can we just get by with solar and wind and, like, some energy efficiency measures? Seems kind of—seems kind of dangerous.
Ayana: My reaction is maybe a bit abnormal, because most people have strong opinions about nuclear energy, right? There's people who like it and they're, like, really into it and they're like, nuclear or bust! And there's people who are against it, and those people are really against it.
Alex: Yeah, more than any other green power source, nuclear power really riles people up on both sides.
Ayana: And we get a lot of emails from people asking, like, can you do an episode on nuclear? And because we are eager to please, we're going to give you what you want.
Alex: That's right. Today on the show, we are diving into nuclear power. We originally ran this story in the winter of 2020. But, recently the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report re-emphasising the need to transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. So this subject of nuclear power is, once again, on a lot of people's minds. Proponents of nuclear power say it's awesome. Nuclear power plants produce zero carbon emissions while they're operating and they create a ton of power.
Ayana: But then other people say no way, it's not worth it. There are huge dangers. Chernobyl-style meltdowns, the threat of terrorist attacks on nuclear sites. And producing nuclear power does create a certain amount of radioactive waste that you then have to figure out how to safely store for tens of thousands of years.
Alex: But then the proponents say, listen, those risks, they aren't actually that big and they can be mitigated. We can figure out storage solutions.
Ayana: And then that gets countered by people saying like, what are you just in the pocket of the nuclear industry? Like, making excuses for them about how this is totally safe?
Alex: As we said, it gets contentious. You see fights among environmental activists over nuclear. You have the American Conservation Coalition saying quote, "There is no way forward in significantly reducing carbon emissions without embracing nuclear power."
Ayana: But then on the other hand, you have activists like Greta Thunberg of Fridays for Future saying nuclear power is extremely dangerous and expensive.
Alex: And to add to the confusion, the IPCC, you know, the big global body of climate experts, has laid out several different pathways for the world to keep emissions below catastrophic levels. Most of those pathways include an increase in the amount of nuclear power, but some of the pathways do not.
Ayana: And individual countries have each taken very different routes on this. The US, for example, generates around 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear right now. Whereas France by comparison generates about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear.
Alex: So today on the show, how big of a solution to the climate crisis is nuclear power? Do we need more of it? Less of it? Or none at all?
Ayana: And in answering those questions, we're going to go all the way back to the beginning and talk about how nuclear became so contentious in the first place, at least here in the US. That's coming up after this short break.
Alex: All right. So to help us on our journey through how nuclear power became such a polarizing topic, and whether we need it to address the climate crisis, we brought in our resident expert, reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis. Hey, Kendra.
Kendra Pierre-Louis: Hey Alex. Hey Ayana.
Ayana: Hey, Kendra.
Alex: Are you ready to school us?
Kendra: Are you ready to be schooled? [laughs]
Ayana: [laughs] Always. Yes. Bring it on.
Kendra: So before we go too deep into this, I need to give you a disclaimer.
Kendra: Which is I suffer from a specific affliction.
Kendra: Which is the difficulty in saying the word "nuclear" correctly.
Alex: Okay. [laughs]
Kendra: I will say it wrong repeatedly. We all just need to deal with it.
Alex: Nucular? You're a proud nucular sayer?
Kendra: I blame President Bush. He came to power in my formative years, and it left a lasting impression.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, George W. Bush: ... that the Iranian nuclular issue is a problem.]
Alex: One more example of how presidents have power.
Alex: All right.
Kendra: All right. And so I want to start at the beginning of the nuclear power era.
Kendra: To understand the emotions around nuclear, you have to go back to the birth of the industry. And I didn't really realize until I started looking into it, but in many ways, the nuclear power industry grew out of World War II and this headline news moment.
[NEWS CLIP: The B-29 dropped its load of atomic death which exploded with a force equal to 20,000 tons of TNT. A few days later, the second atomic terror was loosed on Nagasaki.]
Kendra: As most people know, at the end of World War II, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Kendra: The explosions from those bombs are estimated to have killed as many as 200,000 people.
Kendra: And most Americans and a lot of the world thought of nuclear weapons as, like, conventional weapons, just more powerful. They hadn't sort of put it in a special category of all their own, kind of the way we think of them today.
Kendra: And that's because people didn't fully grasp the true nature of nuclear bombs, especially when it came to radiation. Like, how it causes all these secondary illnesses like cancer and organ and skin damage.
Alex: Right. Now that you mention it, it makes sense. Like, the effects of radiation are these weird things that show up later. You're dosed, but then you don't actually get sick weeks, months, sometimes even years later. And so that's a weird thing to sort of realize. Like, most poisons kill you right away.
Kendra: Right. And after the war, a lot of Japanese people, as well as many international journalists were documenting all of this stuff. How people who weren't actually injured by the explosions were still getting sick and dying in these mysterious and horrible ways.
Kendra: People were dying begging for water, but then not being able to drink it because they had so much internal damage they just couldn’t keep it down.. But the entire time, the American military who was occupying Japan, they basically clamped down on information getting out. And they said all the bad stuff you heard about this mysterious thing called radiation, it's propaganda. Radiation isn't that bad. And in fact, this General Leslie R. Groves, who'd been the military head of the atomic wartime project, he told Congress that dying from radiation was quote, "A very pleasant way to die."
Ayana: Whoa! Turns out that's not true.
Kendra: Yeah. And after the patriotism of World War II, people just didn't push back that hard. The Japanese were the bad guys. There was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment, but that all changed. And what changed it was a magazine article.
Ayana: Oh, that's interesting.
Kendra: The power of the press, people!
Alex: The power of the press!
Kendra: Yeah. About a year after the war, this guy named John Hersey published an article about Hiroshima in the New Yorker in complete defiance of military propaganda.
Ayana: What does that mean? He wasn't supposed to write that article? Did he get in trouble?
Kendra: It was more like the military had so clamped down on information that what he published was in complete opposition with the official American narrative of what was happening and what had happened in Japan.
Kendra: When Hersey went in, that story, those rumors that people were getting sick had started to die down. So they let him in as a reporter, but they had no idea what he was going to be investigating. And they only gave him two weeks to do it.
Alex: Oh, but then the New Yorker ...
Kendra: Devoted an entire issue to it. 30,000 words detailing not just the immediate aftermath of the bombings, but the long-term effects and the horror of nuclear weapons, and how they were like nothing we had used before.
Alex: Yeah, that article was then turned into a book called Hiroshima, and I remember reading it in high school. I think it's one of the books that stands with me more than any other that I've ever read. And there's this passage where he describes this woman sort of being helped out of a boat. And when the people are helping her out, they reach down to grab her hand and pull her out, and then basically I remember it said her skin came off her hands like a glove.
Ayana: Holy moly!
Alex: Yeah. I've never forgotten that. I read it 20 or 35 years ago. It's like, it's an incredibly powerful piece.
Kendra: They think that, like, 20 percent of the deaths in Nagasaki were caused by radiation.
Ayana: As opposed to the explosion?
Kendra: As opposed to the explosion.
Kendra: So at that point in history, Americans were kind of just getting used to the idea that nuclear weapons were going to be another tool in the military arsenal. You have tanks and you have helicopters, you have nukes. And that article helped create what nuclear experts or historians called the nuclear taboo, which is the idea that using a nuclear weapon is not just dangerous or bad, it is literally, like, inhuman.
Alex: Hmm. That John Hersey article.
Kendra: Yeah. And so no country has used a nuclear weapon in war since we did.
Alex: That's crazy.
Ayana: But that was the only time, right? No other country has done this.
Alex: Right. That was the only time. So Kendra, how do we get from here, basically the world concluding that this weapon is so terrible that it should never be used again to, you know what? We should build an entire power industry around this technology. What happened?
Kendra: Well, it turns out that what makes nuclear technology really good at blowing things up, also makes it really useful for generating power.
Kendra: So to make electricity, we have historically relied on one thing: heat. An oil- or a coal-powered plant burns fossil fuels to make heat which boils water that turns a turbine which makes electricity.
Alex: Right. I mean, we talked about this on another episode, that it's, like, shockingly simple how electricity is generated. It's just literally making a fire to boil water to turn a turbine. That's all it is.
Kendra: So nuclear energy plants tend to generate electricity in kind of the same way. But instead of burning a piece of uranium ore or rock, we split its atoms.
Kendra: And this process is called fission. And it turns out that splitting, say, a uranium atom or a plutonium atom releases a lot of heat. And you don't need much to do it. According to one estimate, you would need about 100,000 times more coal to create the same power as uranium.
Alex: Wow. 100,000 to one.
Alex: When you put it that way, like, it really does feel like oh, this is a miracle technology.
Kendra: Exactly. And that’s why on December 8th 1953, President Eisenhower gives this landmark speech at the United Nations.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dwight Eisenhower: It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.]
Kendra: The speech is called The Atoms for Peace speech.
Alex: Atoms for peace. I feel like there's a band named Atoms for Peace.
Kendra: There is a band named that! But the speech came first. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] Atoms for Peace are English-American supergroup comprising of Radiohead singer, Thom Yorke, Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea, and long-time Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich. Holy moly.
Alex: I never knew that they were named after an Eisenhower speech.
Kendra: His speech is, like, 25 minutes long, and most of it is about nonproliferation of weapons, and how the Soviet Union kind of needs to step up and make peace with the Western world.
Kendra: But then there's this part of the speech that really shows how Eisenhower was hoping to change the narrative on nuclear.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dwight Eisenhower: The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind.]
Alex: Wow. It's like the high-tech version of swords into plowshares.
Kendra: Yes. Oh my gosh! [laughs] Going biblical on us.
Alex: [laughs] I got range.
Ayana: I have no range. I'm just like, is there a policy topic I can bring up? Or, like, an awkward scientific fact?
Kendra: Back to Eisenhower, he wanted to harness what he called the "miraculous inventiveness of man" to use nuclear technology for sustaining life, not destroying it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dwight Eisenhower: Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.]
Kendra: So this speech really cemented this idea that nuclear is, like, value-neutral, and it's all in how we use it. And it marks the beginning of the age of atomic power.
Alex: Okay, so this is when it starts. This is, like, essentially the beginning of the nuclear industry as we know it.
Kendra: Yeah. And there was all of this boosterism about its promise as an abundant and powerful energy source, how it was going to change everything. And the nuclear age, or the atomic age became kind of synonymous with this Jetsons view of the future. Some of the biggest names of the day got into the act.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Walt Disney: Fiction often has a way of becoming fact.]
Alex: Walt Disney himself presenting some sort of, like, Disney story hour.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Walt Disney: Today, that tale has come true. This is a model of the real Nautilus, the world's first atom-powered ship. It’s the first example of the useful power of the atom that will drive the machines of our atomic age. The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand.]
Alex: The first nuclear submarine.
Kendra: But it was a whole, like, one-hour Disney special about the beauty of the atom and how it's our friend. Literally, it's called Our Friend the Atom. I don't know if, in 2020, we could imagine an hour-long Disney special about how great nuclear power is.
Alex: Right. The brand has been tarnished a little bit since then. Yes, that is the point. That's for sure. We were naive and innocent back then with what we thought.
Ayana: [singing] Do you remember how it used to be? We were young and innocent then. Do you remember?
Kendra: Much like Michael Jackson went through rebranding across his career, this rebranding of nuclear also works.
Ayana: That was an excellent segue way from my interjection.
Kendra: The first plant used to power a community happens just two years after that Atoms for Peace speech outside of Arco, Idaho. And I'll share this video with you.
Alex: Oh, there's a video of it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Arco, Idaho, could be the first American town to be lighted experimentally and exclusively by nuclear power, power from this new kind of reactor.]
Alex: Okay, so this is a sort of newsreel. It's showing this, like, town and this, like, factory where they’re building this nuclear reactor which is apparently going to power the town. They’re showing schematic diagrams, they’re showing workers walking around, they're showing the townspeople sort of moving through the town. Okay, now it looks like they’re about to, like, flip a switch.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Arco sees new light. Light from nuclear power on July 17th, 1955.]
Alex: And boom, look at that! The lights came on!
[ARCHIVE CLIP: This new type of power reactor supplied citywide the kind of energy which will someday power man’s factories, cook his meals, and in many other ways make his life richer and fuller in a peaceful world.]
Alex: The first town powered by nuclear power.
Alex: That's crazy.
Ayana: And my jaw dropped when they flipped the switch, even though the diagram told me what was going to happen. [laughs]
Kendra: So it was an experimental reactor, because you don't just generally build a massive nuclear reactor and hope it works. But the first large-scale commercial nuclear reactor went online just two years later in 1957 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
Kendra: Yeah. And after that, nuclear energy just takes off. Here's this energy source that's 100,000 times more powerful than coal, and it just seemed like it would be abundant and cheap and everywhere. So much so that in 1954, Lewis Strauss, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, he says that nuclear would bring energy abundance and electricity that was too cheap to meter.
Alex: Too cheap to meter. That's quite a promise.
Kendra: And between, you know, 1957 and 1996, numbers vary a little bit, but somewhere between 100 and 150 nuclear reactors went online across the United States.
Ayana: Wow. That’s a lot of reactors.
Kendra: But at the same time as all this Utopian dreaming about the wonders of nuclear power was happening, something else was going on.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing] There was a turtle by the name of Bert.]
Alex: It's a cartoon of a sleepy turtle walking down the street.
Ayana: Turtle wearing a tux.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: He never got hurt. He knew just what to do. He ducked and covered. Ducked and covered.]
Ayana: So a bomb just went off and the turtle hid in his shell.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: He did what we all learn must do, you and you and you and you. Duck and cover. Be sure and remember what Bert the turtle just did, friends: duck and cover.]
Kendra: So that is Bert the turtle.
Kendra: And he taught a generation of children to duck and cover as a way of protecting themselves from nuclear war.
Ayana: This is duck and cover as in duck under your desk and cover your head. I definitely recall my mother telling me a story about being drilled to do this in school, practicing hiding under your desk, as if that was going to be enough to protect you from A) the explosion; and B) the radiation.
Kendra: Back then, the idea that you could and you sort of should protect yourself from nuclear war was all over the place. And of course, this wasn't just messaging for kids in school. Adults were also being told how they could prepare for nuclear war by building fallout shelters.
Kendra: And I want to show you an ad from that era that’s all about building your own fallout shelter to protect you from nuclear war.
Alex: All right. So it's like a little magazine spread. It's got pictures of, like, do-it-yourself shelters that you can build.
Kendra: It took me six months to figure out how to get my bike seat back on my bike. I do not want to be responsible for protecting myself from nuclear war. I'm just going to throw that out there.
Alex: Right. You don't want to have to build your own bunker.
Kendra: I don't think it would withstand it.
Alex: Right. Although looking at this magazine spread, it's got pictures of, like, do-it-yourself shelters that you can build. Like, you know, with—like, I'm sure they're easy-to-follow instructions, Kendra.
Kendra: The IKEA of fallout shelters.
Ayana: Now you can build your own fallout shelter.
Alex: There's a basement shelter and an above ground shelter.
Kendra: Your choice.
Ayana: From new plywood research. It's plywood.
Kendra: Which is special. [laughs]
Ayana: [laughs] Seems like they should have known concrete would be better at least.
Kendra: And so what’s bizarre was at the same time that everyone is being told the wonders of nuclear technology, look at the future, it can power a whole town, they're also doing drills to prepare for nuclear war. Like, mixed messaging.
Alex: Right. Very mixed messaging.
Kendra: And it kind of polarizes and, like, makes people pick a side.
Ayana: Like, you can't think it's bad for war and good for energy?
Kendra: Pretty much. If it's so easy to turn it into a weapon of war, it makes some people just feel very deeply uncomfortable.
Kendra: For example, protests over nuclear power in New York City in the '60s led to a de facto moratorium on construction of nuclear power plants within the city limits. But in other parts of the country, nuclear power was embraced as the power source of the future. And this discomfort, this dichotomy between an unlimited Utopian power source and this potentially civilization-ending weapon of mass destruction really cemented itself into public opinion.
Kendra: Polling showed that the American public was pretty split on supporting nuclear power almost from the beginning. And not much seemed to change that. Even big accidents like this.
[NEWS CLIP: It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare. As far as we know at this hour, no worse than that. But a government official said that a breakdown in an atomic power plant in Pennsylvania today is probably worst nuclear reactor accident to date.]
Kendra: Alex, you know what that is?
Alex: Yes. I remember. Three Mile Island.
Kendra: Yes. Three Mile Island. On March 28th, 1979, a combination of technical problems and human errors combined to cause a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Nobody died, but a small amount of nuclear radiation was released, exposing two million people and causing the evacuation of 140,000 people. It's still considered the biggest nuclear accident on American soil.
Alex: Yeah. And I remember it so clearly. Like, I think that's the first time I remember hearing the term "nuclear meltdown."
Alex: Yeah. This is like, oh, there's this thing called a meltdown when it just, like, goes out of control. And that was super scary because it was like, it's the whole thing with atomic power is that it's so strong and you're, like, trying to harness it but, like, because it's so powerful, it can get out of control in these really scary ways.
Kendra: It definitely stirred a lot of anti-nuclear activism. But based on opinion polls of the time, people roughly supported nuclear at around the same rate immediately before and after the meltdown.
Alex: That is crazy.
Kendra: Yeah. And that held true even in other accidents. Chernobyl, Fukushima, public opinion on nuclear power remained pretty steady throughout those accidents. So you had a divided public and big accidents getting lots of airtime, but something significant was happening outside of the public eye, which is that after years of tons of reactors coming online, the building of new plants pretty abruptly stopped. Remember I told you that in the '50s, '60s and '70s, we put more than a hundred nuclear power plants online in the United States, right?
Alex: Right. Mm-hmm.
Kendra: But since 1996, we've brought online exactly one.
Alex: So wait, let's call it 40 years. We had over a hundred nuclear reactors built and put online. And then since 1996, so in the 25 years since 1996, we've had one?
Alex: So what happened? What's—what happened in 1996?
Ayana: Yeah, what went wrong?
Kendra: I will tell you after the break.
Alex: Oh! Nicely done. Nicely done.
Ayana: Oh, the suspense!
Kendra: I will also answer the question we posed at the beginning: How important is nuclear for addressing climate change?
Alex: All right. That's coming up after these messages.
Ayana: Welcome back.
Alex: Welcome back. We're answering the question: is nuclear the key to addressing climate change? And also, what happened in 1996 that derailed the nuclear energy industry in the United States? We know what the answer is not. We know from public opinion polls, that even after huge accidents in the nuclear power industry, people's opinions about nuclear power didn't really change that much. So the answer is not fear of meltdowns.
Alex: What's the answer?
Kendra: It's cost.
Alex: [laughs] It's always cost. That's always the answer everyone. The answer's always money.
Ayana: That's ridiculous.
Alex: The answer's always money.
Ayana: It's a supply and demand curve scenario. Like, very basic.
Kendra: Yeah. I talked to Gabrielle Hecht, a nuclear historian at Stanford, and she told me that, in fact, the money issue went back way before 1996. It had been a problem for years.
Gabrielle Hecht: So by the time the Three Mile Island accident happened in 1979, the US had already stopped launching new nuclear power plants, because utilities had already determined that this was not an economical, profitable way to produce electricity, especially given the rising costs of safety.
Ayana: And is that the only reason it’s so expensive?
Kendra: No, there’s actually a bunch of reasons nuclear is particularly expensive. I looked at a number of studies about this. I sort of went deep. And one study in particular from a group of researchers out of MIT, they found that the costs associated with nuclear-specific safety regulations, that’s only a third of the total costs.
Kendra: But then the other two-thirds of the cost were basically tied to what the report called "soft factors."
Alex: Soft factors?
Ayana: Uh-huh. Tell us more.
Kendra: They just build these things really inefficiently. The report cited instances where around a quarter of the unproductive time on construction sites was just because workers didn't have access to the right tools or materials.
Ayana: That's crazy.
Alex: Because the construction workers literally couldn't find the right tool or materials?
Kendra: Tools are important, Alex.
Alex: All right.
Kendra: Another instance that they cited was they changed construction procedures in the middle of a build, leading to confusion and lost time. The report stated that quote, "Productivity in recent US plants is up to 13 times lower than industry expectations."
Alex: 13 times lower. That’s not 13 percent lower, that’s 13 times lower. 13 times worse.
Ayana: That’s not a great track record.
Alex: No, that’s really bad! [laughs]
Ayana: Like, I feel like I would never get away with that. That’s ridiculous.
Alex: Yeah. That’s crazy. Do they know why?
Kendra: The authors of the report don't know for sure. But they looked at sort of what could kind of fix the problem.
Kendra: And they hypothesize that essentially that the nuclear industry hasn’t really adopted advanced manufacturing and construction techniques that other industries have. Whatever the cause, the effect is real. The report stated that on average, plants built after 1970 had a cost overrun of 241 percent.
Kendra: And that's not considering the financing costs of the construction delays.
Alex: So wait, just the average overrun was 241 percent?
Alex: And as a former math teacher, I feel compelled to point out 241 percent, that means that the final cost of these projects was on average nearly three and a half times what they originally budgeted. That is insane.
Ayana: That is not good enough.
Alex: And that’s the average. So that means that there was, like ...
Ayana: That’s like an F.
Alex: A good chunk of of them were, like, more.
Ayana: Like, if I were grading this project, I'd be like, F. You turned it in, like, three years late. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] Right.
Kendra: Yeah. So, like, let’s just take the example of that one reactor that came online since 1996.
Alex: Oh right, the one that you talked about. So, like, before 1996 there was over a hundred, after 1996 there was one. We’re going to talk about that one.
Kendra: Right. We're going to talk about that one. It's down in Tennessee, and construction on it started in 1973.
Alex: Okay. [laughs]
Ayana: It's like a different turtle analogy. It's like slow and steady wins the race?
Kendra: Yeah. I mean, I feel like it's turtles all the way down. right? [laughs]
Alex: All right, it is time for us all to drop our mics ...
Ayana: Well played.
Alex: ... and end this podcast right now. Very well done.
Kendra: And so there was about a decade of cost overruns and delays, and in 1985 they stopped construction. Construction was halted.
Kendra: And the reactor stayed closed for two decades basically, until 2007 when construction resumed.
Kendra: And that new round of construction still took another eight years.
Ayana: This is ridiculous.
Kendra: So the reactor finally came online in 2016. So the only new nuclear plant since 1996? Total time of construction: 43 years.
Kendra: Yeah, and that one actually got built. So there were projects in this sort of time span where time and money were spent, but they ultimately abandoned construction. So in the case of one project in South Carolina, the total sunk cost of the abandoned project was $9-billion.
Alex: They spent $9-billion building something that they abandoned?
Ayana: That they didn’t even finish.
Alex: That they didn’t finish.
Kendra: Right. And in South Carolina, electricity customers are caught paying for it. The state changed the rules to allow the utility to pass this cost on to their consumers.
Ayana: So what you are saying is that the customer monthly electricity bills are now higher, because they have pay off the cost of this project?
Ayana: Not to put too fine a point on it but, like, this project is also not delivering them any electricity.
Alex: And yet they're paying for it on their electric bills.
Ayana: That’s a bummer.
Alex: So that's the reason. That is the reason we’ve only had one new nuclear plant come online since 1996 is because nuclear's just too expensive. It doesn't make any sense to build them anymore.
Alex: Okay. So well then, what does this mean for our question: Is nuclear the key to our carbonless future or not?
Ayana: Yeah. Is nuclear power a climate solution we should be paying more attention to and working to make happen?
Kendra: So I put this question to a bunch of experts. Some leaning more towards pro-nuclear and some leaning more towards anti-. And basically, all of them will tell you that building more plants like the ones we currently have makes no sense. They’re just not cost-effective. They will never be able to compete with cheaper forms of green energy like wind and solar. But the pro-nuclear side says there is new kinds of nuclear technology. Proponents say they’ll be cheaper and safer, and won’t face all the construction delays and cost overruns that we just talked about. But I had a conversation with a guy named Simon Holmes à Court, who’s a senior adviser at the Energy Transition hub at Melbourne University.
Kendra: He said the big concern is timing. These new technologies haven't been built yet.
Simon Holmes à Court: They simply won't be market-ready for another 15 or so years.
Alex: Like, in theory they could be cheaper and safer but, like, we don't know yet because they haven’t been built?
Ayana: So it’s like, it’s the dream.
Kendra: Yes. And Simon said it's not even clear these new plants are ever going to be financially competitive. He says the thing you have to do is to compare nuclear to other low-carbon options like wind and solar. And he told me about a group of energy providers who just signed up to get wind and solar.
Simon Holmes à Court: It is not a hundred percent clean. It's wind and solar backed up by the grid, but 80 percent of the power that comes in through this contract, 80 percent of it will be wind and solar. And it'll be starting to generate the year after the contract was signed. And it's very competitive. This power is going to be at, $36 a megawatt-hour.
Kendra: Compare that to this one nuclear facility Simon told me about. It’s being built by a company called NuScale. It's this next-generation nuclear power company building reactors using brand new technology, which is supposed to be cheaper and more efficient. NuScale told me that their first reactor, it's going to cost $65 per megawatt-hour.
Alex: So $65 a megawatt-hour for nuclear versus $36 was it, for solar and wind?
Alex: So that's almost $30 cheaper for solar and wind than nuclear.
Kendra: Yep. And again, this is for a project that they’re saying won’t be ready for another nine years. And Simon, he says there’s reason to be skeptical of that deadline.
Simon Holmes à Court: For instance, NuScale six years ago, the project was nine years away from generating. Today, the project is still nine years away from generating. So you've had six years' slip in 6 years. And many would be skeptical that they’re going to hit every target in their current schedule.
Ayana: Yeah, so this is interesting. If we started building these new types of nuclear facilities now, they wouldn't even be providing power for 15 years. And it's more expensive than the solar and wind that we could have, like, next year.
Kendra: That’s right. And we don't have that much time.
Simon Holmes à Court: By the time these guys have hit the market, the energy transition not only will it have to be mostly complete, but we're actually on track for it to be mostly complete.
Ayana: That rapid transition, that's Joe Biden's goal: to be at 100 percent clean energy by 2035. And if we started building these new plants today, they wouldn't even kick in until then.
Alex: That’s crazy when you think about it that way. Yeah.
Alex: I think there's something also that—coming off the thing that Simon said. So the implication of what he's saying is okay, so nuclear shouldn't be part of our mix in the United States because it takes best case scenario over 10 years to build one, and we can have, like, a new solar plant up a year after a permitting. And is the implication of that, that, like, we can actually meet all of our energy needs with just wind, solar and hydro in this country?
Ayana: Yeah. Could the US actually get to 100 percent clean energy by 2035 without any new nuclear?
Kendra: I mean, it's clear that we can get 90 percent of the way there by 2035. And some people say that if we really reached for it, kind of our stretch goal if you will, and really had the federal government behind us, that we could go to 100 percent renewable by 2035. And it's helpful to keep in mind that the government has historically invested far more in research and development of nuclear than it has in renewable energy.
Alex: Oh, so, like, we've invested more government resources in sort of like nuclear than we have in solar and wind?
Kendra: Much more.
Alex: So you're saying, like, 90 percent is like ...
Ayana: Totally doable.
Alex: Basically doable. And 100 percent, if we stretched for it, we could do it. Like, what does that mean? What does stretching for it mean? Where are we right now, and what would we need to do to get to 100 percent?
Kendra: Right now in the United States, we're already at about 38 percent carbon-neutral energy. So that’s wind, that’s solar, that’s hydro and that’s nuclear. It would require building a lot more wind and solar, and also continuing to make advances in energy storage, and making pretty big fixes to the electric grid. But mostly, we don’t need huge technical breakthroughs here, just investment.
Alex: Right. We need to do the stuff that we're doing just, like, faster, basically.
Kendra: Much faster.
Ayana: Throw some money and smart folks at the problem.
Kendra: And muscle. You got to throw some muscle behind it.
Ayana: Muscle. You got to actually put these turbines up.
Ayana: Yeah. Green jobs. Let's go.
Kendra: Yeah. One analysis said that we can get to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 without new nuclear if this decade, we put up new wind and solar twice as fast as we ever have before. And then in the first five years of the 2030s, we do it three times as fast.
Ayana: So it wouldn't exactly be easy. This would take a massive mobilization, but theoretically if we, like, put all our muscle into it.
Alex: If the nuclear industry is building things 13 times slower. [laughs]
Alex: Perhaps the solar and wind could start building things twice as fast.
Ayana: And so in that case then, what do we do with the existing nuclear plants?
Kendra: The nuclear that we have, we should keep.
Alex: So we should keep the nuclear we have, but we don't need to build any more.
Ayana: That's kind of where I came down was like, if they're already there and they're running safely, and we don't have a lot of time to get to 100 percent clean energy, okay, fine. Like, keep those, but why would we build more? It takes too long.
Kendra: But I think it’s really important to say that this is true in the United States, but doesn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the world.
Kendra: Remember, in terms of geography, the United States is the third largest country in the world. We have tons of natural resources, tons of rivers for hydroelectric and tons of sunny and windy places for solar and wind. Not every country has that.
Alex: If you a landlocked country with not very much land and not very much sun ...
Alex: ... you don't have a ton of options, right?
Kendra: And sort of the UN is saying globally that without nuclear, it will be harder as a planet. But I think that's very different than what should the energy mix be within a country.
Kendra: Small countries in general might have a harder time if energy independence is really a goal. They might not have enough land within them to pivot to 100 percent renewable. So for them, nuclear is a really viable choice.
Alex: Right. And so nuclear is probably going to need to be part of your solution, where it doesn't necessarily need to be part of the United States solution.
Alex: And that's a compelling argument because globally, you know, on the one hand, the United States is the biggest historical emitter per capita, right? And so we don't solve global climate change without solving climate change in the United States.
Alex: But on the other hand, the United States is just something like 15 percent of total global carbon emissions. So even though we're the biggest historical emitter per capita, even though each individual American is producing more carbon than anybody else on the planet, basically, we're still only a fraction of total global output. So we can't solve this global problem just by solving it in the United States. We need a global solution.
Ayana: We need a global solution. Teamwork makes the climate solution dream work.
Alex: Right. So it sounds like nuclear can be part of that global solution, and probably needs to be, even if it doesn't need to be part of the solution here in the United States, necessarily.
Ayana: But also, like, if you're going to build one, build it now, because this shit takes too long. [laughs]
Alex: All right. Glad we got all that sorted. Thank you, Kendra.
Kendra: Thanks, Alex and Ayana. I'll see you guys later.
Ayana: See you.
Alex: All right.
Ayana: So Alex, this was super interesting. I knew, like, vaguely about nuclear, but I certainly didn’t know most of this.
Alex: Yeah, And I mean, there’s a lot more to say about nuclear that we couldn’t fit into this episode.
Alex: And we know a lot of you out there probably have questions about—like, for example, how safe this new nuclear technology could be? We didn’t really address that.
Ayana: Yeah, for this episode we just wanted to focus on this big pressing question of whether we even need new nuclear power in the US at all in order to get off of fossil fuels. And it turns out the answer is no, we do not need it. But it can be part of this global mix of electricity sources. And there's still a lot of research and development happening, and there are actually still more nuclear projects planned in the United States. So this is certainly a topic we’ll have to come back to.
Alex: And so for today, that's where we're going to leave it. But please tell us what you thought about what addressed here and some of the things we missed. Although if I'm honest, I'm scared about what you might say because this is such a heated topic. I'm scared for the emails we might get.
Ayana: Oh my God, I'm terrified.
Alex: But, you know, bring them on.
Ayana: And I actually have one specific request, which is please don’t email or DM me directly with your feedback. Send it to show! We want our whole team to hear what you have to say, we love how engaged you are. So don’t reach out to me, reach out to email@example.com. Then you might actually get an answer! [laughs] Because my inbox is a mess.
Alex: And we have a whole team of people to read your notes and emails instead of just one incredibly overworked marine biologist/podcast host.
Ayana: Yeah. I probably don’t have your answers anyway.
Alex: And, of course, nobody emails me.
Ayana: Oh my God, I'm so jealous.
Alex: Somehow they know I'm not the one to go to. And as always, we've got links to sources in our newsletter. So subscribe to that if you haven't yet.
Ayana: Yep. If you want to become a nuclear nerd, we have got your back. And more generally, if you want to be part of reaching this 100 percent clean energy by 2035 goal for the US, there are lots of organizations who are working toward this. So if you want to join those efforts, we'll link to a few options in the show notes and newsletter, including the Sierra Club, 350.org, Climate Action Network, and the Renewable Campus movement.
Alex: And if I could just put in a plug for getting involved in these efforts? Like, a lot of people write to us and they'll say like, "If I could do one thing, what would it be? Like, is it better to stop eating meat? Is it better to stop flying?" And like ...
Ayana: It's better to get off fossil fuels in the next 15 years. [laughs] That’s the most important thing.
Alex: It's so much better to make a renewable grid. Like, that will do more than any sort of individual action that you can do like that. And so really, if you want to do something, getting involved in one of these campaigns we’re linking to, in my view is maybe one of the most meaningful actions you can take.
Ayana: Yeah. And you’ll sleep so well once we get it done. So that's it for this week.
Alex: We'll be back next week.
Ayana: And the week after.
Alex: And the week after that.
Ayana: And the week after that. [laughs] Stay tuned.
Alex: Until the job is done. All right. Thanks for listening, Earthlings. And we'll talk to you soon. Now all we have left are the credits.
Ayana: Hit it.
Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.
Ayana: And me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Ayana: Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger, with help from Peter Leonard. Additional music by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson. Our fact-checker this episode is James Gaines.
Alex: See you next week!