Do We Need Nuclear?

This is an updated re-post from August 24th, when my radio feature first aired on KQED’s Quest series. That report repeats on this week’s magazine edition of The California Report.

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.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

But there are serious doubts 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.

Reports from new projects around the world have not been encouraging of late. Finland is struggling mightily to get its newest reactor up and running. This goes directly to doubts expressed by Kammen and others, that the industry can cowboy up fast enough for nuclear to play a meaningful role in meeting CO2 reduction targets.

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.

Managers at 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.

Former Climate Watch intern Amanda Dyer prepared an interactive “atomic timeline,” marking off some of the milestones in nuclear power history in the U.S. Use your cursor to move around the timeline.

  • http://www.killian.com/earl/bio.html Earl Killian

    What a strange way to ask a question about nuclear. Nuclear of course has little to do with reducing “dependence on foreign oil sources.” Another question about wind and solar similarly has little to do with oil, but it got 79% in favor, a much stronger polling than nuclear.

    More significant than the split opinion on nuclear are the 82% in favor of requiring automakers to “significantly improve fuel economy.”

    Californians recognize efficiency comes first, and then renewables. That’s the real message of this survey.

  • Craig Miller

    Good point on the poll question. I would have to agree that it seems an odd formulation, given that nuclear power isn’t exactly a substitute for oil (maybe when we have nuclear cars, as was no-doubt predicted in some 1960s issue of Popular Mechanics). You might want to drop an email to Mark Baldassare at PPIC and see what he says.
    Also–reminds me of a previous poll, in which people were asked to name the most pressing environmental issues. A large proportion said “High gas prices.”

  • http://RadDecision.blogspot.com James Aach

    “Few young people entering the field” is right. The average age at nuclear stations is mid-to-late 40′s.

    I’d like to point you to an interesting resource on nuclear – a description from an industry insider (me) of what it’s like to work at a power plant, along with a look at the good and bad of nuclear power. (I’m not a huge fan, I just work there.) See http://RadDecision.blogspot.com for the novel “Rad Decision”, entirely free online with no adverts, or there’s a hard-copy available (with no royalties for the author).

    First-hand experience is always a valuable input and there’s been practically none in this debate. I believe we’ll make better choices about our energy future if we first understand our energy present. Noted Bay Area deep thinker Stewart Brand was kind enough to say “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.”

  • http://www.insidergreen.com renewable energy in the United States

    Nuclear source is a high risk one.If we can control the reactions effectively then that will be good.

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  • Craig Miller

    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.

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