Nuclear Power Is An Imperfect But Necessary Option

Armond Cohen and Kenneth Luongo

Allison Macfarlane’s dismissal of nuclear energy (“Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change,” July 8) because it is not a “silver bullet” attacks a straw figure and understates the climate challenge. There are no silver bullets for climate change, and no one is arguing that nuclear energy is the single solution.

Most studies of energy decarbonization see nuclear energy as a complement to renewable energy and other zero-carbon sources because of its ability to provide power around the clock, 365 days a year. By midcentury, the world will need to completely remake its energy system and then grow it by half again to raise global living standards. This is a gargantuan task. Nuclear energy will be an important part of the mix; it has already decarbonized large portions of the power grids in many industrialized countries.

Comparing raw nuclear output costs to wind and solar, as Macfarlane does, is comparing apples and pizzas and ignores why nuclear energy shows up in so many analyses as part of a zero-carbon solution: it provides always-available power during the weeks and months when renewables such as wind are at low ebb, as they were this summer in Europe. Energy storage is advancing but would need to drop in price by 95 percent or more to come close to storing the amount of energy required over long periods at an affordable cost. Nearly every major analysis suggests “firm” power such as nuclear energy—an energy source that is available irrespective of the weather—will be important to fill the gaps.

Nuclear energy has other advantages, as well. It has a small physical footprint: reactors use less than one percent of the space required by wind and solar energy when measured per unit of energy produced. That is critical in an increasingly crowded, land-competitive world. And nuclear reactors can be an extraordinarily efficient way to create zero-carbon fuels such as hydrogen that will be needed to power heavy industry and heavy freight and shipping, which will be difficult to run only on electricity.

Macfarlane addresses none of these points but complains that the world cannot produce enough new nuclear energy in the next decade to matter and therefore it is not “the” solution. As an alternative, she argues for technologies “ready to be deployed today, not ten or 20 years from now”—presumably wind and solar. 

The climate challenge is too big to assume a single path to success.
But nothing can be deployed rapidly at scale. Wind and solar energy, critical parts of the solution, still provide less than four percent of the world’s energy after decades of sustained government support. Providing all energy via wind and solar technologies would require ramping up these energy sources ten times as fast as they are being built today, consuming millions of acres and laying hundreds of thousands of high-voltage transmission lines in the face of increasingly fierce public opposition. And the world will, of course, continue growing after 2030; even if we could replace all current fossil energy with wind and solar by 2050, demand could double in the 50 years after that point, and alternatives would be needed to fill the gaps. We need more options, not fewer, to increase our chance of success.

Macfarlane correctly notes the high costs and lengthy development times associated with recent nuclear projects. But recent studies demonstrate that those problems are mainly due to industries and governments building one-off designs sporadically, forfeiting economies of scale and learning. Our approach needs to change radically. When we have built multiple nuclear plants of the same design, costs have declined and delivery times shortened. Newer plants can be standardized and mass-produced in factories rather than built entirely onsite.

Macfarlane argues that the higher-enriched uranium fuel required for some advanced reactors will spur weapons proliferation. But uranium enrichment is expensive, and the major exporting nations have agreed to limit its availability. Advanced reactors will also require new nuclear governance. Losing this market to Russia and perhaps China will limit U.S. influence in redesigning nuclear controls. This raises global security, nuclear terrorism, and weapons proliferation concerns as both nations have lower nonproliferation requirements.

Innovations in reactor designs and nuclear fuels are still worthy of significant research and government support,” Macfarlane concedes. She seems to tacitly admit what most analysts and the Biden administration recognize: the climate challenge is too big to assume a single path to success. Nuclear energy is one among several imperfect but necessary options we must pursue.

ARMOND COHEN is Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force.

KENNETH LUONGO is President of the Partnership for Global Security.


Why Nuclear is Part of the Answer

Ted Nordhaus

In her essay “Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change,” Allison Macfarlane recycles a familiar trope. Nuclear energy, she argues, cannot contribute meaningfully to addressing climate change because “the world is almost out of time” to develop and deploy new, innovative nuclear technology at sufficient scale to make much of a difference. Macfarlane does not specify exactly what deadline she has in mind. But one can infer she is talking about stabilizing global emissions at levels consistent with limiting warming to not more than 1.5 or 2.0 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

As I have noted in Foreign Affairs, stabilizing at the 2.0 degrees mark is unlikely; the 1.5 degrees mark is preposterous. Energy system modelers continue to suggest that doing so is technically possible, and advocates such as Macfarlane talk about those models as if they were real. But virtually every scenario for doing so assumes an unimaginably rapid deployment of wind, solar, battery, and transmission infrastructure—one that has no analog or precedent—and the development of a broad range of technologies that basically don’t exist today.

Insofar as advanced nuclear reactors are too far off from large-scale commercialization to contribute much to achieving the emission targets that Macfarlane insists we must meet, so, too, are innovations such as green hydrogen, zero-carbon steel, synthetic fertilizer production, low-carbon fuels, and the massive removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Climate mitigation scenarios and models consistent with those targets simply can’t significantly reduce emissions without assuming the existence of most or all of these technologies. None of them are commercially viable at any scale today.

Critics of nuclear energy such as Macfarlane often point out how long it takes to build nuclear plants and how costly they are while simultaneously opposing steps that would make nuclear power plants easier to build and less costly to deploy. Staffers and commissioners at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which Macfarlane headed from 2012–14, have often resisted efforts to rationalize and simplify the licensing process--despite explicit direction from Congress to modernize the system in order to promote innovation and account for important advances over the last 40 years.

What is clear in this and the further objections that Macfarlane lobs at nuclear energy is that what Macfarlane is offering is not hardheaded pragmatism but rather obstructionism. There are very few technological pathways to deeply decarbonizing the global economy over the course of this century. Nuclear energy is demonstrably one of them. It has provided 20 percent of the United States’ electricity for decades with no emissions and with lower mortality per megawatt of energy produced than even wind and solar energy. New advanced reactors will be an order of magnitude safer still, making them, by a significant margin, the safest energy technologies that humans have ever invented.

The challenges that have bedeviled nuclear energy in recent decades have in no small part been constructed by nuclear opponents, largely based on ideological objections that long predate the emergence of climate change as a matter of serious public concern. With innovation and wise regulation, all of those challenges are imminently solvable. Policymakers, regulators, and advocates should recognize the potential of nuclear energy and get on with the business of commercializing advanced nuclear technologies.

TED NORDHAUS is Founder and Executive Director of the Breakthrough Institute.


We Cannot Proceed As Usual

Michael Golay

In “Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change,” Allison Macfarlane—a former student of mine—argues that nuclear power is too flawed and expensive to be a serious candidate in the search for solutions to climate change. Many of her factual observations are accurate, but her argument on the whole is not. She notes that recent nuclear projects have been too slow and costly for them to play a major role in getting climate change under control. She is correct that some have been but incorrect in implying that this is universal and must remain the case.

The success of a nuclear power project depends not only on technology but also on the political environment. Since the 1970s, the political left in many democracies has ensured the failure of nuclear power by undermining regulatory certainty and contributing to instability in the sector. A credible discussion of the contributions nuclear facilities could make to mitigating climate change is impossible if we ignore that nuclear energy is expensive in large part because of the regulatory hurdles that some governments have thrown up around the sector. This is what  Macfarlane does, which is striking because she served as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Success of a nuclear power project depends on the political environment.
Nuclear success and failure tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. When societies signal that they want successful nuclear power projects, they tend to succeed. Consider, for example, the experiences of Belgium and France, where nuclear power provides about 51 percent and 78 percent of national total electricity, respectively. Contrast that with the United States, where nuclear power typically provides about 18 percent of national electricity but where only two new units—now approaching startup—have been initiated since 1974. Nuclear power in the United States has been rendered terminally expensive, yet its technology is essentially the same as the great majority of the 450 nuclear power reactors operating worldwide.

According to many estimates, the world has about 60 years to decarbonize the global energy economy. Success will require international consensus and urgency, analogous to a government operating in wartime. Proceeding as usual will likely ensure failure.

Nuclear power can come in better forms than those that currently exist. As Macfarlane notes, it will require time and resources to realize those innovations. But it is an important part of the “all of the above” portfolio approach to mitigating climate change. Should Macfarlane’s pessimistic view of the possibilities prevail, the likelihood for timely initiatives and success will remain poor, as will the probability of saving the planet.

MICHAEL GOLAY is Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The Real Future of Energy Is Nuclear

Wade Allison

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, “Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change,” Allison Macfarlane paints a gloomy picture of the likely contribution of nuclear power. But she is wrong to extrapolate from the failure of the nuclear industry in the past 40 years, just as it was wrong to predict that the pharmaceutical industry would take decades to find a vaccine for COVID-19. A global emergency raises the stakes of the game—and climate change qualifies as a global emergency.

The three widely available sources of energy are “renewables” (such as wind, hydroelectricity, and solar power), fossil fuels, and nuclear energy. These are all natural—only the technology to use them is manmade. Macfarlane hails renewables as “noncarbon-emitting energy technologies that are ready to be deployed today, not ten or 20 years from now.” But “farms” to harvest the diluted energy of renewables are vast and vulnerable to extreme weather; worse, they are unreliable. Look no farther than California and Texas, where rolling blackouts and outages left people without power—in the Lone Star State, this happened when temperatures were plummeting, and the lack of heat led to some 200 deaths.

Nuclear power, in contrast, can safely provide energy anytime and anywhere. Macfarlane is right, however, that since 1980, the nuclear industry has failed miserably, hampered by a widespread fear of nuclear technology. This increased after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, which caused no loss of life but coincided with the release of The China Syndrome, a blockbuster film featuring an utterly unrealistic nuclear meltdown. The accident at Fukushima Daiichi in northern Japan in 2011 further eroded confidence in nuclear energy, despite the fact that no casualties were associated with that accident, either.

We need to remove the lingering tarnish that has adhered to nuclear energy since the Cold War era. The challenges that lie ahead fit a pattern that we can discern in the effort to tackle another global emergency—the COVID-19 pandemic. The first need was to find a vaccine; then, to make it available internationally; finally, to persuade the public to accept it. The vaccine was discovered faster than any expected; the rollout is still hampered by squabbles over intellectual property and nationalism, inappropriate to a global crisis; the anti-vax hurdle remains difficult.

Nuclear power can safely provide energy anytime and anywhere.
Nuclear power is not a vaccine for climate change, but it is an important component to reducing carbon emissions on the scale required. An immediate first step is to stop the illogical closure of existing nuclear plants and press ahead with new ones of traditional design. Once small, factory-produced reactors are available, governments and companies need to mass-produce them and install them around the world to replace fossil fuel plants. Here we may well run into an issue we saw in the dissemination of vaccines: wealthier nations have, on the whole, been hesitant to ensure shots are available in poorer countries. It’s an open question whether investors would agree to provide nuclear reactors to nations with insufficient resources to afford them—although, as with the global pandemic, failing to do so would ultimately negatively impact individuals across the globe.

Then there is the anti-nuclear fear to overcome—a fear more deeply ingrained than the anti-vax variety. The nuclear establishment should work to reverse the widely held view that nuclear energy is dangerous, weird, and hard to understand. It is, in fact, an essential component of the natural world, and in the sphere of health, at least, nuclear technology is already widely accepted as beneficial, thanks to the work of Marie Curie. “Carbon-neutral by 2050” is a political slogan that omits the crucial issue of how the world can achieve such an ambitious goal. Nuclear energy is an important part of the response. For our children’s future, we should try to build trust in it.

WADE ALLISON is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Fellow of Keble College at the University of Oxford.



The main thesis of my article was that the challenges to bringing online a considerable number of advanced nuclear energy reactors are so significant that the technology will not be able to impact climate change in the next ten to 20 years. Armond Cohen, Kenneth Luongo, Wade Allison, Michael Golay, and Ted Nordhaus have all taken issue with my analysis. But none of them directly challenged that main claim.

Their critiques also include a number of incorrect assertions. Golay states that humanity has 60 years to “decarbonize the global energy economy,” whereas the 2021 International Panel on Climate Change report puts that figure at 30 years, at most. Allison blames the 2021 Texas blackout on the failure of renewable power; in fact, it was frozen natural gas pipelines that were largely at fault. Finally, Nordhaus erroneously claims that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has resisted simplifying the licensing process. It has not. Indeed, the NRC streamlined its two-step licensing process in response to industry complaints, and it is at an advanced stage of a licensing rule for advanced reactors.

Three of the respondents (Golay, Allison, and Nordhaus) blame nuclear opponents for nuclear energy’s woes. The real source of the trouble, however, is cost: nuclear power lives or dies on economics. Golay and Cohen and Luongo at least concede the high costs and lengthy timelines involved in bringing new plants online. Consider, for example, the fate of two Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors in South Carolina whose construction was called off in 2017 after they were already two-thirds complete and whose licensees had already sunk $4.7 billion into them. In explaining the decision, South Carolina Electric & Gas Company announced that the project had become “prohibitively expensive.” Many U.S. states (and governments in other countries) have deregulated their electricity markets, and in those places, new nuclear plants have been nonstarters, because capital costs for new plants must be borne by the private sector, not ratepayers. New nuclear is possible only when ratepayers find the costs to be reasonable.

In terms of nuclear power’s contribution to reducing carbon emissions in the future, it remains uncertain whether new designs will be able to clear the cost bar. Some of the respondents to my piece assert that smaller plants will be able to achieve the necessary economies of scale. But these small plants are often not all that small: TerraPower's Natrium plant slated for construction in Wyoming, for example, is often hailed as a small modular reactor. But its reactor will generate 345 megawatts, making it a medium-sized plant, and a planned energy storage facility will add another 155 megawatts to its power, extending its footprint. Like TerraPower, many of the new nuclear reactor design companies are adding energy storage to their reactor systems to meet a basic need of utility companies: load following, or the ability to ramp power up or down at short notice. Such storage facilities will also increase costs, of course.

Cohen and Luongo state that new reactors “can be . . . mass-produced in factories,” a claim that remains unproven. Westinghouse’s attempt at “modular construction” in a factory in Lake Charles, Louisiana, significantly contributed to the company's bankruptcy, as welded modules that the factory had produced had to be rewelded at the reactor site. Factory production of reactors poses unique challenges, because nuclear construction requires levels of quality control that don’t exist in most other industries—and for good reason. A nuclear accident can result in huge economic and environmental losses, as the world saw during the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan.

Nordhaus’s claim that the new designs will be “an order of magnitude safer” than existing plants also remains unproven. None of these new designs has ever been built at scale, and many exist only on paper and as computer models. Only when full-scale prototypes are built can engineers understand all the safety issues posed by new designs. And such prototypes are expensive—prohibitively so for most investors.

In addition to the uncertainties that remain about the costs of these new reactor designs, the fuel they require may prove costly, too. As Cohen and Luongo correctly point out, “uranium enrichment is expensive,” and most of these designs require uranium enriched to levels above that used in existing plants. At this point, no U.S.-owned facility can carry out that level of enrichment. Thus begins the chicken-and-egg problem: no one wants to foot the bill to build such a plant unless there is an assured customer base, and no one wants to foot the bill for new reactors that rely on enriched uranium unless there is an existing fuel supply.

Cohen and Luongo also rightly point out that advanced reactors “will require new nuclear governance” and claim that if the United States ends up “losing the market” to China and Russia, it will have little influence. The United States remains one of the main nuclear powers, however, and it is hard to imagine that Washington will not retain a say in nuclear governance. U.S. influence is more dependent on the country’s ability to maintain its status as a trusted partner, not whether it supports the active production of nuclear energy technology.

It is unfortunate that in debates about nuclear energy, anyone who criticizes any aspect of the industry is often accused of being antinuclear, and anyone who supports any portion of nuclear energy is accused of being an industry shill. This name-calling does no one any favors and impedes science-based debate. It is dangerous for nuclear proponents when nuclear power is seen in black and white, as something one must either be for or against, because it leaves no space for reasonable critique and hinders growth and improvement. The claims of nuclear designers and vendors bear examination: Will these plants produce electricity cleanly, cheaply, and safely and with minimal waste, as claimed? With so much at stake, officials and investors should know whether these claims have merit before anyone breaks ground on new plants. Today, nuclear power plays an important role in electricity supply because it emits no carbon. What role it has in the future, however, will rely in part on its ability to withstand intense scrutiny.

ALLISON MACFARLANE is Professor and Director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs within the Faculty of Arts at the University of British Columbia. She previously served as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now