This approach will need a sensible regulatory framework. Currently, as M.I.T.’s Richard Lester, a nuclear engineer, has written, a company proposing a new reactor design faces “the prospect of having to spend a billion dollars or more on an open-ended, all‑or‑nothing licensing process without any certainty of outcomes.” We need government on the side of this clean-energy transformation, with supportive regulation, streamlined approval, investment in research and incentives that tilt producers and consumers away from carbon.
All this, however, depends on overcoming an irrational dread among the public and many activists. The reality is that nuclear power is the safest form of energy humanity has ever used. Mining accidents, hydroelectric dam failures, natural gas explosions and oil train crashes all kill people, sometimes in large numbers, and smoke from coal-burning kills them in enormous numbers, more than half a million per year.
By contrast, in 60 years of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm: Three Mile Island in 1979, which killed no one; Fukushima in 2011, which killed no one (many deaths resulted from the tsunami and some from a panicked evacuation near the plant); and Chernobyl in 1986, the result of extraordinary Soviet bungling, which killed 31 in the accident and perhaps several thousand from cancer, around the same number killed by coal emissions every day. (Even if we accepted recent claims that Soviet and international authorities covered up tens of thousands of Chernobyl deaths, the death toll from 60 years of nuclear power would still equal about one month of coal-related deaths.)
Nuclear power plants cannot explode like nuclear bombs, and they have not contributed to weapons proliferation, thanks to robust international controls: 24 countries have nuclear power but not weapons, while Israel and North Korea have nuclear weapons but not power.
Nuclear waste is compact — America’s total from 60 years would fit in a Walmart — and is safely stored in concrete casks and pools, becoming less radioactive over time. After we have solved the more pressing challenge of climate change, we can either burn the waste as fuel in new types of reactors or bury it deep underground. It’s a far easier environmental challenge than the world’s enormous coal waste, routinely dumped near poor communities and often laden with toxic arsenic, mercury and lead that can last forever.
Despite its demonstrable safety, nuclear power presses several psychological buttons. First, people estimate risk according to how readily anecdotes like well-publicized nuclear accidents pop into mind. Second, the thought of radiation activates the mind-set of disgust, in which any trace of contaminant fouls whatever it contacts, despite the reality that we all live in a soup of natural radiation. Third, people feel better about eliminating a single tiny risk entirely than minimizing risk from all hazards combined. For all these reasons, nuclear power is dreaded while fossil fuels are tolerated, just as flying is scary even though driving is more dangerous.
Opinions are also driven by our cultural and political tribes. Since the late 1970s, when No Nukes became a signature cause of the Green movement, sympathy to nuclear power became, among many environmentalists, a sign of disloyalty if not treason.