On the Iran Nuclear Crisis (II)

The Brookings Institute’s recent paper in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Series covers many of the current concerns involved with Iran’s nuclear programs, as well as relevant history. Of the many elements recommended for a comprehensive and effective agreement, some aspects of the recommendation seem unfortunately hard to realize.

One aspect is the need for strong international response, particularly the timing elements associated with the non-military actions. While I can see how the initial diplomatic and non-military approaches tend to take a lot of time (many months) and how this would be a factor in Iran’s possible breakout decision, it seems impossible to find and implement a concrete answer to this element. It seems difficult logistically to go through those current structures and authorities to try to build an official commitment of what actions it would take, and within what amount of time, at this international level since this would be just for one country. Actually defining and putting into place such a timeline could be problematic; on one hand, while this process will bring forth a more defined articulation and public commitment for how the diplomatic and non-military approaches would work towards preventing the breakout, it would also be clarifying for Iran, and not just those wishing to prevent Iran’s breakout possibilities. In as much as the international level policies and decisions are transparent, it may be impossible and even problematic to articulate and specify these possible approaches. In the end, this aspect does seem quite difficult to resolve, in terms of the more “key” goal of making it unclear for Iran to calculate how long the non-military actions may take.

A second aspect is the idea for the international community (or specifically, the PS5+1 and even Russia were named) to help Iran in its civil nuclear plans. It seems like an idea that has potential to work– if the PS5+1 could assist Iran in designing, constructing, and fabricating the fuel for the light water reactors, and help with designing an indigenous power reactor and if Russia could train Iranians in fabricating fuel to eventually enable them to produce the fuel themselves. These proposed actions seem cooperative and likely to overcome the stalemate, since this idea seems to offer some concrete and specific “helpful” guidance towards the peaceful purposes claimed by Iran. While of course there is always the question of whether Iran’s intentions will stay peaceful or not, another question brought to mind is whether Russia would be cooperative. If Russia has thus far sold some material to Iran for questionable aims, the question of Russia’s willingness to cooperate and future possible actions is something that must be considered more thoroughly, in context of this idea. Otherwise, it seems that this idea has potential to help facilitate the cooperation from Iran needed to come to an ideal agreement. — M.

On the Iran Nuclear Crisis

Robert Einhorn’s report “Preventing a Nuclear Armed Iran” is particularly interesting not because its recommendations are that revolutionary, but because it suggests what the broad outlines are of the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy. Einhorn served until recently as the Department of State’s Special Advisor on Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, he maintains close ties with the negotiating team and his perspective is likely as close to official government policy as anything.

Einhorn acknowledges that the Iranians will insist on retaining uranium enrichment capacity and the ability to create nuclear arms if they deem it necessary. However, he believes US concerns can still be dealt with as long as the agreement makes any Iranian attempt at nuclear breakout a “detectable, lengthy and risky process that would not only fail but would inevitably result in Iran paying a very high price in terms of its national interests.”

Einhorn proposes several technical solutions to the problem, suggesting that the Fordow plant be turned into a research facility, that the Arak reactor’s ability to produce plutonium be greatly reduced, and that the Iranian program be subject to stringent monitoring by the IAEA.

Given that just last Saturday Iran’s Vice President announced plans to redesign the Arak plant to limit the plutonium it can make, it would seem that Einhorn’s proposal is already bearing fruit. By most media accounts, the negotiations between the West and Iran have proceeded very well to date. Iran has complied with the interim agreement, and is already ahead of schedule in diluting it’s enriched uranium as stipulated by the 6 month agreement. Representatives have even announced that they plan to Meet in New York in early May to start drafting the final text.

The greatest challenge to successful negotiations may come from hardliners within both countries. Republicans in the US and Netanyahu in Israel have been furious over the prospect of any deal that might permit Iran to continue enriching Uranium, and may attempt to scuttle it.

Rouhani’s administration recently admitted to reshuffling leadership positions in Iran’s atomic energy agency as a way of sidelining the hardliners, holdouts from the Ahmadinejad administration, who had opposed any deal. Ultimately the decision to proceed with the deal depends on Ayatollah Khamenei. Western media reports that he has been cautiously open to the possibility of a deal, but as long as his intentions remain uncertain so is the future of an accord between Iran and the US. — E. S.

Indirect Effects of Low Natural Gas Prices on Nuclear, Renewable and Coal-Fired Electricity Generation

Abundant natural gas resources and prevailing low prices are frequently credited with reducing coal-fired electricity generation and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. However, the same characteristics are putting similar stresses on future renewable and nuclear power generation, both low carbon sources of energy. The February 2013 Credit Suisse presentation cites low electricity prices as squeezing profit margins for nuclear plants. Credit Suisse concludes by suggesting that low prices could lead to a decrease in nuclear’s market share, which has traditionally stood at about 20% of US generation.

suisse2(c) Credit Suisse

Assuming that Credit Suisse is correct and nuclear begins to lose market share in the near term, the question is: “What fuel source will replace the lost nuclear capacity?” Three options exist, renewables, natural gas and coal. Two of those options, gas and coal, will cause a net increase in GHG emission from power plants when compared to existing nuclear reactors. Since nuclear is a base-load fuel, coal and gas are better suited than renewables to serve as direct replacements. Given EPA’s new and upcoming rules on coal plants, it is likely that much of the slack will be comprised of natural gas. However, increased demand and marginally higher gas prices may also cause old coal plants to stay online longer than they would otherwise.

In summation, natural gas has replaced some coal-fired generation and reduced emissions in the short-term; however, the indirect effects of low prices on nuclear and renewables could have a partially offsetting effect on emissions in future years. Given the Obama administration’s interest in reducing carbon pollution and moving away from coal, the nuclear industry should further investigate this effect to argue for license extensions, new plant approvals and increased R&D investment. — N. R.

On the Nuclear Middle Age Dilemma

Credit Suisse highlights a couple main themes in their presentation. First, the current nuclear fleet is operating under capacity. Second, costs for nuclear operation have been rising. And third, the current fleet of nuclear power plants is aging and replacement construction is not keeping pace.

The graphs I found the most interesting were on slides 12 and 17. Slide 12 shows cash margins for regulated utilities, and nearly a third of them operate at a loss for at least some power prices. The least cost effective, Monticello and San Onofre, operate at a loss for every power price, and this loss can be over $15/MWh at certain times. (In comparison, the most profitable can make up to $17/MWh and has a positive cash margin at any price, so there are still some profits to be made). With financial situations such as this, it is not surprising that plants are being powered off at times or permanently closed, and it seems unlikely that many new plants will come into operation. I was wondering what the trend is with newer plants. Do most face regulated markets, or are the new ones mostly merchant operations?

Slide 17 shows the age and capacity of the US nuclear plant fleet. The majority were built in the 1960s-80s, and only one was constructed after 1990 (note the graph ends in 2000). As the slide points out, most of the oldest plants are the smallest and standalone. I would be interested to hear more detail as to what the implications of this are, and how the economics of small standalone plants compares to that of larger and/or grouped plants. — A. D.

Are Floating Nuclear Reactors the Next Innovation in Electricity Generation?

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Russia’s plan to build floating nuclear reactors. I am a sucker for new and innovative technologies especially those involving the ocean so I thought I would explore the topic a bit more.

Apparently, the idea emerged in the 1970s among U.S. utility companies who wanted to go around challenges they faced while looking for potential nuclear power plant sites. Other challenges arose ranging from lack of funding to objections from coastal communities who felt uneasy with that possibility. Last year, Russia revived the idea with plans to build the Akademik Lomonosov, an offshore nuclear power plant with the potential to supply electricity to roughly 200,000 people.

The reactor would be built in a shipyard and then towed offshore several miles away from the coast where it would be anchored. There, it could supply electricity to coastal communities using submerged electric transmission lines. There are even potential applications in water desalination, which requires substantial amounts of energy.

What seems really cool about the idea, however, is the fact that the cold ocean water surrounding the reactor would prevent the internal rods from ever overheating. As discussed in class, the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor poses a major safety issue. For instance, the March 2011 tsunami and the resulting Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, caused three of the six Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s reactors to melt and release substantial amounts of radioactive materials.

Equally thought-provoking is the potential negative impact that could result from the unlikely meltdown of such a power plant at sea. On the one hand, the plant could vent radioactive gasses underwater rather than releasing them in the atmosphere, which could again cause the tragedies we have witnessed at Fukushima and elsewhere. On the other hand, we would have to contend with the damage that would occur to marine ecosystems, which support several important ecological functions both inside and outside ocean waters.

The idea is exciting and merits continued consideration especially as we attempt to diversify our energy sources. We just have to leave very little room for mistakes as we delve into it further. Once that work is done, we would also need to work through objections from potential NIMBY’iers who, let’s face it, would have a fair axe to grind on this subject! — H. T.

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Proliferation (III)

In Sagan’s 2009 article, “nuclear power without nuclear proliferation”, he raises 3 key points the main concerns for future nuclear proliferation issues new states acquiring nuclear power capabilities. Generally his points that 1 states should have good governance, 2 that states must agree to regular facility checks, and 3 that states that particularly risk homegrown and outside terrorist incidents are particularly worrisome aspiring nuclear candidates, are reasonable points that most would agree with.

However, his points are not particularly convincing because they are not well developed or specific enough in how these points are substantiated. For example, in the second point, the idea of the need to get states to agree to regular facility checks in order to avoid the risk of cheating on international agreements is reasonable, but not specific in how this would reduce the risk of cheating. Certainly, his language refers to economic models of game theory that provide one possible framework for assessing how to more precisely estimate the risks and benefits (or payoffs) may be at play for a “representative” aspiring nuclear power state. The main difficulty with these models though, is getting data or numbers that can quantify and capture these risk and pay off factors that a state would realistically face as key decision variables. Additionally, even with these models, the most realistic and accurate method would be to get numbers that are specific to a particular state, as opposed to finding some numbers and found these numbers attempting to extrapolate ideas about all aspiring countries in general (the idea of a single, average, representative state). Therefore, in the end, it seems to me that Sagan’s second point is generally speaking about aspiring states in a single, average sense which I think is not realistic or accurate, let alone convincing. Additionally, he does not spell out what sort of model, logic, or framework for analysis he bases this claimed connection on.

Similarly, his 3rd point is even more unclear. He does not clearly state how or what the problem (the problematic correlation that he points to) is with respect to aspiring nuclear states. He does not fully or clearly saying how this trend or observations matter, and how specifically it should inform considerations to approve new nuclear states. Specifically, he presents data that he apparently authored through an organization, the national counterterrorism Center (NCTC), providing numbers of incidents of terrorism in the past five years for current nuclear power states, and aspiring nuclear power states. More details about how these measures were gathered and more specific explanation of what these numbers mean (for example, in context of the total population size is or other benchmark ways to make this number more comparable) would be more convincing. The table labelled “figure 3” is also confusing in its presentation and design. It does not seem to make sense to present the second set of country data as a list of current and aspiring nuclear states. To present a combined set of data grouped in this way makes comparing between current nuclear states and aspiring nuclear states confusing and difficult to do directly. Instead, it seems that he wants to point out how if aspiring states where nuclear powered, how these aspiring states would rank with the overall group. But, presenting the data in this way, and stating that aspiring states with significant terrorism risk would place high on the terrorist top 10 list, is a direction of argument that is not the most convincing. For example, how valid or meaningful this top 10 list is, or what ranking high on this list means (e.g. if level of risk, risk for whom, and what likelihood or meaning this risk would carry or present), and what this means in terms of nuclear power expansion considerations– which is what the article stated it would address generally. Of course, there is also the question of how reliable this data is, both due to how it was measured and defined by this organization, as well as how the data was collected or reported by the original sources of the data. For example, certain countries may not have accurate numbers are measures due to cover cover-up or downplaying of these issues.

I just wanted to speak to these issues in the way that the points and arguments were made because it is not precise or specific enough which is a real issue as we deal with policy considerations that have real political and economic consequences. Unfortunately, it seems that there are a lot of arguments made in this way in the literature on this topic that most of the time we (audiences in democratic countries, and especially audiences in democratic countries that already are nuclear power states) agree with and then somewhat gloss over. This weakens the quality and level of analysis that we should apply to such a consequential topic. — M.

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Proliferation (II)

The authors draw a distinction between a growth in nuclear production by countries with current nuclear capabilities, which as we have discussed in class is unlikely to happen in the near term due to cost competitiveness, and a spread in nuclear production into countries that currently lack this technology. They present an interesting analysis contrasting the current states that have nuclear capabilities versus those that aspire for such technology, and highlight differences in their governance, democracy, and record of terrorism incidents. While they point out that there are many practical and economic obstacles that will hinder these nations’ abilities to develop nuclear technology, this is still an important consideration to bear in mind as it might affect the legitimacy and authority of intergovernmental treaties regarding the use of nuclear technology.

One of their arguments, however, seems contradictory. They claim that one reason countries desire nuclear capabilities is that nuclear weapons remain the “currency of the realm” and are the ticket to the high table of international politics. Because of this, many countries seek this technology in order to acquire the diplomatic and security benefits it provides. The authors argue that this incentive can be lessened by current nuclear weapon states disarming and reducing their arsenals. This, they claim, will devalue and marginalize nuclear weapons. However, this seems overly simplified and optimistic. Pure supply and demand would claim the opposite, that the fewer weapons there are, the more weight the existing ones hold. Therefore if few states have nuclear capabilities, the ones that do will have even greater weight on the international stage. In addition, this ignores subtleties and counterbalances. There are a number of regions in which states desire nuclear weapons in response to a neighboring rival’s weapons. In this instance, a targeted arsenal reduction aimed at the neighboring country, rather than a general international reduction, would be the most effective solution. — A. D.

Estimating the Social Cost of Carbon Under Rosy Scenarios: Setting Ourselves Up for Disaster?

Recent updates to the social cost of carbon (SCC) represent significant increases in value at all discount rates. (See chart below.) Yet, many scientists, as noted in the April 2014 Nature article, suggest that the costs may be larger than even the new estimates suggest. Their reasoning is primarily that the Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) undervalue or do not account for some negative impacts. Revesz et al. cite social unrest and disruptions to economic growth as two pertinent examples.

Marginal Cost of Emissions in 2020

5.0% 3.0% 2.5% 95th
Original $7 $26 $42 $81
New $12 $43 $65 $129

Discount rates have also been a point of contention in valuing the cost of carbon. For example, Nicholas Stern’s famous 2006 report used a discount rate of 1.4%. The U.S. worst-case scenario, 2.5%, is not close to Stern’s estimate. Applying 1.4% to the IAMs used by the U.S. would find much higher values for the SCC. Lower discount rates also produce distributions that are skewed further to the right and have fatter tails. Thus, not only do low discount rates produce higher SCC values, there is also a greater chance of experiencing an outcome in the far tail of the distribution. Essentially, this characteristic means the chance of a very bad outcome (extremely high social cost of carbon) has increased.

Assuming that the models are not comprehensive and that high discount rates are inaccurate, policy makers are 1) undervaluing the present value of climate pollution and 2) underestimating the possibility of bad outcomes. Thus, even if the current SCC estimates are fully integrated into policy decisions, the U.S. will still be underprepared for the economic consequences of climate change.

It is possible that SCC policy could catch up to scientific and economic input as the models are refined and the effects of climate change become more apparent in coming decades. However, one last exacerbating point to consider is that many climate scientists have stated that predicted changes (like sea ice loss) are happening even quicker than they had expected. In order to compensate for this shortened time frame, policy makers will also have to speed up the pace of adopting new climate related legislation. Given the experience of the last 10 years, the outlook doesn’t look too rosy. — N. R.

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Proliferation

In their introduction to the Fall 2009 special issue of Daedalus, Steven Miller and Scott Sagan overview the challenges of avoiding proliferation in the modern world. Published just after the economy had entered recession, the piece still heralds the coming “nuclear renaissance” and warns that it could produce greater proliferation if the expansion of nuclear power takes place in non-nuclear weapons states as well as in current nuclear powers. Perhaps the recession and natural gas boom could be considered a blessing in disguise then, since it has been quite effective in blunting the expansion of nuclear power. Only those states pursuing nuclear energy more for reasons of prestige or security (Iran, North Korea, etc) have continued to do so over the last five years.

The authors believe it crucial that states wishing to acquire nuclear power have “good governance” characteristics, by which they mean indicators of political stability and low corruption. Unfortunately, most of their (optimistically large) list of states interested in nuclear energy score much lower on these indices than do today’s nuclear powers. And as they note, all violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty were undertaken by non-democratic governments. The authors also call for preserving and improving the non-proliferation regime. In addition to maintaining the system of IAEA inspections for all non-nuclear weapons states, they suggest that additional safeguards and monitoring enhancements could be put in place.

The one interesting discrepancy in the piece was that they referred to global security and US security as one and the same. Yet they also call for an end to exceptions to the NPT such as the US-India nuclear deal, ignoring the tension between the two. While it’s understandable that a publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences may not want to go there, I feel that it’s important to acknowledge that US strategic concerns don’t necessarily coincide with non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, and in fact historically have often diverged. What do the rest of you think? — E. S.

Regulating Nuclear Power in the United States

This week’s readings provide perspective on the challenge of creating effective and efficient government regulation of the nuclear industry. Federal nuclear energy policy appears to be caught up in the countervailing forces of demands for safety and secure regulation as well the desire to incentivize a low carbon-emission energy source’s production. The results are expensive and conflicting. We’re currently witnessing massive expenditures to support the construction of two new nuclear plants, the first of their kind since the 1970s, while other reactors shut down, unable to afford repairs and uncompetitive electricity rates compared with gas.

This conflict is especially observable in the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future’s 2012 report to the Energy Secretary and his subsequent adoption of many of their recommendations in his “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-level Radioactive Waste”, where both parties avoid actively addressing the issue of Yucca Mountain, instead focusing on the need to create a new “consent-based” disposal facility siting process. The focus on process over substance is understandable, but unhelpful in addressing the problem.

I was also struck by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 2011 report “Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century, Near-term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident”. The “Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century” report came out directly in response to Fukushima and finds that current NRC procedures consist of “a patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives” that can be improved upon “by including explicit requirements for beyond-design-basis events.” Which is essentially bureaucratese for “better preparations for highly unlikely events.” The report then provides a list of infrastructure and procedural recommendations to enhance mitigation and emergency preparedness.

This is one of a bevy of reports which place special emphasis on the “lessons from Fukushima”. Is this renewed focus on enhanced reactor security merely a product of the freak event that was Fukushima, and would these new regulations have ever been proposed otherwise? The support for nuclear energy seems to vary wildly in response to historical accidents, having been quite popular in the 50s and 60s, and then falling dramatically in response to events like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The much-heralded “nuclear renaissance” of the 21st century had barely gotten started when it was hit by the twin forces of Fukushima and rising gas prices. Can an industry this dependent on the whims of fate ever realistically achieve a favorable economic climate, strong public support and an accommodating regulatory framework, all at the same time? The odds seem to be stacked against it. — E. S.

On the Blue Ribbon Commission

The Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC), authorized by President Obama, emphasized the need to develop a revamped nuclear waste disposal program. The necessity of implementing a disposal strategy was hastened by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. However, concurrent federal actions on nuclear development have done little to support lower waste output. In fact, the Administration’s financial support of new light water reactors exacerbates waste management concerns by adding new waste streams to the existing stockpile. As a result, one wonders if the recommended waste disposal goals are viewed by the Administration as a public relations ploy rather than a genuine effort.

The 27 years of failure at Yucca Mountain (since the NWPA amendment in 1987), illustrates the substantial challenges in identifying, permitting, building and opening a singular waste storage facility. The 2048 opening date goal identified by BRC further underscores this point. The long time frame also makes the issue a challenging project to see through politically. A president, for example, will not benefit politically from driving a waste disposal effort that will not be implemented during his tenure. Conversely, due to extremely negative public perceptions of nuclear waste, a president and his party could experience significant voter backlash from even suggesting a new waste disposal facility. The empirical evidence from Yucca Mountain and the political realities of driving an aggressive disposal campaign make even a near-term, temporary site, as suggested by BRC, unlikely.

President Obama and his staff have surely gone through the same political calculus. The fact that no waste related emergencies have happened in the U.S. and that future breeder reactors could reuse existing waste, further dissuades political follow through. As such, it is not surprising to see an R and D and funding agenda that worsens the waste disposal problem. In contrast to the long time period of a waste disposal project, approving new funding and permits can curry near-term favors from the nuclear industry, utility sector, and state politicians. Supporting limited nuclear development also promotes President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy.

In summation, the jury is still out on whether a waste disposal facility will ever be realized, but don’t expect that uncertainty to slow down nuclear R and D or permit approval under the Obama administration. — N. R.

Under Control

The movie “Unter Kontrolle” examines the decline of nuclear energy in Germany due to safety scares and a decrease in public opinion.

Before delving into the technical aspects of the reactors, the narrator walks us through a little bit of history. In choosing the location, water proximity came up as an important issue. That is why, Grohnde in the Municipality of Emmerthal, the installation that is the subject of the movie, was chosen when they were planning the installation in the 1970s. It is close to a river called Weser.

The size of the nuclear installations is mind-boggling. Bird’s-eye views of the installations make humans seem like ants roaming around the reactors. Throughout the movie, I wondered how many people were needed to operate the facilities, which I believe span one acre. Maintenance also seemed like a challenge. At one point during the movie, you can hear a technician tell his colleagues: “I can’t manage this with my fingers”, as they performed maintenance on one of the reactors.

“Unter Kontrolle” also stresses safety. Shots around the location seem to suggest that it is indeed safe. The movie shows passersby on their bike seemingly enjoying a stroll on a road just a few meters away from the installation. The narrator explained that the Grohnde installation requires four of everything to ensure safety although only one would. They also seemed to have taken into account different scenarios to ensure safety. For instance, one of the tour guides described how they would activate a smokescreen should a plane be heading in their direction in a threatening manner.

In addition to these procedures, Grohnde possesses a sophisticated and mammoth alarm system, called a Reactor Safety Board (RSB). The RSB would alert operators of any potential safety concerns to help determine whether to trip the reactor and eventually shut the system down to stop nuclear heat generation. In terms of the monitoring systems, the installation seems to have few staff working in the center for what seems to be a monumental undertaking. It makes one wonder how they keep track of everything especially when several alarms go off. A simulation at the end of the movie is especially telling in that sense.

“Unter Kontrolle” mixes the technical and political aspects of the nuclear issue quite well. It provides an extensive tour of the nuclear installations, shows how the reactors work, presents safety mechanisms in place, and, towards the end, moves on to interviews with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials who talk about the types of information they use to monitor the amount of nuclear materials in countries that use it. This involves the testing of a number of different issues. For instance, IAEA keeps a database in which it registers all incidents of illegal handling of nuclear and radioactive materials, to include uranium and plutonium as well as medical radiation sources such as cobalt, cesium, and iridium.

Discussions on IAEA mandate also proved interesting. Due to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the agency is able to check installations of countries that do not have nuclear weapons or installations of countries with nuclear weapons on a voluntary basis. They have little or no recourse for countries that are not party to the NPT.

Overall, the movie was neutral although there was a hint of nostalgia towards the end among those who believed in the promise of nuclear energy but have been seeing a decline in its prestige over the last few decades. It was also interesting to discover the substantial engineering challenges of both building and maintaining such facilities. At the end, one of the narrators mentioned that one of the abandoned plants cost nine billion Deutsche marks to construct! It makes one wonder how that translated into economic and environmental benefits, which “Unter Kontrolle” does not really detail. — H. T.

On Pandora’s Promise (II)

The movie “Pandora’s Promise” was a sleek film promoting an attitude of pragmatic environmentalism. It seemed to target an urban U.S. audience, with the assumption that they are people concerned about climate change but wary of nuclear power. Perhaps because it was aimed at the general population, the film did not include much hard data or statistics. This reliance on expert opinion and anecdotes made it easy to watch, but there were times when I would have liked to hear more about the assumptions underlying some of their claims.

Similarly, there were aspects of the nuclear debate that they seemed to breeze over or omit entirely. This was primarily in regards to various costs associated with nuclear technology. For instance, they mention that the IFR was scrapped by the federal government, but they do not explain the government’s reasons for doing so. Similarly, they compare nuclear to other energy sources in terms of capacity and dependability, but they do not detail the cost comparisons associated with the different fuels. Another area in which costs are not thoroughly delineated is with regard to the costs associated with nuclear accidents. They point out that in terms of health statistics, nuclear is the second safest fuel since no deaths (or even incidents of cancer) have been attributed to nuclear leaks. However, they do not discuss the economic cost of clean-up and containment that results from these nuclear accidents.

The film also neglects to touch upon the proliferation and risk of terrorism associated with nuclear. Granted, nuclear proliferation is a complex debate and the filmmakers had limited time. However, it is something that must be factored into discussions about nuclear energy.

The film did a good job of framing the nuclear energy debate in the context of the present day. All of their references, from the shale boom to Hurricane Sandy to Fukushima, were up-to-date, making the subject matter seem particularly relevant to me as a viewer. And to their credit, they devoted a sizable portion of the introduction to discussing Fukushima, which included footage that followed a scientist to the fallout zone. One thing that struck me, however, was that at the end of his segment, the cameraman asks him if seeing the devastation from the accident changed his view on nuclear power. His response was that he needed time to process what he saw before answering. However, the film never went back to hear his verdict. This storyline was only a minor part of the introduction of the film so this omission is fairly insignificant, but it happened to stick with me and the omission of his answer made me wonder if the filmmakers were not selectively excluding information as they built their case for nuclear energy. — A. D.

Nuclear Energy and the Power of Misinformation in American Policy

According to Pandora’s Promise and nuclear advocates, the risks and costs of nuclear energy are misconstrued by the public and frequently misrepresented by the mainstream press. Proponents in the film, including Stewart Brand, counter common critiques of nuclear energy including: safety risks, nuclear weapons proliferation and costs. Based on their assessment, nuclear energy represents part of a reasonable solution to reducing carbon pollution.

The film’s protagonists recognize that public perception is the driving force behind the U.S.’s current nuclear energy policy. The film presents a convincing argument that nuclear is viewed with such fear and trepidation because it was in fact first developed for use in war (via bombs and submarines), which has given it a lasting and extremely negative connotation. As a result of prolonged fear mongering and a small batch of U.S. and international accidents, nuclear energy development has all but stalled in the U.S.

It is interesting that climate deniers utilize the same tactics of uncertainty and misinformation that are used by nuclear opponents. As such, environmentalists that believe nuclear energy can help solve the climate crisis are faced with not one but two information challenges: gaining greater public support for climate change policy and assuaging public concerns regarding the risk of expanding nuclear energy production.

For advocates like Michael Shellenberger, this dual informational problem presents a perplexing conundrum – which information gap should be addressed first? It seems that coupling the issues would create more confusion and potential opposition. On the other hand, focusing on one issue creates a chicken and egg debate in the U.S.

One solution is to focus U.S.-based research and development investment on the advancement of next generation nuclear energy production outside of the United States, where it is viewed more favorably. Federal R & D could be aligned with international partnerships, in France for example. This spit approach would avoid some domestic opposition and allow policy makers to focus on climate policy, while supporting nuclear development outside of U.S. borders. Interestingly, Bill Gates, a next generation investor, has hinted that his investment in traveling wave reactors will likely need to be tested outside of the U.S. — N. R.

On Pandora’s Promise

Pandora’s Promise bravely tackles the post-Fukushima political climate to make the case for renewed investment in nuclear energy. The film seems to be targeted towards a liberal audience, and features prominent liberal opinion leaders and environmentalists discussing the errors of their prior anti-nuclear ways and how they have come to change their minds. Pandora’s Promise is fun to watch thanks to solid production values and an engaging if sometimes overly ominous soundtrack.

Although generally sparse on specific details, appealing more to emotions than facts, I did learn a number of things from the film. I appreciated its review of the history of nuclear power, and was intrigued that the first nuclear power plant had been built in Pennsylvania in 1956, specifically because it was much cleaner than burning coal. The filmmakers dispel several important urban legends regarding nuclear energy, explaining that even wind and solar energy rely on gas to some extent, that producing solar panels can be a toxic process, and that renewables are insufficient to meet the world’s energy needs. They point out that background radiation equivalent to what is produced near reactors is common around the world and generally not correlated with cancer incidence

Pandora’s Promise takes the fear of nuclear disaster head on. Journalist Gwyneth Cravens explains that the Chernobyl reactor had no containment building and was inherently unsafe, unlike today’s reactors. Furthermore, they cite UN studies showing that very few people ever died or contracted cancer from the Chernobyl fallout. Similarly, they explain that while Fukushima was a “worst case scenario” it still resulted in very little increased cancer risk to the surrounding population.

Besides downplaying the risks, Pandora’s Promise sells nuclear energy primarily by presenting it as key to solving the issue of global warming. They cite writer Richard Rhodes claiming that “To be anti-nuclear is basically to be in favor of burning fossil fuels”. They claim that 3 million people die each year due to the burning of coal, and that nuclear power is the second safest energy source after wind power. Superstorm Sandy is even implied to be a direct consequence of global warming, and therefore a result of not embracing nuclear energy.

My main criticism is that the film picks straw men as enemies, interspersing pro-nuclear opinion with footage of hippies protesting a nuclear plant in Vermont and a ranting British anti-nuclear activist whose arguments are compared with climate skeptics like Sen. Inhofe. They also fail to discuss the economic side of the equation, which is the real reason that nuclear energy has struggled to gain traction in recent years. — E.