The pros for nuclear power are similar to the pros for renewable energy: power is produced without ongoing carbon dioxide emissions. But nuclear has critical advantages that renewables lack: it isn’t intermittent, it is highly scalable, and it can be adapted to energy peaks and slumps throughout the day. It pairs very well with intermittent renewables in keeping the grid stable and clean.
But nuclear incidents have to be taken extremely seriously. Complicating the situation still further, nuclear power is somewhat of a paradox: it falls into the very low-risk category, meaning it’s highly unlikely that anything bad will happen. But it is also in the extremely high potential consequence category, where a major accident could have sweeping long-term consequences. Environmental groups like Greenpeace have given an outsize weight to the possibility of such a rare, serious accident—sidelining the reality that the world will fall short on essential climate goals without nuclear power.
Fail-Safe Versus Fail-Proof
Many nuclear naysayers have failed to understand the difference between fail-safe and fail-proof designs. To be fail-safe means that if an accident does take place, the system goes to a safe state. A simple example of this is an electrical fuse. If too much current tries to flow across the fuse, it melts and stops the flow of electricity. Modern nuclear plants are designed to provide fail-safety using technologies that weren’t available in the early day of nuclear energy (in the 1960s and 1970s).
By contrast, environmentalists expect nuclear designs to be fail-proof – an unreasonable metric that is unlikely to be achieved. No energy source is fail-proof: coal and gas plants explode, solar panels catch fire (as has happened in multiple Walmart stores in the US), dams burst and the rotor blades of wind turbines shatter. Yet only nuclear plants are held to this standard, in spite of data showing that it is the safest energy source per TWh produced.
Policymakers should not give in to pressure stemming from a deep misunderstanding of nuclear power. Whether activists like it or not, the technology is currently the only one promising to successfully limit carbon emissions while meeting growing power needs.