University panel explores the future of nuclear energy

With the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima power plant still fueling the debate over nuclear power, energy experts from the University of Chicago gathered to discuss safety and the future of the nuclear industry. 

Held at the Gordon Center for Integrative Sciences on campus and moderated by Mark Peters, Deputy Director of Argonne National Laboratory, the April 21 panel was sponsored by the University of Chicago Alumni Association, in conjunction with Argonne and the Harris School Energy Policy Institute.

More than 600 viewers from around the world tuned in via a live webcast to watch the event, “Lessons from Fukushima: The Risks, Realities and Future of Nuclear Energy.”

Safety dominated the discussion from the start. Hussein Khalil, director of the nuclear energy division at Argonne, defended the track record of nuclear energy, citing the value of nuclear fission as a reliable form of energy in countries around the world.

He said problems at Fukushima “pale in comparison” to the total destruction caused by the tsunami in northern Japan, but predicted that the incident will likely improve emergency preparedness and safety requirements at nuclear plants worldwide.

University of Chicago Booth School of Business economist and panelist Robert Topel agreed. “Most costs are things that we perceive could happen with this energy source, not things that have happened,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped Argonne and other research organizations from developing safer nuclear reactor designs, Khalil added. “They’ve been developed to a fairly high degree of technical maturity,” he explained, “but none of them have been successfully commercialized yet because it appears they can’t yet compete on an economic basis with the existing technology.”

Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, was less optimistic about the likelihood that those innovations will be utilized any time soon.

“I think safety is not uppermost in the minds of those who are designing and constructing nuclear power plants,” she countered. “You’ll often hear that cost comes first.”

According to Topel, who heads the University of Chicago Energy Initiative, new nuclear power plants have a payback period of about 50 years or more. That’s much longer than other production facilities, he said, making investment in new plants difficult until the cost of other energy sources rise high enough to make nuclear a more attractive alternative. “It may not be competitive now, but it may well be with carbon prices and technology advances in the future,” Topel said.

What to do with the spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors was another common theme throughout the conversation. Benedict, who works closely with the Harris School Energy Policy Institute, again pointed out that better technologies that already exist aren’t being used.

“We need to ask why safety measures, which already have been suggested, are not in place right now,” she challenged. 

Using the financial effects of Three Mile Island as an example, Khalil argued that the nuclear industry has incentives to keep plants operating safely. “I just want to differ from the view that safety and economics run counter to each other,” he said.

All three panelists agreed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was taking the right steps to increase inspections and tighten safety requirements at aging nuclear plants in the wake of Fukushima.

Benedict, however, wants to see more transformation at the industry level.

“I believe this would be a very good time to take a very deep breath,” she said, suggesting that nuclear energy companies take a moment to learn from the unfolding tragedy in Japan. “Let’s sit down and really think about this.”