As you may have noticed, I'm not against nuclear power. I'm not aggressively pro-nuclear power, either. It's just that I recognize that energy is complicated and I think that the very real risks of nuclear power have to be considered in tandem with the risks of other energy sources, and the risks of not having enough energy. From that perspective, we can't just immediately shut down all the nuclear power we currently have, and nuclear power still does some things that no other energy source can currently do—namely, provide a reliable, low-carbon, high-capacity factor source of electricity that can be located anywhere and doesn't vary its output with the seasons, the time of day, or the weather. That doesn't mean we must use nuclear. And it definitely doesn't mean we should go all nuclear. But it does mean that we have to make our choices about nuclear as part of a bigger picture.
Of course, all of this comes with a big caveat. From my perspective, the benefits of nuclear power can outweigh the risks, as long as there's competent safety regulation in place that's being monitored by somebody independent of the people who are being regulated. There's two things you should have learned from the ongoing flood watch at Nebraska's Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant. First, regulation protects us. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hadn't done its job here, the Fort Calhoun plant would not have been prepared for floods of the level that it has experienced this summer. Second, the nuclear industry can't be relied upon to make the necessary safety upgrades on its own, without outside prodding. It's not that they're evil. Nobody sits around cackling about the prospect of a radiation leak. It's just that businesses, like people, don't always behave in a logical way. Sure, logic says that it's worth it to upgrade your flood protection system because, if it fails, the outcome would be a lot worse for you and cost you a lot more money. But there are other pressures the owners of Fort Calhoun were dealing with, and they chose not to make those upgrades until the NRC essentially forced them to do it.
That's why I think you absolutely need to read the 4-part Associated Press series on nuclear industry regulation, written by AP reporter Jeff Donn. It will make you angry. It made me angry. Donn presents an effective case showing that the NRC does not always act as independently as it needs to, and that it has frequently made choices that favor the needs of industry over the needs of the public. That's bad. So far, nothing that's happened has been particularly dangerous for the public. But the more you let small problems slide, the faster you find yourself facing a larger problem.
At the heart of Donn's series is a serious set of issues that every American needs to consider: Our electric demand is too high to simply shut off nuclear power plants and not replace them. Public opinion won't allow for old nuclear plants to be replaced by new, safer ones. Other replacement options (namely, coal, our other widely available source of base load electricity) aren't particularly popular, either, for good reasons. And so social and economic pressures have given the nuclear industry an incentive to keep aging power plants online decades longer than their original licenses envisioned. There is not an easy ultimate answer to this problem. At least, not one that can be implemented quickly. But while we work to add more renewables and (most importantly) more storage to the electric grid, we need to know that regulators are watching our backs. From what Donn has written, that doesn't seem to be the case.
I can't excerpt anything from Donn's stories here, because the Associated Press is notoriously ridiculous about preventing people from sharing the fine work it does do. (Even finding a full set of links to all the parts of Donn's feature was frustratingly complicated. AP: When you publish a series as important as this, it needs to be easily accessible on your website.) Frankly, if your local newspaper didn't run this series (or didn't run it in its entirety) or if you don't read the paper, there's a good chance you missed this entire report when it first came out around the end of June and first week of July. But you do need to read this report. And you can, at the links below:
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.