Commentary: World must unite to make nuclear power safe and available

(Photo courtesy of NuScale) An artist’s rendering of NuScale Power’s proposed small modular nuclear reactor plant, which will be located at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho.

Science fiction is replete with stories about humanity uniting, putting aside the ubiquitous violence among nations and ideologies, upon the arrival of alien invaders. The entire concept of “us” and “them” is turned upside down.

Aliens will not be visiting, but climate change will create an existential threat and cataclysmic hardship for humans and all other living things. I acknowledge that climate change is an inexact science, and the exact timing and sequence of disasters is not knowable. But, barring major changes, the coming apocalypse is beyond our worst expectations.

The nearly 8 billion people on earth will not be foregoing, under any circumstances, the essential and/or desired aspects of modern life, including hospitals, computers, electronic communication, rapid transportation and heating and cooling. All of these things currently require electricity and/or fossil fuels. Without a major breakthrough, we are on a path to see hundreds of millions die, and billions to suffer immensely.

I believe historians, if any survive, will consign many of those in the environmental movement to infamy for their fervent opposition to nuclear power. I acknowledge the great risks of nuclear power. But it is the lesser evil. In the 65 years of nuclear power, the two worst calamities have been Chernobyl and Fukushima. Recent books about Chernobyl indicate it may have been far worse than is commonly understood. For argument’s sake, let’s stipulate that over a million died as a result of Chernobyl, along with great and long-lived environmental damage. Assume that over the next 65 years that the two worst disasters are far worse than Chernobyl and Fukushima.

But the toll of those presumed future nuclear disasters will pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions who will die from climate change, along with untold human misery and shortened lifespans among the billions of survivors. Climate change will create famines, floods, disease, economic collapse and war waged over shrinking resources.

Based on the science and technology of today, wind and solar cannot power the planet. Humanity does not have the technology to sufficiently store power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. This shortcoming alone deters many from moving to renewable power. If a scientific breakthrough occurs and humanity can begin to fully store its wind and solar power, I will be the first to advocate for ceasing the development of nuclear power. But I don’t know when, or if, such a breakthrough will occur. The threat from climate change is far too urgent, and deadly, to gamble that a power storage breakthrough will definitely occur.

Currently nuclear power plants are hideously expensive and complicated. In the West, nuclear plants are also up against pitched litigation and a growing array of laws and interest groups determined to stop them. Building nuclear power plants is currently essentially prohibitive. Places like Germany and Japan are, incredibly, decommissioning existing nuclear power plants. But what if the best nuclear scientists from Russia, China, France and the U.S. collaborated to design a highly reliable and standardized nuclear power plant? Suppose the detailed plans and specs for such a power plant were publicly available with no intellectual property rights attached? Literally any qualified power company could build one. Standardized parts and components would be manufactured around the world that could plug into any of the plants. Suppose most of the countries in the world streamlined the legal and regulatory requirements to build this (and only this) proven model?

This not to say that all legal and regulatory requirements would be eliminated. But there are a relatively large number of governments and sophisticated private companies that have the expertise to do this kind of construction and operation. Moreover, the U.S., Russia, et al. would continue to collaborate for ongoing improvements to the design of the standard plant.

Imagine the day the U.S., Russia, China and France come together for the ribbon cutting for the first of these standardized nuclear power plants that have been designed to fight climate change and help extinguish its existential threat to humanity. This kind of international cooperation may not unite the people of the earth like alien invaders, but it won’t hurt the prospects for world peace, either.

Eric Rumple

Eric Rumple lives in Sandy. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago and is the author of the novel “Forgive Our Debts.”

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