There is an article on RenewableEnergyWorld.com titled Welcome to the Revolution: Emanuel Sachs and Frank van Mierlo that includes some remarkably negative commentary about nuclear energy, especially considering the education level of the men being quoted. One of them has a PhD from MIT and one has both an MBA from INSEAD in France and a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. Here is the quote that made me roll my eyes and buckle down for continued efforts to share the good news about nuclear energy.
In additon to silicon’s efficiency, a no-less-potent driver for 1366 is PV’s relative simplicity. It literally has no moving parts. That’s important to Sachs and van Mierlo who consider complex systems like nuclear power plants and deepwater oil drilling as vulnerable to accidents. Sachs calls such ventures “Technology Towers of Babel” and says “we are assuming things built by humans can be perfect and can operate perfectly.” In reality, “remarkably insane things” happen all the time.
Van Mierlo agrees and suggests a lesson from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not to oppose drilling so much as to oppose nuclear power.
“Maybe as the human race we should not do stuff where the cost of failure is so enormous,” he says. The consequences of a nuclear accident would likely be much greater than an oil spill. As a result, 1366 Technologies’ work focuses on designing PV systems that are simple to operate and whose adverse consequences are tolerable.
The statement could be just a smoking gun that supports my contention that a significant portion of the anti-nuclear rhetoric that you can read or hear is actually an effort by energy industry competitors to spread Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD).
Competing with nuclear energy production on objective measures like levelized electricity cost, system reliability, and electricity quality is virtually impossible for a solar energy company. Even subjective measures like environmental impact generally favor nuclear energy as long as the full life cycle impacts are included and if the evaluators consider the negative effects of covering enormous surface areas with collecting systems. FUD may be the only option available if solar entrepreneurs want favorable comparisons.
It is also quite likely that the comments indicate that nuclear energy marketers have a lot of work to do. In dozens of conversations with nuclear professionals over the years, I have heard a repeated opinion that there is simply a need for better education among the general public. It would be difficult to assert that people with PhD’s from MIT or MSME’s from Stanford suffer from a lack of education or math skills.
Instead, even well-educated people suffer from a lack of repeated messaging aimed at spreading the good news about nuclear energy. They have not been repeatedly told – in advertising-sized sound bites – how cost effective the plants are, how safely used fuel is handled, how well operators are trained, or how safely the plants operate. They have not been told clearly and repeatedly how Three Mile Island was an inadvertent experiment that shows that nuclear power plant designs – with adequate defense in depth considerations as required by law and inspected by competent regulators – can protect the public from significant consequences from even a major plant failure compounded by incorrect operator responses.
It is very unlikely that the US nuclear fleet will ever suffer another accident like TMI; lessons have been learned and corrective action has been implemented. Even if there was another major, equipment damaging event, the consequences would be far less than what the Gulf of Mexico region and the 11 dead drilling rig operators suffered as a result of the Macondo (Deepwater Horizon) well rupture.
That event, by the way, was not unprecedented; well ruptures occur at a disturbing rate and deep water well ruptures taking months to stop have happened several times in the last couple of decades. However, the oil and gas industry has not been forced to do the hard inward look and set up detailed probabilistic risk assessments and mitigation methods that are remotely comparable to those required in the nuclear industry.
Please do not read my commentary as indicating any kind of complacency. Ensuring nuclear energy safety is not easy work and cannot be done without attention to detail. I am merely trying to say that there are many layers of physical protection and a well established, frequently reinforced safety culture among plant operators that works to protect the public from significant consequences. Those layers of safety are affordable as long as the review processes are not allowed to stretch into infinite loops of legalistic maneuverings that add cost without improving safety margins.