Former NRC chair says reducing effects of climate change requires nuclear power

It would be extremely difficult for renewable energy production to reduce the effects of climate change without nuclear power, former Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Allison Macfarlane told the Yale Climate and Energy Institute on climate change and nuclear energy. 

“We really need to attend to the grid issues, and we haven’t solved the storage problem for these intermittent sources” of renewable energy, Macfarlane said, noting that nuclear power generates nearly 20 percent of America’s electricity.

Macfarlane gave a keynote address entitled “Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World” covering nuclear safety and how attending to the issue of nuclear safety is critical to the future of nuclear power. Despite the fact that nuclear disasters like Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are rare, they weigh heavily on the public's consciousness pertaining to nuclear power and provided significant lessons in nuclear safety.

“An accident at a nuclear plant is not like an accident at a natural gas plant,” Macfarlane, who directs the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University, said. “They’re rare events, but they’re operating experiences for the nuclear industry and the nuclear industry needs to learn from operating experiences.”

After the 2011 incident at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan, the American nuclear industry immediately began doing analyses of their nuclear plants to assess safety issues. The NRC also standardized the equipment used by nuclear plants, as specialized equipment was one of the issues in the Fukushima incident.

As for where nuclear goes next, in addition to safety concerns among the public the industry has to deal with issues of financing and long construction times for plants. Some regions of the country have regulations making financing a nuclear plant nearly impossible, and where they can be built it often takes a new plant on the order of 10 years to start producing power.

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