RACHEL PRENTICE: And it's my tremendous pleasure today to welcome Allison Macfarlane to give this year's Nordlander Lecture in Science and Public Policy. And we're very grateful to the Nordlander Family for sponsoring this event. We're also grateful to the Cornell University Lecturers, which is also helping us with the event today.
The Nordlander Lecture was named for Dr Eric Nordlander. Dr Nordlander graduated from Cornell in 1956. He was an organic chemist. And he got graduate degrees from Caltech and MIT and then spent his career mostly at Case Western in Cleaveland.
And he was an inspiring teacher. And in addition to chemistry, he helped students learn about the interactions of science and public policy. Dr Nordlander died of cancer in 1986. But before his death, he knew that his friends and family were planning a living memorial, which is the lectures that we have here today.
This is support for lectures at Cornell who promote, through their own personal example, student interest in science and public policy. Among the contributions to the Nordlander fund were many from his students, people who sent passionate letters about the example for them that Eric Nordlander had set through his own actions. And as in past years, we're absolutely delighted to have Dr Nordlander's family and friends, including his children, Ted and Betsy, who are in the audience today over here, and his friends, Johnathan and Barbara [? Wrightgurt, ?] Sam [? Horowitz, ?] and Barbara and David Kellogg.
And I can't think of a speaker who better embodies the spirit of the Nordlander Lecture than Allison Macfarlane. Allison is Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University. She's also a Professor of Public Policy and International Affairs at GWU. She was Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission from July 2012 through December 2014.
And just to give you a bit of context, 15 months before Allison took the chairmanship at the NRC, the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. And the earthquake and subsequent tsunami did massive damage to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant leading to a meltdown of three of the nuclear cores there. So you basically say that the aftershocks of this absolute devastating accident really were felt through the nuclear community, as well as through Allison's entire time at the NRC. She said that she has took more trips to Japan than any other place during her time at the NRC as well as to other places that, in some ways, have somewhat more worrisome nuclear situations, which Allison will discuss, if you ask, maybe in the Q and A, if you have questions.
And just to give you a sense of-- you know, Allison is going to talk today about Fukushima, but I actually also feel particularly lucky to have you here. I have actually known Allison for not quite geological time, thankfully, but for more than 15 years. And Allison and I used to work out together at MIT in this little, tiny, sweaty gym, full of nerves, lifting weights. And sometimes, when it got too thick, we would take bike rides along the Charles.
And at that time, Allison was working on some of the issues related to the US proposal to site high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. And she was bringing her geology training to that-- to the issues of surrounding Yucca Mountain. So she wrote a book in-- it was published in 2006, called, Uncertainly Underground, precisely about those geological issues related to Yucca Mountain and high-level waste, which is going to be around for something like-- you know, plutonium would be 24,000-year half life. And this is time spans beyond what we are used to thinking in. And so it's important to have geologists thinking about what's going to happen with the Earth over that time period.
So last night at dinner, actually, Allison scared me a little bit by telling me just how recent some of our understandings of the geology are that relate to things like Fukushima. So the understanding of plate tectonics was really a Cold-War science that emerges from submarine surveys of the undersea floor. And so we have these relatively young sciences of nuclear engineering and geology to help us deal with this very complicated entanglement of science and the Earth's activities. So I think we're lucky to have people like Allison stepping up to begin to explore some of those challenges. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming Allison Macfarlane to the [INAUDIBLE].
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Thank you very much, Rachel. That was a lovely introduction. It's really an honor to be here today. And it's, I noted, especially an honor to be in the Hans Bethe Room.
I was fortunate enough, quite a few years ago-- George [? Lewis ?] will remember-- a summer symposium in 1997 that we had here. And Hans Bethe came and spoke to us. So it was really an honor to be able to meet and hear him long ago. Can you all hear me OK?
AUDIENCE: Could it be louder [INAUDIBLE]?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Louder, OK-- so if I start to drop off, let me know, all right? Because I don't want to lose you. So I'm going to take you on a bit of a tour this afternoon about nuclear safety issues, and with particular focus on the Fukushima accident.
But we'll start off with sort of some general observations, and just a general understanding of how nuclear safety works in the United States. And [? if, ?] of course, course I have to segue to a little geology, because it wouldn't be a complete lecture without geology. And then we'll talk about Fukushima and some of the lessons we've learned.
So just a quick status of the nuclear industry, so right now, globally-- this is for 2012, it hasn't changed that much-- nuclear energy produces about 10% of the world's electricity. So it's a significant contribution to the world's electricity. And this is a slide produced by the World Nuclear Association, so just to note the source, showing that nuclear does contribute to reducing climate change because it doesn't produce fossil fuels in the production of the electricity, unlike, of course, the usual fossil fuels-- coal, natural gas, and oil.
So just a brief overview of the status of the nuclear industry-- globally, there our 435 reactors in about 30 countries, 31 countries. There are reactors under construction. The majority of them are elsewhere, mostly in China, some in Russia, some in India, five in the US, actually.
There are many countries, though, that say they are interested in acquiring nuclear power, that don't have it. In fact, at last count, over 60 have made mention, but have not necessarily done anything. The United Arab Emirates is actually constructing four nuclear power plants right now. And in terms of safety, some of these countries that have expressed a desire to have nuclear power do not have regulator bodies.
So what about the US? As I said, there are five nuclear power plants under construction. There are 99 plants in operation. Many of them have received additional 20-year license extensions.
And there are quite a few reactors now decommissioning, or about to decommissioning. Since 2012-- sorry, 2013, five reactors have shut down. And three more have announced that they are going to shut down in the next three years. So that's where we are in the US.
OK, so let me say something about nuclear power safety and the regulatory system, because before I went to the NRC I knew-- and I ad been studying nuclear issues for many years-- I knew very little about the regulator. So some of you may know already. And let me first say why regulators are important. And a regulator is important because they keep the public safe and the environment safe.
But it's essential that the regulator be independent. And what do I mean by that? Well, the regulator should not be influenced politically or by the industry they regulate. So they should be free of influence. They should have adequate funding to do their job. They should also have adequate personnel and expertise to do their job.
And they should have the support of the government. You can't be a strong independent regulator unless the government actually appreciates having a strong, independent regulator. And really, what's essential is that, if the regulator decides that a plant is not safe, they must have the ability to shut it down. And so without an independent regulator, I would argue that a country is at great risk, both economically and in terms of public health and safety.
So in the United States we have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, headquartered in Rockville, Maryland. This was the commission when I started. There are five commissioners. One of them is a chairman. Two of the commissioners come from the Republican Party, two from the Democrat party. And the chairman is usually, but not always, the party of the president.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has five different offices. They have four regional offices spread around the country, and then the headquarters office. The staff number about 3,700, give or take some 10s or 20s. And occasionally, the commission has your all-hands meeting-- many terms borrowed from the Navy, and many former Navy folks work at the NRC. So we have a yearly all-hands meeting.
The NRC has various responsibilities. It's not just about keeping nuclear power plants safe, but it's also about keeping research reactors safe. This is MIT's research reactor. It's also about keeping nuclear fuel cycle facilities safe like the enrichment plant in Eunice, New Mexico.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees over 20,000 nuclear materials licensees too. So it's not just nuclear facilities, but nuclear materials that the NRC has purview over. And here you see a lot of the nuclear materials are used in nuclear medicine. Nuclear transport, transport of nuclear materials is also overseen by the NRC, as is nuclear waste disposal and nuclear waste activities.
So the NRC works through the use of inspections. And here, you see one of the inspectors at a nuclear power plant. Actually, he worked for me in my office for a while. That's Nathan Sanfilippo.
Each and every nuclear power plant has at least two inspectors who work there year round, all the time. And we're somewhat unique in that. Not all countries have that. France, for instance, which now has the second-largest number of nuclear power plants after the United States, does not have inspectors posted permanently at their reactor sites. They visit on a weekly or monthly basis.
So these inspectors are rotated every five to seven years at least so they don't go native. And there are strict conditions on these inspectors. They cannot socialize with the licensee. They can't go to parties with them. They can't have lunch with them. They have to keep separate.
So they are really an impressive group of people. They take their job very seriously. They're there all the time. If there is an incident, they are there in the patrol room telling us, or the NRC, not us anymore, what's happening.
The commission itself meets regularly on a number of different topics. It has these very formalized meetings like you see here. The commissioners are on the right. And we're hearing from the industry, or staff, or public interest groups in a very formalized setting, because the commission, it falls under the Sunshine Act, so it makes it a bit difficult, because the commissioners can't meet privately as a group.
The Sunshine Act requires that you meet-- less than 50% of you can meet privately. And so that means the commissioners can only meet two-- one on one with each other unless the meeting is publicly noticed two weeks in advance and the public are allowed to watch. So not every country operates under that. And I can tell you what I think about that later.
And the way that the commission decides issues, whether they're new regulations, or other issues, whether to do research on a topic or something like that, they have a notation voting system. So votes are all written. And the secretary of the agency is charged with finding the majority opinion, which is then issued in a Staff Memorandum Requirement, an SRM, and that becomes the lay of the-- the law of the land. OK, so now you certainly know how it works in the US.
So let's talk about Fukushima. It may be a little bit more interesting. As Rachel said, March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake had struck off the East Coast of Japan.
So here's your geology lesson. Why did it strike? Well, because of the way the Earth works. And our understanding [INAUDIBLE] as scientists of how the Earth works is collected in a theory called plate tectonics.
The Earth Is made up of a number of lithospheric plates that move close to each other or glide with each other in different scenarios. And Japan-- I guess I will use my little handy pointer here-- is over here. And you can see, it's at the confluence of four lithospheric plates, probably one of the reasons why it's one of the most seismically-active places on Earth.
The Tohoku Earthquake that occurred on March 11 occurred where the Pacific plate is being subducted, or dragged beneath the North American plate. I'll show you that in cross-section. So here's the Pacific Plate going down and the North American Plate overriding, and the Tohoku Quake right there.
So let me give you a sense, a visual sense of how seismically active Japan is, and what this earthquake was like, and what the aftershocks were like. So I'm going to show you a little movie made by Japanese geologists. And on this film, sort of, cartoon, are going to be earthquakes over time in Japan. The magnitude of the earthquake will be represented by the size of the circle and the sound you hear.
And the epicenter, the depth of the earthquake is going to be represented by the orientation of the radius on the circle, which most of you won't care about. But the few earth scientists in the audience might be interested. All right, so here we have January 4, 5, 6, you see earthquakes.
You can see the trench, the subduction zone there, where the Pacific Plate is going under the North American plate. Then you can see a variety of earthquakes, often associated with that-- those plate boundaries that you can kind of see here. So we're at the end of January.
AUDIENCE: This is normal life for Japan?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: This is normal life, yes. And you know, having traveled to Japan quite a few times now, and maybe many of you know, you feel earthquakes there regularly. OK, now we're in February. We're a month away-- no major foreshocks.
AUDIENCE: What are the numbers in the yellow at the bottom?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Those are the number of earthquakes.
AUDIENCE: Oh-- phew.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: OK, yeah you will see that yellow line change. OK, now we're getting into March, so be paying attention-- 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th.
And that's not it.
AUDIENCE: Wow, Jesus.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So the people who were in Tokyo and in Japan when this happened talk about the constant aftershocks, and how unnerving they were. And you can see that they were intense, and lots of tiny ones, but also bigger ones, you know, 4s and 5s that you feel, seriously. So I'm not going to make you watch this. This goes all the way through the end of the year.
But this doesn't change OK? This rate of aftershocks doesn't change. This was a huge earthquake. And there is a huge amount of re-adjustment that goes on in the Earth, in the rocks, as a result.
And you can see that yellow line. Now we're into May. And it's still this intensity of aftershocks-- OK.
AUDIENCE: How long do the aftershocks last?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: I think they're still going on. I think that earthquakes there are still attributed to this. The first time I went to the Fukushima site, I was there, Fukushima City, in December 2012. And I was at this ministerial lunch sitting next to the Japanese Foreign Minister.
And all of a sudden, the room started swaying, and the chandelier started swaying. And within 30 seconds, he had information about the-- where the epicenter of the earthquake, the size, and that the Fukushima site was OK. So it's something that happens.
OK, so now this earthquake, this massive earthquake goes on. Within 45 to 50 minutes, 45 to 50 minutes, giant tsunami waves start striking the coast of Japan. And at the Fukushima site, the Fukushima Daiichi site, because there are two reactor sites there, the tsunami waves were 14 to 15 meters high.
So let me orient you to the Fukushima site. All right, so here's the little map. This is the Pacific Ocean. And north is up. Here's the--
AUDIENCE: Can you please increase the volume of your--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: This is not a mic.
AUDIENCE: Do you want a mic?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Do you want me to use a mic? I can use a mic.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Will this mic work? Does somebody need to turn a mic on the-- yes, OK, does that work? Is that better?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: OK, sorry-- so the Fukushima site here, these are reactors five and six. There are six reactors at the site. And this is reactor one, two, three, and four. And the small squares are the reactor buildings. And the pink squares are the turbine buildings.
And right about here is a big-- it's not a cliff, but it's a big hill. And you go up about 40 meters. And then you have the rest of the site. So the reactor buildings themselves were very close to sea level. They weren't right at sea level, but they were significantly lower than the rest of the site.
Now, look down here. This is the reactor waste treatment facility. I'm going to show you some pictures of that next. All right, so the north side of the reactor waste treatment facility, radiation treatment facility-- so here you see some buildings.
And what I want you to note are the cars. And the cars give you a sense of scale of this container. I don't know what it is, liquid nitrogen, or who knows what it is-- anyway, the point is the size.
One minute later, the tsunami has arrived. And so you know, that's, what, 20 feet high? And that's covered. I just want you to get a sense of the scale here.
So we know the story of the accident. Three reactor cores melted down. There were three explosions, like this one that we see here, with the resultant damage to the different units and a fair amount of damage at the site. Now, the site sustained a fair bit of damage just from the tsunami, all debris.
And this is just tsunami debris. This isn't the debris from the explosions. But this photograph shows you the site after the explosions. So here you see the crippled top of unit one, the intact top of unit two, the crumpled top of unit three, and the crippled top of unit four.
Just to try to keep things straight, units one, two, and three had cores in the reactors. They were on. They were operating. The unit four had-- was doing maintenance on its core, so the fuel rods were removed and in the pool.
Of course, these explosions resulted in a fair amount of radiation contamination. We were actually very fortunate, because the prevailing winds, for the most part, were out to sea. So the vast majority of radiation went out to sea. But at some point in time, relatively early in the accident sequence, the wind turned around and went to the northwest. And so there was a fair bit of contamination on land as well. And that's what you see pictured here.
And just to give you some sense of scale, this is a 20-kilometer radius for the site, 30 kilometers, and 60 kilometers. And so initially, within the first day and a half after the accident, only the first three kilometers, the people within the first three kilometers, were told to evacuate. And then a day or so later, people within 20 kilometers were told to evacuate. People within 20 and 30 kilometers were told to shelter in place.
Unfortunately, some people evacuated from down here, which was relatively untouched. And they evacuated to here. And this is partly a problem of lack of information, and lack of governments getting out information quickly enough.
So these areas, for the most part, have been permanently evacuated. The parts that were the hardest hit, that had the highest radiation were permanently evacuated. 160,000 people left. And some have been able to return. Some have been able to return for the daytime, but they can't stay overnight. Many people, I think, won't return. You know, their lives were changed.
So just some more photos of the aftermath-- when people were told to evacuate, they just up and left. And so this is a restaurant, clearly in the middle of a meal, just abandoned. The one winner in the area, the weeds-- weeds are taking over. All these villages, it's eerie to drive through these villages because, clearly, everybody's lives were in motion, then stopped.
So you have train stations that were abandoned. They had to abandon the rail lines. They have actually re-activated this rail line now, but it was too radioactive for a little while. But there are many villages that continue to look like this.
And one of the other outcomes of the accident is the radioactive waste. So they have been trying to clean up the radio-- after the accident. And they basically clean up, scrape off the top layer of soil and put it in these big bags. And so instead of-- these were rice paddies. And now they are growing radioactive waste, bags of radioactive waste. So that gives you a sense of some of the impact.
Other impact at the site has to do with water. So when I showed you that picture, that map of the reactor site-- those reactors are very close to sea level. They were actually also, the water table there was very high. And the water table actually intersected the basements of the reactor buildings. So even before the accident, water was actively being pumped out of those buildings.
And so the implication is, now that the cores melted through the bottom of the reactor vessel and maybe through the containment. They don't know where the pores are. But there is certainly a lot of radioactivity in those buildings and in those basements. And so all that water, that ground water that comes in, that flows in on a daily basis becomes radioactive.
And so on a daily basis, they pump out 400 metric tons of water, which they have to clean up. And so these huge tanks of water have been popping up around the site. And here's a better example of it. All these, those tanks there, those blue things, they're all tanks of water.
Now, the water has mostly been cleaned up, except the tritium hasn't been removed, because tritium is a isotope of hydrogen. And you can't really remove that from water. So this is tritiated water.
What's the solution? Well, probably the solution is to dump it out at sea, the idea being dilution is the solution to pollution. But you have to realize what was devastated by this accident-- is this not working? No, it's not working. Well, now it's not even going on.
RACHEL PRENTICE: [INAUDIBLE]
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yeah. Let's see if this one works.
RACHEL PRENTICE: Battery [INAUDIBLE]
ALLISON MACFARLANE: OK, is that better?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yup, we're good? All right, so about the dilution is the solution to pollution bit, good, OK-- so the fishing industry here was devastated. Of course the agricultural industry here was devastated as well. But the fishing industry was devastated because so much of that initial radioactivity was blown out to sea, and nobody wants to buy those fish.
Now, the fishing industry would like to come back, but they're worried that they're not going to come back if more radioactive water is released into the sea. So this has become a political issue. And I don't know how it will resolve.
OK, so let's talk a little bit about why the accident happened and what we've learned. So contributing causes to the accident-- well, first you had an earthquake. And you lost offsite power. Why does that matter?
This is the conundrum of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy exists to create electricity, but it can't exist without electricity, at least light-water reactors, the way we have them in the United States, the way they have them in Japan, and in France, et cetera. The reactor core has to be kept relatively cool.
If it gets too hot, it will melt. That's a bad thing. And so to keep it cool, you have to keep pumps going. And pumps require electricity.
So all plants use offsite power, you know, power lines for you and me, to keep those pumps going. When they lose offsite power, they have to have diesel generators as backup. So they lost offsite power. That's OK. Their diesel generators kicked in. Then they were OK.
All the reactors scrammed. The control rods dropped. They started shutting down, but nuclear power plants don't turn off like that. It takes a long time to cool those cores, and so you have to actively pump water, which is why those diesel generators go. Now, when the tsunami inundated the site, the problem was, guess where the diesel generators were?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: In the basement, and the fuel supplies were in the basements. And the batteries that would run the instrumentation in the control rooms were also in the basement, all flooded. And you're saying, why were they in the basement? Well, I don't have a clear answer to that, but there are a number of things I can say.
The initial General Electric design has them in the basement. And the Japanese did not change that. But also, remember, this is a seismically active country. You don't want to put the diesel generators high up in a building. The most stable place for them to be is in the basement, as long as you don't plan on a tsunami.
So anyway, they experienced the nuclear engineer's nightmare, which is called station blackout, no power. And with no power, you know your cores are going to overheat. And you know it's only a matter of hours until you start losing them. And for unit one, unit one probably started melting within three hours or so.
So other contributing factors, well, so why not get-- deliver some diesel generators quickly? Well, you know, this was the state of things. They suffered a massive tsunami and earthquake. They couldn't get any material to them, any equipment.
And they also had terrible communications. They lost lots of the cell phone service, et cetera. It was very difficult to communicate. And these poor guys were working until darkness. You know, they had to have a few flashlights. So it was truly a nightmare.
So some of the main lessons that nuclear regulators have taken from Fukushima is-- and this is not just the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, this is regulators all around the world-- is that the existing regulations would not necessarily have prevented this accident, why? Well, because existing regulations everywhere never contemplated more than one reactor going down at a site at once-- kind of amazing to think that, but that's how it worked. You only planned for one reactor to go down.
If you had multiple reactors at a site, you only planned for one to go down, certainly not three, or six, in this case. And many regulators, maybe most, had not considered what they call beyond design basis natural events, so earthquakes that are larger than you think might happen, and other kinds of natural events. So this could happen.
So I know you guys-- maybe some of you attended a recent discussion on this. You had Kurokawa here talk about the Kurokawa Report. Another report that was done by the Japanese Diet came to some similar conclusions.
And I just wanted to share the Japanese analysis of the accident. The Diet Report said that this accident was made in Japan, it was a result of collusion between the industry, the government, and the regulator, and that they blamed Japanese culture and lack of what we in this country call safety culture, the ability to question authority. That was blamed on the accident-- for the accident.
So what did the Japanese do? They got rid of their regulator. And they put in a new regulator. And so this gentleman here is the current Chairman, Dr Tanaka of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority.
And they decided that they'd have to have new standards and have the-- all the plants meet these standards, or be evaluated to meet the standards. So they're still in the process of working through that. A few reactors have started, few meaning, like, less than three. And we'll see where they go.
What about the US? So immediately, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission mounted its operations center. They, within a month, established a group to do a lessons learned evaluation. And in three months, that lessons learned evaluation came out.
They issued 12 recommendations. The commission took those 12 recommendations and organized them into priority tiers. And so the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still, you know, now five years later, working through these recommendations.
So what have they done? They have required that all nuclear power plants have additional emergency equipment. And let me just show you some of it here. So additional emergency equipment has to be distributed around the sites. It has to be in buildings that can withstand hurricanes, or tornadoes, or whatever, earthquakes, whatever might be affecting that particular facility.
They were required to have backup equipment reach the plant within 24 hours. And so the nuclear industry has established-- and pictured here is one of them-- two equipment depots in the country. And they have plans for how they would get that equipment to each facility. They standardized connections so that, you know, the pipe would fit. The standard pipe would fit all plants, because all plants actually have different designs here.
They have also gone and re-evaluated seismic hazards at the plants. And they're still in the process of doing that for some facilities. And they're doing a flood hazard re-analysis as well, and eventually, may turn to look at other hazards like tornado projectiles, et cetera.
The other thing that they did immediately was to require that these, the kind of reactor at Fukushima, which are these boiling water reactors of the Mark I and Mark II variety, be able to open their vents under all situations. So part of the problem in Japan was they could not vent the containment. So what do I mean by that?
So if you look here at this little mockup of a Mark I, this red thing is the reactor vessel. And then this gray hourglass shape around it is the containment. It's a concrete and steel reinforced, basically, second line of defense if the reactor vessel is broken. And the problem is that containment for these reactors is very small. And pressures can grow very high pretty quickly in that containment.
Now, there are vents. And you should be able to open the vent. Having crawled around the bottom of these reactors myself, I can tell you that those vents are extremely difficult to open by hand.
You have to climb over all sorts of equipment. Sometimes they are sort of unreachable, like up where those lights are. You know, you have to have ladders and everything, and be strong enough and et cetera to be able to get to them.
So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said, no, you've got to be able to operate these things remotely and under the high temperature, pressure, and radiation conditions that could exist during an accident. So that's in process. Now, so many countries, made some of these decisions to add additional equipment. All countries with sizable nuclear reactor programs have added additional equipment, have been in the process of doing natural hazard analysis.
Many countries also decided to do-- to go one step further. And this is something that the US didn't do. But these vents that I had just been talking about-- and here you see a little mockup again of the reactor, and the containment, and the vent. Now, these vents vent to the outside.
And part of the problem in Japan is the government stepped in and said, well, we're not sure we want them to vent, because if you vent, those gases that you're going to vent, they're radioactive. And so you're going to spread radiation, so maybe you shouldn't vent. Now, holding off on venting is a really bad idea, because that will lead to explosions, which is what happened. Eventually they decided to try to vent in Japan, but they couldn't actually physically get the vents open in many of those reactors.
What we can do though is, you can run those vent gases through a tank of water, which will filter most of that radiation out. So there's no political cost and no safety cost to venting. Now, the US decided not to do that.
So this is just a little chart showing you countries that have decided to add those filters to the vents. The US decided not to add those filters. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that they would-- that using sprays and manual actions could result in adequate filtering, but that's not where everybody else is.
OK, let me move on to some final thoughts. So nuclear energy is a different kind of way of producing electricity. It requires a number of things that maybe natural gas doesn't.
It requires an independent regulator. It requires extensive safety and security. Especially now in light of what's been going on in Europe, I think security is very important. It requires constant re-thinking and improving our understanding of geology, and natural events, and natural hazards, and things that can impinge on the performance and the safety of the reactor, and updating the scientific knowledge of how the reactor works. And finally, it includes attention to all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.
So let me just leave you with this final photo, which I think sort of sums up a lot. This is a tanker truck, actually, at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California. And I don't know that you can read what the tanker truck says. But It says, zero defect delivery. And the reason you probably can't read that is because of the big bash into the side of the-- into the defective tank.
So I think nuclear is something that requires constant vigilance, because it's not really possible to be defect free. But at the same time, it provides a large amount of carbon-free electricity. So this is not a black-or-white issue. This is gray. And we have to struggle with it. So I am happy to take your questions, and thank you.
AUDIENCE: The presentation you gave us, it all seemed very short term and incremental. What about inherently safer designs, like [INAUDIBLE] for the long term?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So inherently safer designs-- well, first of all, they'd have to be proved to be inherently safer. There can be problems with all of these designs. And I'm interested in them.
You know, small modular reactors, I think have some promise. But I'm a bit skeptical about whether they will be realized. When I was Chairman, we were told we would be getting design certification applications for small modular reactors in 2014. Then Westinghouse dropped out. Then B&W dropped out.
And there's only one company still in the game. That's NuScale. And they're supposed to submit their design application in this December. We'll see if it happens.
You know, nuclear has to work on all fronts. And probably the most difficult front for nuclear power is the financial one, is the economic one. And so we'll see-- yeah?
AUDIENCE: Just down the coast were additional reactors at Fukushima with a slightly different name. They survived much better. What did they do better?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: They just had-- so they're down the coast from Fukushima actually, like, five kilometers. It's not very far. It's Fukushima Daiini, which has four or six reactors. I don't quite remember. And they also suffered the tsunami, but they did not suffer the meltdown.
They laid nine kilometers, something like that, of electrical wire. And they were able to hook back up into the offsite electricity pretty quickly. They were lucky.
And I don't want to-- there have been analyses hat have said, suggested that it was all the leadership of Daiini that was better than Daiichi. I think that there's a lot at play. They were lucky in their position.
They weren't quite as overwhelmed as Daiichi was by the tsunami waters. And they were able to mount a defense fairly quickly. But I think it was probably luck more than anything else-- in the back?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I mean the Japan quake is really a special case. And we have to be careful to project from Japan to other parts of the world about nuclear when they are clearly-- they misjudged the possible size of tsunami. There are reports published by Japanese, a major tsunami-- I mean, they built these reactor based on 19th-, 20th-century experience.
But if you go a few centuries back-- and there are paper published by Japanese scientists-- there was major tsunami similar to this one, but they ignored it. So in a way, it was unfortunate they did that, but the consequence is clear. But it's very hard to project from this experience to other parts of the world. [INAUDIBLE]
ALLISON MACFARLANE: I think we would be truly in error if we did not try to learn from every accident that happens. And woe unto us if we do not try to discern the lessons from this accident and have a similar one here. But let me talk a little bit more about the situation in Japan, because you claim that they knew about the tsunami and they didn't do anything. And it's not quite that simple. And this gets to what Rachel was saying at the beginning about geology being a relatively new science, and certainly a changing science.
So there's two aspects to this, first, the seismological one. When I was taught geology, which was maybe back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but after the plate tectonic theory came about, the idea of a magnitude-9 earthquake was unfounded. They just didn't-- it wasn't possible. And then seismologists sort of re-adjusted their scale. And all of a sudden, it became possible.
Now, until 2004, you all recall the enormous Sumatra quake and ensuing tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 200,000 people. It was quite devastating. Well, until that time, seismologists believed that only certain subduction zones could create mega-quakes, larger than magnitude 8.8.
So that's the end of 2004. So science doesn't change over night. And it took some years, and some conferences, and some paper writing-- and those of us academics know that papers don't come out immediately-- so it took some time for everybody to get on board that, actually, all subduction zones of sufficient length can create mega-quakes.
And then in short order, or certainly, geologically speaking, short order, we have the Christchurch quake in New Zealand. And then we have the Tohoku quake in Japan, proving that this new understanding was correct, or more accurate. So that was just a few years before this quake.
And so could the nuclear industry have made changes quickly enough from that? Because this site, Fukushima site, was supposed to withstand a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. That was the largest one they thought it would withstand.
Now, the other piece of that is what you were saying, the evidence of a tsunami. That comes from paleoseismology. Paleoseismology, when I was a graduate student, didn't really exist. Paleoseismology is those seismologists who, frankly, wouldn't know a rock if it hit them over the head, going out into the field and looking at rocks, and dirt, and deposits to look for evidence of a tsunami.
And so in the early 2000s, some Japanese paleoseismologists did publish a paper-- I think it was 2003, 2001 or 2003, some odd number-- saying that there was evidence of what they called the Jogan earthquake tsunami. And it was around 869. And it was clearly a large tsunami. It went very far inland. And that indicated a very large earthquake.
So there were actually two lines of evidence suggesting the existence of large tsunami and earthquake, but it came so recently before the 2011 earthquake, I'm not sure that we can say it's the nuclear industry's fault for not responding fast enough. Because I can, having personally experienced how fast all this happens, or not, I can tell you that I don't know that it's reasonable to think that this should change instantly.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So something about injuries and deaths due to the earthquake?
AUDIENCE: Due to the--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Accident?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: OK, so folks will say, nobody died from the accident, that there was one or two workers who were actually killed because of the tsunami at Fukushima, but nobody died from radiation. Now, is that correct? I don't know. Quite a few people died in the evacuation.
Now, if you only count dead bodies and if that's all that matters to you, then this wasn't such a big deal-- dead bodies from radiation, directly from the accident, which is what they do in the United States, and which is what a lot of risk analysts do. And it's what the regulations do. The cost-benefit analyses that are done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they only count dead bodies. And they of course assign, personally, I think quite subjectively, a price to the life. And that comes out in the cost-benefit analysis.
Now, in my point of view, that's a little irrelevant. Dead bodies are irrelevant, because-- and you can ask the Japanese. I mean, this accident has cost trillions of dollars. 160,000 people lose their everything. They lose their homes. They lose their livelihood.
They lose their anchor, initially. You lose 30% of your electricity supply almost overnight. So in the summer now in Japan, in government buildings, because the temperature in the buildings has to be kept above 80 degrees, thermostats above 80 degrees, now it's official policy not to wear jackets and ties, but just to wear short-sleeve shirts-- interesting cultural impacts.
So because they lost all that electricity overnight, I mean, this has been a great loss for utility companies and an additional loss because they had to find some of that power somewhere else. So they had to build gas plants, or bring in oil. And gas and oil is expensive in Japan, et cetera, et cetera.
So you can see all the impacts. And I haven't even talked about cost of cleanup. So are dead people relevant? I don't know. I don't think so. I think one needs to do a much more fulsome analysis of the accident.
AUDIENCE: What about cancers?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: What about cancers? You know, I don't know what the predictions are. Certainly, there was a lot of iodine flying around. And there are-- you see stories in the news about kids getting cancer already. That's too soon. And we'll have to see. I think the public health impacts go a lot further than just the immediate effects of the radiation-- yes?
AUDIENCE: I wonder if you think there are areas of such seismic vulnerability, Cascadia, for example, that, regardless of history, there should simply not be allowed nuclear power development in those places.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: I think this is a societal decision. And societies have to decide whether they want to live with those risks or not. Right now, with nuclear power, you're choosing sort of the risks of nuclear power maybe versus the risks of climate change. Now, these aren't straightforward. But this is a societal decision. This is something that everybody has to get together and say, you know--
AUDIENCE: I understand that. But that's a deflection of the question that I asked.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: And I'm learning to do that very well as Chairman.
AUDIENCE: Yes, and I'm going to detect it. So understanding all of that, were you living in the Pacific Northwest, you, citizen, member of society asked, should we, here, seek our power elsewhere because we are in a situation of heightened vulnerability? There would be costs, of course, [INAUDIBLE] so clearly. If society has to make a decision, that means individual people participating in that decision have to come to some conclusion by the each. And that's what I'm asking you to address.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So the Pacific Northwest doesn't have any nuclear power plants. There's one power plant in Washington State, but it's on the east side of the Cascades, and at Hanford. There was another power plant there, the Trojan plant in Oregon, but that shut down long ago.
And the only thing that exists at the Trojan site now is the [INAUDIBLE]. Everything else is gone. So fortunately, it's not a relevant question. There's no plans to build nuclear power there.
Personally, I would not, as a geologist, having my understanding of how much we really understand Earth processes-- which, I think we're fairly limited still. We don't really get how the Earth works. It's always surprising us. That's why geology is a fun , science because there's always new stuff to do. So I wouldn't put a nuclear power plant in a really seismically active place.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] Have you been to Bodega [? Head ?] and seen the site that they prepared, and--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Right, right, the Bodega Bay, right, yeah-- and you know, a lot of this, there's only one California plant operating now in Diablo Canyon. There was a question here.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I have a question about the interface between nuclear power plants and infrastructure, because you can make the plants safer and prepare for the accident, but if the plants become inaccessible because of the result of a natural disaster, you've got a different problem on your hands. And I wonder how well the control of that infrastructure and the agencies hat oversee that work with something like the NRC.
So I'm thinking of something like the Grand Gulf Plant, which is in the Mississippi Delta, hurricane-level flooding in that area-- what happens when that plant gets essentially becomes inaccessible because of the flood waters. And then how does the NRC or the plant work with the state highway department, the federal transportation department to work on infrastructure issues which are beyond the gates of the plant?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So if there is a hurricane coming, they will shut down ahead of time preemptively. And that's what happened with hurricane Sandy. That happens a fair amount in the Gulf just to be safe.
So in terms of infrastructure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has purview inside the fence. And then outside the fence, it's FEMA. And so just to give you an example, when Hurricane Sandy happened, seven power plants int he Northeast shut down . And they were not allowed to start up until FEMA had said that, if there was an accident, that people could actually evacuate.
So FEMA had the final say on when the plants could actually start again. So if FEMA says that people can't evacuate, the plants have to shut down. Does that answer your question?
AUDIENCE: No, do they, does the nuclear power plant, either NRC or the local authorities, do they have an input into the infrastructure so that it is more accessible?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: The NRC doesn't. This is because the NRC's ability to say anything ends at the boundary of the plant. So it's FEMA.
AUDIENCE: It seems like there would be a jurisdictional issue around this though.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yeah, there are. I mean, and there's-- it's difficult. And every government has to deal with this in some way.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Well, I would say, you really-- I am not an advocate for shutting down nuclear power plants. I think if we-- it would be a disaster if we shut down all the nuclear power plants in the US. In the United States, we get 19% of our electricity from nuclear power. We couldn't afford to do that.
And imagine the carbon implications, because you know, it would be replaced by natural gas. And you know, we're slowly doing that actually in this country. So we're on the slow ride towards that.
You know, I think nuclear power requires constant vigilance. And it requires constant, as I said, updating. And it requires the regulator to have the power and the ability to interfere where it needs to. Is the US regulator always in that position-- maybe not always. And I do take issue with the Sweden example, because I would say they are now vulnerable to terrorism-- yes?
AUDIENCE: I have a question about the adding filters to vents and the US's decision to not do so. because it seems like a lot of other countries have done it. And you mentioned that using sprays and manual options could result in adequate filtering. And I just wanted to know, what are the-- comparing the pros and cons between using the sprays and manual, as the US does, compared to using the filters, and if there's a financial component at play.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yes, there was a financial component at play. The nuclear industry in the US is suffering badly financially. And the Fukushima accident just cost them.
I mean, they've have to do all-- buy all this extra equipment. They've invested a lot of money. And so I think there was a financial component at play. I think they should have added filters. I think it was a very cheap and easy solution, and so did the staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission--
AUDIENCE: How exactly--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: --but my colleagues did not.
AUDIENCE: How exactly does it work? Is it after the air is released that it's treated manually?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: There's a pipe that goes from the vent into a very simple tank of water. So the gases are basically funneled into that tank of water. And that tank of water will end up cleaning out a lot of that radioactivity. Question in the pink?
AUDIENCE: Hi, you mentioned the Sunshine Laws and their effects on [INAUDIBLE] deliberations. I was wondering, I just wanted to take you up on your offer to stand on that podium.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Sure, it's very difficult to-- the Sunshine Laws were passed for a reason, because in the '70s, there was a lot of environmental activism. And there was a lot of skepticism about government doing the right thing. And people wanting to know what the government was doing, what their elected officials and political appointees, which is what I was, were doing. And so this is one way to do it, to make everything overseen by the public.
But functionally, what happens at the commission, is that commissioners meet on a regular basis, maybe, if they elect to. They're not required to. And so my fellow commissioners we would meet on a semi-regular basis. And so you know, you end up discussing issues one by one.
And you have a staff. Each commissioner has a staff. The chairman has a big staff. But what happens is, the staff ends up meeting on a regular basis with the staffs of the other commissions. And so that's how things are babbled out.
And so they're sort of like proxy wars. And because it's not you and it's somebody else who feels they have to fight in your honor, it can get kind of bitter. I just don't find it the most functional way to do things.
You know, and maybe some of you have experienced this on National Academy of Sciences panels-- not so much, probably, because those are FACA, the Federal Advisory Committee Act. And you still can meet privately. But when you can't all meet together and have open and frank discussions, you can't develop relationships as a group. And those relationships, those group dynamics, are exceptionally important.
And when they can't develop, they only develop under the cameras and on the web, you know, everybody watching, it's very strange. And by the way, other countries, regulators, have commissions. Canada does. Spain does. France does.
They don't have single administrators. Some countries have just single administrators, but some of these countries don't. And they meet-- their commissioners meet daily, weekly, privately-- yeah?
AUDIENCE: I'm just wondering, you talked about cases where there is a known high risk either of seismicity or of tsunamis, or cases where there is a low risk of that, but maybe there are hurricanes in the picture. But I think in the geosciences, one of the most interesting and also most challenge cases was shown in one of your illustrations. And that's these places known to have very low frequency high seismicity, whose mechanisms are not fully understood.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Right, like New Madrid.
AUDIENCE: Like New Madrid--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Charleston.
AUDIENCE: --or even off South Carolina, and Charleston, and even, I would include, not just those low-frequency seismic events that we really don't fully understand, but then also there's great interest now in peri-Atlantic tsunamis. And I wonder if you can talk about how one develops a sound policy when the science is so in the infant stages but the risk might still be high.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: I think what you need to do, and one of the recommendations from the near-term task force, the group at the NRC that was tasked to draw lessons from the Fukushima accident, what you need to do is revisit on some kind of regular basis the science and our understanding of the Earth and these events. And all the Earth scientists at the NRC, I would meet with them separately, being an Earth scientist, felt I had to be with my people.
And all the Earth scientists agree. But unfortunately, many of the other commissioners did not. And so I don't think this is going to go anywhere. So this is the frustration of being on the commission.
AUDIENCE: I'd like to switch the conversation for a minute to talk about another science, physics.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: OK.
AUDIENCE: There are, and have been for a long time, suggestions of helium gas-cooled reactors which fail safe.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: [? Did ?] [? they ?] [? though? ?] [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: They do fail safe, because the cross-section for collision goes down. We don't see the-- don't get the low-energy neutrons. And so those have not been developed, because there's not an economic incentive. And so I'm asking you, should the government-- because in the long run, we either sit around waiting for fusion reactors which I [INAUDIBLE]--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: No, it's a constant of nature, four years away.
AUDIENCE: But the gas reactors are something we have not put money in, real, serious research to build these things. We haven't done the engineering. We've got small-scale theoretical models.
And they deal with fundamental problems. They don't heat when they're shut down. They actually shut down automatically if they're hot, so fail safe. Those, I think-- I'm asking for your opinion whether we should put money into developing those, or trying to anyway.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So some of these reactors have-- there has been money put into some of them--
AUDIENCE: That's true.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: --like the [INAUDIBLE] reactor, which-- fail safe, except when water or air egresses into the reactor chamber, and then you have a fire from the graphite. So you know, I think one needs to really understand all the possible mechanisms for failure. And so, and fail safe, I think is a bit of a misnomer. Certainly there are ones that are more passive, offer more passive safety features than the current light-water reactors. And you know, I think there are some interesting designs out there.
Unfortunately, what's gotten money and funding for the last 50 or even 60 years is the molten-salt fast reactor, which has proved over and over to be unreliable and uneconomic. And in the United States, in the UK, in France, in Japan, in Germany, many countries have tried this and not been able to make a success of it. But for some reason, that's where the money keeps going.
And I think there are political constituencies-- I don't mean Republican and Democrat. I mean political constituencies in the [? STS, ?] the science, technology, society sense, where there are the folks who work on molten-salt reactors are the ones who have more sway, more power. And they get the funding instead of some of these more interesting designs that may actually be more [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: Why does that happen? Is that because of the submarine?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: No, the submarines [INAUDIBLE] they tried a fast reactor. And they rejected it outright. It was way too dangerous. [? Seawolf, ?] is that what it was?
Anyway, they went with the light-water reactor, which for them-- which was more predictable, safer. And the navy does a great job at operating in really high safe performance record. You know, if you put lot of money into it and a lot of attention on it, you can do it. But you need to have that level of commitment, which is not necessarily apparent in the nuclear [INAUDIBLE]. So there was a-- Mike, you had a question?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] What's the current state of the [? deep level ?] waste disposal [INAUDIBLE] in the US?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Political constipation, you know, there was-- so the brief update is, what are we going to do with our high-level nuclear waste? The idea, there was legislation that ended up pushing this Yucca Mountain site in Nevada until President Obama came into office and stopped it, and said, no, we're not going to go forward with this. And he put this blue ribbon commission of America's nuclear future together.
I was one of the-- full disclosure, I was one of the commissioners. We issued what I think is a stellar report and plan to go forward. It is.
And it was picked up by the Senate, a bipartisan group in the Senate, to go forward with it. But the House of Representatives, there's a large constituency that just wants Yucca Mountain to happen-- in the House of Representatives. And it is somewhat bipartisan too, mostly Republican, but somewhat bipartisan.
And so there's this standoff, basically. Nothing is happening. And nothing will happen, I don't know, for the foreseeable future. Yes?
AUDIENCE: In the ideal world, and if you had a say in the federal budget in terms of nuclear energy, where should the federal government be putting its money right now with nuclear energy?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Where should the federal government be putting its money with nuclear energy? I don't know, I mean, they did put money into small modular reactors. I think small modular reactors are really interesting. It allows some distributed generation to occur.
You can add them. They're additive. So if you want a bigger one-- the problem right now with nuclear reactors is they come in large and extra large, or even extra, extra large. And so not everybody needs that.
So I think that those are really interesting. They have many more passive safety features. The question about them is whether you can actually make it fly economically. And whether we can make nuclear power economic, fly economically in the US is a problem.
And the problem, I think, started with deregulation of the electricity industry. You will not see a nuclear power plant built in one of the deregulated states. The only place they're being built is in the regulated market, which is in the South, because you cannot find venture capital that will take the risk to support one of these things.
So you know, we can keep investing in it, but whether we can actually make it happen, I don't know, because there are larger issues that are holding it back. So those have to be resolved first before we go spending all sorts of money on some fun designs, I think.
AUDIENCE: So I think we've made it clear that there really isn't a nuclear policy in this country--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: There's no energy policy in this country.
AUDIENCE: Right, there's no energy policy. So we're in the position then of licensing the continuation of the existing fleet. And it seems to me that there aught to be changes in how one re-licenses a 40-year-old plan for another 20 years, maybe only for five years. I mean, so do you have some sort of suggestions about how we can sort of keep tabs on what's happening with these old--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So let me tell you, so there are 99 operating plants in the-- or operating reactors, not plants, reactors, because some plants have more than one reactor. Of those 99, 81 have already received additional 20-year license extension. So basically, virtually, all of them have received an additional 20-year license extension. So they're going to go to 60 years unless they shut down for some reason before.
Now the question that actually is being addressed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is, do you allow another 20 year license, so allow them to go to 80 years? Now, keep in mind that for those Fukushima-designed plants, those boiling water reactors of the Mark I and Mark II designs, those were designed so long ago that those would essentially be 100-year-old brands. You happy to fly on a 100-year-old 747?
AUDIENCE: It's the B-52 approach.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: So personally, I would not give that extra 20-year license.
AUDIENCE: You're happy with 60 years?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: I'm not so happy with 60 years, but I'm more happy with 60 years than 80 years. And so it's not like these plants are given-- you know, OK, yeah, you passed. 60 years, you can go out to 60 years.
Once they pass that 40-year lifetime mark, they have to institute what's called an aging management program, which requires them to do more additional checks on some of the structures at the facility and that kind of thing. What really becomes a question, I think, when you start pushing out to 80 years is some of the underground stuff, the buried piping, the buried electrical lines. That's more of a question. And so you know, short of digging it all up and checking it, I think we need to think carefully.
AUDIENCE: But if they fail these aging checkups, you can close the plant?
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yeah, absolutely, if they're not behaving properly, they will be shut down. And they will have to fix what's broken before they're allowed to start again. And if they can't fix it, then, as in the case of blanking on the name, crystal-- in Florida, or the [INAUDIBLE] plant in California, they'll shut down permanently-- yes?
AUDIENCE: Could you comment on Europe? We have the Hinkley Plant it the United Kingdom which is really in danger now because energy [INAUDIBLE] is having a hard time coming up with the money. Germany is now getting rid of their nuclear plants. It looks pretty messy.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yeah, Europe is all over the map. So Germany is phasing out. Belgium is supposedly phasing out. Switzerland is supposedly phasing out.
Italy was going to restart the nuclear [? beam, ?] but they have not, decided not to after Fukushima. The UK says it's going to build reactors. I'll believe it when they actually do it, because it's complicated there. France is-- you know, they are probably going to actually finally shut down a few, decommission a few reactors, but they haven't actually done that yet. And they're very dependent on nuclear power.
You know, we talked about Sweden. They are still going forward. Finland still has active nuclear plants. Spain still has active nuclear plants. You know, Europe is-- and then didn't even talk about the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and Slovenia. And they all have active nuclear power programs as well.
So I think Europe is in a bit of-- they've got some disagreement. After Fukushima, the European Commission issue a new safety directive, which they all have to follow. But whether is that meaningful, I'm not sure, because, in my discussions with many of their regulators, they all said that they already met it without having to do much.
So I don't know. But it's interesting times. Other questions on this side?
RACHEL PRENTICE: If that's it for questions--
ALLISON MACFARLANE: No, one more question?
RACHEL PRENTICE: Oh, sorry.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yeah?
AUDIENCE: So I thought from your title [INAUDIBLE]
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Yeah, I think those are excellent questions. So what's the long-term future of nuclear power, especially given that renewables, like solar and wind, have become-- their cost curves are, the slope is very steep.
RACHEL PRENTICE: Amazing.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: I completely agree. And I think, if storage, if electricity storage becomes more feasible and more possible, I think it means a very grim future for nuclear. Because you know, this is going to be much more straightforward. It's not like it's-- these are pure and without any impact ways of producing electricity. But they certainly are much less impactful, much less risky than nuclear. You're not necessarily going to see a Chernobyl or a Fukushima. So I think right now it's a difficult situation for nuclear.
There isn't a lot of new build going on. China is doing it. But China, I mean, the amount of nuclear power that China-- the amount of electricity produced by nuclear power right now in China is about 2%. 2% of their electricity supply is from nuclear. If they fulfill their plans by 2030, 35, or something, and build out as many plants as they plan on, which is, you know, on the order of 100 or more, that will still only be 10% of their electricity supply.
So nuclear is not the answer, even in China. I mean, it will help. But in terms of reducing carbon emissions, but it's not the answer either. And China, by the way, is also investing heavily in renewables.
Unless something happens to make nuclear significantly cheaper-- and one thing we actually haven't touched on all in this discussion is the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, which we need to acknowledge exists. I mean, that's why we had this whole thing with Iran, because if we weren't worried about that link, we wouldn't really be worried about Iran.
But that link exists. And it needs to be acknowledged and dealt with as well. And that's a very difficult issue to deal with as well. I don't have a crystal ball on this one.
RACHEL PRENTICE: Is this another question?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] nuclear weapon [INAUDIBLE] terrorists [? don't ?] [? have ?] to build a bomb necessarily.
ALLISON MACFARLANE: Right, well, yes, exactly, with terrorism-- and I think this is a relatively new issue. You know, in the United States, because we're such a violent society, I would argue, we have, actually, pretty well protected nuclear power plants. At many reactors, about a third of the workforce are security guards. They're really well protected.
They have to actually practice with-- they're required to do these force-on-force practice events with former navy seals observed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And if they fail, they're reported to Congress and to the government. And that's bad. So they invest a lot of money in it.
But other countries don't. Other countries don't have that level at all of-- and I think they need to. I think that needs to change. So that is-- it's a new issue for many [INAUDIBLE].
RACHEL PRENTICE: So we can continue this discussion in a reception right across the hall. I hope you'll all join us. Because of a family emergency, Allison will not be able to stay for dinner, but everybody else should stay for dinner. So please join me in thanking Allison for a really thoughtful--
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Allison Macfarlane, professor of science and technology policy at George Washington University, presented the 2016 Nordlander Lecture in Science and Public Policy on April 25. Macfarlane is a former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Nordlander Lecture is organized by the Department of Science & Technology Studies. It brings to campus an eminent scientist or public figure who has been personally engaged in issues that bear on the social integration of science and technology, especially in public policy contexts.