Thomas Isaacs: The future of nuclear

As Japan's troubles continue, CISAC's Thomas Isaacs discusses the future of the nuclear industry.

CISAC: My understanding is that Three Mile Island set back the industry because afterward there was no appetite for building new reactors.

Thomas Isaacs: It's not clear that it was Three Mile Island. It was certainly in that time frame. Others would say it was a combination of a reduction in the demand for electricity at that time and the emergence of alternative energy sources that were less expensive to get started. You saw less of an appetite not just because of the concern about Three Mile Island -- although that was probably a contributing factor -- but because it just no longer made sense to build new, huge, expensive power plants, particularly nuclear power plants.

CISAC:  Experts now say that what's going on in Japan is worse than Three Mile Island. If so, how might that affect the building of nuclear reactors in the future?

Isaacs: The effects are probably unknown and unknowable now. We'll need to have a much better idea of what actually transpires, and how it is handled by the Japanese. We'll also have to see what the consequences are and what the perceived consequences are, and the ability of the Japanese government and utilities to generate a sense of confidence, which is lacking right now. All of that will have an effect and it will be different for a variety of countries, but it's hard to speculate. My own assumption is that in countries where there is more of a national, organized effort to build nuclear, principally in places like China and India, you might not see as much effect as you might see in countries where nuclear has been much more of a controversial issue, and where the public has much more engagement in the decision-making process. In emerging countries that now have no or very few plants, you might see much more controversy. 

CISAC: What about regulation? Might there be more regulation, both here and in China, India, and elsewhere?

Isaacs: I think we don't know that yet either. You would hope that people would view this as a sobering event -- an opportunity to learn lessons for the future. As a result of Three Mile Island and then Chernobyl we have organizations like the World Association of Nuclear Operators, who come together from all over the world to share lessons learned. This will be an example of a place where you would hope they will take this very seriously -- I'm sure they will -- and they will ask very searching questions about whether our regulations or anybody's regulations are appropriate given what we've experienced. There's no question that the track record for U.S. reactors has been outstanding and getting better over the last 20 to 30 years. Should that lead to a sense of comfort? No. It should lead to a sense that we've always had an obligation to ask ourselves if we're doing everything that makes sense, and we can continue to learn from experience and improve.

CISAC: The issue of nuclear waste is important in this country and elsewhere. How might it fit into what we're seeing in Japan right now?

Isaacs: There is spent nuclear fuel, which is a waste form if it's not reprocessed. That's what would ultimately go into the repository, and that potentially is one of the problems that's causing the release of radioactivity at some of these plants. More broadly, you need to feel confident you know how to handle waste, both in the short term and in the very long term, because it is potentially hazardous for geologic time periods. Most people who work in that business believe that disposing of it in a geologic repository, in a stable geologic formation that has the right characteristics, is a very fine way to solve that problem, and pretty much every country that has decided to move toward nuclear waste disposal has chosen that approach. But from a societal point of view and a political point of view, it's a very tough problem. It's not just the science and technology problem.