The future of nuclear energy in the U.S., with former NRC Chairman Richard Meserve

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Good Clean Energy is a podcast that tackles one of the most existential questions of our time: how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Jim McNiel dives into deep conversations with experts ranging from scientists to innovators to changemakers about the challenges our current electricity systems face and updates on the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.

On this episode, McNiel is joined by Richard “Dick” Meserve, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an expert on issues that lie at the intersection of law, science, regulation, and public policy.

To say Dick Meserve has done a lot in his career is quite the understatement. The former chairman of the NRC, who has a law background as well as a PhD in applied physics, may be uniquely qualified to speak on the future of both nuclear fission and fusion in the U.S.

While new nuclear technology is promising, Meserve points out that “many of the models show that if we’re ever going to come anywhere close to our carbon reduction targets, it’s essential to keep the existing reactors operating.”

Meserve, who also serves on TAE’s Board of Directors, says that there’s a real possibility that some of these new nuclear fission reactors will “start to come online in a major way, but it will be a decade before they really could have a significant impact.”

And when it comes to climate change, the more low-carbon sources of energy, the better.

“We have a huge challenge in confronting climate change, and it’s my view that we need to marshal all the resources we can to address it,” says Meserve. “And that obviously includes a heavy emphasis on renewables, but you need a backup. You need firm power as a supplement to renewables. And nuclear is a natural component of that.”

How that will look in the coming years is yet to be determined, he says.

“I think we’re going to actually probably use as many different sources as we can that provide low-carbon, and exactly the balance is going to be determined by the particular situation on what the costs are and what communities will accept.”

Covered in this episode:

  • [3:03] Dick Meserve’s background in law, science and nuclear regulation
  • [6:16] Clearing up nuclear fission’s undeserved reputation
  • [9:38] The future of nuclear fission in the U.S.
  • [11:00] A new kind of nuclear fission reactor
  • [12:10] The timeline of getting new fission reactors online
  • [13:33] The difference between fission and fusion timeframes
  • [14:24] The different kinds of fusion reactors
  • [17:46] Breaking down the NRC’s ruling on fusion regulation
  • [19:30] NRC will not prove to be an obstacle for fusion
  • [21:03] How today’s reactors are different from those decades ago
  • [24:47] Learning from the mistakes of nuclear’s past

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.


When it comes to thinking about the power of the atom, there’s no country on Earth that has a more complicated relationship with nuclear power than Japan. Their first encounter with this technology unfortunately took place in 1945 when two bombs were dropped on Japan, resulting in the death of over 100,000 civilians — the biggest, catastrophic act of war in the history of mankind.

This created a very complicated relationship between Japan and nuclear power. On one hand, they knew the destructive power of the atom firsthand. On the other hand, they’re an island in the middle of the Pacific, and they don’t have a lot of resources to be able to power their country and their economy. They ended up developing 17 nuclear power plants, one of which was Fukushima. Over 10 years ago, a tsunami hit Fukushima, flooded the generators, made it impossible to cool the reactor, took the plant out, resulting in a panic across the nation that brought them to a very different relationship of nuclear power. Japan did a 180-degree turnaround and said, “You know what? We can’t rely on nuclear power. It’s too dangerous.” They started shutting down all their plants.

Fast forward to today, times have changed. We have a shortage of oil because of war. Japan still needs electricity. So they’re talking to people about how they return to nuclear power and do so safely.

We’re joined today by a gentleman who is advising Japan and their new regulatory commission on nuclear energy, and he’s familiar with this discipline because he was once the head of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Dr. Dick Meserve. We’re going to talk about the safety record of nuclear power, its role in the American grid, what its future may be, how it’s evolving, and why it’s really critical for us to achieve a carbon-free future. My name is Jim McNiel, and this is Good Clean Energy.

Jim McNiel: Dick Meserve, it’s such a pleasure to have you here. Looking at your history, it’s almost difficult to know where to begin and where you are right now. Could you tell us what your current role is, because you’ve had so many?

Dick Meserve: Well, I’m currently a Senior Of Counsel with Covington & Burling. I had been a partner at Covington for many years, and left to go off to take a federal government job. The job was to be Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When my term was drawing to a close, I left the NRC and became the President of the Carnegie Institution for Science. My background includes a PhD in applied physics from Stanford and a law degree from Harvard. And I sort of moved back more into science by going to the Carnegie Institution.

McNiel: You ended up advising Jimmy Carter on the Three Mile Island event. Can you tell me something about that?

Meserve: Well, actually, when I graduated from law school, I went and clerked. And I clerked for the Supreme Court — Justice Blackman. And I was planning to go back to Boston. And I got a call from the science advisor for Jimmy Carter that had just come into office. It was a guy by the name of Frank Press who was a geophysicist from MIT, who had heard about me from some MIT friends, and he needed to have somebody that was in his office. So he invited me to join OSTP, which I immediately did — OSTP being the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. And among the things I did was work on the accident at Three Mile Island, which of course occurred during the time that Jimmy Carter was president.

Nuclear fission’s undeserved reputation

McNiel: In 1979. And of course one thing that some people don’t realize is that the Three Mile Incident, and this is years later, there were no deaths attributed to the Three Mile Incident, correct?

Meserve: That’s correct. In fact, there were no radiation emissions from the plant that were in excess of regulatory limits. But of course, it was terrifying to people even though there were no direct health consequences as a result of actual radiation releases.

McNiel: It points out you’ve had a unique perch in the nuclear fission industry, which is, you’re there for Three Mile Island, Chernobyl happened in 1986. Where were you when Chernobyl happened and what was your view of that?

Meserve: Well, I was at Covington then, but Frank Press was then the president of the National Academy of Sciences. And he called me and said, “You were very actively involved in Three Mile Island. I’d like to have you get involved in various of the Academy’s activities related to the Chernobyl accident.” So I went to Russia and was involved in a cooperative, or setting up cooperative arrangements with Russians where we could help them in dealing with the accident. And then I chaired several studies of the National Academies to look at the implications of the accident for American reactors. So I was thrown back into the nuclear world again as a result of the Chernobyl accident.

McNiel: Did you visit the site at Chernobyl when you were in Russia?

Meserve: Yes, I did.

McNiel: And what was that like?

Meserve: I should say that I was very careful to bring a dosimeter with me.

McNiel: I would imagine so. I mean, the thing that’s unique about Chernobyl is that it holds the world’s record for casualties, right? I think 31 people died as is attributed to the Chernobyl incident and one because of Fukushima. So in the total history of 667 nuclear plants, we’ve had 32 human casualties.

Meserve: The numbers are hard to analyze, but in fact, the most of the deaths, or the acute deaths were of the firemen at Chernobyl who got intense radiation exposures. And there may have been some other deaths as a result of releases, but there’d be a debate about that because it was just a probabilistic likelihood that somebody might have died from it. And from Chernobyl, actually, there were, I believe, no health effects as a result of radiation exposure. There were people who died, but it was a result of the evacuations where they took people who were in critical hospital positions and evacuated them. They should have let them stay and taken their time in getting them out properly. But they were in a rush to evacuate people and several of them died as a result of that. But that wasn’t the radiation exposure. That was just a policy that was misguided.

McNiel: Yeah. Do you think that nuclear fission has an undeserved reputation?

Meserve: Well, I do in the sense that it’s actually very, very safe. I mean, we have had these serious accidents. No adverse impacts from Chernobyl or from Three Mile Island from radiation exposure. There were predictable exposures from a terrible accident at Chernobyl, but not elsewhere. And you look at other alternative forms of energy, like particularly coal. And there you have all kinds of real deaths that are occurring as a result of both the mining industry — black lung disease — and of course the deaths that arise from particulate emissions from the operation of the plants. So you have real deaths that are occurring from some of the alternative sources of energy that are not ones that you find from nuclear energy. So I think the public has a very misguided sense of the balance of the risks between the various technologies.

McNiel: Yeah, it’s probably just ignorance and fear of the atom that causes that and this whole stuff about meltdowns and everything like that. And if you think about energy safety, it’s probably important that we kind of check the dimensions that matter. I mean, the first one you kind of mentioned is occupational, which is if you’re digging for coal, you’re at risk. I think the numbers are, you have eight times the mortality risk if you’re a coal miner versus being a taxi driver. In terms of public safety, we talked about Three Mile Island, no one was harmed. If you talk about environmental, there’s been far more environmental impact from coal, gas exploration, oil spills, and also hydroelectric.

“There’s an excellent safety record for civilian nuclear power as compared with alternative sources of energy.”

Meserve: That’s very true. There’s an excellent safety record for civilian nuclear power as compared with alternative sources of energy. But people have a fear of nuclear power that arises from a fear of cancer, sort of an invisible source of injury, that has a DREAD risk that’s associated with it. Well, the actual risk is much less from nuclear power plants than from alternatives.

The future of nuclear fission

McNiel: So recently you’ve been involved in a couple of significant initiatives, one of which is the future of nuclear fission: advanced nuclear reactors. What do you think is the future of nuclear fission? What should we be thinking about?

Meserve: Well, we have a huge challenge in confronting climate change, and it’s my view that we need to marshal all the resources we can to address it. And that obviously includes a heavy emphasis on renewables, but you need a backup. You need firm power as a supplement to renewables, and nuclear is a natural component of that. And advanced nuclear reactors of all kinds are, of course, not carbon-emitting and are very, very reliable. So they make a good source that we know how to do. But there are severe challenges associated with relying on fission reactors. And they include, of course, that they’re very expensive. Some of the more advanced designs believe they can cut the cost significantly, but they have to show that and compete in the marketplace with alternatives. And exactly how that’s going to shake down is uncertain. There are, of course, other regulatory and other issues that are associated with the thought of moving to reactors that are different in kind from the types that we rely on today.

McNiel: Well, what distinguishes these new reactors? Is it the size of them, the modularity, the scalability, the fact that they can be built in a common factory and then deployed at different sites?

Meserve: Well, most of the reactors that we rely on today have grown to be sort of gigawatt-scale reactors. Those are 1,000-megawatt reactors, huge reactors. And there are a variety of vendors who are proposing reactors that are much smaller and have the prospect of being easier to build, including from factory construction. Many of them use different coolants. Existing reactors use light water as a coolant and a moderator. Many of the advanced designs use sodium as a coolant, helium as a coolant, or molten salt reactors — and each of them has some potential advantages over the usage of water. Among the advantages is they could operate at a much higher temperature and as a result of that, have process heat applications that not only produce electricity, but produce high-value heat that can be used in industrial processes.

McNiel: And what do you think is the timeline for the deployment? I mean, there’s new scale, there’s a number of companies that are pursuing this, and is the NRC making it possible for these new reactors to get online in a reasonable timeframe?

Meserve: Well, there’s a technical challenge, of course, that reactors have to be proven to be safe. There are a series of demonstrations that are proposed, several of which will occur early in the 2030s in all likelihood. You mentioned new scale, which is in fact a light-water reactor, but is a smaller modular reactor. And there’s demonstrations that are being funded in a joint public-private partnership to have demonstrations of a sodium-cooled reactor and a gas-cooled reactor. Now, building some demonstrations doesn’t get you to wide-scale commercial deployment, which is essential if you’re going to have an impact on climate change. So, there’s a prospect that perhaps in the years after a successful demonstration — if they really can meet the cost challenge, meet the regulatory challenges — that some of these reactors will start to come online in a major way, but it will be a decade before they really could have a significant impact. And we need to do a lot of things in the interim to prepare to resolve many of the issues that surround the prospect that these reactors could be widely used.

“There’s a prospect that … some of these reactors will start to come online in a major way, but it will be a decade before they really could have a significant impact.”

McNiel: Well, thinking about it being a decade away from, say, broad-scale adoption or deployment of small modular reactors or advanced nuclear reactors, do you believe that the timeframe for new fission and fusion are comparable?

Meserve: I think that the fission reactors have an easier pathway in terms of resolving all the technical issues. After all, we know how to do the fission reactors. Most of the advanced designs, there have been demonstrations of them many years ago, at smaller scales but with some differences. But basically we have a lot of knowledge about how to proceed. There is a lot of interest in the prospect that fusion could come on early. I hope that that’s the case.

The race toward fusion and new fission

McNiel: Yeah. I certainly feel that the race is on, that’s for darn sure. But when you think about the choices we have for power: solar and wind are intermittent, the capacity numbers from a solar and wind farm are relatively low; hydroelectric obviously impacts the environment, the stream, the ecosystem, and so forth. Is there any other form of energy, maybe geothermal, that could possibly compete with fission and fusion as a safe, long-term solution for the planet?

“I think we’re going to actually probably use as many different sources as we can that provide low-carbon.”

Meserve: Well, I think we’re going to actually probably use as many different sources as we can that provide low carbon and exactly the balance is going to be determined by the particular situation on what the costs are and what communities will accept. I think that there is a significant role that could arise for fission if the challenges are met. With regard to fusion, you don’t have many of those challenges, and so if there is success in advancing the technologies and developing a commercially viable version, those could be very attractive. And could really play a very, very significant role in dealing with a climate problem. But there’s uncertainty surrounding whether when there is a role, it’s going to become available.

McNiel: Right, so we end up with two different flavors of fusion and a number of different architectures. One would be deuterium and tritium, which produces radioactive material that has a halflife of 12 years versus thousands of years for uranium and plutonium. Well, that’s a very, very different situation, right?

Meserve: Yes, they’re very different. Building a fusion reactor that’s powered by deuterium and tritium is something that everyone’s really pursuing, but there are going to be significant engineering challenges that need to be addressed to turn them into commercial power plants. And that includes the fact that you need to breed the tritium supply. And so you need to design a system to be able to do that. And within the reactor itself, there are neutrons produced that can be used to breed tritium. But because of the intense neutron fields that are produced, there’s a lot of irradiated materials that — it’s nowhere near as dangerous as spent-fuel from a fission reactor — but means that maintenance on the reactor would have to be done robotically because of the radiation fields. So, big engineering challenges for DT.

McNiel: Right. As opposed to a proton-boron solution, which doesn’t have the same neutron production, doesn’t have the first wall problems, doesn’t have the tritium-breeding problems. So that’s a very different scenario.

Meserve: It’s a very different scenario and a very attractive one. The challenge, of course, is that the threshold for ignition is higher, so you have a bigger scientific hurdle to overcome to be able to develop a proton-boron reactor. But if you do, it’s immensely attractive because the engineering challenges that I just mentioned are considerably less. So that as a solution is very attractive for a fusion reactor.

McNiel: So you have to get 10 times hotter, but the reward for that is you really have come up with unlimited electricity with minimal fuel costs and really zero environmental impact.

Meserve: That’s right. And abundant fuel.

How and why NRC regulations differ for fusion and fission

McNiel: Super abundant, yeah. Now in talking about the cost of delivering both fission and fusion power plants, one of the big issues is regulatory issues, and you’re obviously well-versed in that. And do you have an opinion of the recent NRC ruling about fusion?

Meserve: Well, I do. I think that what the NRC did was they set us on a pathway for the regulation of fusion, which is a much lighter touch, much less stringent regulatory requirements than they would be required to impose on fission reactors. And that’s, I think, correct from a risk-perspective, in that the risks that come with a fusion reactor are far, far less than those with the fission device.

“The risks that come with a fusion reactor are far, far less than those with the fission device.”

McNiel: So how would you explain the risk of both DT and and boron fusion reactors to the general public in the context of the NRC ruling?

Meserve: Well, we use radioactive materials in all sorts of ways in our economy. In fact, most of the NRC licensees are so-called materials licensees, and that would include the hospital applications of radioactive materials, radiopharmaceutical manufacturers, and so forth. So there’s a lot of experience on usage of devices that have risks associated with them, but risks that are far, far less than those of the reactors. And as a result of that, the NRC has a very different regulatory approach — and appropriately so — for these non-reactor applications. And they recognize in the case of fusion reactors that they’re more analogous to some of these risks that are confronted by materials licensees rather than reactor licensees.

McNiel: So do you think that the NRC is going to hasten solutions for the fusion industry? Because I know historically the NRC has been accused of slowing things down. Is it going to be different for fusion?

Meserve: Well, I think the fact that the regulatory challenge is much less means that the NRC should not prove to be an obstacle. They don’t have as big a challenge.

With many of the advanced fission reactors, you have the difficulty that we have a regulatory system for reactors that is built around light-water. And the risks are very different for some of these advanced reactors and there are new risks that arise. For example, if you have a sodium-cooled reactor, you need to worry about the fact that you can have sodium-air, sodium-water reactions that produce a lot of energy and heat that would be a great safety concern. So you have a new risk that’s arising. So the NRC — if they’re going to regulate these reactors and allow them to be put in place — needs to confront all kinds of new risks.

That would not be the case of a fusion reactor in that the kinds of risks that arise are ones with which the NRC is familiar. I mentioned that it’d be radioactive materials that are produced by a DT-reaction as a result of the neutron fields. Well that’s something that the NRC is already very familiar with because of the fact that fission reactors have all kinds of neutrons as well, and there are all sorts of radiation, irradiated materials, activated materials you have to deal with. So that’s something the NRC knows all about.

How future nuclear reactors differ from those of the past

McNiel: Well, the other thing that’s interesting, Dick, and I think you’re uniquely qualified to answer this question: The U.S. nuclear industry that’s currently operating was predominantly brought online at the end of the 70s. I mean, we built our first reactors in the 50s. We started commercializing and getting them deployed in the 70s. What’s different now? I mean, should we accept that or believe that the advanced reactors that we’re talking about today are generations ahead of what’s currently in operation?

“Many of the models show that if we’re ever going to come anywhere close to our carbon reduction targets, it’s essential to keep the existing reactors operating.”

Meserve: I think that one has to recognize that the existing reactors have proven to be very reliable, that they have capacity factors of over 90% on average across the United States. That means you’d get 100% capacity factor if the plant were to operate all the time at full power. And by contrast, renewables are about 30% capacity factor. So they’re very reliable. And in fact, many of the models show that if we’re ever going to come anywhere close to our carbon targets, our carbon reduction targets, it’s essential to keep the existing reactors operating. The generating companies want to keep these reactors operating if they can do so economically, because they’re really the workhorse for the industry in providing firm power. But there is little interest in building these gigawatt-scale plants now. And the reason is that, first, natural gas has proven to be very cheap. It’s much cheaper to build a power plant that burns natural gas than to build a nuclear plant. And we now have experience as a result of the reactors that are now going online in Georgia, the Vogtle reactors, which have come in at way over budget–

McNiel: Way over.

Meserve: –and very long delayed with the result — they ended up with two units costing $31 billion and being delayed for seven years.

McNiel: My word.

Meserve: So there’s no generating company in the United States that’s interested in building a gigawatt-scale plant; it’s just too risky. It’s a bet-your-company proposition at that scale. Now, these advanced reactors promise to be cheaper — has to be proven — considerably cheaper, safer. Ideally, they will prove to be as reliable. But you need to have some demonstrations to show that you can build them cheaper and that the safety features are realized. So we have experience with these kinds of reactors, but we don’t have the sort of test of the precise designs that people are talking about. And so, that’s why there are regulatory issues to be resolved.

McNiel: Well, when you’re thinking about the cost of building a new reactor, your capacity comment is very germane, because I think solar is around 25%. And so if you want a gigawatt of production from a solar plant, you’re going to need a four-gigawatt plant and that’s quite expensive. That’s a couple billion dollars, maybe even $4 billion — versus a gigawatt coal plant or gas plant I think is about $1 billion. So nuclear technology, I think, can compete with renewables when you take capacity into consideration.

Meserve: But a comparison really is unfair for the fact that you can’t rely on the renewable power being available.

McNiel: Right. Making it four times bigger doesn’t mean it’s going to be baseload power. That doesn’t work.

Meserve: Exactly. If you want to have a reliable power system, you need to have something that you can call on at any time. And in fact, if you look around the country, there can be periods where the wind doesn’t blow for an extended period or the sun doesn’t shine with adequate intensity. And so you can go a long time without adequate power to be able to serve the needs of the grid. So having some capacity to provide firm power that’s available is important, and that’s more valuable than what you could get as an average across various of these power sources.

Learning from the mistakes of nuclear fission’s past

McNiel: So Dick, I have two questions kind of on the opposite sides of the timeline here. You’ve had a very prosperous and productive career in this space. Are there any anecdotes from your experience in dealing with the cultures of the nuclear community in the U.S. versus Japan versus Russia that are interesting to share?

Meserve: I would say, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Japan as a result of the Fukushima accident. And in fact, I’m headed to Japan next week. I’m an advisor to the regulatory authority that was created after the Fukushima accident. What is striking to me is the fact that there wasn’t an awareness in Japan of the important role risk should play in evaluating the matters to which one ought to spend attention. The Fukushima accident, in fact, the TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) that owned the reactor had an internal study that showed there was a risk of a 15-meter tsunami, a significant likelihood of that, and they did nothing. They had a sea wall that could accommodate a 7.5-meter tsunami, which was obviously inadequate. And unfortunately, all their power supplies were in the basement of the buildings and they weren’t behind watertight doors. So the tsunami occurred and they immediately lost all their power. And you need the power to drive the safety systems–

McNiel: The cooling of the reactor, right?

Meserve: And even the backup batteries were in the basement. So you had just a complete lack of awareness of risk and its role. And that was discouraging and that’s something I’m trying to help the Japanese deal with now.

McNiel: Are the Japanese seriously considering revisiting nuclear as a solution? I mean, they don’t have a lot of choices given their geography, right?

Meserve: Exactly. And in fact, as a result of the increased costs of energy around the world, a majority of the Japanese public now is supporting the restart of many of the reactors and even the prospect of commencing new construction. They have no indigenous energy resources in Japan. They’re dependent on supply from the Middle East, which has to go through the South China Sea, which could obviously pose a national security risk for them. And so having a nuclear power plant is actually important, both for economic and national security for Japan, and they recognize that.

McNiel: And then on the other end of the timeline, going out, say to the year 2040, knowing what you know, what do you think the world’s going to look like from an electrification standpoint?

Meserve: Well, we’re obviously going to be a very changed world if we’re going to deal with our carbon problem. We have to totally change our whole energy system across the whole economy, and not just on how we produce electricity. Electricity only is about 30% of our emissions of carbon dioxide. We need to change how we heat our homes, industrial processes that use fossil fuels, obviously change the way we power our cars. That all means that one of the means to be able to deal with that is increased electrification. So that means that it may not all be grid power. I mean it could be usage of microreactors or what have you. It may be just power plants that just produce energy for industrial processes and not for the grid. So we don’t know how this is all going to shake out, but it’s going to be a very different world and electricity is going to be a paramount concern.

McNiel: Well, Dick, thank you for your public service in this country and your commitment to the energy sector. And thank you for your insights.

Meserve: Well, Jim, I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to join you today.

Good Clean Energy is edited and produced by Jennifer Hsu. Mixing and sound design by Wade Strange and Mike Clemow at SeeThruSound. Digital production by Katherine Wiles.

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