Time to stop confusing nuclear weapons with nuclear power
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News of the partial collapse of an abandoned storage tunnel at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state has stoked predictable reactions from nuclear energy opponents. Despite the fact that Hanford was a facility dedicated to the production of nuclear weapons, anti-nuclear groups have been quick to draw a connection to nuclear energy.

The liberal news site Common Dreams trumpeted the accident as evidence of the nuclear power industry’s “global collapse.”

The website Zero Hedge — whose motto reads, “on a long enough timeframe, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” — has covered the story Fukushima-style, with minute-by-minute updates suggesting a developing disaster. The alerts come in spite of the fact that no radiation was released into the environment, and, after briefly sheltering in place, workers at the sprawling site were back to work the following day.


Even among more open-minded observers, the tendency to conflate nuclear energy with nuclear weapons is hard to resist. Both technologies involve the release of energy from atomic reactions, and nuclear energy was originally developed by the U.S. Navy as a source of electricity to power submarines and aircraft carriers.

But it is also extremely misleading. Neither the physics nor the technologies are the same, nor are the institutions that manage the two technologies. Nuclear weapons today involve fusing two atoms together in an uncontrolled explosion. Nuclear energy involves harnessing the decay of naturally occurring radioactive elements in a slow and controlled reaction, creating heat that turns steam turbines.

Nuclear facilities such as Hanford are a legacy of the headlong rush to build enormous nuclear weapons arsenals at the height of the Cold War. Faced with an existential threat from an enemy who had promised to “bury” us, the developers of America’s nuclear arsenal didn’t worry too much about the toxic hangover in the rush to produce plutonium for new and ever more powerful weaponry. It wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that the nation began to come to terms with the enormous legacy costs of cleaning up the weapons laboratories.

Nuclear energy, by contrast, has been tightly regulated from the beginning, originally by the Atomic Energy Commission and then by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The operators of civilian nuclear energy plants have been required to set aside funds for the decommissioning of nuclear plants and the disposal of waste for many decades. 

Nuclear power plants, like any large-scale industrial technology, have not been immune from accidents. But major accidents, involving significant releases of radioactive material have been exceedingly rare. Outside of the Soviet Union, there have only been two significant accidents in almost sixty years of operation by nearly 500 commercial plants. In neither case was anybody killed or injured and the resulting low-level exposure to radiation is not expected by public health officials to result in a measurable increase in the incidence of cancer or other chronic diseases

Those same plants, meanwhile, have been producing zero-carbon electricity in 31 countries for decades. In America alone, nuclear power has prevented the release of 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide over 60 years. Globally, nuclear power has avoided 64 billion tons of carbon dioxide and prevented 580,000 deaths from respiratory diseases. Despite its recent economic challenges, nuclear energy remains America’s largest source of clean energy (second globally, behind hydroelectric), and most experts agree that nuclear will be essential in the future if we are to meet rising global energy demand while addressing climate change and air pollution.

And yet, the confusion remains. In part, that is because while the technologies are different, they share a common origin in the 1950s Cold War defense establishment. Both technologies were developed by government scientists in national laboratories and were initially deployed for military applications. Many of the same firms that built the nation’s nuclear fleet, such as General Electric and Westinghouse, were also defense contractors involved in the procurement of nuclear weaponry and a range of other military technologies.

But even those associations are coming to an end. Westinghouse is currently in bankruptcy after costs and delays associated with building four new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina. General Electric is not building large conventional nuclear reactors anywhere. Today there is a nascent advanced nuclear industry, primarily consisting of small entrepreneurial start-ups, run by inventors and engineers with no connection to the technology’s Cold War legacy.

Tech pioneers like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Peter Thiel and Sam Altman have all made significant investments in new nuclear start-ups, the roots of which lie in the entrepreneurial culture of the internet and communications revolution, not the button-down corporate culture that pioneered commercial nuclear energy in the 20th century. The new designs are smaller and faster to build and better suited to competitive energy markets. They are passively safe, allowing for simpler safety systems that reduce costs and are easier to manage.

In short, the Cold War specter that has hung over nuclear energy, often unfairly, is coming to an end. Given proper public support and oversight, a new generation of nuclear energy technology will hopefully succeed or fail entirely based on its intrinsic merits, not confusing associations leftover from an era that increasingly few Americans are old enough to remember.


Ted Nordhaus is the co-founder and executive director of pro-nuclear think tank The Breakthrough Institute and co-author of "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.