Panel debates whether nuclear energy is clean energy

December 1, 2017

Members of the Brandeis community convened at the International Lounge on Monday, Nov. 27, where Professor Kerry Emanuel and Professor Christoph Stefes debated about whether nuclear energy should be considered clean energy.

This event was the third and final debate hosted by the Center for German and European Studies in the “Campusweek Initiatives” program, a yearly program started by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Emanuel is a Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT and was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences this past April. Stefes is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Denver. He specializes in political development with a focus in the former Soviet Union, but one of this most recent achievements was co-editing the essay, “Germany’s Energy Transition: A Comparative Perspective.”

Nuclear plants have been in effect around the world since the early 1950’s and have been especially prevalent in the United States in the recent years. Since the 1970’s, German citizens in different environmental activist groups have protested under the banner “Atomkraft? Nein Danke,” which translates to “Atomic Energy? No, Thanks.”

In recent years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, against the decision of her own party, decided to shut down half of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors, and eliminate all reactors by 2022. The United States, on the other hand, utilizes 104 nuclear reactors around the country and harvests around one fifth of national energy from nuclear energy sources.

Emanuel and Stefes spoke about the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which works with 35 member nations to research and develop economically beneficial policy solutions.

Emanuel and Stefes agreed that the largest problem with energy growth is the method in which non-OECD member nations obtain their energy. Non-OECD nations are developing nations that rely on outside energy sources as sources of power. From an economic standpoint, nuclear energy sources have shown to have significantly lower costs per kilowatt hour compared to other energy sources. This is more beneficial to developing nations, as Emanuel believes that “we must allow for large per-capita energy growth in non-OECD nations.”

Emanuel highlighted the fact that the “next generation of nuclear fission plants are more advanced than the 1960’s technology.” While these plants are more advanced and much safer than the older plants, the largest exporters of nuclear plants, Russia and China, are still utilizing the older technology, which is far more detrimental to the environment.

The debate over the use of nuclear energy and non-carbon renewable sources ultimately lead back to politics. Emanuel and Stefes agreed that removing the subsidies provided to all energy sources will lead to a stronger push towards more renewable energy sources and move the United States specifically away from fossil fuels. In the United States, “Fossil fuels get lots more subsidies compared to renewable energy sources and nuclear energy combined,” said Emanuel.

Emanuel and Stefes also agreed that the largest problem that needs to addressed is nuclear energy waste management. Stefes is a strong proponent of the belief that “We cannot just use renewable energy, we have to reduce our energy waste. That means looking at energy efficiency.” The largest issue that surrounds nuclear energy is the half-life of the material after it has been used and effect it has on the human population if not handled correctly.

One of the audience members, Eric Grunebaum, an energy advisor, agreed with Stefes. “Wherever possible, we should move the pathway towards renewables and efficiency. But there may be cases in which we should keep researching nuclear and safer reactors. There may be a need for baseline power and it may be nuclear,” said Grunebaum.

Among the audience members, there was not a clear divide between those supporting nuclear energy and those supporting renewable energy sources—most were in agreement that both should be incorporated. Evan Abramsky, a teacher at the Harvard Kennedy School, said he supported nuclear energy because “in the short run, it is not economically feasible to shut down the remaining nuclear plants in the near future. They should act as a bridge while we continue to invest more in more renewable sources of energy because they present a non-carbon producing form of energy that is dependable and dispatchable.”

Stefes understands the need for nuclear energy because it is one of the leading non-carbon energy sources that has produced a substantial amount of energy. But Stefes looks to use nuclear energy as a bridge technology, “something that you can use until you find something later.” Stefes hopes that the use of smart grids and other technologies will create a “transition towards truly green and sustainable energy systems,” he explained. “Therefore the real bridge for me towards renewable energy is renewable energy. The problem is that we need to focus on one energy source.”

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