Kyiv Reflections, and a Nuclear Power Perspective

I’ve long treasured invitations to visit other countries.  Getting out of the US about once a year is a gift of perspective that keeps giving over time.  Inevitably, an overseas trip provides a reminder that all countries and communities face myriad technical, economic and political questions. Applying the chosen answers in each case is informed by individual histories and cultures. 

In the US, our institutions have evolved over decades and centuries; if we are honest about it, not always predictably or with due respect for all affected parties.  The same is true in other countries, but their critical junctures and directions of subsequent drift were different and are differently felt. 

Our institutions are strong and yet, just as strong people have strong weaknesses, so strong institutions have strong weaknesses.  A solution that fits my problem is not necessarily a solution that fits yours, and vice versa.  But the awareness of alternate solutions seems to me to be of essential importance.  We enjoy no monopoly on creativity or innovation.  We in California and the US unconsciously assume we do.  To indulge this habit is to miss the opportunity to learn from others’ accomplishments, solutions and catastrophes. 

Learning from solutions:  Our relative political strength and stability is both empowering and blinding.  The future we in the US see through a lens of comfortable certainty others see through a lens of pragmatism, necessity and sometimes painful and even bitter experience. 

Pragmatic adaptation and necessity are well illustrated by public transportation in Kyiv.  The service is apparently efficient, dependable and cheap, at least from a user perspective.  It costs 25 US cents to get on a Kyiv subway and go to any destination in a city of 3 million.  The trains are heavily and continuously used.  Avoided external societal, economic and environmental costs likely vastly outweigh the cost of “subsidized” operations.  A politically unthinkable thought in the US…but still seems to fit the Ukrainian situation pretty very well. 

Learning from catastrophes:  The reality and implications of bitter direct experience was brought home by my visit to the Chernobyl  Museum in Kyiv.  The 15 km radius of uninhabitable desolation and contamination around the abandoned reactor site is less than 50 miles from Kyiv.  The radioactivity release from the reactor fires caused as many human deaths as the atomic bomb that obliterated Hiroshima.      

The museum factually, dispassionately and meticulously documents and explains a nuclear accident that actually occurred, replacing an abstract concept with photos, human profiles and artifacts that create an indelible impression and memory.  In concrete and understandable terms, the museum helps Ukrainians understand a profoundly consequential historical event, even as it helps visitors grasp the scale and horror of a nuclear accident.  It provides metrics for the human and societal price that was paid, disproportionately by nearby communities, in the Chernobyl catastrophe’s aftermath.  It demonstrates environmental consequences of massive nuclear radioactivity releases that nature cannot overcome on human time scales, because radioactive elements are taken up in living tissue, the hydrologic cycle and geologic formations

A perspective on nuclear power for the US:  When commercial nuclear energy was first introduced in the US, the context was a highly successful naval nuclear power program, concerns that oil and gas resources were being rapidly depleted, great concern about fossil fuel pollution, and complete ignorance about the relative economics of renewable energy.  Nuclear electricity costs were at parity with coal electricity costs, and coal-fired plants were highly polluting, seriously degrading both air and water quality. 

All that has changed dramatically.  Estimates of recoverable natural gas in the US and globally have rocketed upward and renewable electricity costs have plummeted.  Upward trending direct costs of safely designed and operated new nuclear plants are now only marginally competitive under the most generous assumptions.  

Through a lens of unshakable confidence in our institutions, it was once possible to see nuclear plants as a critically important future part of the US electricity supply portfolio.  All one needed to do was to believe that our centralized institutions would remain indefinitely and flawlessly strong and uncorrupted, a sure bulwark against design flaws, unforeseen events, operator error, and the unpredictable convergences of these and other unfavorable contingencies. 

Asking too much?  Most of us didn’t think so at the time, or perhaps we just didn’t think.  It is still true that the world needs as many economically and environmentally viable energy options as possible.  However, we can do without an option that carries great and unknowable risk and offers minimal if any economic benefits.

Only if significant risks and costs of environmentally responsible nuclear fuel cycle management continue to be assumed by the general public can the US nuclear portfolio be supported for more than another decade or two.  In other words, in a US context, the long running and often heated nuclear debate will resolve itself according to the laws of economics. 

So, there is no need, plus the risk of perverse consequences, to put obstacles in the path of the companies and technical cadres on whose shoulders rest the perilous responsibility for unwinding our country’s nuclear investments.  Efforts like their successful work making nuclear energy work in a big way for the US in recent decades are now needed to make clean energy work in an even bigger way in the decades ahead.

There is, however, a need to stop viewing the US nuclear investment, whether in weapons or nuclear power plants, as a sustainably exceptional case.  As the still dominant economic and political power on the planet, our continued embrace of these technologies encourages emulation, not restraint, and the unaffordable costs of selectively policing proliferation continue to mount.

That the human and economic costs of the nuclear experiment may continue to be unaffordable, no one who spends a couple of hours in the Chernobyl museum would be inclined to dispute. Facing  an increasingly unpredictable geo-political future, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima cry out for the US to lead nuclear armed and powered countries in a new direction…and to lead by example.

-- Gerry Braun

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