Response to Readers: Combating Climate Change with Nuclear Power and Fracking

Prof. Joe Lassiter responds to the commentary firefight prompted by his Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article. His comments are self-explanatory – I’m highlighting here a few that resonate especially with me [emphasis is mine].

With more than 7,500 views and 180-plus tweets, I want to thank everyone for taking the time to read the original HBS Working Knowledge piece, The Case for Combating Climate Change with Nuclear Power and Fracking, and, in particular, for sharing your thoughts with one another. I don’t expect the article has changed minds, but I do hope it encourages people to open their minds to consider new possibilities.

My own concerns about climate change have led me to put “new” nuclear back on my table of alternatives that must be actively explored as well as to clarify my own attitudes toward fracking and its role towards any global solution. We must have a global solution—a set of new choices that change plans not only in the West but also in China and India—or we will have no solution at all.


Things that were once seen as relatively safe are now understood as likely to be quite dangerous, such as coal burning’s contribution to global warming driven by worldwide cumulative CO2 emissions. Perhaps, the opposite is also true. Are things that were once seen as quite dangerous now potentially relatively safe as result of new understandings and innovations? 

While rich countries can afford to do whatever they wish to do, policymakers in poorer countries consistently make the trade-off in favor of the certain benefits of electricity to their citizens today over the uncertain costs of global warming to their citizens in the future. To change that trade-off significantly, I believe we need to get new dispatchable, zero-carbon technologies on the table within the next 10 years that can beat coal on price in India and China in order to change Indian and Chinese national energy policies.

In my opinion, the newly approved Gen III+ nuclear reactors (e.g., AP-1000 variants or even the still-to-be-approved, but largely derivative Small Modular Reactors) are not likely to produce power cheaply enough to change the currently forecast build out of fossil fuel power systems in India and China. While China will make significant commitments to nuclear power internally and aggressively export nuclear power plant components, the bulk of its power generation will remain with coal, serving markets—domestic and foreign—where demand for low-cost will in all likelihood overwhelm the drive for low-carbon emissions. Without establishing the availability of much cheaper (coal-competitive) zero-carbon alternatives within the next 10 years, I just don’t think “the world” can do enough, fast enough to keep cumulative CO2 emissions below the levels that—again in my estimate—threaten us all with “unknowable” risks.

My concern with nuclear—even “new” nuclear—is the issue of catastrophic core failures, à la Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Historically, those core failures have been “Hindenburg disaster” events with immediate loss of life and property as well as the additional uncertainty of lingering contamination. While gripping, the actual loss of life from these events has been similar in magnitude to the loss of life of relatively more common disasters—BP Deep Horizon blowout, Exxon Valdez grounding, BP Texas City Refinery explosion, Gyama Mine landslide—which take place relatively often within the world’s existing energy systems. As part of a Bayesian analysis, Jack Devanney of Martingale estimates that on average we will have one such nuclear core casualty every 3,000 reactor years. For the current fleet, that’s about one every 10 years. If the world were to go all-out nuclear for electricity, we would eventually be talking about one core damage event every calendar year, unless we can substantially reduce the failure rate with new designs.

In spite of all of nuclear’s issues, private capital is relatively abundant. There is even a privately financed, venture-backed fusion reactor program today, Tri-Alpha Energy, of Rancho Santa Margarita, California. There is a whole crop of privately financed “new” Gen IV nuclear power technologies—like those at Martingale or Transatomic or TerraPower as well as others—that have the potential to be significantly cheaper than the current Gen III+ plants or the proposed Small Modular Reactors, even though much work needs to be done before we know that these Gen IV designs will actually be cheap enough to beat coal in India and China and safe enough for regulators to permit for deployment. It is the inability to get access to sites for stress testing of prototype designs, as well as high upfront cost and uncertain timeliness of the regulatory process, that are the primary barriers to raising private capital today.


There is a clear opportunity to hold ARPA-E style design challenges around the world focused on nuclear power that call for entrepreneurs to submit designs that meet the cost, safety, construction, and operational scaling required to beat coal in India and China in less than 10 years. It will take new ideas to break coal’s momentum and to open up the minds of policymakers. This is a time when small teams can often uncover brand new or even forgotten paths to new solutions while large teams get trapped into non-solutions by incrementalism and convention. But to convert these new ideas into real alternatives, the world’s governments need to go even farther. They must provide the nuclear regulatory redesign and physical facilities for prototype evaluation that will let private capital take on the tasks of technical innovation, experimentation, and rigorous stress testing, even as the eventual permitting authority remains with public regulators. Innovation and regulation must proceed hand-in-hand, but regulators must allow entrepreneurs to pursue those innovations with a relentless urgency that matches the severity of the “unknowable” threat which the world faces from global warming.

Finally, if you have the time, you might look at the online Forbes comments section as well as the HBS Working Knowledge comments section at the bottom of the article. The exchange between Forbes commenters ‘daviddelosangeles’ and Jeff Walther is well worth reading, as is the discussion among Walter, Mohammed Athari, and Paxus Calta. Also, Robert Hargraves dropped by and mentioned his book, THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, which I found to be a useful compendium of energy information of all kinds.

(…snip…)  I think we all need to keep our minds open to change, while urgently pushing for achievable, effective, and truly global solutions to the challenges of global warming.

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