The Future of Nuclear Power: YCEI’s Annual Conference

by Eric Ellman

A Yale College junior majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics, who became the nation’s youngest licensed nuclear reactor operator while still in high school, and a Yale professor internationally recognized for his work on probabilistic risk assessment, have joined to make nuclear power policy and technology the focus of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute’s annual conference this spring.

The YCEI conference, “The Future of Nuclear Energy”, on April 24th is the brainchild of Jared Milfred ’16 and Yehia Khalil, Adjunct Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, who was part of the U.S. nuclear risk assessment teams that developed severe accident management guidelines and computational methods to address potential vulnerabilities of the U.S. nuclear fleet after the Three Mile Island-2 accident in 1979. Milfred – born 16 years after the accident that became a symbol of nuclear power’s inherent risk – earned his license to operate the Reed Research Reactor at age 17, has interned with the Brookings Institution and is a former Fellow of the Yale Institute of Social and Policy Studies.

Their interests intersect just as some of the world’s top climate scientists issued a statement in support of a new generation of nuclear power energy as an essential component of the zero-CO2 energy mix required satisfy the world’s energy demand. Pressurized water and boiling-water reactors, in use since the 1950’s, remain the backbone of U.S. nuclear energy generation said Professor Khalil. Known as “Generation II” reactors, they produce about 19% of electrical power in the US. However, nearly all were built before 1990, and almost 30 years had to pass after the Three Mile Island accident before the NRC granted a permit for a new nuclear plant[1]. Between a public that associates nuclear power with accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, and people like Hansen, Ken Caldeira and Kerry Emanuel arguing that increased reliance on nuclear power is essential to limit global warming, the technology represents a wedge in the climate community.

For Jared Milfred, the nitty-gritty underpinnings of systems are as compelling a focus of study as overarching policy issues from nuclear energy to representative democracy. In high school – with six college math courses behind him – he was the youngest person to complete a yearlong intensive training program and pass the Nuclear Regulatory Commission examination at Reed College’s student-run nuclear research reactor. “The staff,” Milfred proudly says, “included more licensed women operators than all other research reactors in the country combined.” Yale Climate and Energy Institute Director Mark Pagani recognized Milfred’s talent and leadership and brought him in to support the event. “I’ve worked with a lot of outstanding undergraduates during my years at Yale, but he’s one of the best.” New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, recognizing his policy talents, nominated him to New Haven’s Public Campaign Finance Board, where he is now Chairman.

In the meantime, Jared found time to create Democracy United, a student advocacy organization working to replace the Electoral College with direct election by popular vote. It is that broader electorate that Jared now hopes will re-visit nuclear power and its unfulfilled potential for future carbon-free energy. “I think there’s an element of cognitive dissonance.” says Milfred, “On the pragmatic, rational side, people recognize that something needs to be done about carbon emissions, but they’re not ready to make difficult choices. With the challenge of global warming so great, and the problem so compelling, nuclear must be on the table, and may be the best option.”

“To produce 1 Gigawatt of electricity,” adds Khalil, ”you need to burn 2.2 million tons of coal which emits about 6 million tons of carbon dioxide. You can get the same amount of electricity from nuclear fission without emitting greenhouse gases.” With a conference goal bridging the intellectual divide on how to lead the world toward low greenhouse emissions, director Robert Stone will screen his award-winning documentary “Pandora’s Promise”. The movie traces philosophical trajectories of five prominent environmentalists including Breakthrough Institute co-Founder Michael Shellenberger and counterculture hero Stewart Brand, as they reconsider their objections to nuclear power in light of the much greater threat of rising CO2. The movie and discussion are scheduled for the eve of the nuclear forum, April 23, one day following Earth Day.