The Futue of Nuclear Power. YCEI's Annual Conference.

by Eric Ellman

Inter-generational Team Promotes New Generation of Nuclear Power

A Yale College junior who became the nation’s youngest licensed nuclear reactor operator while in high school, and a Yale professor internationally recognized for his work on probabilistic risk assessment, are organizing a conference to explore policy and technology developments in nuclear power in anticipation of its being needed to avert the worst effects of global warming.

The April 24 event is the brainchild of Jared Milfred ’16 and Professor Yehia Khalil, a Yale faculty member 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 an accident that for some is a symbol of nuclear power’s inherent risk – earned his license to operate the Reed College 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 careers intersect as some of the world’s top climate scientists warn that a new generation of nuclear power plants and management policies is essential to satisfy world energy needs without exacerbating climate change.

Dr. James Hansen, director of the Climate Science Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia, gives the morning keynote. Senator Chris Murphy (D, CT) moderates one of the panels, and former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Alison McFarlane gives a closing presentation.  In between, expert panels will tackle issues of security, radioactive waste management and regulations to govern a new generation of nuclear technologies to replace outdated mid-20th century designs.

In use since the 1950’s, pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors remain the backbone of U.S. nuclear energy generation said Professor Khalil.  Known as “Generation II” reactors, they satisfy about 19% of total United States electricity demand.  Nearly all were built before 1990, however, and in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident almost 30 years passed 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.

“I think there’s an element of cognitive dissonance.” says Milfred, “On the pragmatic, rational side of the debate, people see that something needs to be done, but they’re not ready to make difficult choices. With the challenge of global warming so great, and a problem so compelling, nuclear must be on the table, and may be the best option.”

As part of the forum’s effort to bridge an intellectual divide between people who agree on the need to reduce greenhouse gases but differ strongly on how, 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 a much greater threat.

A theater for the film and discussion to follow has not been chosen, but the date is set.  It comes on the eve of the nuclear forum, April 23, one day following Earth Day.


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