By Jeff McMahon, Opinion, Forbes
No utility executive could propose a nuclear reactor ”in good conscience” in the U.S. today, the director emeritus of Argonne National Laboratory said in Chicago Monday.
Alan Schriesheim became the first industry executive to lead a national laboratory when he took the helm of Argonne in 1983, after serving as Exxon’s head of engineering and the director of its research lab, which developed more efficient processes for producing components of gasoline.
At Argonne he championed, among other projects, an integral fast reactor, and he is credited with fostering a revival at Argonne. Now in retirement, he leads the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, which sponsors public talks like the question-and-answer session he offered Monday to students at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
“In the United States the price of natural gas is of such a level that I don’t think a CEO of a utility could in good conscience propose a nuclear-power reactor to his or her board of directors,” Schriesheim told about 75 students at UIC’s engineering building.
Nuclear is infeasible for the next 10 or 15 years in this country, he said, with the price of natural gas as it is.
“It’s the up-front cost of nuclear construction that really gets you. It’s a very large up-front cost. Once they’re built then you’ve got one person pressing a button and they run.”
Saying it’s not a good idea to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Schriesheim said nuclear offers a better solution to climate change that natural gas does.
“This administration is trying to replace coal-fired with natural gas,” he said. “If you’re worried about pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, nuclear would obviously be preferable to both coal and natural gas. But if you’re talking about the economic reality, I think natural gas wins.”
But that’s only in America, where cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has greatly reduced gas prices.
“Now overseas it’s different,” Schriesheim said, mentioning China, India, and South Korea as nations building new nuclear plants—and predicting Japan would restart its shuttered reactors.
“I don’t see it in this country.”
Schriesheim’s comments echo eulogies delivered by nuclear-industry executives and analysts, but the sentiment is by no means universal.