Nuclear Power: The Faustian Bargain

This is a well-worn topic, but one I find it hard to stay away from as it got me started on a career path in energy. This career ‘push’ was mentioned in ‘About this blog and me’ and in the preceding blog ‘Values and Energy Policy’.  Nuclear power is also an important energy option for the future, although highly controversial.  In this blog I will share my views on nuclear power and provide a few tidbits of personal history on my initial involvement with the subject.

First the tidbits.  As an engineering physics undergraduate at Cornell in the 1950’s I was exposed to the basics of nuclear fission (‘technologically sweet’) and witnessed the construction of the first nuclear reactor on the campus.  Several distinguished members of the physics faculty were veterans of the Manhattan Project and civilian use of nuclear power was rapidly gaining public attention.  At one point I even considered changing my major to nuclear engineering, but decided not to.

As mentioned in ‘About this blog and me’ I was reintroduced to the nuclear power issue in 1969.  This led to an effort at self-education on the commercial use of nuclear fission and, within a short time, to interaction with members of the nuclear power industry.  This included a meeting with the CEO of the holding company building Vermont Yankee in Vernon, VT just 30 miles north of where I was teaching at UMass/Amherst.  The plant began commercial operations in 1972, and during its construction phase, before the loading of fuel, I was able to bring students on a tour of the plant and its reactor core, a rather unique experience.  This was possible through a relationship I developed with the chief engineer at Vermont Yankee, who I also invited to address my class (about 100 students during the initial phase of teaching science to non-science majors) on the pros of nuclear power.  His interaction with the students still resonates with me as an indication of the problems the nuclear power industry has had in the U.S..  Incredibly, he started by stating that he was not sure why he was speaking to a class of non technical people as nuclear power was a technology issue and was best left to the technology folks.  He then presented a standard discussion in support of nuclear power and I opened the session to student questions.  Having been prepared on some of the issues in previous classes, these non-technologists proceeded to tear him apart, an experience I’m sure he did not soon forget.  His ‘arrogance’ was the problem, which may have been all too characteristic of the nuclear industry in its early days.  Vermont Yankee even had its first fuel rods loaded upside down, resulting in Vermont’s Attorney General labeling the plant ‘a turkey’.


Other interactions with the ‘industry’ included public debates on nuclear power with a scientist from Brookhaven National Laboratory (who said ‘drinking coffee is more dangerous than nuclear power’), with a faculty member from the MIT Nuclear Engineering Department (who emphasized the low probability of a nuclear accident), and with a Vice President of Northeast Utilities on a Boston TV program ‘For Women Only’.  I also presented a number of invited talks on nuclear power and even used this issue as my presentation to the selection committee for the APS Congressional Fellowship Program.

Other tidbits:  in 1969-70 the Nixon Administration was pushing nuclear power and identified the salt beds in Lyons, Kansas as the repository for nuclear wastes – a contentious issue that was rearing its head.  Unfortunately, after a too-hasty announcement, the Administration had to withdraw Lyons from consideration – the isolation of the salt beds had been compromised by numerous drillings for oil, and water had a clear path downward.

A rather interesting development came out of my frustration with the Science Editor at the New York Times, who received several letters from me about the need for a national debate on nuclear power.  He didn’t acknowledge my letters, let alone publish them, so my ‘mentor’, David Inglis, and I decided to do something about getting that debate going.  We invited Ralph Nader and his PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) directors to Amherst for a weekend, during which we briefed them on the issues related to nuclear power.  We could think of no better way to get such a debate started than to get Nader and his folks involved, and I believe it worked.

As for my views on nuclear power I have never been anti-nuclear but  understand the concerns that many people have.  Alvin Weinberg, former Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said it best in 1947 when he said that nuclear power is a ‘Faustian bargain’, defined by the Cultural Dictionary as follows:

“Faust, in the legend, traded his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge. To “strike a Faustian bargain” is to be willing to sacrifice anything to satisfy a limitless desire for knowledge or power.”

As a committed renewable energy type I advocate moving as rapidly as possible to an energy system based on renewable energy, having devoted most of my professional career to helping make that possible.  Nevertheless, there are realities about how fast that can come about and how to meet people’s needs for electricity while that transition takes place.  Coal has been the dominant fuel in U.S. electricity generation for many years, but is losing its grip to natural gas.  Both fossil fuels, when combusted, put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, natural gas less than coal, but an aspect of coal combustion that has received much too little attention is that burning coal puts small but steady amounts of radioactivity in the form of uranium and thorium into the atmosphere (see Coal Combustion – ORNL Review Vol. 26, No. 3&4, 1993).  This 1993 article offers useful information on something that is not widely known and which the coal industry is not likely to tell you about.

As mentioned above, I have been distressed about how the nuclear industry has presented this technology to the public and been resistant to recognizing legitimate concerns associated with a nuclear economy.   These include cost, safety, long-term waste storage, and weapons proliferation.  The cost issue is front and center with utilities, especially now that natural gas costs are low due to fracking.  It is my belief that a safe (i.e., non-meltdown) nuclear reactor can be built today (e.g., HTGR’s), unlike the early PWR’s and BWR’s built at 3-Mile Island and Fukishima.   Care and maintenance are critical, and human error and trying to cut costs have a tendency to get in the way, as evidenced recently in California.  Nevertheless, the likelihood of a nuclear plant accident is arguably small, and  if one rules out a meltdown coal-burning plants may put more radioactivity into the environment than occasional radioactive gaseous releases.  This comparison needs to be explored more fully in the public domain.

The waste issue is a tough one, but one that has to be solved as we started off the nuclear era with tens of millions of gallons of high-level waste from our weapons program in WWII.  Civilian wastes are adding to this total in an increasing number of countries around the world, and the long term waste issue is being actively explored.  I believe a solution will be found, probably in deep geologic storage, but at this point we don’t know enough to be confident.

The weapons proliferation issue is the one that scares me the most, not just because of the growing knowledge of how to build a ‘nuclear device’ (i.e., a bomb), but the potential availability of radioactive wastes that can be incorporated into a ‘dirty bomb’.  This latter possibility does not require great technical and manufacturing capabilities (it requires chemical explosive dispersal of radioactive materials) but can do immeasurable harm by creating uninhabitable radioactive zones.  When I raised this issue with a representative of the Nuclear Energy Institute his response was the U.S. can handle such wastes safely, which may be true.  But when I asked him about the many other countries that were adding nuclear power plants he went silent, illustrating the problem.   Many countries will not have the means, technical and financial, to control these wastes as well as we and a few other counties can, and the only answer I can come up with is internationalization of the waste disposal/recycling process.   Another approach for future nuclear plants is to use a different fuel cycle that produces and consumes its own high-level waste.   Modular reactors are also being discussed (100-300MWe units, as opposed to today’s standard 1,000MWe units) which, in principle, can be mass produced, be less capital expensive, and sealed without refueling for years to decades.  Regardless, there will still be a waste problem that has to be addressed.

I’ll end this blog with a recognition that nuclear power has many strong advocates, including those who point out that nuclear fission does not put carbon into the atmosphere and thus addresses global warming and climate change,  and equally sincere and vocal opponents who fear the possible negative impacts of the Faustian bargain and believe that investments in nuclear power will crowd out investments in renewable energy, the basis of our future energy system.  I assume the views expressed above will stimulate at least a few comments, and I look forward to the subsequent debate.



Great post Allan.

You mentioned the role of nuclear power compared to coal, and as the two traditional sources of baseload electricity they are indeed the ones I pit against one another. I would say I prefer nuclear over coal for the same reasons you do. But as you know low natural gas and even off-peak near zero wind generation prices are starting to erode the economics of nuclear, as evidenced by the announced closure of the Kewaunee (Wisconsin) reactor earlier this year. And I presume that if existing plants can’t maintain profitability in certain environments, a new reactor is far less likely to do so. Then again, there has been an uptick of reactor permit applications in the past decade or so.

So what’s your crystal ball say? Do you foresee the U.S. expanding or contracting it’s reactor fleet over time? If it makes up ~20% or our electricity mix today, what do you see it being in 2050? I’ll go first and say I think it will gradually decline, mainly due to costs and lack of public support.

Tough but fair question and one I will answer, recognizing that ‘crystal-balling’ is one of the hardest things to do well. You and I have discussed this in the context of Arthur Clarke’s insightful book ‘Profiles of the Future’.

A major issue facing coal, nuclear and renewables today and for several decades to come is the availability of relatively low cost natural gas due to fracking. This is occurring in a big way right now in the U.S. but will spread to other countries (e.g., China) rapidly. We are already seeing the impact of this new ‘natural gas era’ on the rate of coal power plant retirements, newly constructed and planned power plants being fueled by natural gas, hesitation about requesting permits for new nuclear plants, and a concern that investments in renewable energy may slow down. Other impacts are a reduction in carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which together with anticipated reductions from higher fuel economy standards and vehicle electrification in coming years, will be important steps toward addressing global warming and associated climate change. In addition, the natural gas era will serve as a transition period to an inevitable energy system based on renewable energy, which we need to get to as quickly as possible. . This is being delayed by our lack of an energy policy and the fact that our current economic system does not adequately assign costs to environmental issues.

To directly answer your question about 2050 (37 years from now) when I will not be around to suffer the slings and arrows of those likely to take me to task, I offer the following prognostication for the U.S.: coal 10%, nuclear 10%, natural gas 30%, renewables (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, ocean) 50%. Globally, fossil fuels will still play the major role, but on a clear path downward as the century progresses.

Fire away!


There very well might be fewer nuclear power plants in America’s future, but I view this with great dismay. As an environmental scientist at the Department of Energy (now retired), I am a faithful supporter of renewables. At the same time, I am most concerned about the realities of global warming. You might consider me a cynic or pessimist, but I think of myself as a realist. The time for reducing emissions as the means of mitigating global warming is past – it’s much too late for that; the global realities are the opposite: increasing emissions. The recent disenchantment with nuclear, as is the case in Japan, only exacerbates this problem. Nuclear’s problems have not been intrinsic to the nuclear fuel cycle, but rather the fault of human foibles. After all is said about wind, solar, etc., for reliable baseload power generation on (relatively) compact sites, only nuclear fills the bill as a realistic means of producing meaningfully large quantities of power with NO global-warming gas emissions. The time has come for realistic solutions, not Quixotic quests. We very much ought to concern ourselves with adaptation (see, for example, NYC Mayor Bloomberg), toward which nuclear can, should, and indeed must take its rightful place in the global energy milieu.

Jerry, you may be right but I, and I believe many others, worry a great deal about the realities of human nature, the proclivity for human error, the long time requirement for safe nuclear waste storage, the dangers of high level wastes being diverted to dirty bombs, and the possibility of avoiding a nuclear economy if there is a viable alternative such as renewable energy to meet the bulk of our energy needs. NREL’s recent Renewable Energy Futures study (June 2012) gives me increased confidence that such a path is available and well worth pursuing. If there is no such alternative then nuclear is the way to go, perhaps eventually in the form of fusion rather than fission, but we need to find out.

I agree with your points about the criticality of global warming and the need for adaptation, but I take strong issue with your use of the word ‘quixotic’. I consider myself a realist as well, and would not have devoted decades to helping develop and deploy renewable energy technologies if I did not believe them to be the basis of our future energy system. Admittedly, renewables by themselves can not do the full job – solar and wind are variable (intermittent in the old jargon) – and we need cost effective energy storage and a national grid to take full advantage of their contributions. Much effort is going into these needed developments and I am optimistic that they will be achieved.

I look forward to comments by others on the issues you’ve identified and my response.

Ron D. White

Thanks for the personal sketch of how you gained insights on nuclear.

Like all energy issues, there is a very deep history to the technology and the policy. For this old economist it is deeper history that gets far too little reference. In current discussions it seems that no one has read Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values. The lead section is most memorable. In November 1945 he was driven into Nagasaki to examine the damages. He arrived in the evening and there was not enough light for him to realize that he was actually in the city’s harbor area until he could hear that old dance song “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” coming from a ship. He paints the picture of hearing a question being asked of the whole world. I agree. But too few have ever heard that question or maybe most who heard it just ignore it.

The second historic item that is ignored is Atoms For Peace, the Eisenhower Administration’s program that introduced nuclear facilities and research to Iran and Pakistan. The idea did not end with Ike. President Ford signed a document offering Tehran the chance to obtain and operate a reprocessing facility. Dick Cheney was Chief of Staff and Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense when that happened. It is another sad story that is easy to find:

During the Cuban Missile crisis I was an enlisted man aboard one of the ships in the blockade. It was only a couple of years ago that it was revealed that at least one of the Russian submarines being searched for was armed with nuclear missiles. It was working deeply enough in the water that it could not receive the message from Moscow than the Crisis had been peacefully settled. If you were one of the Russian or US sailors who were there and recently heard those details you would completely understand the importance of Brownowski’s experience and wonder why so few have heard that real question.

Thanks for your important reference to Bronowski and the personal and other history additions. Providing historical perspective for others, especially young people, is a critical responsibility of ‘seniors’ like us.

Lyman Codilla

I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. thanks

The blog ‘theme’ is Blogolife from WordPress – recommended to me by an experienced blogger. Header contents (two U.S. maps) were my attempt to add some relevant color to the blog web site.

forum dla pan

I’m very happy to discover this page. I wanted to thank you for ones time just for this wonderful read!! I definitely really liked every part of it and i also have you saved to fav to check out new stuff on your site.

Energy Expert

As a physicist with extensive energy experience (and 30 years of environmental advocacy), I appreciate Allan’s weighing in with his opinions.

He is correct that nuclear energy has some issues — but so does every energy source.

For some reason he omits any justification for his “renewable” advocacy.

The bottom line is that we should be advocating an “All of the Sensible” energy policy (vs the absurd “all of the above” malarky).

Sensible is determined by the NET societal benefits (technical, economic and environmental) of the energy sources available to us.

I am aware of no scientific assessment that proves that any of the heterogeneous renewables are a NET societal benefit. That would appear to be a fundamental necessity prior to implementing any alternative.

Please closely look at for a scientific perspective on our energy choices.

EnergyExpert’s comment came to my attention first as a comment on my nuclear power piece that was re-published a few days ago on My response has just been published on that web site and is reproduced here as I’ve just found the same comment on this blog site:
“EnergyExpert is correct that my piece on nuclear power omits any justification for my advocacy of renewable energy. This is because it was one of two blog posts selected by the editor of for re-publishing from my blog ‘Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist’ which can be found at My full blog, started this past May, now has over twenty blog posts focused on energy, water-energy, and related issues. Several of those blog posts discuss the reasons why I am enthusiastic about renewable energy, and more such blogs will be forthcoming. It is a debate I would be pleased to have.”

Energy Expert


Thank you for replying to a small part of my post. Since you wish to discuss this matter let’s start with a fundamental question:

Do you believe that alternative energy sources should scientifically prove that they are a net societal benefit, prior to their being allowed on the public grid?

To answer your immediate question I would note that I am a trained physicist who believes in the scientific method and has practiced scientific thinking for more than 50 years. I’d like to believe that I have also practiced scientifically-based cost-benefit analysis in my professional life in energy and related fields. So my simple answer to your question is yes, when public funds are expended for energy RD&D those decisions should be based on a clear understanding of the societal benefits and scientificbasis of those expenditures. In fact, as a US government official with budget responsibilities I spent much of my time justifying my budget recommendations to my DOE superiors and to members of Congress.

Having answered your question, I have a few of my own. My professional credentials are clearly stated in the opening Page of my blog (‘About this blog and me’) and in subsequent Posts. What are yours and who is supporting you and the organization you represent, AWED? Not easy to discern from the AWED web site. My support and views are strictly personal.

Energy Expert


My “credentials” are irrelevant. AWED is an informal coalition of some 10000 individuals (including businesses and organizations) who are advocating for science-based energy and environmental policies. What credentials are needed to support that other than a modicum of intelligence?

AWED receives no funding from anyone, and is comprised entirely of volunteers. Likewise in the 30+ years I have had of environmental advocacy, no one has paid me a dime. Enough of these distractions.

Assuming that you agreed with my assertion (you answer was a bit equivocal), then you are in agreement that wind energy (for example) should not be being propped up by the government, and allowed on the grid?

First things first – I do not agree with your expressed view on wind energy. I am a strong advocate of wind energy (and other renewable electric technologies) and have been for a very long time. I also consider myself an environmentalist, so we can share that ‘label’.

Second, I like to know who I am debating with and ‘creds are not irrelevant in helping people judge the quality and independence of views put forward. I’m not suggesting or believe that advanced degrees are necessary to discuss energy issues, but experience is relevant and honesty on both (all) sides is required for an open discussion in my opinion. So please tell me more about AWED and who you are and who are some of these ‘volunteers’ and organizations.

It’s Allan, not Allen.

Re your request: let’s start with you putting your concerns about wind energy on the table. I’ve put my views and backup reasoning on lots of energy topics out via my now more than twenty blogs. Let me and other blog readers see your ‘scientific’ reasoning.

Energy Expert


My apology for the typo.

My “concerns” for wind energy are irrelevant.

You know that the way science works that it is 100% the responsibility of the hypothesis promoters, to provide the proof.

Ergo, if you support industrial wind energy, please provide the scientific proof that it is a societal net benefit.

Sorry, doesn’t work that way for me. I’ve put my views out on offshore wind, e.g., as well as other energy topics (renewable and non-renewable) and need you to put some ‘skin in the game’ if you want to continue this Internet discussion.

I encourage others to add their thoughts to my discussion with ‘EnergyExpert’ so far.

Energy Expert


You are free to make up any rules for you own blog. I thought we were talking as one scientist to another.

You agreed to the original premise that; “alternative energy sources should scientifically prove that they are a net societal benefit, prior to their being allowed on the public grid?”

I’m simply asking you to show the scientific proof that is the basis for your support of wind energy. If you don’t have any — and as an energy expert I know you do not — simply change the subject, question my credentials, terminate the conversation, etc.

Aside from the fact that you misquote me, in light of your refusal to clarify who you are, who is involved with you in AWED, share where you are coming from, and and what I would call your arrogance and all-knowingness, I do choose to terminate this ‘dialogue’ with you. Your behavior rings a bell for me, through its hiding behind science, as similar to what the Heartland Institute is doing in its denial of global warming and climate change. This exchange of views could have been much more.

Energy Expert


Now I fully understand your position.

I asked you a very simple and polite question: show me the scientific proof that shows that industrial wind energy is a net societal benefit.

Your response indicates that you not only do not have such evidence, but you don’t even think it is necessary!

In such cases the common tactics are to disparage the questioner, change the topic, raise false issues, etc.

Such responses hardly indicate an interest in a meaningful exchange.

Jerry Pell

Evaluating the societal benefit of wind energy is more an exercise in economics, socioeconomics, and climatology than in the scientific method. As a self-pronounced “expert,” I’m sure you know this. What is the “benefit” of reducing global warming gas emissions – would you please show me the rationale by which you arrive at your dollar figure. What is the “disbenefit” or cost to society of mountain top strip mining for coal? How many West Virginians would constitute an adequate statistical sample, and how would you select them? In short, you are creating a specious construct for which there is no universal quantitative answer that would be accepted by all (even you) as definitive. Accordingly, I would suggest you consider calling yourself something other than “expert.”

Jerry, thank you for the very thoughtful comment. This is the discussion that ‘EnergyExpert’ refused to have. When looking at the benefits of many things, including energy systems, human values must play an important part.

Jerry Pell

Not that I necessarily disagree with “Energy Expert,” it is a rather bombastic moniker. I consider myself an energy – and environment – “expert” also, but I’m quite willing to divulge my cred and my identity. Who, may I ask, are you, and your credentials are ?”