“Facts are stubborn things,” said Jacques Besnainou, CEO of AREVA North America. Invoking John Adams’ quote, he was not referring to just any facts, but to facts about nuclear power, particularly as it applies to the U.S., at the Tuck Speaker Series of the French-American Foundation, held in New York on June 8th.  And the stubbornness of his facts is likely problematic to nuclear power opponents. How do they argue against reliable, proven, non-CO2-emitting power, jobs and the long-term regional economic development that Besnainou maintains nuclear power promises the U.S.?

Proliferation? Waste? These are emotional issues rather than insurmountable technical hurdles, Besnainou believes, but he’s certainly open to engaging in the debate. Cost? A solvable political problem that he's optimistic will be addressed by Congress.

The night’s discussion between Besnainou and Dr. Charles Ferguson, a physicist and senior fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, mostly centered on Besnainou's "stubborn things," including his conclusion: “Nuclear power,” he said, “is not the solution (to our energy challenges), but there is no solution without nuclear power.”

True, similar statements are often made about coal and could also be made about efficiency or renewables. But, this seeming surfeit of partial solutions only drives home a point on which most scientists, and at least some policy makers, readily agree: To stave off global climate change and power ourselves through the mid-21st century, we need every non-CO2 or, at least, reduced-CO2, source of energy we can get our hands on -- along with every conceivable efficiency measure.

Nuclear power must take its rightfully earned place, Besnainou said, among efficiency, smart grids, renewables, "clean" coal, etc. But he made an important distinction. Unlike some of our energy options for fighting climate change, such as “clean” coal and smart grids, technologies that are likely to be decades off in the future, nuclear power technology is here now.

And, as a base-load energy source, nuclear power complements peaking sources, such as wind. “To me,” he said, “it’s nonsense to be pro wind power and against nuclear.”

Besnainou backs his views about nuclear power’s necessary role in our energy futures with formidable personal credentials (he holds degrees in math and engineering) and a company with a successful nuclear track record. AREVA has built 100 nuclear plants around the world and is the number one supplier of nuclear energy products/services in North America with $2.5 billion in North American sales.

“We’ve done it for 40 years in France,” he said. But he also acknowledged that even with many undeniable scientific truths on its side, nuclear power is as much an emotional matter as it is scientific. And thus he dismissed the usual criticisms of nuclear as more emotionally driven rather than anything worthy of serious scientific concern:

Proliferation: it can be managed, Besnainou said simply. He pointed out, and it was rather persuasive, that the countries representing the biggest threats of nuclear proliferation, North Korea and Iran, have never produced one megawatt of power from nuclear energy.

Terrorist attacks: can be managed as well. Charles Ferguson of CFR agreed that both the proliferation and terror issues were not sufficient to stop this energy source. They are “manageable risks” and were thus rather quickly, indeed, too quickly, dispensed with at this evening’s discussion.

Energy security: nuclear power in the U.S., Besnainou said, represents a quasi-domestic source of energy. Uranium fuel is well distributed in the world, including in stable countries, such as Canada and Australia. Plus, nuclear power will contribute to the electric car’s growth, thereby playing a key role in the transportation sector while helping to wean countries off foreign oil.

Cost: Besnainou argued that when everything is factored in, including recycling nuclear waste, and a price on carbon from traditional plants, and you add in the costs of handling coal waste, nuclear power is entirely competitive with other energy sources.

Recycling: Besnainou listed the reasons why nuclear fuel recycling was beneficial and, again, he was persuasive, deeming nuclear power a cradle-to-cradle energy solution, where 96 percent of used nuclear fuel is recyclable. Recycled nuclear waste also is reduced to one-fifth its original volume and one-tenth its toxicity.

In closing, Dr. Ferguson asked if Besnainou felt that the U.S. should emulate the French nuclear model, where nuclear power represents 80 percent of French generation. Besnainou pointed out that for the U.S. to simply maintain its current proportion of nuclear power, now at 20 percent, the U.S. would need to build 35 new reactors. 

Ferguson asked how the U.S. establishment could pressure Congress to act on behalf of nuclear. Besnainou answered that, “In Congress we need a strong bipartisan coalition, and it’s coming.” He clearly believes that stubborn facts will prevail in the face of emotionalism.

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