Nuclear Energy: Part of the Problem, Solution, or Both?

Nuclear energy is the type of power source people love to hate.

by Meryl Lipman

But while Geoffrey Rothwell ’75 protested nuclear weapons in the 1960s, his current role as the principal economist for the Nuclear Energy Agency within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris demands a more balanced view.

Rothwell grew up in a “nuclear family.” That is, he moved with his parents to Richland, Wash. in 1963 so that his father, a Bechtel engineer, could work at the Hanford Site. Then 10 years old, Rothwell felt like an outsider in a once-closed city surrounded by barbed wire.

As a young man, he clashed with his father over the Vietnam War. “I had long hair, I was an anti-war guy. People felt the atomic bomb had saved so many American lives, but really, war hadn’t ended. The bombs were the start of the Cold War, not the end of the Second World War. The nuclear bomb switched a hot war to a cold war,” said Rothwell.

Finding a Balance

Rothwell at 2015 World Nuclear Association Symposium

Geoffrey Rothwell’s work in the economics of nuclear power has taken him far afield from the Pacific Northwest. Today he lives and works in Paris, France. Photo by Martin Bureau, Agence France Presse.

Having studied and taught at Evergreen in the 1970s, Rothwell recognized a common mistake—confusing opinions on nuclear energy with concerns about nuclear weapons. “Because of the plutonium produced at Hanford and the nuclear weapons produced with this plutonium, I am much more anti-nuclear-weapons than anti-nuclear-power,” said Rothwell.

As an economist in an influential role at an international agency, he said, “I do not twist my economics against or in favor of nuclear power,” and he wishes that, “both anti- and pro-commercial nuclear power advocates would work together for non-proliferation and the reduction of nuclear weapon stockpiles.”

During his time at Evergreen, Rothwell was drawn to the social science and economics of nuclear power. He has approached his career as a nuclear energy economist in the interdisciplinary manner he learned at Evergreen.

We need to imagine the next 200 years. And we need to start reinventing that future now.

Rothwell’s work in Paris, where he recently attended the “exhilarating” United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP-21, has taken him around the world—from family time in Seattle to teaching at Stanford and consulting in Seoul. Still, his time at Evergreen remains a treasured memory. He recalls natural and architectural features of the campus from 1971 to 1975. He marvels at Evergreen’s continued modernity and he worries that climate change will drown the Evergreen beach.

Rothwell at 2015 World Nuclear Association Symposium

Rothwell is one of 35 global nuclear energy leaders and experts who presented at the 2015 World Nuclear Association Symposium held in London last fall. The three-day event drew 642 delegates from 38 countries. Photo courtesy of the World Nuclear Association.

Evergreen taught him to question authority, he said, and also how to question authority. He recalled conversations with founding faculty members such as Rudy Martin. “When I was put forward as a spokesman for this or that student cause, I would question Rudy and he would chuckle and say things like, ‘Well, you’ve got a point there; how does it help resolve the issue?’”

This type of discourse came in handy when he was directing the honors programs in the Department of Economics and the Public Policy Program at Stanford from 1986 to 2013. “I taught my students to question what they thought was printed ‘authority,’” said Rothwell, himself the author of a recent book on nuclear power economics. He noted that he has had to question “the authority of economic myths regarding nuclear power” in his own research.

the December 2015 COP-21 climate change conference in Paris, France

Delegates at the December 2015 COP-21 climate change conference in Paris, France. Rothwell attended the conference, which drew thousands of participants, and found it exhilarating. Photo by Universal.

Can’t we take a little heat?

He cited the myth that nuclear power is one of the most dangerous ways to deliver energy to large populations. “I used to ask my students at Stanford if they had heard of Chernobyl and everyone would raise their hand. I would then ask if they had heard of the accident at Bhopal and only one person would raise their hand,” said Rothwell, referring to the Bhopal, India gas tragedy of 1984, deemed the world’s worst industrial disaster. “There are many ways to destroy the planet and nuclear power production is not the worst one.”

Richland Washington

Rothwell’s father worked at the Hanford site near Richland, Wash. in the 1960s. The historic B Reactor, the world’s first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance. Photo by Wikimedia.

Rothwell's Richland neighborhood

The Rothwell family lived in a Richland neighborhood that formed part of Hanford’s closed and close-knit “nuclear” community. Photo by Wikimedia.

In addition to the potential for large-scale accidents, the storage and cleanup of nuclear waste and its long half-life are indeed critical issues. Depending on the grade, plutonium can have a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Even after 50 years around the industry, Rothwell sometimes has more questions than answers. “It’s a global industry where each reactor generates about 20 tons of radioactive waste a year. How are we going to handle that?” he questioned.

While nuclear power does not pose the immediate hazards of coal and gas, it is not the answer to our growing energy consumption. According to Rothwell, “The planet needs a long-term solution that involves storage systems for renewable energy sources. We can’t wait for these technologies. We need to imagine the next 200 years. And we need to start reinventing that future now.”

In the short term, he recommends adding a carbon fee and not shuttering existing nuclear power plants. Simultaneously, he hopes for a “revolution in our thinking about each generation consuming more than the previous generation.” For example, Rothwell notes that two internet clouds, running 24 hours a day, use as much power as the city of Tacoma. “Renewables can’t supply that power reliably, so the question becomes, what is the portfolio of electricity-generating assets going forward?”

Because of the plutonium produced at Hanford and the nuclear weapons produced with this plutonium, I am much more anti-nuclear-weapons than anti-nuclear-power.

He sees hope in small solutions as well as large ones. “In the summertime, we don’t need to set air conditioning at 72 degrees; can’t we all take a little heat?”

Nuclear Power Plants

While it is cleaner than coal and gas, Rothwell says the amounts of radioactive waste generated by nuclear energy, the long half-life of that waste and the potential for large-scale disasters make nuclear power a less-than-viable solution to our longterm energy problems. Photo by Tieury Vialard.

Keep pushing

Rothwell has a few words for new Evergreen alumni. “I believe that the purpose of an undergraduate education is to help you discover what you love to do,” he said, “and the purpose of a graduate education is to give you the tools to do what you love. Don’t go to graduate school without knowing what you love to do; otherwise you will hate getting up in the morning.”

He also advised students and new graduates to keep pushing. “Most of the key opportunities I have had in life did not come the first time I applied,” he said.

Rothwell lists pivotal moments when his first applications were rejected but he prevailed on the second attempt—to become an exchange student to France and a graduate student at Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D. In 2011 he even married the woman he’d dated in France after Evergreen, nearly three decades after their breakup in 1983. “So keep trying!” he said. “Even though it might be difficult, just redo it!”