Steven P. Nesbit, PE, is the President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS). A registered professional engineer, he’s also the founder of LMNT Consulting, which supports clients on matters related to the nuclear fuel cycle, advanced nuclear energy systems, and nuclear nonproliferation. He received his bachelor of science and master of engineering degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Virginia.
Prior to founding LMNT, Nesbit enjoyed a 36-year career at Duke Energy Corporation, the last nine years of which he served on the staff of the chief nuclear officer and acted as the nuclear policy point of contact. Nesbit supported the US Department of State on outreach to countries with developing nuclear power programs and also served on the International Panel of Experts for the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s 2016, 2018, and 2020 Nuclear Security Index reports. He testified on spent fuel policy issues to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2017 and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2019.
Before becoming President, Nesbit held several positions at ANS, including Chair of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Technical Group, Chair of the Public Policy Committee, member of the ANS Board of Directors, and Chair of the Piedmont Carolinas ANS local section.
One of the most important applications of nuclear science is nuclear energy, which, unlike fossil fuels, is a carbon-free power source. Over the last 50 years, nuclear power across the globe has avoided around 55 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, which amounts to nearly two years of global energy-related emissions.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the world cannot meet its near-term target of 85 percent low-carbon electricity generation—the threshold necessary to stave off the most calamitous effects of climate change—without nuclear power.
“Carbon-free nuclear energy is key to delivering a clean energy future with sufficient resources for everyone around the world to live productive, healthy lives,” Nesbit says.
The US began generating electricity from commercial nuclear power plants in 1958, and by the end of 2020, it was operating 94 commercial nuclear reactors at 56 nuclear power plants across 28 states. According to the US Energy and Information Administration (EIA), those reactors collectively generate approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. And in contrast to some other green energy sources like solar or wind, nuclear power is reliable, energy-dense, abundant, and available year-round.
“Nuclear energy is recognized as an essential component of a clean energy future that minimizes the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment and mitigates the impacts of climate change,” Nesbit says. “A stable and predictable environment makes for a safer world. This is all the more pressing as our global economy strives to simultaneously electrify and decarbonize in the coming decades.”
The average person might not be able to tell you how nuclear science works, but they probably have a vivid idea of what happens when it goes wrong: a nuclear reactor failure in Chernobyl in 1986 contaminated some 150,000 square kilometers across Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Such outsized consequences have created some outsized fears in the public’s mind.
But the data tells a different story. Over 18,500 cumulative reactor years (the combined time that all reactors have been running), there have only been three significant accidents, and the lessons learned from those accidents have contributed to making nuclear power safer than it’s ever been. Since 1979, nuclear power in the US has operated without any major issues. Still, the stigma around nuclear energy has a long half-life and comes with its own deleterious effects.
“For some people, any nuclear technology brings a stigma of unacceptable risk,” Nesbit says. “This manifests itself in many ways, including reluctance to deploy clean, reliable nuclear power plants and opposition to transporting and storing used nuclear fuel. However, objective studies comparing all aspects of nuclear energy to other forms of energy production reveal that while no form of technology can erase all risks, nuclear technology risks are comparable to or lower than the risks from other energy sources.”
The stigma around all things nuclear can also obscure the crucial non-energy-related aspects of nuclear science. Radiological sources help irradiate bulk food and cosmetics, decontaminating them to make them safer and extend their shelf life. Nuclear science gives us household smoke detectors and the ability to inspect infrastructure for possible cracks and leaks. Nuclear medicine is a pillar of modern healthcare. But these safe and effective applications of nuclear science aren’t always recognized for what they are.
“Outside of energy, nuclear science is vital to our daily lives, especially in healthcare and consumer safety,” Nesbit says. “Nuclear medicine and radiation therapy offer cutting-edge cancer treatments, including the precision targeting of cancer cells and brain tumors. Thanks to nuclear science, radiological sources help to sterilize most of our medical supplies and equipment, everything from surgical masks to implants and joint replacements.”
In 2018, the American Nuclear Society, in partnership with Discovery Education and the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, launched the Navigating Nuclear program: a nuclear science and technology curriculum created specifically to address the lack of fact-based resources on nuclear science for elementary and secondary science teachers. The curriculum includes interactive lessons, project starters, and career profiles that explore nuclear science in real-world settings.
“Since it launched, Navigating Nuclear has reached more than 1.6 million students across the country with the most current information on a wide range of nuclear applications,” Nesbit says. “Students learn about nuclear energy, radiation therapy, art forgery detection, fission, fusion, nuclear propulsion, space exploration, and more.”
Future plans for Navigating Nuclear include developing new resources for the curriculum that focus on the role of nuclear science and technology in global climate change. The goal is to teach students about the ways in which nuclear science addresses some of the most pressing issues the world faces, including how we protect and power our planet. This addresses public misconceptions over the safety of nuclear science by focusing on educating new minds, rather than only trying to change old ones.
“I anticipate more public acceptance of a broader role for nuclear technology in our society,” Nesbit says. “Young people are generally more open to new, innovative technologies and real environmentalists increasingly appreciate the potential contributions of nuclear energy toward meeting challenges like climate change and reliable power.”
“To the extent that technology-neutral policies encourage deployment of clean energy sources, I expect to see a significant expansion of nuclear fission and, down the road, perhaps nuclear fusion for energy production,” Nesbit says. “Nuclear energy will be deployed for electricity production, which is the major application today, but also for uses like hydrogen production, desalination, and industrial process heat.”
Nuclear science also has important applications beyond Earth. NASA has used radioisotope power systems in several long-term missions, from the Voyager probes to the Mars rovers. These systems directly convert heat generated by the decay of plutonium into electric power, keeping spacecraft components warm enough to function in the depths of outer space. For over 50 years, every radioisotope power system launched into space had functioned safely and as designed.
“With the near-term potential for commercial space travel, people are excited about space exploration in a way that hasn’t been seen for decades,” Nesbit says. “It is increasingly evident that nuclear energy sources for space vehicles will be one of the keys to enabling future space missions, particularly those to the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond.”
To learn more about the impact and potential of nuclear science, and to connect with the broader nuclear science community, check out some of the resources below.
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