Obama’s Clean Power Plan: Can Nuclear Power Beat the Global Threat of Coal?

Joe Lassiter believes the smart use of nuclear power is an essential ingredient in fighting the worldwide threat of coal-fired power plant emissions.
by Carmen Nobel

This week, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency released the final version of the Clean Power Plan, a major set of rules and incentives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from America's power plants. The plan requires each state to meet a specific reduction standard, and offers incentives - in the form of credits or allowances - for states that either meet their goals early or exceed the reduction requirements.

Nuclear power plays a role in the Clean Power Plan, along with renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind. According to the plan, states will receive credits for emission reductions related to new nuclear power plants - including both those under construction and those still in prototype stages.

Harvard Business School Professor Joe Lassiter believes nuclear power is an essential ingredient in fighting the worldwide threat of coal-fired power plant emissions. Lassiter, the Senator John Heinz Professor of Management Practice (Retired) at HBS, has spent more than a decade studying the intersection between immediate energy needs and environmental concerns. In the following video, recorded at the Harvard iLab in June, Lassiter and venture capitalist Ray Rothrock discuss the case for using the next generation of nuclear power to combat the dual challenges of climate change and energy poverty (the lack of access to sufficient energy sources in developing countries).

Click to watch.

Here are some key points in the video:

  • "Rich countries can do what they want to do. But you can see what the Chinese and Indians are doing. They're poor countries; they do what they have to do. And they're building coal plants," Lassiter says at the 8:40 mark.
  • Around the seven-minute mark, Lassiter discusses China's role in climate change. "China is massively more important than anything else," he says at 7:17.
  • Around the ten-minute mark, Lassiter introduces three types of nuclear power plants: light-water reactors with passive safety systems, sodium fast reactors, and molten salt reactors. In terms of their relative maturity in technological evolution, he analogizes them to mainframes, minicomputers, and microprocessor-based systems, respectively.
  • Lassiter talks about the promise of next-generation nuclear power, and introduces some of the key players in the field. "If you could burn thorium and uranium, and do it with prices competitive with coal, you could deliver US-levels of power consumption to everyone on the planet for a thousand years," he says at 14:10.
  • At the 15-minute mark, Lassiter sums up the economic disparity of climate change. On the one hand, poor countries may be the most hurt by the long term effects of climate change in the long term. On the other hand, they have the most pressing short-term energy needs. "As you think about this, you somehow have to bridge the gap between the development needs of nations today and the climate issues that they face tomorrow," he says.
  • At the 17-minute mark, Rothrock discusses nuclear power from a venture capital standpoint. "There's presently a billion private dollars invested in nuclear energy in North America today," he says, adding a minute later that "nuclear is ripe for disruption."
  • At the 20-minute mark, Rothrock criticizes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, regarding the advancement of next-generation nuclear power systems. "The one thing that is holding us back is the NRC," he says.
  • At the 21-minute mark, Lassiter reiterates the urgent need to present an immediate alternative to coal. "The thing that makes this question pressing is that unless you give the Chinese and Indians a clearly perceived alternative to coal - that means cheap enough and scalable enough, probably by the mid '20s - then the [coal] plants will have already been built. The carbon will already be in the air. And it will be too late."
Read more about Lassiter's views on nuclear power and the funding of new energy sources:

The Case for Combating Climate Change with Nuclear Power and Fracking

We Need a Miracle. New Nuclear Might Provide it.

Venture Capital's Disconnect with Cleantech

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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    • Joe Blair
    • Vice President, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital

    My former HBS Professor Joe Lassiter and venture capitalist Ray Rothrock make an excellent case for why nuclear energy can and should replace coal in order to combat both climate change and energy poverty.

    The main challenge in the industry has been politically driven. Since Fukushima, many governments have succumbed to an overly irrational fear of nuclear fission reactor meltdowns without factoring in the huge technical progress that has been made with these technologies. I predict, as the memory of Fukushima fades over the next 10 years and new technologies prove their reliability and cost advantage, nuclear fission will come back into favor by the world's major governments. Sooner would obviously be better!

    It's also worth mentioning that nuclear fusion technologies are also making considerable progress toward technical and economic viability. General Fusion, one of Chrysalix's portfolio companies, recently announced a number of groundbreaking technical milestones, as reported by Science and Nature magazines. If fusion energy has a breakthrough to net gain, it would instantly change the entire global energy ecosystem.

    • Hugh Quick
    • home, None

    I have made this comment so often that I want to stop. Humans are so convinced of their own importance that they imagine that they have a significant effect on the world's climate.

    I believe that Earth has been in its present orbit round the Sun for several million years. Humans only emerged some 200,000 years ago, so how can they have had a significant affect on the world's weather?

    On a personal level, I was once in a hurricane, Boston 1954, I shall not forget the feeling of insignificance in presence of such power.