What Neil DeGrasse Tyson Doesn't Want to Say About Nuclear Energy

In March of 2014, FOX premiered Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, an ambitious documentary series meant to follow in the footsteps of Carl Sagan’s famous 1980 series. The new series was hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well known astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium. Just as many scientists today cite Carl Sagan’s series as an inspiration, so Dr. Tyson hopes to reach out to a new generation and inspire a sense of wonder and a spirit of curiosity about the universe, and create a more scientifically literate society. This is a lofty goal, as a society that lacks a basic understanding of the scientific method will be unable to make informed decisions concerning important policies, particularly as regards renewable energy and the environment.

In the penultimate episode, “The World Set Free”, Dr. Tyson spends some time explaining the greenhouse effect and the evidence for anthropogenic climate change. In contrast to the planet Venus, where volcanic eruptions were responsible for the release of carbon dioxide, here on Earth the culprit is human consumption of fossil fuels. Tyson then presents solar and wind power systems as potential solutions to replace oil and coal. While these are promising and exciting technologies, they are not the only options.

What is surprising, and surely disappointing, is his neglect of the known and proven energy source that is completely carbon neutral. Nuclear fission has been safely providing electricity at power plants across the United States and across the world for over fifty years. Nuclear power makes up nearly 20% of all electricity generated in the US, and makes up 63% of its carbon free electricity. For a program that seeks to raise awareness of scientific issues, particularly climate change, to ignore nuclear power is doing a disservice to the audience. Especially now, as older plants such as Vermont Yankee in Vernon, VT, are being decommissioned with no plants ready to replace them.

Between 2007 and 2009, during the short lived "Nuclear Renaissance", the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued licenses to construct and operate 30 new nuclear reactors. But following financial difficulties, competition from cheap natural gas, and safety concerns following the Fukushima disaster of 2011, many of these plans were cancelled. To date, no new reactors have begun operation in the United States.

In spite of political stagnation, reactor technology continues to advance. New reactor designs promise to use Thorium as fuel, a more abundant material than uranium, and one that can avoid proliferation concerns. Other nations have continued to push nuclear power forward, as Russia and China continue to build new reactors, and the European Sustainable Nuclear Industrial Initiative is funding three new sodium cooled fast reactor systems.

Of course, nuclear power is not without its challenges. Safety is always a concern, especially in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. And with the closure of the Yucca Mountain facility, there is still no designated, long term storage site for radioactive waste. But these are not insurmountable problems. Nuclear power in the United States has a strong safety record. These challenges should be weighed against the opportunities in a national debate on the merits of nuclear energy.

With the dangers of climate change looming, all possible alternative energy sources should be considered. Nuclear energy holds great promise, but as long as it is invalidated in popular media, there can be no meaningful change. There needs to be a robust national debate on nuclear energy as a potential source of clean energy. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos missed a perfect opportunity to bring this scientific debate to a wider audience. Issues like this are precisely why it is important to have a scientifically literate population that can rationally consider changes to current nuclear policy, and more public figures should be driving this conversation.

  • Anonymous

    I agree, I watch so many scientific programs that have the opportunity to discuss Nuclear Power and radiation etc, but they like Prof Brian Cox only want to talk about fusion. It is like Nuclear Power from fission is The Elephant in the room. Fortunately for society China and India think independently and are spending large amounts in this area.

  • Anonymous

    Remember that Cosmos was sponsored\broadcast by Fox and National Geographic channels. Not exactly pro-nuclear.  Also Dr. Sagan was known for his strong beliefs on non proliferation. I suspect Ann Druyan still feels that way,  it would've been too involved to explain that NPPs are not weapons factories. I suspect she may not actually know that.

    Also,  Dr. NDT was hired to be the public face for the series. He has said that he had little imput into the script.

  • Anonymous

    US/EU western sensibilities are w/ petrodollar$ not nuclear. Only until the corrupt private western central Bankster is put to rest will the West be competitive in manufacturing w/ say; TESLA cars or trucks or aircraft or electric/nuclear ships, rail locomotive etc.. Until then it's blood-for-oil, green house gases (GHG) and fracking gas under an unstable socio-economy.  

  • Anonymous

    Yes. Thorium is a wonderful 4th generation choice. Bill Gates and his team are pursuing it, with the first prototype due in five years.

    But we also have the Integral Fast Reactor, the IFR, already tested with 20 or so prototypes. 2015 will be the year for the final approval of two full scale GEH S-PRISM reactor modules, 600 MW each...to burn the UK's massive plutonium stockpile, enough to power that whole nation for 500 years. These 4th gen "fast" reactors cannot melt down; they recycle their own waste as fuel; and from which a bomb cannot be made. They work at atmospheric pressure, and require no water coolant. Pretty cool.

    This is a glimpse of a believable future. Will humanity seize this opportunity? Let's hope so.

  • Anonymous

    I'd actually welcome a moratorium on construction of power stations using the current reactor designs. They get safer but at the same time ever more expensive and complicated. Better to take a break and start over with a clean sheet of paper.

  • Anonymous

    Skeptics are good at calling out anti-science, such as anti-vaxxers, anti-GMO, climate change deniers and young earth creations, but they minimally discuss nuclear power, occasionally mention briefly, eg theness.com/.../the-gap-between-public-and-scientific-opinion It good this article is discussing that survey "there is a huge gap between public opinion and the opinion of scientists on many important scientific issues of the day"

  • Anonymous

    Fact is: U.S.A. stuck on 1950's nuclear science. Water cooling, pressure pot technologies. China meanwhile has advanced centuries in decades of nuclear sciences. China has, up and running,even online, a fast neutron gas moderated reactor system, 99.9% efficient, waste in very small amounts and safe after 300 years storage, very high temperature heat available for chemical, industrial processes,and will operate on a variety of fuels? China has also "stolen U.S. LFTR technology and has in fact advanced it a century in a few decades and has arrived at a feasible system.

    That being said, China also completed the Three Gorges Dam, 10 times larger than the Hoover Dam, and is near completing one in Tibet 15 times larger. moreover, China produces the very best, least expensive Solar panels, to whit:

    ""Did you know that American citizens pay huge "tariffs" on Chinese solar panels (200+%) because: American industrialists found it cheaper to bribe (lobbyists) government officials to impose "so-called' dumping tariffs than to do as the Chinese have done: Invest heavily in totally automating their factories, streamlining their production systems, spending on research for faster, cheaper, better, SMARTer ways to compete on world markets, spend money on scientists to make more efficient product. ""

    Oil, Gas, South China Seas (real reason for Vietnam war)


    “”According to estimates, the East China Sea holds approximately 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 100 billion barrels of oil. The South China Sea, though not surveyed in detail contains equally substantive quantity of gas and oil.””

    Massive Himalayan hydropower dam comes on stream in Tibet

    Bigger than any in U.S.A?



    I should add that China has now a robust industry making catalytic converters to clean the coal-fire power plant flue gas off sulfur and nitrous oxides. By last count a third of these environmental units are exported to the world market such as Serbia.

    Electric Cars.

    news.ifeng.com/.../42903592_0.shtml  As I saw from the beginning 3 years ago, China started planning a nationwide charging system for cars. First we have the electric buses where journeys are predictable. Now they have just launched charging stations on the highway connecting Beijing and Shanghai. Every 50 km there is a charging station for electric cars. Eggs first now chicks can hatch.

    The economics? the Jing-Hu Highway [Beijing-Shanghai hwy] is 1262 km long. If your car requires a charge every 150-200 km [old type]. You need to stop for charge 6 to 7 times at RMB 30 per charge. The whole journey will cost your car no more than REMB 400.[US$67] Dirt cheap? that will motivate all China car owners to switch.

    As of now, they have already installed 24,000 charging stations so they will soon be opening all the way down to HK and Macao, north to Shenyang and west to Shijiazhuang, 2900 km of it and beyond. As with SuperTrains, once they launch, it will rapidly be all over the place in no time.

    Chinese/Cambodia Hydro Power

    Cambodia will have a greater possibility to supply reliable electricity to households and businesses with cheaper prices after a Chinese-built 338- megawatt Russei Chrum Krom River hydropower dam began operations on Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said. en.people.cn/.../c90883-8835071.html


    A growing portion of China’s toilet waste is converted into fertilizer and biogas. In Beijing, 6,800 tons of human excrement are treated each day by some estimates: enough to fill almost three Olympic-size swimming pools. - See more at: disinfo.com/.../china-turning-fecal-sludge-black-gold


  • Anonymous

    he's only human. he makes mistakes

    galileo didnt accept circular orbits.

    tesla didnt accept relativity

    einstein was dubious about quantum mechanics

    even his friend bill nye is wavering about GMO's

    or maybe its a calculated risk. He left it unsaid to avoid antagonizing people unnecessarily

  • Anonymous

    "Between 2007 and 2009, during the short lived "Nuclear Renaissance", the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued licenses to construct and operate 30 new nuclear reactors"  This is absolutely not true.  During the period in question, the NRC issued licenses to construct and operate ZERO new nucleaer reactors.  The only licenses for new reactors, i.e., Vogtle and Summer, were issued in 2012.  TVA notified the NRC of its decision to complete the Watts Bar 2 unit in the cited frame, but the NRC has not yet issued an Operating License for that unit.  Aside from that significant error, this whole article is essentially a rehash of an item NEI's blog that appeared in June 2014.  

    In any case, it would appear that Tyson is much more inclined to support solar energy than nuclear.  So be it.  Perhaps the issue is not getting Tyson to support nuclear power, but rather to find a spokesperson who is as photogenic, as articulate, and as smart as Tyson, who is also a supporter of nuclear power, and to help get that individual the sort of exposure in the mass media as Tyson gets.