Hydraulic Fracturing: An Eerie Comparison with the Dawn of Commercial Nuclear Power

May 21, 2015

TENORM - Hydraulic Fracturing Drill Site.jpg

By: William E. Kennedy, Jr.

Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation method in which host rock is fractured by injecting pressurized hydraulic liquid. The injected liquid typically contains sand and chemicals to hold the fractures open, thus allowing oil and gas reserves to flow more freely and be recovered. Hydraulic fracturing is highly controversial with proponents lauding the benefits of readily available domestic oil and gas, and opponents citing a number of environmental concerns and the potential for unknown risks associated with the process. In short, the extremes of the hydraulic fracturing argument consist of “breaking the grip of OPEC” on the United States economy, versus looming, potential environmental catastrophe. This situation is reminiscent of the dawn of commercial nuclear power in the 1960s when the extremes of that argument ranged from “electricity too cheap to meter” to putting atomic bombs near American towns and populations. Based on these responses, it is evident that hydraulic fracturing and commercial nuclear power evoke emotional responses from proponents and opponents alike. 

For both hydraulic fracturing and commercial nuclear power, the success or failure of the enterprise relies on what is now called “license to operate” (or social license to operate). First coined for the mining industry, license to operate more broadly refers to the level of acceptance or approval by local communities and stakeholders of not only the industrial operations, but more importantly the companies conducting those operations. Although license to operate is a relatively new term, it evolved from an idea from the 1980s that corporations must demonstrate “corporate social responsibility;” that is, corporations needed to convince local communities and stakeholders that they have sound ethical principles, including actively seeking to adopt more sustainable practices into their operations. In short, it is no longer enough that a company must obtain governmental permission for an action; corporations now also need “social permission” to proceed. Hydraulic fracturing currently enjoys the support of many communities, but recent actions, including bans imposed by the State of New York and the City of Denton, Texas, may indicate that the industry’s license to operate is eroding. This situation is eerily similar to the debate that occurred, and the actions that resulted, at the dawn of commercial nuclear power. In this paper, we briefly compare and contrast the situation in three major areas: technology, regulation, and environmental.


Both hydraulic fracturing and commercial nuclear power at their core rely on complex technology that is difficult to communicate to the average resident, while decisions about the technology employed are of prime interest to local citizens. To ensure long-term success, specific technology decisions must be made with public acceptability in mind. In the 1960s, decisions about the type of nuclear reactors to commercialize were made by the industry and branch of the government that were producing nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines during the Cold War. Not surprisingly, the reactor designs selected were quite similar to those under development for nuclear submarines and relied on the same nuclear fuel cycle support industries. This provided an economy of scale needed to fund research and development efforts and seemed quite efficient at the time. Alternative approaches, such as those employed in Canada using a completely different reactor design, type of fuel and cooling, with an emphasis on safety and non-proliferation, were ignored. The result in the United States was a blending of public thinking about bombs and electricity, which ultimately fueled anti-nuclear sentiments and overpowered economic and safety arguments supporting the basic technology decisions. Reactor accidents world-wide further strengthened opposition. Although by comparison hydraulic fracturing technology seems straightforward, local deployment technology decisions about number and location of wells, the chemical mixtures used in the injected liquids, and the amount of truck traffic needed to haul waste water all impact local opinions. In addition, news coverage of igniting the methane in tap water or detecting earthquakes in Oklahoma continues to polarize the issues, strengthen opposition, and alarm local citizens.


Hydraulic fracturing is largely lacking regulation on the national scale, relying instead on states and local governments to provide the regulations, permits, and other requirements. However, most states lack the regulatory resources to develop technology-appropriate and consistent regulations and requirements, and many stakeholders skeptically view state decisions as being biased in favor of economic development and jobs. In the 1960s, when commercial nuclear power was faced with a similar regulatory situation, it was realized that only the federal government had the resources to develop comprehensive regulatory systems. In addition to being technically robust, such regulations would be consistent across all states and agencies, ensuring uniformity. While this did lead to public acceptance of the appropriateness of such regulations, it in turn disenfranchised local communities from much of the decision making process. Today there is a growing call for national regulation of hydraulic fracturing, but the same downside of losing license to operate and local acceptance must also be recognized.


Both hydraulic fracturing and commercial nuclear power have potential environmental concerns. In some cases the concern is similar (i.e., effluents to air or water), but often the endpoint is differentiated by chemical or radioactive material concerns. In all cases, license to operate can be lost if environmental concerns are not handled openly and consistently with stakeholders in mind. For commercial nuclear power, after hundreds of atmospheric tests by numerous countries, the public had become alarmed about man-made environmental radioactivity to the point that, in the minds of many, no additional environmental releases were justified. This popular move influenced political entities to seek long-term atmospheric test bans and strengthened the opinion that commercial nuclear power was a bad idea. Today, notable organizations have endorsed safe nuclear power over coal for electrical generation because of carbon footprint and global climate change concerns. However, such a change of opinion is rare; once sides are taken on environmental issues, there is often no logical compromise. The major environmental issues facing hydraulic fracturing are numerous and include:

  • Induced earthquakes;
  • Managing waste water contaminated with salt, heavy metals, and natural radioactive materials;
  • Managing releases to air, including unintentional venting of methane (a greenhouse gas);
  • Unintentional interconnection of geologic layers connecting to ground water;
  • Generation and disposal of solid waste; and
  • Truck traffic.

While hydraulic fracturing applications have provided numerous lessons learned to improve the process, unless well documented, this information is often rejected by stakeholders as reflecting industry bias. Without clear communication and factual data to support the information provided, license to operate may be lost to sensational and emotional reactions.


Application of hydraulic fracturing technology in the United States seems to be on the brink of losing its public support and license to operate if an erosion of confidence similar to the loss of confidence in commercial nuclear power were to occur. Several factors might maintain the much needed license to operate. These factors include:

  • Development of a consistent regulatory scheme that includes local citizen and stakeholder involvement, which can be adopted by each state. This may require the formation of an independent advisory committee or coalition that includes representatives from industry, independent scientists and engineers, state and federal agency representatives, and stakeholder and local community representatives. This may be accomplished through national standards organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute.
  • Development of industry standards that define the requirements and procedures associated with best management practices. Industry standards are common and could be developed by an industry group such as the American Petroleum Institute. These standards could specifically address waste water issues and other environmental concerns.
  • Separate emotional issues (such as the argument that power from methane is not “green enough”) from reality, whenever possible. This will likely require aggressive, science-based, public relations, but it may well be worth it to stem the tide of negative public opinion.

The parallels between hydraulic fracturing and the dawn of commercial nuclear power should serve as a warning that prompt actions are required if the United States intends to continue to enjoy the current hydrocarbon energy boom.

About Bill Kennedy

William "Bill" E. Kennedy, Jr., is Dade Moeller's Corporate Secretary and an Executive Vice President. He is a member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) Board of Directors and serves on the NCRP finance committee. Bill has extensive experience in a broad range of radiation protection topics. He has been involved with the development of the technical basis for revised radiation protection standards and regulations, and has participated in evaluations and appraisals at operating nuclear facilities. He is a Fellow of the Health Physics Society and has been the author or coauthor of more than 160 technical publications, presentations, and short courses.

Additional Resources

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