Nuclear power gets a makeover as climate emergency grows

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A growing group of start-ups are bringing new and more nimble technology to the long-running nuclear industry, often with the goal of reducing global warming. They envision power plants that are smaller, cheaper and safer than those of the past.

Many entrepreneurs are young and many consider themselves climate activists. They are part of a broader mindset shift in which more and more environmentalists — but certainly not all — are expressing negative feelings about nuclear power.

Why we wrote this

Nuclear power has been pushed into decline by a host of concerns, from waste to disasters like Fukushima. But new technologies and a growing group of climate pragmatists could change that.

In large part, proponents say, it’s because renewables alone aren’t poised to quickly free the power grid from carbon. And speed is key, scientists say, because human emissions of greenhouse gases are already changing Earth’s climate.

“What we’re seeing with these new climate groups,” says Jessica Lovering of the Good Energy Collective, “is that they’re really pushing for an aggressive standard on decarbonization. … There’s this pragmatic point of view of, ‘well, we’re just trying to reduce emissions as fast as possible as much as possible. So whatever brings us there.

She concludes: “I am not for nuclear power. I am purely for nuclear for the climate.

A few years out of college, Robbie Stewart knew he had to make a career change. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his job as a mechanical engineer for General Electric – he did. But he also knew, as someone who felt deeply comfortable being a steward of the earth, that he wanted to be part of the fight against climate change.

So he thought for a while about the best way to contribute. And then he decided to go into the nuclear industry.

“I saw nuclear power as a tremendous opportunity for decarbonization,” he explains. “And that was where my skills were.”

Why we wrote this

Nuclear power has been pushed into decline by a host of concerns, from waste to disasters like Fukushima. But new technologies and a growing group of climate pragmatists could change that.

Mr. Stewart quit his job, entered a doctorate in nuclear science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. program, and eventually co-founded the Boston Atomics company, which creates “designed-to-build” nuclear power plants that can be built faster and more cheaply than traditional facilities.

“Our whole bet is that the value of low-carbon energy will only increase in the future,” he says. “It’s a big part of our value case as a startup.”

A slew of “advanced nuclear” startups have sprung up recently to bring nimble new technology to the long-running nuclear industry, often with the goal of reducing global warming. Some companies are working to build smaller “micro” reactors the size of shipping containers, some are looking to recycle radioactive waste, and others are using materials other than water to cool the reactors, among other innovations.

Many entrepreneurs are young and many consider themselves climate activists. They are part of a larger mindset shift involving nuclear energy as a whole, in which more and more environmentalists – but certainly not all – are shedding negative feelings about nuclear and embracing the technology instead.

“There has been a shift where the wider climate community has realized the benefits that nuclear can bring to meeting our climate goals,” says Lindsey Walter, deputy director for climate and energy at Third Way, a group of center-left thinking in Washington. “The biggest problem we are trying to solve is the climate crisis. And if you’re going to follow the science, if you’re going to follow the evidence, then it’s really very clear that nuclear has to be part of the solution.

On climate action, a growing focus on speed

In large part, proponents say, it’s because renewables alone aren’t poised to quickly free the power grid from carbon. And speed is key, scientists say, because human emissions of greenhouse gases are already changing Earth’s climate.

Wind and solar power are dependent on weather conditions, and at this point battery storage technology is not advanced enough to smooth out the complex supply and demand fluctuations of the power grid.

A nuclear power plant, on the other hand, can produce energy continuously, without emitting greenhouse gases. And that means it could provide a key component to a fossil fuel-free energy system, proponents say.

“We need to drastically reduce green gas emissions,” says Judi Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance. “It’s not something like a 10% or 20% reduction, or even a 50% reduction. We need to get as close to zero as possible. And that really forces us to rethink the whole energy system.

Yet concerns about nuclear power remain widespread.

Traditionally, environmentalists have considered it dangerous. The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima have heightened this concern – along with lingering questions about what to do with radioactive waste, the environmental and ethical implications of uranium mining and the risk of nuclear materials being used for weapons.

“Nuclear energy is unsafe, it is uneconomical and it increases the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons,” says Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany who has worked on energy systems for 30 years. “We’re in a climate emergency, and we’re wasting our time and a lot of columns talking about technology that’s essentially irrelevant.”

Beyond ethical and environmental concerns, he argues that the impracticality of nuclear power should be enough to make people suspicious of the technology. Traditional nuclear power plants are extremely expensive to build and take years, if not decades, to actually commission. In the United States, which currently gets about 20% of its electricity — and about half of its carbon-free electricity — from nuclear power, some 21 reactors are being decommissioned, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“It is not possible for the nuclear industry to play the essential role of decarbonization over the next few decades,” says Burnie. “It’s a myth.”

But that hasn’t stopped officials around the world from looking to it as a possible climate solution.

A “green investment” or not?

Recently, a European Union proposal to categorize certain nuclear power plants as “green investments” has generated both praise and debate. Germany, which has pledged to shut down the last of its nuclear power plants by the end of this year, has argued that any process that leaves permanent radioactive waste cannot be labeled “sustainable”. But atomic energy leader France lobbied for the designation.

In the United States, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year provided funds to prevent the closure of nuclear power plants, as nuclear power taken offline is largely replaced by fossil fuels. The bill also provides funds to support nuclear innovation.

Michael Cummo/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle/AP/File

TerraPower Founder and Chairman Bill Gates addresses the crowd in a recorded video message during the Wyoming Capitol press conference, June 2, 2021, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The company plans to build a “next generation” demonstration reactor on the site of a former coal mine in Wyoming.

It’s this innovation that’s key for many climate activists, says Jessica Lovering, co-founder of the Good Energy Collective, a group that tries to make the case for nuclear power on a progressive political level. Whether it’s through small startups like Mr. Stewart’s Boston Atomics or Bill Gates’ company TerraPower, which last year announced plans to build a “next-generation” demonstration reactor at the a former coal mine in Wyoming, the climate potential of new nuclear technology offsets old environmental concerns, she says.

“All That Gets Us There”

“A lot of the larger mainstream environmental groups in place, founded in the 60s and 70s, grew out of anti-war movements, anti-establishment movements,” she says. “They come with a lot of anti-nuclear baggage. … What we’re seeing with these new climate groups is that they’re really pushing for an aggressive standard on decarbonization. … There’s this pragmatic point of view of, ‘well, we’re just trying to reduce emissions as fast as possible as much as possible. So whatever brings us there.

From a progressive perspective, says Dr. Lovering, it is also important that ownership patterns of nuclear power plants change. For years, she says, nuclear power was the purview of large utilities, often tied to the military. Now, there are more templates that give communities more information, with smaller footprints. And even in its traditional form, nuclear takes up less land than large solar or wind farms, which can come with their own environmental challenges. While she acknowledges that advanced nuclear is still in the future, it’s closer than many people think, she says, with a number of demonstration technologies being launched over the next decade.

And just because the technology doesn’t exist now, she and other proponents say, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working for a future solution. That’s why many scientists are still excited about the long-postponed dream of nuclear fusion as a potentially abundant and clean source of electrical energy.

In addition to electricity generation, some advanced nuclear technologies – including Boston Atomics – would be able to produce extreme heat for industrial processes such as chemical production or steelmaking. This emissions-rich and diverse industrial sector is widely considered to be one of the most difficult to manage when it comes to greenhouse gases.

“There is carbon embodied in everything we make,” says Dr. Lovering. “Actually, I wasn’t a nuclear fan until I learned more about it. … You start to realize, oh, shoot, we really need this technology if we’re going to meet these [net zero] goals. I think many other members of the climate community who support nuclear have come to this the same way.

She concludes: “I am not for nuclear power. I am purely for nuclear for the climate.


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