We’ve heard these claims before. But the mounting scale of the climate and energy conundrum is fueling more money and favorable policies into atomic power.
The worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is a recent and painful memory in Japan. Yet in the lead-up to this month’s United Nations climate summit, newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to restart the reactors the country shut down after a tsunami flooded the Fukushima-Daiichi plant in 2011 and caused a meltdown that irradiated an estimated 300 square miles.
Japan was hardly alone in rediscovering its enthusiasm for nuclear power. As negotiations to phase out coal fizzled, the United Kingdom announced an investment in Rolls-Royce’s next-generation nuclear reactors. Ghana and Indonesia unveiled plans for their first reactors. And China, the world’s No. 1 carbon emitter, promised to construct an unprecedented 150 new reactors in the next 15 years ― more than the entire world built in the last 35.
In the United States, where nuclear power plants have been steadily shutting down for the past decade as they struggle to compete with natural gas and renewable energy sources, the Biden administration pledged to shore up existing reactors and invest in new ones. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law Nov. 15 provides aging, financially troubled nuclear plants a $6 billion lifeline to stay open and directs billions more for research into next-generation mini-reactors. The $1.7 trillion Build Back Better legislation currently being negotiated in the Senate adds billions more in tax credits for nuclear generation. The Energy Department recently approved the country’s first permits for a next-gen small reactor and helped broker a deal for a U.S. nuclear startup to build one in Romania.
Nuclear is even getting a boost on the state level. Unlike New York and California, where nuclear plants are shutting down, Illinois passed a clean-energy law in September that boosted cash-strapped reactors with new subsidies.
The flurry of new policies and announcements raises the question: Are we at the dawn of a nuclear renaissance?
It’s a question that’s been posed before, most recently in the mid 2000s. Though they are among the least deadly and most reliable sources of electricity, new reactors remain extremely expensive, slow to build and unpopular. But advocates and market analysts see the dual crises of rapidly worsening climate change and growing demand for dependable electricity driving a shift toward nuclear power.
“When people talk about decarbonization, they talk as if it’s this mysterious thing that’s never been achieved,” said Isabelle Boemeke, a Brazilian advocate for nuclear power who tries to recast the energy source as chic with her fashion modeling and TikTok videos. “When you look at the technologies that have decarbonized grids, it’s hydro and nuclear. People are starting to realize that if they want electricity on at all times, and clean electricity, they’re going to have to have nuclear be a part of that.”
Yet anti-nuclear activists say this comeback, like past ones, is at best hype and at worst a dangerous distraction that threatens to siphon away already-insufficient government funding for clean energy.
“Of all the available options for keeping fossil fuels in the ground, nukes are likely the worst. This is an expensive distraction when renewables are hiding in plain sight,” said Lukas Ross, a program manager at the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which opposes nuclear power. “The nuclear industry has always been better at putting out press releases than building reactors.”
Nuclear power was born into a violent time. The concept of harnessing radioactive energy was first conceived after 1934, when physicist Enrico Fermi discovered that neutrons could split atoms and artificially create radiation.
Fleeing with his Jewish wife from fascist Italy’s anti-semitic laws, Fermi ended up at the University of Chicago, where on Dec. 2, 1942, he carried out the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in a laboratory. It was almost one year after the United States, his adopted country, had entered World War II. Within months, the U.S. government recruited Fermi into the Manhattan Project.
The destructive power of split atoms was revealed just three years later, when the U.S. dropped the only nuclear bombs ever used in war on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died instantly, while the invisible scourge of the radiation that lingered in the blast zone killed tens of thousands more with cancer and other diseases for years. The Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb just four years later, igniting the Cold War atomic arms race that would inaugurate a new human era in which the complete destruction of and by our species emerged as a distinct possibility.
In 1951, a government-run experimental reactor in Idaho produced the world’s first usable electricity through atomic fission. It channeled the intense heat from a chain reaction of split uranium atoms to boil water, which spun turbines and generated power. Two years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pitched his vision of “atoms for peace” in a 1953 speech at the United Nations and launched a program that would continue the proliferation of atomic weapons while orienting more nuclear research to electricity generation. In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency was established to oversee the global growth of nuclear power.
Construction began on nuclear reactors across the world, reflecting the fuel’s distinct benefits. Hydropower dams are geographically limited, require enormous feats of geological engineering and can be rendered useless in extreme droughts. Coal-fired plants wheeze filth into the air and produce mountains of toxic ash. Gas-fired generators spew pollution, too, and prices flutter wildly in the geopolitical winds. Nuclear plants, by contrast, produce no air pollution and can run almost 24/7.
But every 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor produces about 3 cubic meters of radioactive waste per year. In television and movies, nuclear waste is often depicted as sloshing green-glowing goo. In reality, throughout much fo the world, high-level radioactive waste is mixed with silica in a process known as vitrification, creating a solid material that looks like black glass. It is kept in stainless steel containers and sealed in concrete before being disposed of deep underground at special sites, where it takes up to 10,000 years to decay back to the radioactive levels of the original mined ore.
Where and how to store waste that remains dangerous for so long has been contentious. A proposed storage site in Yucca Mountain, a remote location in the Nevada desert, would bury waste 1,000 feet underground but has faced vehement opposition from state officials and Native American tribes since it was first proposed in the 1970s, over fears that groundwater could corrode the waste receptacles and create a radioactive monster beneath their feet. Scientists have warned that, even without water intrusion, the metal containers holding nuclear waste could break down after 1,000 years. In the meantime, most waste is stored without vitrification in dry casks on site at depots and plants, where, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson told Scientific American in 2009, the agency could guarantee the safety of waste receptacles for “at least 90 years” ― a tiny fraction of its half-life.
In what some in the industry hailed as a “game changer,” Finland is digging the world’s first deep repository for waste ― an isolated underground cavern about 1,500 feet below the Earth’s surface.
The threat of radioactive waste, of course, needs to be weighed against the mounting toll of pollution from fossil fuels. Radioactive minerals dredged up during gas drilling now contaminate communities across the U.S. Toxic heavy metals from coal ash have seeped into water sources. The U.S. suffered 137 oil spills in 2018 alone. And the air pollution from burning fossil fuels already kills 1 in 5 people each year and is linked to increases in dementia, impotence and mental illness.
There’s also the problem of mining the uranium and plutonium that fuel reactors. From 1944 to 1986, the U.S. extracted 4 million tons of uranium ore and then abandoned more than 500 mines in Navajo territory, leaving behind radioactive dust and mine tailings that sent local cancer rates soaring. Stewardship aside, scholars debate how much accessible nuclear fuel is even left in the world, with estimates ranging from 90 years’ worth to 200 years to maybe hundreds of thousands years if uranium could be extracted from seawater.
But solar panels, wind turbines and the batteries needed to store their power rely on rare earth metals mined in Myanmar, lithium extracted from the sensitive Chilean desert and cobalt pulled from polluted communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Industry analysts fear shortages of key minerals as early as 2025 as clean-energy manufacturing booms.
It was the threat of an accidental reactor meltdown, however, that ultimately stymied nuclear power’s rise. In March 1979, one of the valves that controlled the flow of coolant water to a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, jammed, causing the radioactive core to overheat. The partial meltdown that followed caused no deaths and, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report, not even one additional cancer case in the area. But the accident captivated national attention and cemented anti-nuclear activists’ fears that no reactor could ever be safe enough.
Then in 1986, operator errors and design flaws led to a meltdown and series of explosions at the nuclear plant 10 miles northwest of Chernobyl, Ukraine. The disaster killed a little over two dozen workers and firefighters, and forced nearly 115,000 people to relocate away from the 1,000-square-mile irradiated exclusion zone. Estimates of how many people died from radioactive fallout vary widely. In 2005, a team of 100 U.N. scientists concluded that about 50 people had died of exposure-related diseases like thyroid cancer that were ultimately projected to kill 4,000 more. The World Health Organization pegged the number of thyroid cancer cases linked to Chernobyl alone at more than 11,000. In 2006, Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear energy, forecast the total deaths linked to the disaster at 93,000.
The 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi catastrophe seemed like the final strike. An earthquake sent a tsunami wave crashing into the plant on Japan’s northeast coast, flooding the reactor and causing a meltdown. There were no confirmed deaths until 2018, but the accident cast radiation over 300 square miles, an area which now is populated by eerily dystopian ghost towns.
Japan shut down about 50 reactors. South Korea’s ruling liberal party made the shutdown of the country’s nuclear fleet a platform issue. Germany, which had already embarked on its Energiewende policy to eliminate nuclear power, hastened its closure of reactors.
In the U.S., where the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) had made natural gas cheaper than ever, nuclear power lost its appeal. As concern over climate-changing emissions grew, environmentalists who cut their teeth protesting the construction of reactors in the 1970s and 1980s embraced solar and wind as the ideal sources for zero-carbon electricity, particularly as green industrial policies in China dramatically lowered the costs of imported solar panels and wind turbines. For those worried about providing dependable 24/7 “baseload” power ― the minimal amount of electricity needed to meet demand on the grid ― there was natural gas, which produced less carbon than coal.
In 2012, U.S. nuclear power generation peaked with 104 reactors. By 2021, that number fell to 93, with nearly two dozen more reactors slated for shutdown in the coming years.
An Increasingly Heavy Load
Nuclear seemed on the cusp of a comeback in the mid-2000s.
The world was in a familiar place to today. Energy prices were soaring. The nation was still nursing the wounds of a historically disastrous storm that seemed to function as an exclamation point on scientists’ increasingly dire warnings over global warming. Seeking some way out of the chaos, President George W. Bush marshaled his party’s control of Congress, and even won over a decent number of lawmakers from the opposition party that loathed him, to pass legislation aimed at reviving the nuclear industry.
The law, enacted in 2005, promised generous subsidies for power companies that stepped up to build the United States’ first new reactor in three decades. By 2007, several dozen new reactors were in various stages of the permit process.
“I think the nuclear renaissance is here,” the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that year. “I believe that dirt will be turned.”
But the only project to turn any real dirt soon became a money pit. Fifteen years after it was first announced, Plant Vogtle, a pair of nuclear reactors in eastern Georgia, is still under construction, announcing new delays just this month that inflated the total cost of the project to nearly $30 billion ― double its initial estimate.
But in those 15 years, the climate picture has gotten even more bleak. Preventing catastrophic warming requires a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel use worldwide, and rich countries like the U.S., which has the highest per capita emissions, need to make changes even faster than the rest of the world. Yet as of last year, oil, gas and coal still accounted for about 80% of total U.S. energy consumption and 61% of electricity production.
Eliminating the fossil fuels that propel vehicles, heat buildings and flame kitchen stovetops requires swapping out gas guzzlers for battery-powered trucks, furnaces for heat pumps and gas appliances for electric ones. In the U.S. alone, that could increase electricity demand nearly 40% by 2050, according to a Department of Energy study.
And that isn’t accounting for the growth of other industries that could add significant demand for more electricity.
There are plenty of power-hungry industries set to emerge in response to the climate crisis. Hydrogen, for example, is considered a promising fuel to decarbonize airplanes, heavy-duty trucking and steel production ― but 99% of the world’s supply of the gas relies on fossil fuels. The 1% that is considered truly “green hydrogen” depends on the energy intensive process known as electrolysis. Then there’s the issue of freshwater supplies disappearing amid prolonged droughts. Desalinating a year’s worth of seawater for just one average American household requires about as much electricity as it takes to run a refrigerator.
Then there are even more risky endeavors. Each year the world blows past its emission-cutting targets, the amount of carbon that needs to be removed from the atmosphere in order to keep global warming in a relatively safe range of increase. That may well require by the end of this decade a significant deployment of direct air capture, machines that suck CO₂ from the air and render it into a liquid or solid form that can be stored underground. The technology is still nascent, but if deployed at scale in present form, the machines would need roughly one-quarter of global energy supplies by the end of this century, according to one 2019 study in the journal Nature Communications.
Then there are plenty of emerging industries that have little to no climate utility, such as the rise of cryptocurrency. The computing power used to extract Bitcoin, the most popular of the decentralized digital currencies, from chains of code online already needs about as much electricity as the entire nation of Thailand, and rival online tokens are rapidly proliferating.
That all makes efforts to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid a twofold problem. The country must not only replace more than 200 coal plants and roughly 2,000 gas power stations, it also has to add enough electricity to meet growing demand.
There are competing visions for how the country can do that. One involves decentralizing electricity production ― glazing every available roof with solar panels, equipping homes and businesses with batteries, and using electric vehicles as batteries, essentially distributing the job of fueling and balancing the grid among many individual producers. Another involves replacing the existing centralized capacity with enough zero-carbon alternatives to meet demand.
Problems dog both approaches. In many jurisdictions, there simply isn’t enough available sunlight, wind or space to accommodate the machines that harness those resources to meet the electricity demand. And getting huge volumes of wind or solar energy from the places where they’re abundant ― the sun-soaked Southwest or the windswept Great Plains, for example ― means building many more transmission lines across states and terrains. But for much of the past two decades, that has proved incredibly difficult, thanks to Byzantine regulatory regimes and powerful local opposition. Just this month, Maine voters, spurred on by an alliance between environmentalists and fossil fuel companies, overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure barring construction of a transmission line to carry zero-carbon hydropower from Quebec into the New England electricity grid.
Nuclear power faces its own hurdles, not least of which is the cost and time it takes to build a new reactor.
“If you have a more narrow, technocratic mindset about the climate crisis, you ask three questions: How much carbon? How much money? And how much time?” Ross said. “The nuclear lobby only has part of a good answer for one out of three.”
But unlike renewables, which largely require massive new transmission lines to scale up, nuclear plants tend to work well within the same infrastructure used to carry electricity from coal and gas plants. And reactors offer what the Energy Department described as “by far the highest capacity factor of any energy source,” meaning “nuclear power plants are producing maximum power more than 93% of the time during the year.”
“Nuclear power has a lot of negative connotations, but it can contribute a lot to dealing with climate change,” said Chris Gadomski, the lead nuclear analyst at the energy research firm BloombergNEF. “The analogy I use is that it’s like you’re a football coach and for some reason you bench your best player and keep losing the game.”
The future grid will likely be a varied mix of zero-carbon generation sources depending on the market, said analyst David Brown, head of American energy transitions at the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
“We think, in the U.S., wind and solar will be upward of 80% of power output 30 years from now,” he said. The last 20% is “where we think new nuclear has a role,” he said.
Downsizing For The Future
If nuclear power does, in fact, make a comeback in the U.S., its future may rest in a frontier coal town in western Wyoming.
In tiny Kemmerer, Wyoming ― population just a little over 2,700 ― the startup TerraPower plans to replace an aging coal-fired plant with a set of its mini-reactors by 2028.
The plant could become the commercial breakthrough the next-generation nuclear industry has been awaiting. Traditional reactors are enormous, expensive and rely on expertise that has become rarer over the last decades. But the modular reactors TerraPower makes are typically about one-third the size and can be assembled in a factory and transported to the plant location. This, at least in theory, dramatically cuts down the construction costs and time.
Various companies and countries are competing to bring the first small modular reactors to market. Russia recently deployed a small reactor on a floating barge and docked in a Siberian port city, where it was used to heat and power homes, and it has announced plans to build more. China started building its first commercial small modular reactor on the southern island of Hainan this summer. The British government’s pledge to fund Rolls-Royce’s small modular reactor project turned out to be one of the most significant announcements of this month’s U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
TerraPower ― which billionaire Bill Gates co-founded and backed ― is charging ahead with a small modular reactor uniquely cooled with sodium, which has a higher boiling point than water and can store excess electricity for hours. It has competitors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the final stages of certifying a design from NuScale Power, based in Portland, Oregon, that will likely be used for a dozen of its scaled-down water-cooled reactors at an Energy Department facility in Idaho, which will sell power to a local utility. If it wins final approvals, it would be the first small, modular reactor to get a greenlight from U.S. regulators. There are roughly 20 other companies working on similarly sized, or even smaller, reactors.
Small reactors have their critics. David Schissel, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said small reactors have the same problems but in a different package.
“In the 1950s, they said atomic energy would be too cheap to meter, but it hasn’t worked out that way and it won’t work out that way,” he said. “Plus, the question still remains: Where are they going to put the nuclear waste? Nobody wants it.”
Even writer Michael Shellenberger, one of nuclear power’s most fervent evangelists, warned in a recent newsletter that “futuristic nuclear plants are a long ways off, which means it’s misleading at best, and self-destructive at worst, to hype nuclear technologies that only exist on paper.” Instead, he said, countries should follow the lead of France, which generates the vast majority of its electricity from nuclear reactors, and build more traditional plants.
BloombergNEF’s Gadomski said small reactors just need a strong first test case to show investors that the technology is commercially viable. But neither BloombergNEF nor Wood Mackenzie expect the industry to start taking off until the 2030s.
‘The Climate Is Changing Around Nuclear’
And yet nuclear power remains deeply unpopular. Dogged by pop-culture references like HBO’s “Chernobyl” series and the careless plant-safety operator Homer on “The Simpsons,” just 49% of U.S. adults said they favor nuclear power in a 2019 Gallup poll, down from a record high of 62% in 2010. Overwhelming majorities of self-identified Democrats, women and those without college degrees opposed nuclear power.
An August 2020 survey from Morning Consult found 1 in 3 U.S. adults thinks the country should keep existing nuclear plants open but not build any new reactors. Just 16% of respondents said the U.S. should build more reactors, and just 6% said the country should keep current plants running, build more reactors and promote nuclear-power programs overseas.
But nuclear power suffers from a “perception gap,” according to an analysis last year from Bisconti Research, a polling firm that frequently examines public attitudes on atomic energy and has routinely found more favorable opinions than other surveys.
“The U.S. public perceives public opinion toward nuclear energy as less favorable than their own opinion. This perception gap can lead persons who favor nuclear energy to fear speaking out in support of nuclear energy,” the analysis concluded. “That silence, in turn, could reinforce erroneous perceptions of public opinion.”
Nuclear power advocates hope those numbers could start to shift as the scale of the planet’s emissions crisis comes into clearer focus.
“There have been years of indecisiveness, but the climate is changing around nuclear,” said Kirsty Gogan, managing director of the British clean-energy think tank Terra Praxis.
Another is that renewables alone have not proved to be completely reliable. Throughout this past summer and autumn, Europe experienced less wind than usual, adding to the energy crunch that has sent prices soaring across the continent. The British power company SSE, for example, said the lack of rain and wind led its hydropower and wind turbine facilities to produce 32% less electricity than expected.
Though few credibly argue against investing in renewables, the shortfalls show the need for more zero-carbon sources of power that can run with as little interruption as fossil fuel plants. She compared the role nuclear could play to the way plant-based meat giant Impossible Foods offered a compelling substitute for beef.
“We need Impossible burgers for energy, a drop-in substitute,” she said. “We’re not bending the curve on emissions because in the power sector we still need reliability, making the idea that we’re going to phase out coal unforgivably unrealistic right now.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated to note that the NuScale design is still in the final phases of regulatory approval.