Nuclear energy is suddenly fashionable -- as new companies are looking to supplant the world's large, uranium-fueled nuclear reactors with kinds that use different fuels and coolants or perhaps even replace fission with fusion.
Two weeks ago, Martingale Inc. unveiled its plans for a molten-salt reactor. Last summer, LPP Fusion raised $180,000 on IndieGoGo to finance some of its research. And these two companies are competing with half a dozen other innovators -- some with deep-pocketed backers.
TerraPower -- supported by Microsoft founder Bill Gates along with the company’s former chief technology officer, Nathan Myrhvold -- is developing a “traveling wave” reactor. Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is helping finance General Fusion's efforts to "rethink fusion." Transatomic Power, a company that claims its reactor will use nuclear waste as fuel, is backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ray Rothrock. And NuScale Power, which aims to shrink nuclear reactors to about 1/20th their standard size, has investments from Fluor Corporation, a giant engineering and construction company.
Yet these next-generation nuclear companies still need government help. The federal government is the only entity that has the real estate, money and technical expertise the companies need to help their technologies mature. And they will eventually need licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That leads to the obvious question: Will President Barack Obama go nuclear?
The new companies and their investors have reason to hope so. In a recent interview, Rothrock told me that he believes “Obama could get something done on this because it has bipartisan appeal.”
There is some bipartisan agreement on nuclear power. But the key word here is “some.” In its last two platforms, the Republican Party stated its support for nuclear energy -- in 2008 calling it “the most reliable zero-carbon-emissions source of energy that we have.” But the last two Democratic Party platforms have barely nodded at nuclear energy.
President Obama supports nuclear power -- at least in his rhetoric. In 2009, just three months after taking office, he declared, “We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change.” And he clearly wants to make climate change a signature issue of his presidency. But if he wants to harness nuclear energy to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Obama will have to push -- and push hard -- for backing from the new Republican Congress.
To be certain, nuclear energy faces many challenges that have nothing to do with politics. Low-cost natural gas, lackluster growth in electricity demand and the staggering cost of new nuclear plants are hamstringing the sector, even as many high-profile environmentalists are beginning to promote nuclear power.
Yes, big environmental groups like Sierra Club and Greenpeace remain adamantly opposed. So do renewable-energy promoters like Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, who claims “we should not even be talking about nuclear.” But increasing numbers of environmentalists and climate scientists are saying nuclear must be developed quickly to slow the growth of carbon dioxide emissions.
Stewart Brand, for example, the longtime environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, has come out strongly in favor of nuclear. So, have Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the founders of the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, a center-left think tank.
Fourteen months ago, James Hansen, one of the world’s best known climate scientists, along with three colleagues, wrote an open letter to environmental groups encouraging them to support nuclear. Continued opposition, they wrote, “threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”
More than half of the public -- 53 percent, according to Gallup -- favors nuclear energy. But favoring nuclear and getting new reactors deployed into the commercial market are not the same thing. Rod Adams, publisher of the website Atomic Insights, sees scant political support for new nuclear.
Last month, Josh Freed, the vice president of clean energy at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank, wrote that the new reactor designs have the “potential to solve our energy problems while also fueling economic development and creating new jobs.” Without them, the nuclear sector will remain “locked in unadaptable technologies that will lead, inevitably, to a decline in our major source of carbon-free energy,” Freed wrote.
That last bit is demonstrably true: America’s reactor fleet, which provides about 20 percent of the country’s electricity, is aging. And while five reactors are now being built, four others have been shut down in the past few years, and a dozen more could be shuttered by the end of this decade. The only viable pathway for a domestic renaissance in nuclear energy is through construction of smaller, safer and drastically cheaper reactors.
Rothrock's near-term goal is to get federal funding for a nuclear campus that would provide facilities for the development and testing of new reactor designs. If that happens, he said, “We could see prototypes in five years and deployment in ten.”
Given the partisan divide in Washington and the Democratic Party’s tepid support for nuclear, that prediction sounds optimistic. But for the next two years, Obama has the bully pulpit. If he's going to make climate change a signature issue, he has to get serious about nuclear energy. And he has to start now.
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