The Second Coming of Nuclear Power
Newsweek|January 21, 2022
As the demand for energy rises, miniaturized nuclear power plants could be a climate-friendly new source. Critics aren’t so sure
By David H. Freedman, Illustration by Anil Yanik

THE U.S. AND 80 OTHER COUNTRIES agreed in November at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to convert most of the world to green energy in a few decades. It’s a necessary step to curb greenhouse gases that cause climate change, but it comes with a daunting challenge: how to simultaneously meet a worldwide demand for energy that is expected to rise as fast as the temperatures.

A new generation of nuclear reactors is emerging as a potential solution. These are not the troubled giant reactors of old, with their big cooling towers and mazes of cooling pipes that guard against the possibility of a China-syndrome meltdown. The new reactors are designed to be simpler, safer, cheaper and much, much smaller.

A kid near the site of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant shortly after the accident in 1979.

One tiny reactor the size of a school bus could supply power to a nearby town or factory. Or many of them could be strung together to equal the output of a giant nuclear plant. Not only are they expected to be safer and to produce electricity more cheaply than conventional nuclear plants, they also do so without releasing so much as a puff of greenhouse gas.

In the switch to renewable energy, tiny nukes could play an enabling role. Solar and wind power alone may not be enough to meet the soaring demand for energy in the coming decades. In 2019 and 2020, nations around the world added 270 gigawatts of solar and wind power to their grids, but these renewable sources still need to be supplemented at times of peak demand or when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. At present, natural gas, a fossil fuel, usually fills that role. COP26, however, takes that option off the table.

Greenpeace activists in Hong Kong in 2005

Several new high-tech tiny reactors are now under commercial development at more than a dozen companies. The first round of mini-reactors is slated to be deployed in the U.S. and elsewhere within the next three years. The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure and jobs bill championed by President Joe Biden and signed into law in November includes $2.5 billion earmarked for advanced nuclear-power development, some of which will go to mini-nukes. “A totally different wave of innovation in nuclear power is coming up,” says Jacob DeWitte, founder and CEO of Oklo, a mini-reactor startup that hopes to do to the nuclear power industry what Tesla has done for electric cars.

“I don’t see any downsides to them,” says Jason Herbert, a senior director at Energy Northwest, a public utility in Seattle and the surrounding area that is considering adding several mini reactors to its network of solar, wind and hydro-power plants. “We’re on the precipice of a nuclear revolution.”

To be sure, the new nukes have not yet proven their mettle in the commercial world. Many longtime nuclear-power critics remain skeptical that the new technology will overcome the industry’s history of safety problems and cost overruns.

“This isn’t about saving the climate, it’s about saving the industry by repackaging old concepts,” says Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace East Asia.

With climate change looking more and more like a planetwide ticking time bomb, the economics of energy may be shifting in the favor of nuclear power. Tiny nukes, in particular, may be poised to take advantage of this shift.

Green-Energy Economics

NUCLEAR POWER used to have a strong future. Then in 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania underwent a partial core meltdown, which led to a mass cancellation of new plant orders in the U.S. Hopes of a rebound were dashed in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine suffered a full meltdown and reactor breach.

The industry again slowly rebuilt its credibility. By 2010, 104 nuclear plants were running smoothly in the U.S., with plans for dozens more in the works, leading to talk of a “nuclear renaissance.” A year later, a tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, causing a meltdown and the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents.

Still, it wasn’t the continuing concerns over safety, nor the lack of a good solution for storing nuclear waste—a problem with no apparent solution—that most hurt the industry after Fukushima. Rather, it was economics. The price of natural gas plunged, followed by renewable energy. Meanwhile, nuclear power slowly got more expensive, due largely to plant-construction cost overruns that ran well into the billions of dollars.

Coming Clean — In the switch to renewable energy, smaller, cheaper nuclear reactors could play an enabling role. Oklo CEO Jacob DeWitte.

As a result, nuclear power has lately been growing at about a thousandth the rate of solar and wind power. Japan, which once embraced nuclear, has shut down the great majority of its plants, as has once proudly pro-nuclear Germany, where the resolutely anti-nuclear Green Party scored big gains in recent elections. Today, nuclear plants generate about a tenth of the world’s electricity, down from a fifth in the 1990s.

"A totally different wave of innovation in nuclear power is coming up."

The drive to green energy, combined with the prospect of having to do without the natural-gas plants that have been essential to keeping the grids going when solar and wind fall short, has dramatically altered the outlook for nuclear power. In fact, nuclear plants already generate more than half of the U.S.’ carbon-free electricity.

“As natural gas starts to disappear from the grid, nuclear becomes more and more competitive,” says Jess Gehin, associate laboratory director for nuclear science and technology at the Idaho National Laboratory.

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