Among experts who study energy policy, there's remarkably widespread agreement that tackling climate change would be much, much easier if we could quickly and cheaply build lots of new nuclear power plants. It's not always a popular argument, but it's a compelling one on its face.
This paper from Jesse Jenkins and Samuel Thernstrom offers a great overview of the relevant research. Yes, it's entirely possible to imagine a carbon-free grid powered 100 percent by renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower. But it's also undeniably hard to juggle intermittent sources of electricity. Mixing in nuclear plants (or fossil plants that bury their CO2) that can run at all hours alongside renewables could greatly lower the cost of deep decarbonization — at least in theory.
The practical flaw in any pro-nuclear argument, however, is that very few countries are actually building new reactors anymore — and many are downsizing their existing fleets. In Germany and Japan, public opinion has turned sharply against nuclear. In the United States and Britain, meanwhile, nuclear programs have been plagued by high upfront costs, construction overruns, and regulatory roadblocks. Today, the world isn't even building enough new reactors to offset coming retirements (see chart here).
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So what would it take to turn this situation around and bring back nuclear power as a vital weapon against climate change? Broadly speaking, there are two options here. Neither is guaranteed to succeed, but for people worried about the herculean efforts needed to stop global warming, they're both worth considering seriously:
1) The first option would be for governments and industry to clear away the (many!) obstacles hindering construction of new light-water reactors, the most common type of reactor built in the 20th century. This technology is proven to work, after all — it supplies one-fifth of America's electricity — and South Korea has figured out how to build such reactors affordably. So other nations would basically need to mimic South Korea, relying on standardized designs and economies of scale to drive down costs and expand their nuclear fleets. Michael Shellenberger, a pro-nuclear advocate with Environmental Progress, has made this case eloquently here and here.
But this first option is easier said than done. In many countries, it would require serious market and policy reforms, and perhaps streamlining regulations around light-water reactors. It would also likely require a tidal change in public opinion about nuclear, allaying concerns about waste and safety. Green groups would probably have to soften their opposition to the technology.
2) Increasingly, many nuclear advocates have come to believe those political hurdles are just too formidable. So they've placed their faith in a second option: radical innovation. There are dozens of startups in the US working on clever alternatives to the traditional, hulking light-water reactor — advanced nuclear designs that, ideally, could prove smaller, safer, more flexible, and ultimately cheaper, perhaps even with less waste. These ideas would need an initial jolt of government support to come to market, but the hope is that new, small, advanced reactors, by virtue of design, could overcome the social and economic barriers crippling the nuclear industry.
This second option is gaining popularity among both parties in Congress, and it's well-articulated in a new report from the Breakthrough Institute: "How to Make Nuclear Innovative." There, authors Jessica Lovering, Loren King, and Ted Nordhaus lay out a series of policies that could help bring advanced reactors to fruition, from licensing reform to targeted aid from the Department of Energy. They draw analogies to federal support for fracking, drug research, even the private spaceflight industry.
The catch? There are no guarantees that advanced nuclear tech will pan out anytime soon. And, as Nordhaus told me in an interview, it's quite possible that even these newer reactor designs could run into the same pitfalls facing existing nuclear, like public opposition or stifling new regulation.
"None of that goes away overnight," he says. "But if we want to reset public perception of nuclear, I think starting with technologies that are quite different from today's designs is our best bet."
So those are two big ideas on offer for reviving nuclear power: Figure out how to widely deploy a tested 20th-century technology that's run into serious trouble, or invent something entirely new. They are, in essence, two very different visions of the current political landscape. Below, I'll flesh out each option, probing some pros and cons — and then take a brief look at what happens if they both fail.