COP28 is underway and grand commitments to triple nuclear power by 2050 are recognition of the following reality: There is no way, absolutely none, that the world’s energy transition away from fossil fuels can be achieved without a massive increase globally of nuclear power. Yet, western governments and companies are failing to get new nuclear technologies and projects off the ground. Outdated anti-nuclear opinions, massive initial capital costs, risks that governments haven’t found a mechanism to share with the private sector, and a crushing and irrational regulatory framework are all holding the industry back.
Wedged between energy crises and climate change natural disasters, there is no longer the luxury of choice. The industry has responded by seeking to develop new technology that can assuage public concerns about safety. Some are designing micro reactors or SMRs. Others are working with new materials or techniques, such as replacing water in cooling systems with molten salt, or using boiling water instead of pressurized water to make the NPP more efficient. Still others are working on new safety systems, or fuel fabrication innovations, or new approaches to storage of nuclear materials. In the U.S., top tier research outfits like the Electric Power Research Institute are finding their expertise in demand all round the world, creating something resembling nuclear diplomacy. The U.S., U.K, Canada, and South Korea are leading the pack on investment in nuclear.
The nuclear industry has been riding high on a wave of enthusiasm for a few years. In recognition of the cost savings of “going nuclear,” smart companies are already making plans to transition to nuclear power. This includes Microsoft, which announced in September that it will use nuclear plants to power its artificial intelligence operations. With electrification the foundation of any coherent energy transition plan and grids struggling to balance themselves with an abundance of non-dispatchable renewables, nuclear is increasingly acknowledged to be the solution. Just as apex science fiction writer Isaac Asimov fantasized in his 1940-50s Foundation books, nuclear energy may save humanity.
And yet, recent headlines have revealed some major setbacks. Small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) company NuScale, once lauded as the leading SMR developer and despite receiving almost $2 billion in U.S. government support, has cancelled its flagship project due to rising costs and mismanagement. It is now facing investor lawsuits for fraud. TerraPower, Bill Gates’ SMR company, was delayed several years by the Russian invasion of Ukraine—Russia was the only country that produced the nuclear fuel needed for TerraPower’s SMR design. X-Energy has walked back its plans to go public. The U.K.’s Rolls Royce SMR is plagued by financial problems. France’s EDF is posting record low power outputs and financial status reports. Others are also delayed, struggling, or facing bankruptcy.
Setbacks are normal for new technologies and emerging markets, but for nuclear power such bumps in the road have outsized potential to disrupt because many people are still hesitant or downright hostile to nuclear power. The Chornobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, and Three Mile Island catastrophes loom large in the imagination. “Meltdown” itself has entered idiom to mean falling apart rapidly and irrationally and beyond control. The world’s preoccupation with Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhye nuclear power plant (NPP), the largest in Europe, shows how gripped we can be by nuclear disasters. In keeping, a March 2023 Gallup poll found that although support for nuclear is increasing slowly, 44% of Americans still somewhat or strongly oppose it, down from 54% in 2016. Similar polls in Switzerland and the U.K. peg support for nuclear at just 49% and 24%, respectively. In Germany, despite still being in the middle of an energy crisis and desperate for additional power sources, 50% of people under 34 want nuclear power eradicated.
With the exception of France, which is 69% nuclear, many of the developed world’s leading economies and governments have been too scared of nuclear power to allow it to flourish. Germany was so spooked by Fukushima it completely phased out its nuclear power program, finally turning off its last three (of an original 17) reactors on April 15, 2023. Belgium and Switzerland decided not to build new plants and to phase out those existing, although the 2021-2023 energy crisis has forced a reconsideration. In the U.S. the trigger was the March 28, 1979 partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. No one died or even suffered negative health effects, in the aftermath dozens of planned NPPs were cancelled and almost nothing has been built in decades.
Unfortunately, unencumbered by popular opinions against nuclear, the Western world’s great geostrategic rivals are years if not decades ahead. There are sixty nuclear projects in various stages of construction around the world, and 22 of them are in China; and 22 use Russian technology, and 18 use Chinese technology, or technology China stole from other countries and rebranded. Some European countries, notably Hungary and Serbia, and some NATO countries, such as Turkey, are planning new NPPs using Russian designs and supply chains. Ironically, and tragically, even all four of Ukraine’s NPPs are Russian VVER models, entirely reliant until quite recently on Russian fuel. And Russia controls much of nuclear supply chains.
The Western world ended up so far behind because of fear. Governments around the world are now struggling to catch up, slowed by still-high public opposition rates and regulatory regimes that institutionalized fear of nuclear into licensing and permitting processes. In countries that never had nuclear power, such as Poland and Egypt, opposition is not baked into law, and so they can paradoxically move faster than some countries with longstanding nuclear programs.
In the U.S. the opposite is true; it keeps tripping over the fear-based regulatory regimes that govern its nuclear industry. Tasked by Congress in the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act with liberalizing the licensing process to foster innovation and accelerate the commercialization of nuclear power, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2022 released draft rules and processes for consideration of new nuclear technologies that managed to take all the worst and most burdensome aspects of existing rules and, instead of reducing them, added some new hurdles and standards, some of which nuclear engineers say are scientifically impossible to meet. The draft is twice as long (1252 pages) as the one it was supposed to simplify. Many requirements, both old and new, shouldn’t apply to SMRs and other advanced nuclear designs. The result was decried by experts and companies as a complete failure that will continue to hobble the industry for decades, adding further time and expenses to the already billion-dollar licensing process. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, said the proposal will “increase complexity and regulatory burden without any increase in safety and reduce predictability and flexibility.”
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Meanwhile the U.S. is trying to export this same cumbersome nuclear regulatory regime, including to Saudi Arabia. Calling it the “gold standard” of nuclear regulation, the U.S. has refused to allow Saudi, much like it did with the United Arab Emirates, to use U.S. nuclear technology unless the Kingdom also adopts prescribed U.S. safety regulations. What a surprise that Saudi is actively considering Russian nuclear technologies instead.
Yet, the scientific reality is that the rising generation of nuclear innovation doesn’t need to be subjected to a crippling approval process—it is safe. The risk profile of new reactors and other technologies in development is very low. This is especially true relative to the risks of climate change fallout or, for example, the health risks of burning fossil fuels or inhaling combustion engine exhaust. And the waste from a new nuclear plant is far less problematic than that of spent solar panels, for example. The nuclear renaissance is not just more nuclear power, it’s also better, cleaner, safer, more efficient.
SMRs, for example, are much safer than full sized NPPs. They have outputs of 50-300 MW depending on design, compared to 800-1600 MW for traditional NPPs. Microreactors, “pocket nukes” with 1-50 MW outputs, are even more resilient because simple physics means they are harder to damage and so it’s less likely that an accident could result in a radioactive release. Whereas seismic activity is a grave concern for large NPPs like Fukushima, smaller technologies soon to be built do not require the seismic cushions that were needed under previous plants to protect them from even the smallest earthquakes. Micros and SMRs can also be manufactured in a factory—that’s what the “modular” in small modular reactor means — allowing for standardization and systematized security measures, as well as sealed transport. And smaller amounts of radioactive fuel in smaller reactors mean less that could go wrong even in the case of an accident.
One persistent concern opponents of nuclear power often voice is the risk of reactor cooling systems failing, but this not an issue with the new generation of nuclear designs. Fukushima Daiichi NPP’s water-based cooling system stopped when a tsunami disabled the electricity source powering the circulation. This is the same risk Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhye NPP is facing thanks to Russia bombing the dam that held the water that kept the plant’s water cooling system operating. In emerging advanced reactor technologies, however, this vulnerability is eliminated entirely. Many of the new designs have entirely reconsidered systems with passive safety features that maintain cooling without reliance on external power. Others use water in innovative ways. GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 SMR is designed for the water inside to boil, creating its own convection that in turn powers its own cooling circulation. This eliminates the need for an extensive circulation system of pipes and keeps all potentially contaminated water inside the plant. Some also use materials other than water, such as molten salts.
Another common objection to nuclear power is the disposal of radioactive material. But new technological innovations are mostly eradicating the need to store spent fuel at all. New fuels have a lower enrichment level, which is less radioactive and thus safer. And there’s no such thing as nuclear waste unless the material is wasted. Canada’s Moltex, for example, is developing a fuel recycling “waste to stable salt” technology that repurposes spent fuel into new fuel, reducing waste by over 75% and cutting its radioactive half life to approximately 300 years, down from thousands. Moltex is also designing an SMR, the Stable Salt Reactor-Wasteburner, to run on the recycled fuel, which will cut down the transport of radioactive materials. Other technologies are reducing risk in parallel.
Nuclear energy will never be absolutely, perfectly, guaranteeably safe because nothing is. Wind turbines can fall over, and they can kill birds and negatively impact marine life. Solar panels produce significant volumes of toxic waste, and they take up space that impedes whatever is trying to live under them. Both wind and solar rely on minerals and manufacturing mostly controlled by China, and neither is entirely reliable as a power source. They’re also not dispatchable at times of peak electricity demand. Hydropower only works with abundant water, and droughts are eviscerating rivers across the world. Coal is killing our children and our planet. So is oil. So is natural gas. Geothermal, biofuels, hydrogen, et cetera—these aren’t able to satisfy even a fraction of the demand for energy.
Nuclear power isn’t perfect, and initial construction costs are high. But the marginal risks of nuclear pale in comparison to the proven dangers of air pollution and climate change. Even Japan is reopening its nuclear plants using new, advanced technology. Scary though the specter of a nuclear meltdown or even just radioactive contamination is, the new class of technology should make such accidents almost impossible. Governments need to get out of the regulatory way and allow private sector nuclear companies to expand the reach of their technologies. Cost sharing and risk sharing mechanisms should be used to make these companies’ work easier and their technologies faster to reach market, versus being used to impose additional regulatory conditions. We have to embrace nuclear power; there’s no other option.