Encouraging Innovations in Nuclear Power
Efforts to reduce CO2 emissions have been largely dominated by renewables. But according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will require doubling nuclear power worldwide. TerraPower LLC, a Bill Gates-backed company, has secured $80 million in funding from the US Department of Energy to develop small modular reactors or SMRs, which are expected to be faster, easier, and cheaper to build than conventional nuclear plants. The new SMRs will be installed at a Wyoming coal-fired power plant that's scheduled to close in 2025.
YaleClimateConnections: Small modular nuclear reactors: Potentials and obstacles, September 13, 2021.
Why This Matters
If the world is to decarbonize by 2050, there are few avenues as promising as nuclear power. While renewables are important, wind and solar cannot match the stability of nuclear power which is more stable and fixed. Wind and solar energy are unpredictable due to their reliance on environmental factors like wind strength or the duration of the day.
Because of high-profile nuclear disasters such as Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011), nuclear power has become unpopular. Since the 1980s, the US has largely looked to renewable or natural gas instead of nuclear power. But several countries, such as France and Sweden, who receive the majority or a large part of their power from nuclear plants are setting the example that nuclear power can be a viable and safe source of energy. And currently, China is investing heavily into nuclear energy and is on-track to surpass the number of plants in the US by 2025.
A Dark Horse or A Bright Future?
In the book A Bright Future, authors Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist, a nuclear engineer, make the case that we cannot solve climate change without nuclear energy. They advocate for an energy grid that is mostly powered by nuclear energy and supplemented by renewable sources.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the biggest impediment to nuclear power is the cost. If SMRs are able to make the building of new reactors economically sensible, then governments and companies may be more willing to invest in nuclear power. Until then, it seems, nuclear power will remain a dark horse.