Why you should care
Because we could be taking a powerful lead.
While the U.S. remains lukewarm about nuclear power, shutting down plants as much as it is opening new ones, the developing world is rapidly adding capacity. Ten new plants came online in 2016, nine of them in the developing world, supporting the largest addition of nuclear power since 1990. This is good news for people living in developing countries and for the global climate, but to make faster progress with safer designs, it is high time America started investing in next-generation nuclear power.
This year, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Slovakia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates will turn on new reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency suggests nuclear production could grow 60 percent by 2030, powered by growth in Asia and the Middle East. And Russia and China are both taking a considerable share of the global business opportunities involved. In 2015, Kenya signed a deal with China, for example, to construct a nuclear power plant by 2025. The year before that, Russia inked deals to sell 10 power plants to India and as many as eight more to South Africa.
While costs for solar are dropping rapidly, there are limits…
Poor countries need more power, and Planet Earth needs that power to come from low-carbon sources. No country in the world enjoys a high quality of life — a decent income and good health — without consuming a lot of energy. Because of their economic progress, developing countries will account for two-thirds of global energy demand over the next 25 years. Nuclear power will be a healthy addition to the production mix.
Sure, some countries oppose the proliferation of nuclear power plants, including Germany, where politicians have promised to phase out such reactors by 2022. But deaths from the only two deadly nuclear power accidents, Chernobyl and Fukushima, suggest that global nuclear power generation kills perhaps one person per trillion kilowatt hours of generated electricity. That compares to roughly 100,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt hours from the air pollution caused by coal-fired plants. Power generation from fossil energy, including coal, causes 54,000 U.S. deaths each year alone.
Nuclear power is also a zero-carbon energy source and the only one that’s been scaled to provide the bulk of an industrialized country’s electricity needs, including 80 percent of French production. While costs for solar are dropping rapidly, there are limits to how much an energy network can rely on intermittent power sources that produce less when the sun doesn’t shine. That’s why, for all of the advances in renewable technologies like solar and wind, nearly two-thirds of U.S. zero-carbon energy is still nuclear and why, for all the impressive growth of solar and wind capacity in Germany, electricity production from coal and natural gas production has been climbing there since 2011. It’s also why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the cheapest and most effective course to limiting climate change involves nuclear power.
But for all that the global record suggests nuclear generation is safe, it could still be safer and cheaper and produce less radioactive waste. There are a number of designs in development that reduce the risk of meltdowns and more efficiently burn fuel so there is even less waste. Some of the designs — many of them pioneered in the U.S. — also limit the potential to turn reactor products into weapons. A molten salt reactor was built in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for example; it uses liquid fuel rather than solid rods, one of a number of features that make it inherently safer and more efficient. But the U.S. didn’t develop the technology further, putting resources behind the pressurized water reactor design instead. These remain the most common nuclear power plants in the U.S. today. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is using lessons learned from Oak Ridge to build its own molten salt reactor to come online in the early 2020s — some 60 years after the U.S. took the lead. This lack of American progress reflects that the U.S. simply doesn’t commit the needed resources to fund new technologies: From 2000 to 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy spent $1.2 billion a year on nuclear energy research — less than 1 percent of total government R&D expenditure.
For national security, American politicians would doubtlessly prefer reactor technologies that don’t generate large quantities of weapons-ready nuclear material as a byproduct. They would also presumably prefer that developing countries buy nuclear technology from America, not Russia or China. Just imagine the economic gains from having U.S. firms building the next generations of nuclear power plants worldwide. Finally, to tackle climate change, we shouldn’t be waiting more than a half-century to get from new designs to commercial-scale reactors.
All of which suggests that it’s in America’s best interest to push the government to spend more on nuclear power research and development.