When you think of Nuclear, what comes to mind? For me, I think of home… Which yes, I know it seems a little strange, but it’s true. 

I grew up in a town with a nuclear power plant right in the center and a big portion of our economy revolved around this plant. It financially supported many families indirectly and directly… If you didn’t work at the plant you received a third of your business from people that did. This tiny town I grew up in was tightly integrated economically and socially like most small places. 

After 37 years of operation, the plant eventually was decommissioned (e.g. shutdown) and turned into a natural gas plant, which hurt the surrounding small-town economy. This shutdown wasn’t due to old age, but instead, it was an upgrade gone wrong. The original intention was for this plant to last much longer, with improvements, but while upgrading the plant some high executives somewhere decided it was too costly and time-consuming, deciding to replace it with a natural gas plant. This story is more common than you might think for nuclear plants around the U.S. 

And yes… I’m sure many of you are thinking that one less nuclear power plant in the world is a good thing, reducing our chances of another Chornobyl… But that’s hopefully one of many myths I bust in this post. 

This week we’re wandering further down the path of Climate Change to explore nuclear energy. 

Why Nuclear? 

Nuclear has a pretty bad reputation thanks to three big events – Three Mile Island Chornobyl, and Fukushima. These three events have shaped the lens our culture looks through when thinking about nuclear energy. But nuclear energy could be the solution that protects us from a world ruined by Climate Change. 

Let me explain… 

We have very limited time to transition to a completely decarbonized world and when I say “limited” I mean really f****** limited! Cutting our global emissions in half by 2030 and going to zero by 2050…

To do this we should exhaust all of our low or no-carbon options and nuclear is an important one.  

As we know from a previous wandering, the most popular renewables (e.g. solar & wind) are only useful when our environment plays nice… But when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining we still need energy and that’s where nuclear can step up. Plus, we still need a fix for all those long-haul ships and planes that can’t really be electrified. 

There are many countries using nuclear as a primary source of energy, with the U.S. actually getting roughly 20% of its energy from nuclear. There’s a long list of advantages to using nuclear, some of these are energy capacity, reducing greenhouse gases, energy is reliable, it’s safe (more on this later), and limited land needed.

With every advantage comes disadvantages… But there’s one misconception I’d like to debunk before diving into the actual disadvantages and that’s safety.

Entertaining, but unrealistic

The fear of a nuclear plant exploding and spreading radiation is a serious one, but it’s not as serious as the movies, games, and T.V. shows make it out to be. 

There have been three major nuclear accidents (listed above) in the last 50 years, with Chornobyl being the largest, but even in this accident, only 28 deaths were due to radiation poisoning.  Fukushima, the second-largest accident actually had no deaths due to radiation poisoning. Now, when this is compared to the 5 million people that die annually from air pollution nuclear begins to look a lot more reasonable. 

Even more surprising, if you compare all the energy sources side-by-side for the death rates from energy production, nuclear is almost the best, even when compared to solar/wind (see below). 

Sadly, we’re humans, humans love stories and are horrible at rational thinking. That’s why 60% of the planet is against the use of nuclear energy (see below). 

This gap between reality and fiction in public perception has slowed nuclear energy progress over many years (see below), which has actually caused the price of creating a new plant to increase. 

Think about it… When the public doesn’t approve, then politicians are less likely to support it because they want votes, which increases the overall red tape someone needs to cut through to actually innovate, commercialize, and operate a nuclear plant. 

This is where one of the largest disadvantages comes into play – Cost.

The fallout of nuclear

Cost and timing are the two fundamental problems with nuclear at the moment. 

To build a traditional nuclear plant today it takes between 6 – 10 years, with a cost ranging between 5 – 6 billion dollars. When natural gas plants only take 2 years and cost 1 billion dollars, you can see why most investors choose natural gas over nuclear. Our short-term primal brains that are surrounded by a capitalistic world lead to decisions benefiting us today, instead of tomorrow. 

If we had a government and population more in favor of nuclear (e.g. France) we would have improved supply chains, skilled workforce, faster regulatory processes, and many other knock-on effects, but since we don’t, we’re paying the price with time and money. 

MIT published a report explaining in a ridiculous amount of detail the problem with scaling nuclear, but more importantly how to fix that problem. Instead of boring you with all 275 pages, I’ll list out the six largest hurdles for nuclear power to give us a fighting chance against the Climate Monster. 

  1. Sharing PM “best practices” – In Europe and the U.S., we’ve shown to have some horrible project management skills in the realm of nuclear plant design and construction. We’re consistently delivering over budget and over time. By sharing “best practices” (hate that word) we’ll have a better chance of speeding up the construction and delivering under budget. 
  2. Cookie-cutter plants – Most plants created today in Europe and the U.S. are custom-built each time. It’s not hard to realize that starting from scratch with each design will dramatically increase the cost and time to build a plant. MIT suggests taking a more cookie-cutter approach pushing out standard nuclear plants, with minor custom changes. 
  3. Safety by design – Nuclear plants have evolved over time through different “generations” (see below) and with evolution comes improved designs, most plants today are generation 2. But there are generation 3 plants that live today, with generation 4 plants planned for rollout in 2030. The later Gen. 3 and 4 designs have “passive safety” baked into them, which means there’s a really really small chance for a nuclear meltdown. 
  4. Fair playing field – To compete against fossil fuel energy sources, nuclear (unlike solar/wind) needs a bit of a push from the government to even out the playing field. This “push” mainly comes in the form of a carbon tax… Something that’s been advocated for by most Climate friendly folk, but so far there’s been little progress.  
  5. Government Nuclear playground – Most highly regulated industries (e.g. banking) have some kind of “playground” for companies to prototype, test, and receive commercial licensing to serve customers… but nuclear seems to struggle in this area. MIT recommends that governments create “reactor sites” where nuclear companies can play with their ideas, speeding up innovation and bringing new technology to the market.
  6. Government funding – There are a few different areas the government can help here, but in a nutshell… There needs to be more government funding to share the cost of licensing, R&D, and rewards for successful new designs. 

As you can see there’s plenty to improve in the world of nuclear power, but there’s still hope. 

Many people smarter than me are working on different ways to solve all the above problems and more to make nuclear a reality. In a future post I’ll dive deeper into these solutions, but here’s a little taste… 

  • Thorium – Basically a safer version of Uranium, which is the main ingredient nuclear runs on and it’s the thing that causes all the radiation. 
  • Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – Basically a way to make nuclear reactors safer and way faster to create… Imagine tiny nuclear plants that can fit on the back of a semi-truck.
  • Fuel Pebbles – Nuclear reactors traditionally use long rods to create energy, but there’s a new design that uses baseball size balls (or pebbles) that nuclear geeks are getting excited about… These little balls increase the safety of the nuclear reactors drastically, almost making it impossible for a reactor to melt down. 
  • Fusion – This is the holy grail, the unicorn we’re all seeking. The nuclear power we use today is created through a process called “fission”, which is basically separating stuff… Fusion is combining stuff and if we’re able to crack this problem at scale we’ll have an endless amount of safe energy. 

“And”, not “or”

I’ve realized something after researching renewables and nuclear over the past couple of weeks… 

The debate on how we reach a 100% carbon-free world through either all renewables (e.g. solar, wind, hydro, etc.) or a combination of renewables + nuclear is pointless. We have zero time to debate! 

With ten years (2030) to reduce our carbon emissions by 50% and 30 years (2050) to reach 0 carbon emissions we have no choice, but to say “and”.

People around the world should see this as a situation where we need to throw everything and anything we have at this Climate Monster… Because right now we’re cornered, with our hands tied behind our backs and no time to waste. 

I’m personally still not convinced on which option is “best” because they’re both flawed, but more importantly, we’re not in a situation to debate what’s “best”… We just need to take action. 

Until next time my fellow wanderers! 😉