If you still needed proof that nuclear energy has returned to the conversation after decades of disfavour, it came with an unexpected celebrity boost last month. Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the Canadian singer Grimes separately used their star power to advocate against the closure of nuclear power plants, echoing growing pressure for California to reconsider plans to shut its last such plant. Over the weekend, Europe also saw a fresh boost for nuclear energy with the leaked draft of a European Commission plan to include zero-carbon nuclear energy on its list of what counts as a "green" investment.
Notwithstanding Germany's long-planned closure of three of its remaining six nuclear plants on New Year's Eve, even as Europe struggles with energy shortages, support from celebrities and the EU was just the latest in a string of good news for nuclear energy in 2021. In the United States, private investment in nuclear projects and companies reached eye-popping levels. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm became increasingly vocal in support of nuclear power as a zero-carbon energy source. In Europe, several countries—including France—recently announced new plans to build nuclear reactors in order to meet looming deadlines to decarbonise their electricity systems.
A decade after the Fukushima nuclear accident set back nuclear power's prospects worldwide, the outlook may finally be brightening for three reasons: the urgency of meeting increasingly ambitious climate goals, significant advances in nuclear technology, and national security concerns about China's and Russia's growing leadership in nuclear power.
Until recently, nuclear power's outlook seemed bleak. Following Fukushima, Japan suspended nearly all of its 50 nuclear reactors; today, only nine have resumed operations. Several other countries, most notably Germany, decided to phase out nuclear power. Still others, such as Spain, Switzerland, and Italy, scrapped plans to add new nuclear plants. Between 2011 and 2020, a total of 65 reactors were either shut down or did not have their operational lifetimes extended.
In the United States, the number of nuclear reactors peaked at more than 100 in 2012. Since then, 12 reactors have been shut down, while only one was added. (Nuclear power continues to supply about 20 percent of total U.S. electricity generation.) Cheap natural gas unlocked by the shale revolution and dramatic cost declines in wind and solar power have made it harder for nuclear power to compete. Meanwhile, projects to build new nuclear power plants in the United States have ballooned in cost, seen their timelines lengthened, or been scrapped altogether. Two reactors being built in Georgia are now projected to cost twice as much and take more than twice as long to complete as originally estimated. Two other reactors under construction in South Carolina were scrapped in 2017 after $9 billion in expenditures, leaving ratepayers with nothing to show for their money.
So, given all these setbacks, why the sudden new interest in nuclear power?
First, as the urgency to combat the climate crisis grows, there is growing recognition that the pathway to net-zero emissions will be faster, easier, and cheaper if nuclear energy is part of the mix of solutions.
As Grimes explained in her viral video calling for California to reverse its decision to shut the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, "This is crisis mode, and we should be using all the tools that we have." She went on: "If we push the closure back by a decade, it will help the state decarbonise faster and make the transition to clean energy faster and cheaper."
The pop star's claims are backed up by analysis. To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, global electricity use will need to more than double, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as cars, home heating, and other sectors are electrified. Vast amounts of electricity will also be required to make fuels, such as hydrogen and ammonia, to power sectors that are harder to electrify, such as ship transportation and steelmaking.
All that electricity must then come from zero-carbon sources. Solar and wind power can provide much of that but not all. They are intermittent, as the sun does not always shine nor the wind always blow, and face other limitations, such as the greater amount of land needed. Batteries, whose costs have fallen sharply, can store renewable energy for hours but not yet days or weeks to handle seasonal fluctuations or extended periods of low winds or gray skies.
Thus, the cheapest path to decarbonize electricity is to have some amount—estimates vary—of so-called firm generation: reliable sources that can produce low-carbon electricity on demand whenever it is needed. Today, nuclear power is the only carbon-free energy source operating at scale that can reliably deliver power at any time.
In their Net-Zero America analysis, Princeton University researchers modeled a range of scenarios to decarbonise the country by 2050 and found that all of them require about as much firm generation as exists today, even with dramatic growth in renewable energy. The cheapest pathway they modeled was one in which nuclear power in the United States increases to three times its current level, while the costliest scenario assumed all energy needs would be met by renewables alone.
"Without nuclear investment, achieving a sustainable energy system will be much harder," the IEA explained.
A recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University found that continued operation of Diablo Canyon (which accounts for 15 percent of California's carbon-free electricity production) beyond its scheduled closure in 2025 would reduce the state's emissions, bolster grid reliability to mitigate brownouts, and save California $2.6 billion through 2035. Without nuclear power, California's use of natural gas will go up, even as renewable use also rises, because the state will need to rely on natural gas plants to meet demand in times when energy demand peaks. This is exactly what happened after both the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and California's San Onofre were closed nearly a decade ago.
Nuclear power also requires much less land and new transmission infrastructure than renewable energy to produce the same power. The Princeton researchers, for example, found that a net-zero pathway relying only on renewable energy required quintupling existing electricity transmission, while one that relied less on renewable energy required only a doubling. That is important because building long-distance power lines to transport renewable energy remains very difficult, given local opposition (not least because of environmental concerns), incumbent utility power, and government permitting delays. U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to streamline the process of building new transmission infrastructure, and the federal government has several tools at its disposal, but doing so is easier said than done. I served in the White House when then-President Barack Obama tried to accelerate the permitting of seven new transmission lines; only two were completed. The United States needs to produce and transmit vastly larger amounts of renewable energy, to be sure, but given the permitting and siting challenges, it makes good sense to include nuclear power—which faces opposition of its own but has a much smaller physical and environmental footprint—among the zero-emission tools to achieve deep decarbonisation.
In Washington, Republicans and Democrats can't agree on much, but one of the few areas of bipartisanship is the need to invest in nuclear power. The recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure bill included $6 billion to prevent struggling nuclear power plants from shuttering. Without that support, more than half of the nation's nuclear plants were projected to retire by 2030, according to a report from the Rhodium Group. In addition, the bill included $2.5 billion to support advanced reactor demonstration. The Build Back Better Act (currently on life support in the U.S. Senate given Joe Manchin's opposition) would increase the production tax credit that could be claimed by nuclear power.
Looking beyond the United States, the need for nuclear power to achieve climate goals is even greater around the world. Nuclear power is the world's second-largest source of zero-carbon energy today after hydropower. In its road map to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the IEA projects nuclear power generation globally will nearly double. It finds that 100 new nuclear plants need to be built by 2030 alone—just eight short years away. One Chinese study projected that the country could achieve its new 2060 net-zero emissions goal by nearly quintupling its nuclear power generation—an even bigger rise than the study estimated for wind power.
Similarly, in 2019 the IEA found that absent any additional investment in reactor lifetime extensions or new nuclear projects, fossil fuels (especially natural gas) would account for the bulk of the increase in electricity generation to offset the decline in the nuclear power and consumer electricity bills would become more expensive. "Without nuclear investment, achieving a sustainable energy system will be much harder," the IEA explained.
The second reason for a brighter nuclear outlook is technological advancements that reduce costs, waste, and safety concerns. Companies such as NuScale Power, TerraPower, X-energy, GE, Kairos Power, and others are pioneering advanced reactor designs that incorporate greater inherent safety and could produce power more cheaply than past reactor generations.
There is a range of advanced reactor designs under development. Some continue to be water-cooled like past designs but employ advanced passive safety design features such as natural circulation of the coolant. These features eliminate the safety vulnerability of needing offsite electricity or emergency diesel generators to power pumps for cooling the fuel. Other advanced reactor designs use coolants such as helium, molten salt, and sodium, which—in addition to more robust fuel forms—provide inherent safety benefits compared to traditional reactors that use water as a coolant. TerraPower, a U.S. company backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, just announced plans to build a sodium-cooled reactor in Wyoming to replace coal power. Advanced reactors using coolants other than water typically operate at higher temperatures, enabling greater efficiencies in the conversion of heat to electricity—ultimately producing less radioactive waste relative to the amount of power generated.
Many companies are also planning a modular approach to power plant construction, where some components of the plant are assembled in a controlled factory environment before being shipped to construction sites for installation. This strategy could reduce the time it takes to build a nuclear power plant as well as the costs. Most companies are also pursuing smaller designs that would place less capital at risk for the utilities building them as opposed to the large light-water reactor projects of the past. These so-called small modular reactors could be an important part of nuclear energy's future.
Nuclear power may also have a brighter future in an entirely different way if nuclear fusion (as opposed to fission) technology becomes commercially viable. Rather than generate power by splitting atoms, nuclear fusion employs the same process that powers the sun—fusing the nuclei of atoms such as hydrogen at extremely high temperatures.
The old joke among nuclear experts is that nuclear fusion is 20 years away and always will be. Yet while fusion is still experimental, real progress is being made. At least 35 private fusion companies have been launched in recent years, raising more than $2.3 billion of funding. In May 2021, an experimental machine in China managed to sustain a fusion reaction at 120 million degrees Celsius for a record 101 seconds. A nuclear fusion start-up spun out of MIT just announced a massive capital raise of $1.8 billion following its successful demonstration in September of its high-temperature superconducting electromagnet, a key milestone on its path to develop an experimental reactor by 2025. In November, another nuclear fusion start-up company, Helion, secured $500 million to build what could be the first electricity-generating fusion facility by 2024. Also promising is TAE Technologies, which raised $880 million and has plans to manufacture prototype commercial fusion reactors by the end of the decade.
The third reason nuclear power is back at the centre of the U.S. energy debate is national security, which has motivated recent efforts to invest in advanced reactors and retain the domestic nuclear industry. Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations in 1953, the U.S. government has seen a national security component to engagement with other countries on civilian nuclear energy. Participation in the supplier regime for reactor fuels and equipment, for example, affords Washington points of influence to shape nonproliferation aspects of other countries' civilian programs.
Much has changed since the 20th century, however. The United States is no longer the predominant supplier of reactors; that title is currently held by Russia. Of the 72 nuclear reactors planned or under construction outside Russia's borders in 2018, more than 50 percent involved Russian companies, and around 20 percent involved Chinese ones; fewer than 3 percent were being built by U.S. companies. China is especially well positioned to play a large role in the global nuclear energy regime given its gargantuan domestic reactor build program. In just over a decade, China looks likely to overtake the United States as possessing the world's largest reactor fleet.
Two-thirds of new nuclear power capacity will be built in emerging market and developing economies in the IEA's pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050. Countries around the world have many other capable suppliers to choose from if the United States exits the nuclear power sector—deliberately or otherwise. In that case, it will be Beijing and Moscow setting future norms for nuclear commerce and safety, with potentially negative consequences for nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Last year's investment of more than $5 billion by the United States in advanced reactors was motivated to some degree by these national security risks, along with those of climate change.
To be clear, nuclear power is by no means a silver bullet and brings with it significant challenges and risks.
Disposal of spent nuclear fuel, in particular, remains a persistent challenge. While countries, including the United States, have opened disposal sites for low-level nuclear waste, progress on disposing of the high-level waste from commercial reactors has been elusive. Finland is now within a few years of potentially becoming the first country to successfully dispose of spent nuclear fuel from its power reactors, and other countries are making tangible progress as well. But in other nations, advances have been slow if at all discernible, and the U.S. program has effectively ceased to make progress in the last decade.
Chernobyl and Fukushima remain seared in the public's memory, weakening popular support for nuclear energy. Yet nuclear power has resulted in vastly fewer deaths than other energy sources—especially when the basis of comparison is the amount of energy generated. For example, the number of deaths associated with coal-fired energy—including from mining accidents and air pollution—is around 350 times higher than from nuclear plants per terawatt-hour of power produced.
Nuclear power is not without problems. But at the same time, when we refer to climate change as a crisis and existential risk, too often we do not act as if we believe that rhetoric to be true. If we did, we would approach many of the tradeoffs involved in accelerating the pace of climate action differently. When it comes to nuclear power, support would be much stronger if we took our own rhetoric seriously. This is not to ignore the risks and the many other reasons to be skeptical about nuclear power. The question to ask, however, is whether it is easier to address nuclear power's risks and challenges than to try to achieve net-zero without nuclear in the mix. Available evidence suggests it is.
Electricity use will grow dramatically as we decarbonise the energy system. Including zero-carbon nuclear power as part of a diverse mix of electricity sources will lower total costs, improve reliability and resilience, and help achieve the rapid decarbonisation the world so urgently needs.
Professor Jason Bordoff is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.