Nuclear power as the missing piece of the climate change solution

July 6, 2021, 7:08AMANS Nuclear Cafe
(Image: CNET)

Dietmar Detering, a German entrepreneur and cochair of the advocacy organization Nuclear New York, believes nuclear energy could be the key to solving the climate crisis. He's part of a wave of environmentalists campaigning for more nuclear energy, an idea explored by CNET in the July 1 article, Is nuclear power the missing piece of our climate change puzzle?

The hurdles: As related in the article, some scientists and environmentalists say that nuclear power is prohibitively dangerous and expensive, and that plants take too long to build. Radiation leaks do occur, and meltdowns, while rarer than once-in-a-generation, can have cataclysmic consequences. The question of how to best store nuclear waste is contentious. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for nuclear power is its reputation. In the public imagination, nuclear power presages disaster, but the numbers tell a different story.

Reasons for optimism: The article notes that the promise of Generation IV technology is safer, cheaper, and easier to build reactors, demonstrated by X-energy’s pebble-bed design that runs on nuclear fuel encased in up to 220,000 billiard-sized graphite balls. The graphite encasing the nuclear materials used in X-energy's reactor can withstand temperatures of up to 3,200°F, around 1,000 degrees more than the heat that caused Chernobyl's meltdown.

Add to that the research being done at the Bill Gates–backed TerraPower, which is developing a reactor that aims to solve the cost and waste problems by running off depleted uranium. Both companies were awarded $80 million by the Department of Energy last October to help fund upcoming reactors.

Nuclear’s promise: Both Detering and his colleague Eric Dawson at Nuclear New York are aware of nuclear energy's perils. For different reasons—Dawson is a conservative concerned about air pollution and energy scarcity, Detering a former Green Party member worried about climate change—both have come to regard it a shame that nuclear energy is being neglected. For them it's not a matter of looking for the perfect energy source, but of comparing alternatives.

They said it: “Nuclear energy is not fairy dust,” Detering said. “There's waste, and there's a risk of something going wrong. Comparing it to something that's real, these are small issues.” Dawson added, “I think this is the most reliable, efficient, scalable, carbon-free technology we have. So let's do something that works today.”

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