We Have To Go Nuclear

With the climate crisis growing worse by the day, it seems like the nuclear option is the only one.

In the early 1990s, an influential U.S. senator from Massachusetts commanded the floor of the U.S. Senate, passionately articulating his opposition to the Department of Energy’s nuclear program. His name was John Kerry.

Today, nearly three decades later, Kerry serves as America’s chief climate diplomat in the newly-created cabinet-level role of U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. And he’s an ardent supporter of nuclear power. 

“Go for it,” Kerry said in a 2017 speech at MIT in support of nuclear research.

When most people think of combating climate change, we think of electric cars and renewable energy like solar and wind. But the highly intermittent nature of renewables relative to the supply-demand patterns, coupled with still-developing battery storage technology means that we cannot guarantee a 100% renewable power grid by 2050.

Currently, fossil fuels serve as a baseload power. From coal to natural gas, fossil fuels can generate electricity 24/7 and with little dependence on external factors like weather. With the phase-out of fossil fuels and the intermittency of renewables, a new low-carbon baseload power is needed. At first blush, nuclear seems to be a clear winner: it is zero-carbon.

But long-standing safety concerns loom, and for good reason. Everyone is still spooked by the Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl accidents, and no one wants another one. Yet recent technical advancements improving the safety of nuclear reactors should lead us to give nuclear our best shot to make it work—mainly because if we succeed, the payoff would be extraordinarily high.

Take TerraPower, for example. Bill Gates founded the nuclear power company to provide safe, affordable and abundant carbon-free energy with a new generation of nuclear reactor designs. The new designs dramatically improve safety by reducing pressure, maintaining an independent circulation-based cooling system, and limiting waste.  

Nuclear power works via nuclear fission, where splitting an atom releases abundant heat. In the old reactor models, water is heated and becomes steam, which turns a turbine and generates electricity. The pitfall of this design is the steam can build up high pressure, which has the potential to create an explosion. TerraPower solves for this potential by using liquid sodium instead of water. Liquid sodium has a higher boiling point than water, meaning the reactor does not endure high pressure levels, and can also store more heat than water.

TerraPower’s reactor also uses a new cooling system that is independent of any external power source, meaning in the case of an emergency shutdown, it can activate its cooling system without being at the mercy of an external power source. This is important because in the Fukushima accident, the external diesel generators that powered the cooling system malfunctioned due to the Tsunami, so the cooling system failed, leading to melting and other problems. For TerraPower, the cooling system allows hot air to escape naturally through circulation. These sorts of new innovations to the reactor design make it much safer than the old reactors, according to TerraPower.  

Another innovation that may placate environmental concerns is the new reactors use one-third of the waste storage volume of the old reactors. While it may not move the needle significantly on waste storage costs, the reduced waste and more efficient uranium usage should not be overlooked. And because the new reactors are physically smaller and operate at lower pressures, they do not require specialized expensive materials, potentially reducing the price tag from the tens of billions to just a few billion per plant.

Tackling the climate crisis requires us to think boldly and with an open mind. We must re-think our positions and re-evaluate the innovation in the nuclear field. We simply cannot afford to shirk a zero-carbon potentially transformative solution because it was poorly engineered in years past. That’s why we will invest large sums in R&D to decarbonize, and why nuclear should be no exception.

Let’s go for it.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Read work from other students and learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Neil Kapoor

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Neil Kapoor is an undergraduate student studying computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Kapoor is also a 2021 Undergraduate Seminar Fellow.