How to Advance Nuclear

Support Grows for Safer, Cleaner, and Cheaper Reactors


In the last few years, prominent leaders from civil society have spoken out for nuclear energy to combat climate change. Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Al Franken, Paul Allen, James Hansen, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeffrey Sachs (picture above, left to right) all understand nuclear energy is needed to deal with global warming. At the same time, nuclear will need to become much cheaper in order to replace fossil fuels. Breakthrough Institute has analyzed the factors for reducing costs, and made policy recommendations in a new report, "How to Make Nuclear Cheap." Though the United States has long been the global leader, China, India and South Korea are racing forward into developing advanced nuclear. As support for advanced nuclear as a climate solution grows, green leaders will have a hard time claiming that global warming demands continued subsidies for wind and solar but not modest investments in nuclear innovation.

July 18, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

The last few years have seen a growing number of liberal and environmental heavyweights publicly call for more nuclear energy to deal with climate change. Today, the pro-nuclear ranks include Bill Gates, Al Franken, Richard Branson, and Barack Obama. Also on the list are superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs, the novelist Ian McEwan, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. There are former environmental leaders, including former Greenpeace Executive Director Stephen Tindale, and former Friends of the Earth trustee Hugh Montefiore. And there are prominent scientists including Gaia hypothesis ecologist James Lovelock, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, much-cited climate scientist Tom Wigley, and MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel.

Many of these individuals recognize that one of nuclear's chief challenges is to become much cheaper, so that new nuclear plants can replace fossil fuels. In service of this goal, Breakthrough Institute has analyzed the factors that drive the cost of new nuclear plants, and has proposed a way to deal with them. The key is innovation. In particular, developing, demonstrating and deploying advanced, or what are called Generation IV, nuclear technologies. Already Breakthrough's new report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap, has received positive notices from TimeSmartPlanet, and IEEE Spectrum (a leading high-tech science magazine), and was received positively by both Republicans and Democrats at a standing-room only briefing on Capital Hill last week. 

Safety is critical to the economics of nuclear, but it is not the only factor. Advanced reactors that are able to operate at ambient pressures, and with fuels that are much more resistant to melting, require fewer redundant safety systems and less substantial containment. Molten metal and salt coolants promise not only greater safety, but also allow reactors to operate at higher temperatures, making them more efficient. Smaller reactors, produced modularly, or in many cases manufactured entirely off-site, promise to eliminate the rising costs and delays that have plagued large, customized reactor builds.  Reactor designs that can deliver these benefits while utilizing as much of the present light-water supply chain can be commercialized fastest and most cheaply.

Advanced nuclear designs are not new. Many alternative designs were demonstrated by the US Department of Energy in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Unfortunately, the antinuclear movement succeeded in halting most advanced nuclear research and demonstration projects in the early 1990s. The new documentary film, Pandora's Promise, documents the most notorious of these episodes, when Democrats in the US Senate, working with environmentalists and the Clinton White House, halted the development of the integral fast reactor, which used liquid sodium, a metal, as a coolant.

The question is not whether the world will pursue advanced nuclear reactors but rather whether the United States will. The United States developed virtually every advanced reactor design under consideration today, and we still lead the world in the technical expertise to build them. But while China, India, and South Korea are all building advanced reactors, the United States has no plan to build even a demonstration-scale plant.

That may change. A majority of Americans (57 percent) told Gallup last year they support nuclear energy — a number that rose from 46 percent in 2001 and was unchanged by Fukushima. Where liberal baby boomers grew up fearing nuclear war and power, liberal millennials born well after Three Mile Island grew up fearing climate change. The MIT and UC Berkeley nuclear engineering programs have been revitalized in recent years by climate concerned directors, Richard Lester and Per Peterson respectively, and have attracted millennial graduate students to their programs. MIT has already spun off advanced nuclear start-ups, including Transatomic, profiled last month in the New Yorker, which designed a reactor made to burn waste as fuel. UC Berkeley is working with China to demonstrate an advanced design. Meanwhile, in Washington, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced legislation that promises to finally resolve the dispute over waste storage.

America's environmental movement, of course, remains stubbornly antinuclear, but it's not obvious how much that matters. Climate scientists have increasingly stepped up to act as a counterweight to antinuclear greens. In his new book, Kerry Emanuel writes, "Environmentalists must accept some measure of responsibility for today’s most critical environmental problem." Wrote Hansen, "The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed." As support for advanced nuclear as a climate solution grows, green leaders will have an increasingly hard time claiming that global warming demands continued subsidies for deploying wind and solar but not modest investments in developing and deploying advanced nuclear technologies. 


  • I have received e-mails and letters from my representatives in congress.  They recognize the importance of combating global warming, but they avoid mentioning nuclear power.  When I write them and point out the importance of nuclear power and the need for R & D funding to develop better nuclear technologies, I am ignored.  They seem to think that conservation plus renewables will completely solve the problem.

    We must find ways to put more pressure on politicians, including the President, to get more financial and other support for nuclear R & D.

    By Frank Eggers on 2013 07 19

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  • I have had some experience with “modular nuclear plants” while in the Air Force.  It appears to me that nuclear technology Is poised to jump into the small scale environment.  I would suggest that our emphasis should be on small scale reactors to support large manufacturing sites and possible communities and large institutions.  If Stanford University received all of their power from a local on campus reactor resistance might change.

    By Robin Lovering on 2013 07 20

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  • Small scale reactors probably have a place and should be developed, but I doubt that they will replace large reactors.  In all likelihood, the price per KW would be higher for small reactors, but still there are places where they could make sense.

    From what I’ve seen, it looks as though the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is probably the way to go, but it is too soon to rule out other reactor technologies.

    By Frank Eggers on 2013 07 20

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  •   reviving nuclear power is easy, just let India and China do it.  In those countries, where the people are desperately poor and in need of cheap power, the enviroterrorist movement has no sway and these plants can be built based on rational decision making.

      That means they can be built just like our plants were built in the first wave of nuclear energy in the 1960’s.  Back then a nuclear power plant cost only about 10% more than a coal plant- and those coal plants didn’t have modern features like scrubbers.

      Nuclear energy can be even cheaper- with larger plants, ending of the insane Linear No Threshold approach to radiation and using standard industrial grade equipment instead of “reactor grade” which isn’t really any better.

      Once the world starts seeing safe, cheap nuclear power it will embrace it.

    By Tatian Romanova on 2013 07 23

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  • Robin, I really wish that you were totally right, but you are only partly right.

    In India there is an anti-nuclear movement and it looks as though it is delaying the implementation of nuclear power.

    Moreover, if we here in the U.S. neglect nuclear R & D, we will have to pay dearly to import the technology from China, a problem that could be avoided if we worked with China (and perhaps other nations as well) to develop and implement better, safer, and more economical nuclear technologies.  Doing so would also accelerate the implementation of nuclear power over the world thereby reducing global warming.

    By Frank Eggers on 2013 07 23

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  • I’m afraid some well-meaning people writing for and commenting on this site are confused about nuclear energy.  Existing nuclear power plants are slowing poisoning all life on earth.  Splitting atoms is playing with something we should not play with.  Our arrogant scientists, who think they are so smart, do not even realize it.  It cannot be part of the mix to get us off fossil fuels, unless it’s fusion, which can be safely made.

    By ken gates on 2013 08 09

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    • Ken Gates, I’m afraid some well-meaning people who do not understand the nature of radiation are confused about nuclear energy.  Do you realize coal plants release even more radiation than nuclear plants do?  Do you realize you can give yourself a better chance of developing cancer by eating bananas regularly than by living next to a nuclear power plant?  Who are you to belittle the work of our nation’s scientists, thinking they are completely forgetting about radiation safety?  As a student studying nuclear engineering, I can assure you that there is considerable work being done in radiation safety.  And although I agree with you that fusion energy is a technology that needs to be developed, it would also create radioactive waste, though admittedly less than current reactors do.

      People seem to fear what they don’t understand.  You know, people used to vehemently fear electricity when it was discovered- now it’s used to power everything.

      By Dylan Prevost on 2013 12 05

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  • I suggest that people read these two publications from Dr. Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research before jumping on the bandwagon for nuclear new design superiority (and cheapness).  It just is not there, folks, and it won’t matter if Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Richard Branson waste a lot of money on it, new nukes will not be a significant factor in slowing and turning around climate change.
    If you would like to see what the future will hold, you should follow the work of Mark Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford:

    Happy reading.  Let’s work together for a carbon free, nuclear free future.

    By Chuck Johnson on 2013 09 25

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  • I’d suggest that people ignore any publications from Dr. Arjun Makhijani.  IEER is an anti-nuclear organization which has a habit of publishing deceptive propaganda full of “facts” which aren’t facts.  Here are a couple of rebuttals to their Thorium “Fact Sheet”, so you can fully appreciate their dishonesty.

    That said, the TWR and SMRs based on light water are not very compelling technologies.  Molten Salt Reactors like LFTR or the DMSR are much more attractive designs, and have virtually nothing in common with conventional reactors.

    Wind and solar as a replacement for fossil fuels is pure fantasy.  Germany and Japan are illustrative, where nuclear is inevitably replaced by fossil fuels.  Wind and solar are an expensive distraction which haven’t succeeded in replacing any significant amount of fossil fuel generation, despite enormous subsidies and mandates.

    By Green Entropy on 2013 10 21

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