The United Nations climate summit begins today in Paris and already there are headlines. The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, and a slew of his fellow billionaires have announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition: an effort to take private money to advance promising clean-energy ideas from the lab to the marketplace. Gates suggests wind and solar have made good progress, but given the daunting scale of the challenge ahead, we need to look everywhere we can for promising ideas and develop them as quickly as possible. One thing he doesn’t talk up much is nuclear power, which just days earlier got some very positive words from another tech billionaire, number 234 on the Forbes list, Peter Thiel, who penned “The New Atomic Age We Need” for The New York Times.
Thiel argues that what’s holding back nuclear is: “Designs using molten salt, alternative fuels and small modular reactors have all attracted interest not just from academics but also from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists like me ready to put money behind nuclear power… However, none of these new designs can benefit the real world without a path to regulatory approval.”
What he neglects to mention is that none of these designs are remotely ready to be put into use either. Although molten-salt reactors date back to the 1960s, the current designs haven’t left the research phase. Even in countries like China where U.S. regulatory approval isn’t a gating factor, when the scientists and engineers working on building a production reactor to make power dates like 2032 are tossed around. There are a number of other promising technologies being researched, but still the timeframes for first deployment are all between 2020-30. The U.S. regulatory regime isn’t holding these up, the slow path to development of incredibly complex systems is.
As you might imagine, when a plant costs more than three times its budget, the power it’s going to produce won’t be as inexpensive as planned either. The Watts Bar 2 plant in Tennessee recently became the first nuclear plant added to the U.S. grid in two decades, and achieving that feat required the TVA to spend a staggering $4.5 billion over the past eight years to complete a plant that was literally begun 43 years ago. (A recent report by the investment bank Lazard has nuclear running about 40-50% higher per watt than the cost of utility scale solar or wind power.)
Today, meanwhile, the world is grappling with what to do to reduce carbon output. While these next-generation solutions might well be essential to achieving the world’s carbon goals, folks are already thinking seriously about how to make do with what’s already been invented. There are paths to 100% renewable energy using existing technologies and aggressive deployment efforts. They are unlikely to be optimal and breakthroughs in batteries — a Gates priority that another billionaire and friend of Thiel’s, Elon Musk, would surely embrace — would go a long way. So surely, would a safe, affordable nuclear solution as part of an “all of the above” approach. As Thiel would admit, though, that solution isn’t yet real and won’t be soon. In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to be done. Just ask the world leaders in Paris. And the billionaires.