There Is Not Enough Time for Nuclear Innovation to Save the Planet
By Allison Macfarlane
he world is almost out of time with respect to decarbonizing the energy sector. Doing so, experts agree, is essential to forestalling some of the most alarming consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels, droughts, fires, extreme weather events, ocean acidification, and the like. These threats have helped generate fresh interest in the potential for nuclear power—and, more specifically, innovative nuclear reactor designs—to allow people to rely less on carbon-spewing electricity sources such as coal, natural gas, and oil. In recent years, advanced nuclear designs have been the focus of intensive interest and support from both private investors such as Bill Gates—who founded TerraPower, a nuclear reactor design company, in 2006—and national governments, including that of the United States.
Advocates hope that this renewed focus on nuclear energy will yield technological progress and lower costs. But when it comes to averting the imminent effects of climate change, even the cutting edge of nuclear technology will prove to be too little, too late. Put simply, given the economic trends in existing plants and those under construction, nuclear power cannot positively impact climate change in the next ten years or more. Given the long lead times to develop engineered, full-scale prototypes of new advanced designs and the time required to build a manufacturing base and a customer base to make nuclear power more economically competitive, it is unlikely that nuclear power will begin to significantly reduce our carbon energy footprint even in 20 years—in the United States and globally. No country has developed this technology to a point where it can and will be widely and successfully deployed.
An October 2020 analysis by Lazard showed that in the United States, capital costs for nuclear power are higher than for almost any other energy-generating technology. There are multiple efforts underway to make nuclear reactors more efficient and, ultimately, more competitive with other forms of energy production that can cut down on carbon emissions. Each of these designs faces its own set of logistical and regulatory hurdles, however.
NO SILVER BULLET
For all these reasons, nuclear energy cannot be a near- or perhaps even medium-term silver bullet for climate change. Given how many economic, technical, and logistical hurdles stand in the way of building safer, more efficient, and cost-competitive reactors, nuclear energy will not be able to replace other forms of power generation quickly enough to achieve the levels of emission reduction necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
Innovations in reactor designs and nuclear fuels are still worthy of significant research and government support. Despite its limitations, nuclear power still has some potential to reduce carbon emissions—and that is a good thing. But rather than placing unfounded faith in the ability of nuclear power to save the planet, we need to focus on the real threat: the changing climate. And we need strong government support of noncarbon-emitting energy technologies that are ready to be deployed today, not ten or 20 years from now, because we have run out of time. We cannot wait a minute longer.