State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Could New Nuclear Reactors Power America’s Low-Carbon Future?

nuclear power plant design
Concept drawing of a nuclear power plant designed around a new kind of reactor. Credit: Transatomic

“The moonshot wasn’t a miracle, it was just rigorous engineering,” says Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia’s Center for Sustainable development, in a new documentary. “On climate, we haven’t gotten organized to do a moonshot.”

According to the documentary, named The New Fire, next-generation nuclear reactors could be America’s climate moonshot. The film features an all-star cast of scientists, engineers, and thinkers, including climate scientist James Hansen and professor of mechanical engineering Vijay Modi, both from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, along with professor Sachs.

Filmmaker David Schumacher says he was inspired to make this documentary partly through his work for the Earth Institute; as a freelancer making educational and promotional films for the university, he learned a lot about energy and sustainability. He also noticed that organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency typically include nuclear power in the energy budget of the future, but that no one was really talking about it as a solution to climate change.  

“My hope is that this film will shift at least part of the public dialogue and part of the narrative on climate towards evidence-based solutions,” says Schumacher.

It won’t be easy for renewables such as wind and solar to replace fossil fuels. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, so scaling up these technologies depends on new battery technology that’s not quite here yet. And, like other power plants, large-scale solar and wind farms face citing issues that can delay or prevent new installations.

The New Fire insists that a new breed of nuclear reactors being developed by Transatomic, Oklo, and Terrapower could close the carbon-free energy gap. In terms of safety, these reactors are said to be meltdown-proof, relying on natural heat flow to cool down during a power outage. And while the threat of nuclear accidents is frightening, the risk is arguably overblown compared to coal; particulates from coal-fired smokestacks are estimated to kill about 10,000 people a year—that’s many times more than the number of people who died in the world’s worst nuclear accidents (Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island).

The companies’ new reactor designs are said to be more efficient than their predecessors, extracting twice as much energy or more from their uranium fuel, hence generating less waste. Some may even be able to consume “spent” nuclear fuel—which not only contains a lot of unused energy, but is difficult to dispose of safely. The companies behind these new reactor designs say they will also be cheaper than today’s technology because they can be mass produced instead of custom-designed.

Thus far the reactors are still on the drawing boards—the companies have not yet built or tested prototypes. However, the designs are based on experimental reactors (specifically, molten salt and sodium-cooled fast reactors) that were tested several decades ago, and they work in models and simulations.

But not everyone is convinced that nuclear is part of the solution to climate change. Some doubt that nuclear power will ever be truly safe, or that we can regulate it properly. They would prefer to bet on increasing energy efficiency, distributed power generation, and better batteries to store wind and solar energy.  

What role should nuclear power play in the energy diet of the future? It’s a difficult decision, but as the world heats up, it’s a choice we may need to make sooner rather than later.

The New Fire will be showing in New York City on November 12 at Cinnepolis Chelsea. You can buy tickets here. Use the discount code DOCNYC17EARTHINST to get $3 off your ticket.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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