Unleashing the Power of the Atom, Take Two

by Seth Lippincott

Public perception of nuclear energy across the world is mixed. While polls show that there is a deep and entrenched divide between supporters and opponents, they also reveal significant gaps in public understanding of both the benefits and risks of nuclear power. Support increases significantly when people realize nuclear energy’s potential contribution to climate change mitigation. While this fact may compel policymakers to introduce new nuclear power projects, it ignores the elephant in the room: nuclear waste disposal. A new generation of nuclear reactors may be the answer to this dilemma.

To date, nuclear power plants in the United States alone have produced over 74,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. That is equivalent to the weight of more than 10,000 elephants and could cover the entire surface of a football field 21 feet deep. For years the U.S. government hoped that a centralized depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada could address long-term waste storage. But with seemingly insurmountable political barriers and federal funding on hold, an alternative is sorely needed.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Energy seems to have no alternative plan currently in place. It was barred from collecting fees that would fund a program to dispose of radioactive material because no program currently exists. With completion of a central depository still decades away, nuclear power plants are left to store their waste on-site in cooling pools and dry casks. This waste material is highly radioactive and remains a health and security hazard for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. All parties should agree that this situation is unsustainable.

Entrepreneurs and scientists are working on technologies that offer an elegant solution: using nuclear waste from traditional reactors as their primary fuel source. Known as Generation IV reactors, they are small and modular, decreasing capital costs and distributing power more efficiently. Generation IV reactors could be built for one quarter the cost of the current generation of large-scale power plants, which cost between $6 and $9 billion. Being relatively small, they would avoid many of theNIMBY concerns that dog conventional reactors.

UPower is a startup of MIT graduates that hopes to build 1-megawatt modular reactors to provide power in remote locations. Jacob DeWitte, its founder and CEO, considers the spent fuel from traditional reactors an “asset” for his company. Using the latent energy in nuclear waste, UPower’s reactors would provide uninterrupted power for over a decade with no carbon dioxide emissions and at a faction of the cost of the diesel generators they would replace.

Transatomic Power, another MIT startup, is one of a handful of companies that are working on molten salt reactors that generate electricity using spent nuclear fuel from conventional reactors. One of their reactors would cost an estimated $2 billion and generate 75 times more electricity than conventional nuclear reactors per ton of uranium fuel. There is no risk of a meltdown because the salt’s boiling point is significantly higher than the fuel temperature, unlike water-cooled reactors in use today. And while conventional reactors can generate up to 20 tons of radioactive waste per year, a 500MW molten-salt reactor would produce just 4 kilograms.

Though UPower, Transatomic, and the like hold immense potential, they still confront the same skepticism that the public holds for conventional nuclear energy generators. Besides waste disposal, public fear centers on terrorism and potential misuse of nuclear material. Dramatic accidents, such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima have had strong and lasting negative effects on public perception, even when there is a limited understanding of the cumulative risk and dangerrelative to other energy sources.

Educating the public will prove a challenging task. Governments will be unable to spearhead public awareness of nuclear energy’s strengths, because the public perceives them as untrustworthy relative to scientists, environmental protection agencies, and consumer organizations. At the same time, new nuclear technologies still need government support in the fields of research, commercialization funding, and regulation.

The alternatives, however, are far worse. The deleterious effects of emissions from coal power plants and other fossil fuels arewell documented. Estimated median lifecycle emissions for electricity from coal are 30 to 60 times larger than that of nuclear. Developing countries such as China, which sees nuclear as a clean alternative to coal, have successfully attracted Western investment to build a new generation of large-scale nuclear power plants.

Scientists and entrepreneurs are poised to unlock the potential of technologies that could provide clean, safe, cheap electricity using the waste from conventional nuclear reactors that has been collecting for years. Government policymakers and the general public should give these new nuclear technologies a second look and a fair shot.

About the Author

Seth graduated from Fletcher in 2015 with a focus on energy policy and international business. He is currently working at the Institute for Business in the Global Context researching sustainable and inclusive business practices. Prior to Fletcher, Seth worked in international litigation and transatlantic economic policy in Washington DC and labor law in Boston. Seth received his B.A. in international relations from Carleton College.

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