Welcome to the New Age (Hint: It’s the Same as the Old); Let’s Talk Nuclear Energy

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Ever since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, the future of nuclear power has looked bleak. Following the incident, Japan suspended nearly all of its 50 nuclear reactors and several other countries, most notably Germany — who has a long history of antinuclear social sentiment — decided to completely phase out nuclear power. Between 2011 and 2020, a total of 65 reactors were either shut down or phased out.

Now the world seems to be turning back to nuclear as the urgency of meeting increasingly ambitious climate goals, advances in funding and technology, and national security concerns place pressure on society to diversify energy sources. In California, Governor Newsom has proposed extending the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant by 5 years. The UK is planning to add 8 new nuclear plants as part of its (controversial) energy independence plan. Germany is considering the future of its last three remaining power plants, as the conflict with Russia deepens its energy insecurity. Even Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan said they will restart idled nuclear plants and consider developing next-generation reactors. It does seem nuclear is having its comeback.

Nuclear energy represents 20% of the United States’ baseload power, but 50% of its no-carbon-emissions power. The urgency to combat the climate crisis grows, there is growing recognition that the pathway to net-zero emissions will be faster, easier, and cheaper if nuclear energy is part of the portfolio of solutions. Nuclear power is the only carbon-free energy source operating at scale that can reliably deliver power. Wind and solar deployments have and should continue to grow, with steeply declining costs making them economically attractive. However, the U.S.’s outdated grid is not yet capable of handling intermittent, decentralized energy sources. Storage and transmission are now key constraints to a decarbonized energy system.. Despite their falling cost, batteries cannot store renewable energy for weeks to handle seasonal fluctuations, and large-scale options such as hydrogen storage are still a ways off from being available on a mass-scale.

The barriers to increased nuclear power, however, have been threefold: safety, radioactive waste, and cost overruns. Innovation addressing all three are peeking their head around the corner. Public labs and private companies are funding research into more efficient reactors that are cheaper to build and generate less waste. Companies pursuing fission — and the ever elusive fusion-power — have collectively raised $3.4 billion over the past year.

TerraPower, a venture founded by Bill Gates and other climate-focused backers,raised the largest round in recent days, bringing in an impressive $750 million last week in equity financing. . TerraPower’s Natrium fast reactor design is radically different from the design of traditional nuclear reactors. The first demonstration reactor is now being planned for a site in Wyoming and will have a capacity of 345 megawatts versus the 1,000 of conventional capacity. The smaller size could enable the reactor to be built cheaply in a factory and not expensively on-site, leading to faster deployment and adoption. It will be fueled by high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which is enriched with more uranium than the fuel used in traditional nuclear plants and the coolant will be high-temperature liquid sodium instead of water. The only facility currently able to supply commercial quantities of HALEU is in Russia — so the dynamics of this project still has headwinds to face.

The majority of recent investment funding has gone to fusion energy. Fusion, which produces power by forcing together atomic nuclei, is a “Holy Grail” for energy research. Nuclear fission leaves behind waste products which remain hazardous to human and ecological health for up to tens of thousands of years. Not only does nuclear fusion leave nothing behind, it is many times more powerful. After decades of research, it is now possible that we creeping closer to commercializing the technology.

Derek Brooks, Head of Venture

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has moved to restore Japan’s status as a nuclear-powered nation for the first time since the 2011 Fukushima crisis, accelerating the restart of reactors and signaling the construction of new plants.

The MacKay Carbon Calculator provides a model of the UK energy system that allows you to explore pathways to decarbonisation, including net zero by 2050.

In Yellow Dirt, Los Angeles Times journalist Pasternak tells the shocking, heartbreaking story of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation and its terrible legacy of sickness and government neglect, documenting one of the darker chapters in 20th century American history.

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