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Atomic Promise
Nuclear Is the World’s Green Power “Workhorse”

A generation of nuclear reactors is nearing the end of its intended life cycle, but in a world where decarbonization is becoming increasingly important, nuclear energy still has an important role to play. There’s reason to be excited on that front, because as Laura Scheele writes for the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers are developing safer, smaller, and cheaper nuclear power technologies:

The current nuclear reactor fleet is the low-carbon workhorse of the electricity world. In 2014, nuclear power generated about 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the United States. Today’s light-water reactor designs provide a safe, effective and affordable bridge to new nuclear reactor technologies — promising increased flexibility and the ability to match electricity generation with demand.

First across that bridge may be small modular reactors (SMRs), which vary in size from 50 to 300 megawatts (about one-fourth the size of current reactors). With lower initial capital investments and shorter construction timelines than traditional-sized reactors, SMRs are progressing toward commercialization. They could replace aging, carbon-emitting coal power plants, and their smaller size provides more flexibility in where they can be located.

Tomorrow’s fission reactors will broaden our energy options by using innovative fuels and, potentially, alternative coolants such as high-temperature gas and liquid metal or molten salt instead of water. Since many advanced reactor designs operate at a higher temperature than light-water reactors, they are ideally suited to replace fossil fuels for industrial applications that require high temperature process heat (such as oil refining and biofuel production) with nuclear-generated heat at an enormous savings in carbon emissions.

Nuclear innovation doesn’t stop at fission. Companies large and small, along with labs such asPrinceton Plasma Physics Laboratory are studying nuclear fusion — the energy source of the sun and stars — in the hopes of someday harnessing fusion for power on Earth.

Nuclear power doesn’t get much love from greens, but it’s the most important zero-carbon source of baseload power around. While wind and solar energy struggle with intermittency issues, nuclear plants can supply grids power 24/7, making them an absolutely vital component of any future carbonless energy mix.

But for many people nuclear’s risks overshadow its promise, with high profile accidents like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, or more recently the Fukushima disaster, occupying a special place in their imagination. Like any energy source (yes, that includes renewables) nuclear power has potential hazards, but those can be mitigated.

There’s a raft of exciting, more modern nuclear technologies on the horizon, and it’s clear that the U.S. Department of Energy is excited by their potential. Now, if only environmentalists could open their eyes to nuclear’s imminent possibilities…

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  • Frank Natoli

    Now, if only environmentalists could open their eyes to nuclear’s imminent possibilities…
    I swear, the day after the last Huey left Saigon, Hanoi Jane, for 24 hours without a cause, became as ardent an opponent of nuclear power as she had been of U.S. efforts to keep North Vietnamese Communists from subjugating South Vietnamese not-Communists.
    Being an engineer, and originally a physics major, I [briefly] wondered how this woman, who probably could not tell U-235 from an Irish rock group, had suddenly become an expert on the “dangers” of nuclear power.
    Environmentalists have to have a cause. It has NOTHING to do with science or rational risks. It’s RELIGION.

  • Blackbeard

    Nuclear power will be a workhouse of the modern industrial world in the 21st century if by modern industrial world we mean China, India , Africa and other developing countries. In the West however we are sinking into a dark age of anti-scientific ignorance and mythology. Nuclear power and other modern technologies have no place in that world.

    History will look back in mystified disbelief that anyone thought we could run a 21st century economy with windmills.

    • Sancho Panza

      Quixotic indeed!

  • Humility

    Fossil fuels are limited and burning them has environmental consequences. Nuclear energy has related environmental and terror risks. Hydro, solar, and wind power have environmental impacts. The only real constant is an addiction and dependence on energy to maintain a lifestyle. As time very slowly runs out for fossil fuels we can regress or move on to some new power source. I doubt hydro, solar, and wind can carry the load alone unless we adapt to less power.

    • Frank Natoli

      unless we adapt to less power.
      As in retreat to the 19th century and earlier? OK with you if I choose to remain in the 21st? No? Of course, you are pro-choice for one choice only.
      I doubt hydro…can carry the load
      Wow. Are you out of communication with Party central! Hydro, which emits no combustion byproducts, no waste, doesn’t even heat nearby streams like power plants that need cooling towers, is EVIL because it requires the salmon to make the effort to jump the steps upstream to spawn. THAT is why the people you voted for are removing hydro dams in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks!
      Can we be honest? You don’t want us to “adapt to less power”, you want us to have ZERO effect on the environment, which means being DEAD.
      Had a friend whose daughter was part of a party hiking through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. They had to hump TWO chemical toilets, because human excretory functions were considered EVIL, never mind the excretory functions of all other life in the Canyon. THIS is where you insist we all go. OK with you if I decline?

      • Blackbeard

        Actually we should thank Humility for his (relative) honesty. In general the Green conceit is that (a) fossil fuels will destroy human civilization in short order unless we more or less completely stop using them, and (b) doing (a) will be easy, quick and painless if only we can silence the Koch brothers and their evil, lying, science-denying Republican friends. Humility is at least hinting at the truth that the Green agenda means a collapse of modern industrial civilization as we know it.

        I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the only way to fight Humility and his brethren is to focus on their hypocrisy. How can Obama say, on the one hand, that the Earth is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable, as he said in Paris, and then, on the other hand come up with something as weak as the Paris treaty? If the Earth is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable, and Obama wouldn’t lie, would he, it’s time for urgent action. We need to ban private cars right now! We need a huge excise tax on airplane tickets! We need to outlaw air conditioning! You get the idea. Rather than the gradual strangulation the Greens intend, out their true agenda right now.

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