If you asked your average environmentalist what policymakers ought to be doing to help green the world’s energy supplies, you’d usually get an answer focused on incentivizing renewables like wind and solar power through lavish government subsidies. But those enviro-mental activists won’t tell you about renewables’ intermittency problems—the fact that they can’t provide power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing—and they’ll surely gloss over the fact that those necessary subsidies will be paid for in the end by higher electricity bills.
But there is a power source out there capable of providing consistent baseload power without greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy remains anathema to the modern environmental movement in large part over concerns of catastrophic meltdowns and difficulties associated with disposing nuclear waste, but a new crop of nuclear power technologies is in the offing that could help address those concerns. As the New York Times reports, the U.S. Department of Energy is helping fund its development:
The Energy Department said it would provide up to $40 million each to two companies, X-energy and Southern Company, over about five years to help develop the alternative reactor designs. As a start, the department, which announced the investments last Friday, is giving each company $6 million this year. […]
X-energy is working on a so-called pebble bed reactor, in which the uranium fuel is contained in ceramic- and graphite-covered balls rather than long, thin rods, and is cooled by gas rather than water. In such a design, the fuel cannot melt down in an accident, so a reactor should be able to be safely located close to population centers.
Southern is working with TerraPower and research groups on a design that uses molten chloride, which acts as both coolant and as the medium for the fuel. The material is designed to be self-cooling in an accident, without the need for emergency water cooling systems.
With its well-hyped energiewende, Germany has hoped to set a global green example. But by phasing out its zero-emissions nuclear plants (a decision made in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, despite the fact that Germany, unlike Japan, doesn’t lie on a major fault line), it has had to increase its consumption of lignite coal, just about the dirtiest fossil fuel around. At the same time, Berlin chose to prop up wind and solar power with feed-in tariffs, guaranteeing producers above-market rates at great cost to households and businesses. In a sense Germany did accomplish its goal, in that it showed the rest of the world exactly how not to craft a green energy mix.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about nuclear power’s future, and it’s encouraging to see the U.S. is helping to fund the next generation of reactors that we’ll need in short order to replace our current fleet of aging plants. If we want to provide people with consistent power without sky-high power bills and without greenhouse gas emissions, we’re going to need more nuclear power—not less. The U.S. seems to understand that, though green-crazed Germany does not.