No, nuclear energy is not dead

No, nuclear energy is not dead
© Getty Images

Recent hand-wringing over the future of nuclear energy has caused my wife to joke “This is the third time you’ve been invited to the funeral of the nuclear industry.” 

As usual, Denise is right — and at each juncture, not only were the reports of nuclear’s death greatly exaggerated, the industry actually increased its share of the generation pie.  

When I entered the field in the late 1980s this supposedly dying industry was producing 16 percent of the nation’s power. Three decades later it’s generating 20 percent — representing well over half of our nation’s clean electricity.


It’s currently in vogue for nuclear’s naysayers to proclaim that the cutting-edge technologies on the horizon aren’t enough to save the industry. They’re wrong — again.

A new generation of nuclear is on its way. And it is going to change the way people think about how we light our homes, power our data centers and our factories, and charge our electric vehicles.

New nuclear is being designed to be affordable, and to fit better with the other clean energy technologies on the grid. That wasn’t always the case.

Back in the 1990s and into the 2000s, nuclear energy was less expensive than coal or natural gas, and renewables were a niche technology even with generous federal tax incentives, so reducing cost wasn’t essential. Today it is, and nuclear innovators are responding by making reactors safer, scalable, and more cost-effective. They are doing this in part by heeding Steve Jobs’ counsel that “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

One example is the small modular reactor designed by NuScale. Its concept emerged from Department of Energy-funded research at Oregon State University, and the design is now before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for license approval.

NuScale’s concept reduces costs in two ways. First, the simplified design will result in lower construction costs. By relying more on natural phenomena like gravity and convection, the design eliminates the need for expensive components like reactor coolant pumps. And by employing factory construction of reactor modules that can be installed at plant sites, the NuScale design can achieve the economies of serial production that benefitted wind and solar.

Second, the NuScale design will result in lower operating costs. The inherent safety and security of a NuScale facility will result in a significant reduction in the total staffing required to operate, maintain and physically protect the facility.

And for all their advantages, small modular reactors are just the first in a growing wave of new nuclear technologies headed to the market. Advanced reactors cooled with materials including molten salts, liquid metals and inert gases could serve a broader set of markets and provide a wider range of energy products and services. The smallest of these designs, called micro reactors, will come to market as soon as the mid-2020s, offering a simplified, transportable power source to displace diesel as the fuel of choice for many isolated communities in remote parts of the world.

Some of the world’s leading technology innovators, including Bill Gates, Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Thiel, are investing in advanced nuclear technologies that could be game-changers in meeting growing global demand for clean, sustainable energy.

The emergence of these new technologies is coming at just the right time, as dozens of nations are looking to start or expand civil nuclear energy programs as they seek to affordably meet growing electricity demand while improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions. The United States led the first wave of global nuclear construction, but today Russia and China hold the contracts to build 29 of the 56 new nuclear power reactors under construction around the globe.

By reclaiming our place as the world leader in nuclear technology innovation, the United States can capture a growing share of these contracts for new nuclear. Doing so will not just be a huge economic boon to our nation. It will also ensure that U.S. norms for nuclear safety and nonproliferation become the global standard, and will bolster our national security by building deep, long-lasting, stabilizing relationships with nations around the world. That’s why members of both parties, in both the House and Senate, have introduced a variety of legislative proposals that would draw from successful public-private efforts on solar and wind technology deployment to accelerate nuclear energy technology innovation and commercialization.

The U.S. and the world will benefit enormously if we lead the next wave of global nuclear construction. So excuse our nation’s nuclear energy innovators for skipping the funeral — they’re busy answering that call.

John Kotek is vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. He led the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy from 2015-2017, served as a AAAS Fellow on the staff of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and led nuclear energy research programs Argonne National Laboratory-West in Idaho.