The Key to Advancing Nuclear Energy

From Oil Price.com

The last few years have seen a growing number of liberal and environmental heavyweights publicly call for more nuclear energy to deal with climate change. Today, the pro-nuclear ranks include Bill Gates, Al Franken, Richard Branson, and Barack Obama. Also on the list are superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs, the novelist Ian McEwan, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. There are former environmental leaders, including former Greenpeace Executive Director Stephen Tindale, and former Friends of the Earth trustee Hugh Montefiore. And there are prominent scientists including Gaia hypothesis ecologist James Lovelock, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, much-cited climate scientist Tom Wigley, and MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel.

Many of these individuals recognize that one of nuclear’s chief challenges is to become much cheaper, so that new nuclear plants can replace fossil fuels. In service of this goal, Breakthrough Institute has analyzed the factors that drive the cost of new nuclear plants, and has proposed a way to deal with them. The key is innovation. In particular, developing, demonstrating and deploying advanced, or what are called Generation IV, nuclear technologies. Already Breakthrough’s new report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap, has received positive notices from Time, SmartPlanet, and IEEE Spectrum (a leading high-tech science magazine), and was received positively by both Republicans and Democrats at a standing-room only briefing on Capital Hill last week.

Safety is critical to the economics of nuclear, but it is not the only factor. Advanced reactors that are able to operate at ambient pressures, and with fuels that are much more resistant to melting, require fewer redundant safety systems and less substantial containment. Molten metal and salt coolants promise not only greater safety, but also allow reactors to operate at higher temperatures, making them more efficient. Smaller reactors, produced modularly, or in many cases manufactured entirely off-site, promise to eliminate the rising costs and delays that have plagued large, customized reactor builds.  Reactor designs that can deliver these benefits while utilizing as much of the present light-water supply chain can be commercialized fastest and most cheaply.

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