The fight to rethink (and reinvent) nuclear power

The fight to rethink (and reinvent) nuclear power


When you think of the word nuclear, what comes to mind? It’s probably some terrifying thought. I can’t blame anyone for being nervous. It’s a technology that we’ve been using
for decades that can really reduce global warming, but it’s not exactly something environmentalists
are that excited about. The first thing many people think of is nuclear
war and mushroom clouds. You add into that major events like Three
Mile Island and Chernobyl and now most recently Fukushima, and those have had incredibly profound consequences
on people’s immediate feelings and images and associations with this technology. This isn’t something where the public has
the view wrong. It is a technology with a reputation that’s
been earned. I mean, if a nuclear power plant was being
built in my town, I’d be pretty nervous about it. However, as a conservationist, that makes
me feel really conflicted because these power plants don’t emit CO2, and that’s the main pollutant that’s causing
climate change. When you look at the technology and you ask
yourself: How are we going to solve this problem of
climate change? To not have nuclear energy be on the table
makes the job much harder. Now for the most part these plants work really
well. They supply about 20 percent of the electricity
on the US power grid. But almost all of them in the US were built
over 35 years ago. In fact, they look like something out of a
vintage movie set. And historically they’ve had two big problems: They produce radioactive nuclear waste and
they can be vulnerable to a disaster like a nuclear meltdown. Nuclear meltdowns happen because water that’s
used to cool the radioactive fuel rods can’t be pumped in. Usually due to something like a backup power
failure. This fuel heats up rapidly, and since these
reactors operate at high pressure, there can be explosions from all of this excess heat. You can think of it like a balloon popping
and releasing the air inside — but in this case, radioactive air. Leslie Dewan is trying to fix this. She runs a startup company called Transatomic
Power. They’re trying to build new power plants
without this problem. Our reactors operate at atmospheric pressure
and you don’t need that typical containment dome. You don’t need the big stacks. You have a lot more flexibility in the architecture
of the plant. And that low pressure also means there’s
no way to have that nuclear balloon pop scenario. But it isn’t just about stopping disasters. The fuel itself is toxic and has to be stored
underground for thousands of years. And unfortunately we don’t use it very efficiently. The solid fuel can only stay in the reactor
for a limited amount of time before it starts to break itself down and you have to physically
remove it. You can only extract about 4 percent of the
energy that you could conceivably get out of the uranium, and the rest is left behind
as waste. This is like opening up a bottle of water,
taking a sip, and then tossing it out. But that’s actually how older reactors use
nuclear fuel. The next-generation reactors are using fuel
much more efficiently. Transatomic’s reactor design will use the
fuel in a liquid form so that it can stay in the reactor for a longer period of time. A lot of the advanced nuclear reactors can
consume much more of the energy from the uranium. You can get much, much higher fuel utilization. Which means that you’re leaving significantly
less waste behind. And this is a trend in the field. There’s a huge interest to phase out conventional
fuel rods for different forms of fuel, for a variety of reasons. In the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve developed
different types of fuel, which cannot melt. And which in fact— What do you mean by that? Physically cannot melt. That’s Per Peterson, he’s a nuclear engineer
at the University of California Berkeley who’s working on a next-generation reactor design
that uses an entirely different form of fuel. Many older plants still use conventional fuel
rods. This new design, known as a fuel pebble, encases
uranium in a golf-ball sized sphere. It’s made of a very strong ceramic material
that can withstand much higher temperatures, so it cannot melt and is safer to use. Now this one was built to demonstrate that
you can fabricate it. So it does not have uranium in it, but every
other way it is identical to the real thing. Same weight and everything like that? And they’re designed to be very safe. You can drop this thing from 10 meters onto
a steel plate and it won’t break. Or if I wanted to I could drop it right now. So essentially, that fuel pebble is designed
to be its own self-contained system. If a power failure does happen, the pebbles
just empty into a holding tank where they cool down on their own. No need for backup generators or water to
keep it cool to prevent a meltdown. Okay, so why hasn’t this happened yet? I mean we have better materials, we have reactors
with new designs and fuels that makes less waste. It actually sounds like we have the answers
to our problems. So what’s the catch? You know the old phrase, you never get a second
chance to make a first impression? People’s first impression of nuclear energy
and nuclear power was mushroom clouds. And if it’s got the word “nuclear” associated
with it, it’s just going to be very difficult to convince people, no, no, we mean it this
time. This one’s safe. It puts nuclear energy in a very challenging
place. Right now even solar and wind are cheaper
than nuclear power. So there isn’t a lot of economic incentive
to build these power plants. And if no one wants to build them, then companies
that make the parts go out of business or go somewhere else where new plants are being
built, like China. Those that are under construction now, the
economics have been really grim. The number of plants that have been started
and the price overruns have been massive. One of the problems is just simply transporting
the components. Instead of getting parts locally like we did
in the 1960s and ’70s, the parts today are shipped from overseas. And these aren’t just basic nuts and bolts
— these are huge complicated components. If a section of a reactor vessel breaks during
transport, it needs to be fixed or a new one needs to be built and reshipped, taking more
time and money to complete. I think that it’s going to be very interesting
to see how startup companies tackle those problems. And this is a very different space from where
the traditional technology evolved. Now rapid innovation has happened in other
industries. Look at SpaceX for example. They went from a concept rocket to delivering
supplies to the International Space Station in a matter of years. The technologies that are being researched
now that look very promising range from small modular reactors where the whole nuclear power
plant comes on the back of a flatbed truck, gets parked, plugged in, and when the fuel
is used up simply gets taken away as a unit to be reprocessed. These small modular reactors could have specific
uses. Like powering a data center that’s using
electricity around the clock. We have startups building cheaper, smaller
reactors that don’t melt down. We have engineers making fuel that doesn’t
produce much waste. While the public image of nuclear energy is
rooted in the past, the nuclear energy of today is a whole different ballgame. People like me view nuclear as being a necessary
piece of carbon-free energy production. There’s less of that fear of nuclear, and
more of, sort of a need to use everything in our toolbox to combat climate change. There are other energy sources that we may
be overlooking. For example, scientists are actually turning
to poop to power cars. Head over to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu
for more.

Author:

100 thoughts on “The fight to rethink (and reinvent) nuclear power”

  • The human race must go 100 percent nuclear… every city, every town, every village, every country, and every continent should all go nuclear, the entire human race should embrace the atomic atom.

  • Tedious Maximus says:

    You lost me when you said CO2 causes climate change. That is a proven pack of lies.

    The United Nations and IPCC has admitted that they cannot prove it.

  • Its actaully estimated that nuclear power has saved about 2 million lives simply by it reallocating plants from other fields like oil, coal, petro etc. Even renewable energies are attributed to more deaths.

  • nuclear is the way to go, and we are such better designs out there that are not even talked about, thorium fuel cycle, breeder reactors and the pebble bed reactor as mentioned in this video, I just wish there was more investment done in the research.

  • Christian Sabo says:

    The answer is simple. Hydrogen-3. Now I know what you're thinking. What is Hydrogen-3? It's a radioactive isotope of Hydrogen that produces 0 nuclear waste and is found on the moon which is why my simple solution is to annex the moon and mine it 👍🏻

  • The point is not a 'nuclear mushroom' it is the nuclear waste, which is, once created, there for thousands of years and not only a short time. Even though less waste is mentioned it is still highly toxic material which is on the planet for thousands of years. The video is completely ignoring this crucial point. Less is still more than mankind can accept.

  • TheVicenteSilva says:

    Wind and Solar are not cheaper, this is an outright lie. They may cost less but they produce much less energy, during 10 to 20 % of the day (when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing), meanwhile nuclear is 24 hours a day and produces enormous amounts of energy

  • There really is no need to discuss anything except if there exists a design wherein the waste is nonradioactive.

  • LFTR are different from uranium, difficult to turn into weapons, and is also a liquid. We should figure out how to use those. Kirk Sorensen has plenty of videos on that.

  • Maggie Osterberg says:

    Nuclear power: Oh hai, here to help save world!
    General public: NIMBY!!! NIMBY!!! NIMBY!!! HBO miniseries!!! Stellan Skårsgard!!!!

  • The most important line here is that, "with wind and solar cheaper it puts nuclear in a tough spot"…. the economics is simply not there. Why deal with waste at all, when we can just go for wind and solar? (and yes I know about the intermittency issue so don't bother asking. Most of north america has no where near enough wind and solar capacity for this to matter yet, except california)

  • Adetola Adefuye says:

    Yeah, "reduce" carbon emission but create a more dangerous and more destructive waste product (radiation)…..nope…still not buying it!

  • Matthew Daniel says:

    Nuclear is the only realistic solution to coal power plants. That’s the reality. Good on you Vox for this!

  • 5:35 Solar and Wind cheaper ? no they aren't, and they are polluting on daily basis, that not counting the tons of batteries and generators needed to store the energy, who aren't eco friendly.

  • meanwhile solar waste is being ignored and causing harms to our environments hurting millions of people and animals…

  • It's not just meltdowns. I lived in Lancaster, UK and the sea there had 14 times the permitted levels of Cesium 137 because of of nuclear power plants dumping into the sea when they felt like it. Also, what happens to the waste? Also, nuclear in the UK never paid for itself, ate up all the government research money and then the public had to pay to decommission the plants. Nuclear is still a terrible idea on all those fronts.

  • If Germany had spent the money they used on renewables towards nuclear power instead, they would have already achieved 100% carbon free electricity. In reality, they’re only achieving up to 40%

  • What we have to remember here, is that old-school nuclear plants were in fact refineries – they were designed to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, with the electric power produced by these plants seen as a useful by-product, one that could ultimately be used politically to justify building more plants. Solar and wind are cheaper, produce virtually no waste, and – oh yeah – don't provide us with the means to render the planet a radioactive husk. This is a technology we ought to quickly render obsolete.

  • Untimely Avengest says:

    When natural gas runs out we will turn to oil than to coal than due to overpopulation and land value ignoring solar and wind and all the others for nukelear

  • Wow… this seems like a terrible video. 65 years of nuke plants and STILL no solution currently happening with storage. After all this time – no country has opened a permanent storage site. NOT ONE. The idea that "Oh, well we have the solutions coming NEXT" is what the industry has said every year. Sadly, a lot of what people are saying below simply isn't true from what I've read up on. And none of this video factors in the expense of security to guard every single facility and the problems created from the waste – for all time. Nuclear reactors on wheels? Imagine the security issues there.

  • Meanwhile the cradle-to-grave costs of solar and wind remain unaccounted for. Nuclear power's negative effect on humans – per terrawatthour produced – is orders of magnitude lower than its closest competitor.

  • Yeah I wish people would understand that the three big nuclear plant disasters that everybody thinks of are the exception, not the rule. They're not a "not if but when" scenario like oil pipeline spills. We need get over our fear of nuclear and the only way we'll do that is through education and spreading the word. So educate each other and spread the word. To discount Nuclear while addressing climate change is a serious loss.

  • Paul Wirnsberger says:

    What is about nuclear waste? I mean that's the main problem, there's nothing less sustainable than nuclear waste. Every carbon is more friendly for the environmental than nuclear energy.

  • Solar, wind, coal and natural gas are all forms of nuclear energy. The sun is an enormous nuclear reactor and all forms of energy we have are a direct result of the sun's radiation. At some point we are going to need to master nuclear energy.

  • Why does everyone think Fukushima was its own fault, it was the tsunamis, it should have never been built anyway. It’s in a area that has lots of earthquakes and tsunamis

  • While it is wonderful that less radioactive waste can be created in new generation plants is great, but the proper care/ storage of that waste is still the greatest problem and why nuclear power plants, while better than other methods of electricity production, is still not the solution that we need. We don't have the space for all the radioactive waste nor the foresight to store it truly safely.

  • If we wanted to make nuclear work the best place to store waste would be in the New Mexican desert test site that’s already radiated from nuke test and lifeless sand dunes for hundreds of miles it wouldn’t matter if it was dumped their and if the disposal team protects itself properly it could work

  • Nuclear waste you say? sounds like armor for our tanks? armor piercing rounds? how abut batteries that don't lose their charge? you mean that nuclear waste that's actually is more valuable than what the power plant produces? don't sound like waste to me but what do i know….

  • The irony is that everyone's worried about a nuclear apocalypse but we're currently already heading towards an apocalypse as a result of fossil fuels because of that very mindset.

  • Friends recently pointed out to me several compelling arguments against developing more nuclear power reactors:

    1. they require a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions to build. I also read a paper that claims even the operation of nuclear plants creates more carbon than our goals! If this is true, then it's not a clean energy source. Anyone know enough to confirm or deny this?
    2. they are vulnerable to attack.
    3. they need vast amounts of water for cooling which is why they are normally built near the ocean, but then they leak radioactive waste into the water.
    4. they take 20 years to get up and running
    5. investing in nuclear distracts us from solving the storage problem for wind and solar, already cheaper and better options than nuclear.

    To my mind #1, 4 and 5 are the most compelling of these reasons not to invest in nuclear. If nuclear isn't super-low emission even when the plants are running smoothly, then that's a bust. And if focus on nuclear saps our will to quickly develop true clean energy then we should put it to bed.

    This video talks about a new kind of nuclear power plant which solves several problems, although 1 and 5 still need to be resolved to make it a logical stop-gap.

  • Dana Durnford & Kevin Blanch debunked says:

    If the US doesn't wake up, India, China and Russia will be the new superpowers of the world leading the way with the new molten salt reactors they are building.

  • We need to bring back programs like Megatons to Megawatts, in which former nuclear warheads once aimed at the United States were downblended to reactor fuel and used to power 10% of the US grid for 20 years. Many people have no idea this even existed. I think we all agree that nuclear weapons are bad – but if we can make reactors safe and fuel more safe, and actually get rid of warheads at the same time we all win and we can all feel safer at the same time. These aims are not mutually exclusive!

  • NUCLEAR ENERGY HAS KILLED THE LEAST PEOPLE OF ANY POWER SOURCE!!!
    more people have died building and fixing wind turbines than from nuclear power

  • Since young people from this generation still agree that nuclear=mushroom cloud I predict we need another 150 years so that our current memories would be forgotten by our unborn great-grandchildren. Then maybe (if we haven't global-warmed ourselves to extinction) this idea would take off. Or I could be wrong and people would trust next-gen reactors and we would've solved our energy crisis in 10 years' time.

  • I have a prototype that should do what is needed, including non-polluting. It also means the danger of putting enormous amounts of electrical energy in everyone's hands. I mean everyone.

  • They are way too expensive, does the benefit out risk of danger in truth? No one ever budgets for the waist or dismantling. Never mind we have no knowledge what to do with the waste at this time. Only one country has a small depository for waste. It's a Preposterous continuation. We need wind solar Tidal as well as to progress on Fusion. We were against nuclear power in the 70s and had massive protests

  • If the persons profiting or responsible would live near the power plants with their pre-school kids on a permanent basis…
    i'd be really less sceptic than i am now.

  • "Wind and Solar are cheaper then Nuclear power.." Yeah only because they are being heavily subsidized by the government, something like 10 times the normal subsidy, that's a completely artificially manipulated cost rate. Those subsidies go away, either by policy change or just simple running out of money, those costs will sky rocket over night. Nuclear is cheap because it creates energy cheaply, the newer designs make building plants a far far less of an expensive up front investment. But where they get it right, but didnt point out, is that the manufacturing infrastructure of the US has been effectively dismantled to the point where we cannot MAKE anything anymore. Which honestly has much larger implications then just Nuclear, its just Nuclear brings that Manufacturing problem to the forefront.

  • The left and environmentalists are very, very wrong with regards to nuclear. We absolutely need more nuclear to combat climate change. Wind and solar alone will not work. Nuclear is more powerful, clean, and efficient than any other form of energy we have. Yes, even wind and solar have negative environmental affects. Emotions and media hype are overinflated about nuclear. The facts indicate it's safe. The opposite is true for fossil fuels. They are very damaging, but people don't care. We need to educate people to truly tackle climate change.

  • Man is not competent enough to handle nuclear power not to mention what this climate crisis will do to the earth as the nukes fail due to decades human incompetence and selective ignorance.

  • Nuclear is 6x cheaper than solar actually. And this cost can get much lower too if we allowed the technology to develop, used thorium instead of uranium, etc.

  • Thorium molten salt reactors would have fit this segment. The same reactors can consumer unspent uranium rods or Thorium which is a safer fuel source.

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