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The danger of flirting with nuclear innovation

Small, modular nuclear reactors? A molten salt reactor with thorium? All well and good, argues Marco Visscher, but praising innovation implies, needlessly, major flaws in nuclear energy as we know it. ‘The problem of nuclear power has nothing to do with technology. The problem is between the ears.’

By Marco Visscher

Not a ski chalet, but a nuclear reactor, designed by Oklo.

Many political leaders, climate activists and journalists are showing an interest in nuclear power. They seem to be particularly dazzled by the small, modular nuclear reactor, whose factory components are assembled on-site. Unlike the big, clunky reactors we know, SMRs are supposed to be quick and cheap to build.

The SMR is part of a wave of innovation in the nuclear industry. While one reactor operates with fuels that can withstand every imaginable accident, another is better able to respond to the erratic power production of wind turbines and solar panels. They need less uranium, or produce less waste.

At last, after years of stagnation in a dormant industry, there is once again a future for nuclear power.

This revival is good news for the climate. The more nuclear power, the better. And while innovation can be good, indeed, proponents of nuclear power would do well to distrust the flirtation with innovation. Talk distracts from building. And all this talk of innovation mostly creates the false impression that there must be something profoundly wrong with the nuclear plants we have been familiar with for many decades.

After years of stagnation in a dormant industry, there is once again a future for nuclear power

Despite its bad reputation among some of the population, nuclear power has a pretty good track record. With the least impact on the environment (resources, materials, space), nuclear plants provide an awful lot of energy, without greenhouse emissions, for up to 80 years or more. The little waste created is separated from the environment better than other potentially harmful industrial waste, and it hasn’t hurt anyone. Nuclear power appears by far the safest way to generate reliable energy.

Now listen to the established companies and start-ups so busy with revamping nuclear. In slick PowerPoint presentations, where everything looks nice and shiny, they proudly talk about ‘advanced nuclear power’. It’s an obvious marketing slogan – one that suggests today’s nuclear plants are, well, not advanced. Anyone hearing the term may be forgiven for thinking that today’s reactors must be old-fashioned.

Or listen to the incomprehensible jargon of nuclear power enthusiasts. They endlessly debate the pros and cons of thorium, the possible corrosion of materials, or the complications of fission product disposal. With their technical disputes, these proponents confirm the opponents’ main point: that today’s nuclear plants are no good.

Typical is Oliver Stone’s latest, award-winning documentary, Nuclear Now. For over an hour, Stone convincingly demonstrates that the negative image of nuclear power is wrong – only to end, curiously, with a half-hour full of praise for techies working on innovations. Someone even says: ‘We need to do nuclear power differently.’ But there is absolutely nothing in Nuclear Now that gives reason to conclude that things should be ‘different’.

So, one day, supposedly, there may be Nuclear – but not Now.

‘Advanced nuclear power’ is an obvious marketing slogan that suggests today’s nuclear plants are not advanced

Since nuclear power was introduced to the world, it has been haunted by a violent past, lying governments, blundering industry and a few notorious accidents. Go and build a nuclear plant and you get caught up in debate nights, endless regulations and mounting costs. You become despondent.

Fortunately, there’s innovation! Because this time we are going to do it right. Advanced nuclear power can free us from the boring, depressing world of traditional nuclear power. SMRs and other PowerPoint reactors serve as therapy.

But the problem of nuclear power has nothing to do with technology. The problem is between the ears.

It’s telling that all innovation seems aimed at making nuclear power ‘socially acceptable’. The emphasis is on safety (one start-up is even called Ultra Safe Nuclear), because people think nuclear power is full of dangers. The reactors must be smaller, because small is beautiful. And power production will be flexible, because the zero-carbon power from solar and wind must apparently take precedence over the zero-carbon power from nuclear fission.

Actually, these fantastic new nuclear reactors have just one disadvantage: they don’t yet exist.

Advanced nuclear power can free us from the boring, depressing world of traditional nuclear power

And perhaps that is why we are talking about them. Because as long as it is just talk, any nuclear plant is cheap and easy to build, and efficient to operate, without any problems. Who can be against that?

Yes, innovation can be valuable. In particular, the fast breeder reactor that can recycle nuclear waste is quite useful. But proponents of nuclear power would do well to emphasise above all that we need to build. We should have done that a long time ago, but it got bogged down in talk. Let’s not make the same mistake with the nuclear reactors still on the drawing board.

Talk should not lead to a lack of action.

Marco Visscher is a Netherlands-based environmental journalist, serving RePlanet as its Editor-in-Chief. He’s the author of Waarom we niet bang hoeven te zijn voor kernenergie (Why we need not fear nuclear power). Previously, he has written on the looming disaster at Zaporizhzhya and the lessons from Fukushima.


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