Nuclear power is the climate superhero too nervous to wear its cape
Of all the non-carbon energy options we have, this is the only one which can keep the lights on
Opinion What's GIF got to do with nuclear reactors? Commercial development of atomic power plants had largely stopped by the 1980s; even so you could do better than Deluxe Paint for your blueprints. Yet the connection is much more modern, to do with projects like the revival of molten salt tech as a new hope for zero-emission power.
Well, we're not talking about retro graphics formats. Go to the disambiguation page on Wikipedia and there it is – beneath the file format GIF, a defunct Guinean airline, and Gefle IF, a Swedish football club, there it is: the Generation IV International Forum. It's been going since 2001. You've never heard of it, you can't even guess what it does from its name, and it has a huge part to play in the fate of our ecosystem.
The Gen-IV forum is a club of 14 nations – all the big ones plus the EU besides – and its stated aim is to evaluate and promote the next generation of nuclear power technology for commercialization to start by 2030. This is important.
Of all the non-carbon power production options we have, nuclear is the only one which can keep the lights on 24/7 right now. If you want the best bet for zero-carbon global electricity at a date before climate change chaos totally kicks in, that's a good place to start. Do the rest, of course do the rest, but they won't be there by then, not on a planet always half in darkness.
If you want to shorten the odds on your nuclear bet, you'd want to coordinate everyone working on new nuclear technology. It's not as if we've got the time or resources to mess about. Imagine there's a big old asteroid coming to play dinosaurs with us. Would everyone work together? Well, an extinction-level event is on the horizon, and GIF looks like one of the places to put the pedal to the metal. So why so shy?
When GIF started in 2001, nuclear power was as popular as smallpox. You could work in it, if you kept quiet. Logically, we were scared of monsters that were really problems to fix. Yet the hangover persists.
It's easy to see why in a populist climate of instinct over analysis. Nuclear power has one of the most complex risk-reward game boards of any technology. The rewards, if we want them, will be huge. Fuel is plentiful and widespread, enhancing energy security, the power is zero-emission, reliable, scalable, and controllable, and nuclear power plants can also produce industrial levels of heat efficiently. The downsides are cost, safety and security, waste disposal, and development time. The biggest, though, is history.
Nuclear power was born of the atomic bomb, which is not a great family tree. Everyone knows Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. Almost nobody knows about today's nukes: how many nuclear power plants there are (around 440) or how many are being built (55 or so). In popular lore, nukes catch fire, explode, and make unsafe waste we can't manage. In reality, they work, even though they're based on 50-year-old tech. Those three world-famous accidents killed fewer than 80 people in total. Take away Chernobyl, and it's probably one.
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Those accidents shouldn't have happened, and new designs, not being based on 50-year-old tech, will be far safer. In those five decades, aviation fatality rates have shrunk by a factor of 100, through systematic application of automation, better training, and iterating certification and other safety-critical processes. That's a good starting point for the Gen-IV reactors. Another is knowledge.
Stories come out from different establishments, this lab or that company, disconnected from each other. There's no sense of an industry gearing up for huge leaps into the future on many fronts. It turns out that there are seven kinds of new nukes at various stages of development.
There's high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGR), very-high-temperature reactors (VHTR), molten-salt reactors (MSR), supercritical-water-cooled reactors (SCWR), gas-cooled fast reactors (GFR), sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFR) and lead-cooled fast reactors (LFR). Yes, that's a reactor cooled by molten lead. We're a long way from GPU heatpipes here.
All of these are designed to circumvent the problems of the past. All require substantial new engineering, much of it extreme. Some will burn billions of dollars to prove themselves monstrously unusable. Some are a good fit for power modules you build in factories and take to sites by truck, ready to power a thousand homes or industry or a water desalination plant anywhere in the world. Others will scale to gigawatts with hugely less dependence on water for cooling and safety. Torness power station in Scotland has to stop every so often because jellyfish clog its seawater intake. Nobody's got time for that, least of all the jellyfish.
We have a technology that is safer than people think, with a pent-up reservoir of half a century of innovation, and which can do a number on climate change. That should be exciting. That should be 1960s Space Race levels of public involvement, intense scrutiny, and pressure to succeed. But we're too scared of the past and blind to the present. We need a new nuclear narrative, tub-thumping leadership, and a raw desire to talk to people about what could happen next. Come on, GIF. At least put the word "nuclear power" in your name. ®