As the Oppenheimer movie rockets to box office records for the second straight weekend, conversations around nuclear power, storage, and disposal have begun to pop up in the news and popular culture. But as Judi Greenwald, the Executive Director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance says, this isn’t your “grandfather’s nuclear.”
“I think there are things we thought we knew about nuclear energy that have turned out to either not be true or to have been improved over time,” Greenwald says, noting that everything from advanced nuclear energy technology to disposal and storage of nuclear waste has changed since Oppenheimer’s day.
The intersection of culture and climate change is undeniable, Greenwald notes, admitting that she had yet to see the Oppenheimer movie but that she had seen the record-breaking Barbie movie. Many have gone to see Barbie in conjunction with the biopic about the man behind the atomic bomb, in what’s being referred to around the web as Barbenheimer.
“I actually had this feeling watching the Barbie movie was that they have all these different Barbies that were made over time: Astronaut Barbie, President Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie. And I was thinking, there should be a nuclear engineer Barbie,” she said.
As Greenwald puts it, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance is a "think-and-do-tank" that focuses on leveraging analysis for nuclear advocacy. The NIA works with everyone from companies to governments to bring safe, advanced nuclear energy to the market as a safe and global solution to mitigate climate change.
Advanced nuclear energy is defined by the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (or NEIMA), which became law in 2019. It includes reactors with significant improvements to make reactors safer, more reliable, more thermally efficient, and less waste-creating. The NIA recently put out a primer on Advanced Nuclear Energy to help the public better understand the technology.
“I do think that advanced nuclear energy is actually having a moment right now. And it's this mix of a lot of people excited about it and there's a lot of entrepreneurial spirit,” she said.
The domestic nuclear industry has faced opposition for decades, but the U.S. is currently still the world’s largest domestic producer and consumer of nuclear energy. According to a 2020 study, the 96 operational U.S. commercial reactors produced upwards of 800 terawatt hours of electricity in 2018, which accounted for around 19.3% of U.S. electricity generation and 24.5% of the global nuclear electricity generation. In 2022, nuclear energy accounted for 8% of U.S. electricity generation and just over 30% of the global nuclear energy created.
In the 50s and 60s, following the detonations of Oppenheimer’s atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, protests around nuclear weapons and nuclear power were frequent worldwide. Elizabeth Muller is the co-founder of Deep Isolation, a company focused on safe nuclear waste disposal. She says that that experience yielded a “generation of people who really feel in their bones this fear of nuclear war. I think many of that generation have associated nuclear power with nuclear war,” Muller continued, “and it’s been hard to separate that in their minds.” She notes that those who grew up post-Cold War, however, don’t have the same fear of nuclear war, but are more scared of climate change, especially in light of the global temperature increase, wildfires, and floods, which has, in turn, yielded a shift in public perception around the technology.
To illustrate how sentiment has shifted, Greenwald points to two images taken at Diablo Canyon in California to demonstrate the shift in public perception around nuclear power. The first photo, taken in the 1980s, shows young people protesting the opening of the nuclear power plant near San Francisco. The second photo, taken in 2022, shows young people at the same site, supporting nuclear as a path to cleaner energy.
Greenwald says that despite a generational shift in perception around nuclear energy, the industry still has a "Simpsons" problem, referring to the popular cartoon, which frequently uses tropes of three-eyed fish and reactor meltdowns for comedic relief.
Like Muller, however, Greenwald points out that nuclear technology has advanced significantly, making it safer than before. Muller points out that the disposal of nuclear waste, a NIMBY (which stands for “Not In My Backyard”) topic that many states and countries have yet to address permanently, is safer and easier with modern technology, including the directional borehole disposal that her company is focused on.
In addition to the perception shifts around nuclear technology, both Muller and Greenwald say the industry itself has shifted to become more diverse and inclusive as well. “There's more and more women and people from all different backgrounds coming into nuclear energy,” Greenwald said, “and it's actually very exciting.”
As younger generations increasingly focus on climate solutions and worry about the global impacts of climate change and advanced nuclear technologies become more affordable, create less waste, and become more efficient, nuclear becomes a more viable long-term solution for the world's growing energy needs.
"If you do modeling of the energy system, which is what I've spent a lot of my career doing, and you try to tell the energy system that you're modeling that you have to get to zero carbon, it's very hard to do that without nuclear energy. And these advanced reactors have a lot of attributes that make it even better," Greenwald said.
"We have a growing world, and there's more and more competition for land. If we tried to do everything with renewables, and I think renewables have an enormous role, it just takes up too much land. So you really have to make sure that advanced nuclear energy is part of your mix so that we can both achieve our climate and energy goals as well as make sure that we're not taking up too much land for energy reduction," she continued.
Muller also points out that the "unsolved waste problem" is becoming much more solvable, too, especially with the advancement in technology. "You've probably heard this, but if you use nothing but nuclear energy, all of your waste would fit into one soda can," Muller says, referring to data showing that if one person used only nuclear energy over their entire lives, the waste would fit into one soda can. "So, why are we stressing when the waste from coal has killed more people than that of nuclear waste?"
She points out that that argument has not landed with the public in the past, but that the rise of more permanent disposal methods that are safer, more sustainable, and more technologically advanced than the current methods of underground storage, like those that Deep Isolation develops, continues to shift the conversation.
In light of Oppenheimer's return to the cultural conversation and as concerns about climate change grow, especially among younger generations, advanced nuclear technologies are becoming more affordable, efficient, and less waste-producing, making nuclear energy a more viable long-term solution for the world's increasing energy needs, according to both Greenwald and Muller.
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