Maybe You Don’t Know Nukes

This blog post was originally published on The Energy Blog, a project of Planet Forward and National Geographic

Have you ever wondered why so many former opponents of nuclear power are switching sides and are now advocating for nuclear power plant construction with the same passion they once devoted to fully abandoning this controversial technology? Why is Dr. Jim Hansen, the godfather of climate change, in favor or nuclear power? Why is Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, also advocating for nuclear power? Add to that two former national directors of Greenpeace, the world’s most powerful anti-nuclear organization, plus a veritable who’s who of environmentalists, energy experts and former anti-nuclear activists. What’s going on here can’t simply be dismissed as a mass delusion, as some would have us believe. Perhaps these people know something that most us don’t.

Last month I was filming at the site of the test bed for what’s known as the Integral Fast Reactor in Idaho. News of this little known and largely forgotten project has been one of the reasons why nuclear power is being reconsidered as a solution to the climate/energy crisis. Between 1984 and 1994 some of the best minds in nuclear physics and engineering succeeded in developing a new type of reactor that was fueled by nuclear waste (no need for anymore uranium mining or burying plutonium for 100,000 years). It was physically incapable of melting down. It was highly resistant to being diverted to weapons production. And it was of a far simpler modular design that could potentially be more economical to produce on a mass scale than today’s nuclear reactors. In short, this ain’t your daddy’s nuclear power plant.

But, the whole promising endeavor fell victim to the politics of the moment when President Clinton killed the program in 1994. Today, it sits as a monument to a clean energy future that was passed over for largely political and ideological reasons. Is it possible that we environmentalists should have advocated for improving nuclear technology rather than for abandoning it? If we had, perhaps coal would not now be the fastest growing source of energy on the planet. Perhaps America, like nuclear powered France, would be well on its way to having the best air quality and the lowest CO2 emissions in the industrialized world, rather than being in dead heat with China for the title of ‘world’s biggest polluter.’

As I was leaving the test reactor, accompanied by it’s chief designer, Dr. Charles Till, I turned to him and said with my best Dr. Strangelove impersonation, “VY DIDN’T YOU TELL DA VORLD?” He laughed and said, “I tried.”

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