By Daniel McGlynn
Early this year, Rachel Slaybaugh attended a campus mixer on technological innovation. When she introduced herself as a professor of nuclear engineering, other attendees would pause and ask for clarification. She remembers, “People were like, ‘Wait. What? You’re from where?'”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” she would reply, “but the nuclear industry is a little behind in terms of innovation.”
The nuclear energy sector is often perceived as a last-century industry. But that is changing. A growing market of venture-backed startups signals that we are on the verge of a nuclear do-over.
Despite a turbulent history, the allure of nuclear energy—electricity production on a massive scale with minimal emissions—remains attractive. Its low emission rate is why the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change recommends doubling the world’s nuclear capacity by 2050.
Nuclear energy as an effective strategy to combat climate change, along with the fascinating physics of nuclear fission, is what drew Slaybaugh to the field in the first place. “I keep going back to the numbers for safety and impacts,” she says. “Even without considering climate change, just look at the public health impact of air pollution. I just can’t come to any answer that isn’t nuclear.”
Yet the bulk of the 100 nuclear reactors currently operating in the U.S., which continue to produce about 20 percent of the nation’s energy, are reaching retirement age, and energy market forces don’t always favor nuclear.
In June, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric utility announced plans to shutter its long-controversial Diablo Canyon reactor within a decade. The reason cited was not environmental issues or safety concerns, but economic: the aging reactor can’t compete price-wise with other energy sources. “It’s ironic that as environmental groups switch to pro-nuclear or at least neutral on nuclear, existing nuclear plants are closing—not because of increased public backlash, but because of distortions in the electricity market,” Slaybaugh says.
“I’m very pro-renewables, but production tax credits are paid to some resources that don’t emit air pollution and not others,” she continues. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Many realize that for nuclear energy production to have a future, the entire industry needs an overhaul—including how regulatory structures and energy markets are constructed, as well as how nuclear reactors are designed, financed and built. The need for industry-wide modernization is clear even in highly partisan Washington, D.C., where lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are largely in agreement that the nuclear sector—one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world—needs to be more accommodating to new ventures.
Picture: Lothar Neumann, Gernsbach  (Karlsruhe:Bild:Philippsburg2.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons