Nearly 50 American and Canadian tech companies, including heavy hitters like Bill Gates, have invested over a billion dollars in next-generation nuclear technologies in the last 10 years, according to the think tank Third Way.
Despite declining public trust in nukes, especially since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan in March 2011, proponents argue that nuclear is key — some say the key — to providing reliable energy while at the same time helping to rid the world of fossil fuels.
"We were compelled by a mission to get involved in a very pressing energy challenge, and that's a challenge that is exacerbated by a growing world population, by a propensity of people move to cities," Marcia Burkey, chief financial officer of TerraPower, told VICE News. Bellevue, Washington-based TerraPower was founded by Bill Gates and is developing new nuclear reactor technologies.
But critics of nuclear power say this rosy picture does not match the realities of the industry, and that the technologies are too far from being scaled up commercially to meet the urgency of lowering emissions. What's more, they say, the money behind the current push for more advanced reactors is paltry compared to the costs associated with developing, licensing, and constructing even a single nuclear plant.
"You can't really in good faith put forward a technology that we don't know how to do, and have no real prospect of knowing how to do in the next couple of decades. The solution needs to be underway already or to be capable of beginning tomorrow," Peter Bradford, a professor at Vermont Law School and former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), told VICE News. "That's really not true of any of those designs mentioned in the [Third Way] report."
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At the turn of the millennium, before Fukushima and the boom in cheap, domestically produced natural gas, nuclear power was on the verge of something of a renaissance, Bradford said. Energy demand was growing, renewables like solar and wind were expensive compared to fossil fuels, and the political environment seemed poised to put a price on carbon, making nuclear a viable energy choice.
Since then, however, renewables have taken off, while electricity demand in the US has remained relatively stable. Utilities are turning to cheap, abundant supplies of natural gas, and the price of solar and wind generation has plummeted.
Together those factors make building a large fleet of new reactors "unrealistic," said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
"Utilities lost interest and the nuclear renaissance flopped," he said. "Now a narrative, I think, is being driven by some kind of entrepreneurial types who think they can do anything as long as you approach it with the right spirit. I think they look at the energy problems and say, 'Why can't we just innovate our way into a new energy future?'"
That ethos, while far from achieving delivery of a new generation of nuclear facilities, is churning out many new designs and technologies. The Third Way report points to several that could make nukes cheap to build and more efficient. For example, small modular reactors (SMRs) provide less electricity than older nuclear plants, but could cut construction time by up to four and a half years. And new types of so-called breeder reactors produce more fissile material than they consume.
Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, told VICE News that companies have spent $100 billion worldwide trying to commercialize breeder reactors without success.
"So now you're telling me that this combination of reactors has $1.3 billion scattered over more than a dozen technologies?" he said. "Bill Gates' investment … is hopeless."
Nuclear power, though, already has its foot in the door of energy generation in the United States, accounting for about 20 percent of production since the 1990s, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). And scaling back nuclear's contribution to America's energy mix is not without potential consequences.
Last month, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research published a study showing that after California's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down in 2012, natural gas plants stepped in to meet demand. A year later, California's carbon dioxide emissions increased by 9 million tons — the amount emitted annually by 1.7 million automobiles.
Even if nuclear can overcome its technological hurdles, the question remains or who is going to pay for bringing the next generation on line. Third Way's Brinton predicts that as development begins to move forward, investor money "will increase exponentially" to support construction of prototypes — a sentiment echoed by Doug McCuistion, chief operating officer of X-energy, a Maryland company working on SMRs.
"Nuclear financing remains a challenge for everyone in the nuclear energy industry, but more and more investors are beginning to see the potential of these revolutionary power plants," McCuistion told VICE News. "[L]enders are beginning to see lower costs, shorter timelines, and more attractive returns."
But investors also want to make an impact on the world's biggest problems, said Brinton.
"They see nuclear as a chance to take the big steps forward. If you're talking about a big problem, you need to have big solutions," he told VICE News.
But nuclear plants have big price tags. Building an advanced nuclear plant costs more than $12 billion, according to the EIA — and the public foots much of that bill. Private investors, for example, benefit from state laws that shield them from paying for cost overruns during construction. They're also backed by federal insurance if an accident occurs.
A Vermont Law School report found that construction delays on a South Carolina nuclear plant will likely cost the state and its electricity customers nearly $10 billion. And two new reactors in Georgia, with an estimated total cost of $14 billion, are already more than three years behind schedule. The costs from delays alone are inching toward $2 billion.
"Nuclear power is just a technology with so many challenges to make it safe and secure and competitive," Lyman told VICE News, "that even [for] the masters of the universe, it's going to take a lot more than they've been willing to put into it so far."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro