Like it or Not, Nuclear May Be Necessary on the Path to Net Zero
On March 3, just eight days into Russia’s historic invasion of Ukraine, the Russian army inexplicably attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the eastern city of Enerhodar, setting fire to surrounding structures and threatening the structural integrity of its six reactors. In the backdrop of the frightening subplot over fear of another potential Chernobyl (also located in Ukraine), a key point emerged from the global headlines; this single nuclear plant – the largest in all of Europe – produces roughly 20% of Ukraine’s power, meeting the energy needs of nearly 10 million people.
Before this latest scare, the concerns over nuclear power were extensive, and for good reason. Several start-ups are working on innovative technologies which seek to address the downside of large-scale nuclear power. The Bill Gates-funded startup TerraPower is committed to using nuclear fission to decarbonize industries at scale and provide energy to the world’s poor. Kurion is focused on solving the problem of nuclear waste and was the only U.S. company selected to participate in the cleanup of the Fukushima disaster. Oklo is working on building small “microreactors” powered by the waste of conventional nuclear reactors and housed in aesthetically pleasing A-frame structures for residential use.
Companies like this are flipping the script on nuclear energy development, with support of advocacy groups like the Nuclear Innovation Alliance which argues against the “renewables alone” approach toward clean energy. According to many energy experts, it’s hard to foresee a future where we decarbonize our power grid affordably without using nuclear power. The case is simple; nuclear power is the only carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night, through every season, anywhere on earth, and that has been proven to work at scale. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power is the most efficient form of energy production, using much less material per unit of electricity generated than any other source. The U.S. gets around 20% of its electricity from nuclear plants and France gets 70%, the largest share in the world.
Today’s cost competitive renewable resources like solar and wind will only take us so far in meeting global energy demand, and nuclear power closes much of this gap. As someone with strong environmental allegiance, I was once a staunch opponent to nuclear energy. But the pragmatic side of me has won out. At this point, if we are serious in achieving our intermediate targets on the path to net zero by 2030, we simply no longer have the luxury of not including nuclear power in our energy future, at least until promising new technologies are tested and brought to market. This is where it gets interesting.
While still in the experimental phase, fusion holds tremendous promise and may become the breakthrough technology humanity needs to solve the climate crisis once and for all. Nuclear fusion would run on commonly available sources like hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe and a natural carrier of energy. But fusing atoms together and harnessing the power released from the process has eluded scientists for 80 years. Fusion had made steady progress from the 1950’s through the 1980’s driven by competition between the US, European, Soviet, and Japanese energy programs. For the past four decades, however, the advance of fusion technology has stalled, leading many observers in the scientific community to cynically quip, “fusion is the energy of the future, and always will be.”
Theoretically, a fusion reactor fueled with just one quart of hydrogen derived from seawater could heat 10,000 homes for a year, and it has been estimated that just 70 tons of hydrogen in a fusion plant could provide energy to more than a billion people. Plus, fusion’s waste products would be radioactive for just hundreds of years (versus hundreds of thousands for waste plutonium and other elements derived from fission, and at a much lower danger level). For practical purposes, controlled fusion means infinite energy for humanity. But can the science eventually match the hype? Well, there is reason for optimism.
The main problem for its commercialization is that it takes a lot of controlled energy to separate it from other elements through electrolysis and turned into a workable fuel. This challenge isn’t stopping several well-funded start-ups from trying, and many observers believe legitimate progress is being made toward bringing successful fusion technologies to market. Leaders in the field currently include Tokamak Energy in the UK which has raised over $100 million; TAE Technologies incubated by Google with $800 million raised; Helion Energy from the Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator with capital from the likes of Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn founder) and Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook co-founder); and the Canadian company General Fusion which has raised $130 million backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. One of the most notable efforts to date is the MIT incubated Commonwealth Fusion Systems, having received over $1.8 billion from notable VC investors such as Bill Gates, Vinodh Kosla, and John Doerr for its promising SPARC plasma technology. The company is projecting that by 2025 they will have achieved commercially relevant net energy from fusion and by the early 2030s they project their first fusion power plant will go live.
Scientific opinion, technical know-how and entrepreneurial zeal appear to be coalescing. Large, well-capitalized investors increasingly believe the main barrier for fusion energy is more institutional than technical at this point, and many VCs are putting serious capital into dozens of private companies to make this goal a reality. It is no longer a pipe dream to believe the first controlled thermonuclear fusion reactor is only a few years away, perhaps even achievable by 2030. If this occurs, a new era of commercially viable fusion power could become the clean energy vaccine to climate change.
Rob Kellogg has over twenty years’ experience working with businesses, government agencies and nonprofits in various leadership and entrepreneurial roles across diverse sectors. He founded the Sathi Fund for Social Innovators and is on faculty at the Watson Institute where he teaches in their semester accelerator. Since 2015, Rob has been active in the social entrepreneurship space, having served as a mentor, investor, or advisor to 100+ founders and their ventures, many working on addressing climate restoration and adaptation.
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