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The fight to rethink (and reinvent) nuclear power

New nuclear energy technology has come a long way — but can we get over our fears?

In 2011, following the Fukushima Disaster in Japan, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the country would completely phase out its use of nuclear power by 2022. This move was hailed by anti-nuclear activists, but criticized by some environmentalists: At a critical moment in the fight against climate change, it took away a working clean power source.

“When you look at the technology, and you ask yourself, how are we going to solve this problem of climate change, and how are we going to decarbonize? To not have nuclear energy on the table makes the job much harder,” said Per Peterson, a professor in UC Berkeley’s department of nuclear engineering.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant came online in the early ‘70s. Much has changed in the world of nuclear power plant design since then. Peterson is one of the researchers working on next-generation reactors, designed to be so safe that even Homer Simpson couldn’t cause a meltdown.

“In the last 20 or 30 years, we've developed different types of fuel, which, in fact, physically cannot melt,” said Peterson.

Peterson works with pebble-bed reactors, which use small spherical fuel “pebbles” where the radioactive material is encased in a ceramic shell that can withstand extremely high temperatures. In the case of a power outage or other problem, fuel pebbles empty into a holding tank where they don’t need water or other cooling systems like older reactor designs.

The kind of nuclear power plants you picture from The Simpsons or The China Syndrome, are mostly due to be decommissioned by midcentury. And they won’t be replaced in kind: New reactor designs eliminate the risk of meltdowns, operate at much lower pressure than older designs and use fuel more efficiently to reduce waste.

None of these advances can fully overcome nuclear energy’s biggest obstacle: fear. While many nuclear worries are overblown, Dan Kammen, also a professor in the department of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, is clear that nuclear power’s bad reputation has been well-earned.

“When you have spill of solar energy, what's that called? It's a sunny day, right? No one objects,” said Kammen. “Well, you have a spill of nuclear power, it's not a sunny day.”

Perception of nuclear power plants has been deeply colored by the rare catastrophes — Fukushima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl — so much so that people rarely consider how they compare with fossil fuel plants.

“Nuclear is massively safer than coal,” said Kammen. “I'd much rather have a nuclear plant nearby my home than a coal-fired power plant. When you look at the number of deaths on an immediate basis, even one of these horrible nuclear accidents or long-term from a coal plant, there really is no comparison.”

Not only is coal responsible for many more deaths and illnesses than nuclear energy, coal ash emits more radiation into the environment than nuclear plants. This isn’t hard to do: Living near a nuclear plant for a year exposes you to less radiation than you get from eating a single banana.

Even if we overcome the technical, logistical, and financial hurdles, can we ever get past our own fears?

Watch the video above with Per Peterson, Dan Kammen, and others working on how nuclear energy could play an important role in a carbon-free world.

Find out more about the latest thinking on clean energy and climate change solutions at

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