“We need nuclear energy to fight climate change,” says Alan Ahn, a senior fellow at Third Way, a think tank that advocates for the industry. But he acknowledges you might not share his opinion. Especially, he says, if you’re around his age and grew up watching Homer Simpson, a rather infamous member of the nuclear workforce, rolling around on top of a barrel “leaking something green and glowing.” (Maybe add to that Chernobyl and Fukushima, plus the rockets currently sailing over Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine.)
But nuclear technology has been in use for decades in the United States, and it still produces nearly a fifth of US electricity with virtually no carbon emissions. Its safety track record over that period is also remarkably solid. Plus, issues of energy security are as relevant as ever, for reasons that have everything to do with those missiles landing near Zaporizhzhia. These are part of a cocktail of reasons that have profoundly shifted attitudes toward nuclear energy in recent months. From California to Germany, places planning to retire their reactors have now said they believe nuclear energy is part of the future—both to provide clean, reliable energy at night and when winds are low, and as a way to reduce dependence on Russian gas and oil.
The industry still faces uncertainty, primarily due to economics. Big reactors under construction in the US are subject to immense delays and overrunning costs. But that future is made brighter, Ahn argues, with advances in technology. He points to new advanced reactors, developed by startups like NuScale and Oklo, that are meant to be smaller, more efficient, and easier to construct. Once those designs earn regulatory approval, he says, the future of nuclear energy will again be bright.