Here’s What the World's Greatest Minds Think About Nuclear Energy

They agree on more than you think.
Brad Bergan
The silhouettes of three nuclear cooling towers.Ajay Pal Singh Atwal / Unsplash

In April of this year, the U.S. President announced his "American Jobs Plan", which includes new funding for the development of advanced nuclear reactors, in addition to a new electricity standard capable of ensuring more efficient use of the country's fleet of reactors.

While most major companies and manufacturing firms have committed to going net-zero by 2050, opening the door to more jobs focusing on green energy, the people behind them don't always agree on nuclear power, and whether it should be classified as clean. This raises the question: How do the minds considered great in our time feel about it?

Elon Musk thinks 'more nuclear power plants' would be great

It seems beyond question that CEO Tesla Elon Musk is very committed to clean, renewable energy. Throughout the twenty-teens, the all-electric vehicle manufacturer has begun to reshape the landscape of transportation in the U.S., with even Ford following suit in the pivot to all-electric. "Congrats @Ford for embracing an electric future!" tweeted the billionaire. But nuclear is gaining new status as a possible alternative to fossil fuel. Earlier this year, the European Union completed a draft classifying nuclear power as green investment, meeting every standard as a sustainable energy source.

Musk hasn't done much for nuclear lately, but his feelings seem mildly supportive. "[W]e should build more nuclear power plants," said Musk in an interview with PBS. "I think that's a better way to generate energy than certainly a coal power plant or a natural gas power plant." Unlike coal or natural gas power plants, nuclear power doesn't need to burn fuel to create heat, since it's powered by nuclear fission. "We should build more nuclear power plants."

In 2019, nuclear power comprised more than 10% of the world's energy. But in the public mind, the challenges nuclear power faces have less to do with safety or practicality than, well, the image. Since the disastrous meltdown of the Chernobyl facility in 1986, the perception of nuclear has focused largely on the potential dangers of radioactive exposure and catastrophe. As recently as May 2021, scientists have continued to monitor a surge in fission reactions in the ruins of the formerly Soviet installation, which could lead to a runaway reaction. But nuclear power is not bad or dangerous. Accidents in places like Fukushima or Chernobyl are almost unspeakably rare, and guidelines, inspections, and the technology behind reactors has advanced significantly since 1986.

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Bill Gates: Nuclear will 'absolutely' become politically acceptable again

It's no surprise, then, that billionaire, technologist, and climate change evangelist Bill Gates thinks nuclear power will "absolutely" become politically acceptable once more, according to a CNBC show called "Squawk Box." According to Gates, who invests in nuclear power, such plants generate zero greenhouse gas emissions, and continued innovations in the technology have substantially increased its safety, lowered the cost, and expanded availability to nations around the globe. "Nuclear has actually been safer than any other source of [power] generation," said Gates during the CNBC show.

"You know, coal plants, coal particulate, natural gas pipelines blowing up. The deaths per unit of power on these other approaches are — are far higher," added Gates. And nuclear can become even safer. In May, Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos joined an investment group betting $19.5 billion on a Canadian startup dedicated to advancing nuclear fusion technology. Called General Fusion, the company aims to build utility-scale fusion power based on a novel concept called magnetized target fusion (MTF).

Fusion upgrades could help fast-track nuclear power to sustainable status

A hybrid form of "inertial confinement fusion" and "magnetic fusion," MTF works by confining plasma within a magnetic field, and then compressing it further until thermonuclear conditions are achieved. According to the startup, MTF is "relatively unexplored", and has remained that way since engineers began evaluating the concept in the 1970s. If successful, MTF could incentivize nuclear power with the promise of a major, next-gen upgrade, capable of transforming the way we conceive of nuclear power in the modern, post-COVID paradigm.

The support of Bezos and Gates alone makes the prospect of nuclear power gaining a greater role in the sustainable pivot of energy infrastructures hard to ignore. But with many other billionaires, including Elon Musk, voicing on a spectrum from luke-warm to full support, it seems only a matter of time until the old controversies that often conflate the dangers of nuclear weapons with nuclear power begin to fade into memory, as the world looks to more efficient and potent sources of clean energy.

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