Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs

For 28-year-old Leslie Dewan — and for a growing number of other young scientists interested in energy — nuclear energy isn’t about meltdowns and catastrophe. They see atomic power not as an existential threat to the planet but instead as the best way to save it, and they’re trying to revive the stalled industry with next-generation reactor designs that could change the way a skeptical public views atomic energy. Dewan just finished her doctorate* in nuclear engineering at MIT, and in her spare time she co-founded a start-up called Transatomic Power, which has plans to build a safer and cheaper nuclear reactor, one that couldn’t melt down like the older plants at Chernobyl or Fukushima. “I’ve always been concerned about global warming,” she says. “It seemed to me like working in nuclear power was a logical way to do something to help the environment.” But the nuclear industry today faces major challenges. Yes, there are scores of nuclear reactors being built around the world — including in the U.S., where new construction ceased for more than three decades beginning in the mid-1970s. But existing nuclear plants are being shut down out of concern for safety and cost. Germany has already announced that it will be phasing out all of its atomic plants over the next decade, and the U.S. has seen plants close early — including the San Onofre nuclear plant in southern California, which is being decommissioned because of equipment failure. The Fukushima disaster — while unlikely to have a measurable health effect — could cost more than $100 billion to clean up. This past weekend brought news of a scandal in South Korea over faked safety tests and bribes at nuclear plants. Last week Duke Energy shelved a planned new plant in Florida because of licensing problems and concerns about cost recovery. With fracking keeping the cost of natural gas so low, any new nuclear plant faces both economic and safety headwinds. (MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?) So if nuclear is going

Radioactive Green: Pandora’s Promise Rethinks Nuclear Power

Early in the new documentary Pandora’s Promise, which opens nationwide today, British environmental writer Mark Lynas travels to the Japanese town of Fukushima, now famous as the site of a 2011 nuclear meltdown. Lynas is a longtime nuclear critic who has since rethought his opposition to atomic power. Dressed in protective equipment and carrying a radiation detector, Lynas roams the spooky, abandoned streets of Fukushima. The desolation is apparent, and it touches even a staunch atomic advocate like Lynas. “There’s no other energy source that does this, leaves huge areas contaminated by its strange invisible presence,” he says. “I could see why we’d want to do without nuclear power.” That dread is why nuclear power—which provides nearly 20% of U.S. electricity—is considered so dangerous by so many. Yet the Fukushima example actually shows something else. According to a recent U.N. report, there will likely be no detectable health impacts from the radiation released by the Fukushima meltdown. The biggest catastrophe in nuclear power since Chernobyl has turned out less catastrophic than it seemed. And that’s one of many reasons that nuclear energy, which has long been demonized by environmentalists, deserves a fresh look. That fresh look is precisely what Pandora’s Promise sets out to offer. Loosely following the stories of a handful of writers and environmentalists who have reconsidered their knee-jerk opposition to nukes, the film makes the case that nuclear energy really does have the power to save the world. “It’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about,” says Robert Stone, the director of Pandora’s Promise (and the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker of the nuclear weapons documentary Radio Bikini). “They’re ringing a five-alarm fire bell on the climate crisis, so it’s time to rethink that fear of nuclear.” (MORE: What Open-Air Nuclear Tests Tell Us About the Brain) Nuclear plants are the only source of power—other than hydroelectric, which has largely hit its limits—that can supply base-load electricity on a mass scale without producing greenhouse-gas emissions. Renewable sources like wind and solar are important and growing, but

Leaks, Rats and Radioactivity: Fukushima’s Nuclear Cleanup Is Faltering

Honestly, if the consequences weren’t potentially so dire, the ongoing struggles to clean up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan would be the stuff of comedy. In March, an extended blackout disabled power to a vital cooling system for days. The cause: a rat that had apparently been chewing on cables in a switchboard. As if that’s not enough, another dead rat was found in the plant’s electrical works just a few weeks ago, which led to another blackout, albeit of a less important system. The dead rats were just the latest screwups in a series of screwups by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the owner of the Fukushima plant, that goes back to the day of March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and the resulting tsunami touched off a nuclear disaster that isn’t actually finished yet. I’m not sure things could be much worse if Wile E. Coyote were TEPCO’s CEO. But it’s not funny, not really, because the consequences of the meltdown and TEPCO’s mismanagement are very real. The latest threat comes from nearby groundwater that is pouring into the damaged reactor buildings. Once the water reaches the reactor it becomes highly contaminated by radioactivity. TEPCO workers have to pump the water out of the reactor to avoid submerging the important cooling system — the plant’s melted reactor cores, while less dangerous than they were in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, still needed to be further cooled down. TEPCO can’t simply dump the irradiated groundwater into the nearby sea — the public outcry would be too great — so the company has been forced to jury-rig yet another temporary solution, building hundreds of tanks, each able to hold 112 Olympic-size pools worth of liquid, to hold the groundwater. So TEPCO finds itself in a race: Can its workers build enough tanks and clear enough nearby space to store the irradiated water — water that keeps pouring into the reactor at the rate of some 75 gal. a minute? More than two years after the tsunami,