Back to the Future: Are you telling me that this sucker is nuclear? No, no, no, no, no, this sucker is electrical. I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need.
The Simpsons: Watch out, Radioactive Man!
Justice League Unlimited: There’s a breach in the reactor room. We are getting radiation alarms from several lower floors.
Young Sheldon: It’s clean and efficient and very safe, until something goes horribly wrong.
The Simpsons: It’s the job of tomorrow, today!
A lot of our ideas about nuclear energy come from what we have seen on the big screen or on TV. Mutants, super-villains, and time-traveling cars, sure, but also the haunting legacies of real-life disasters. Nuclear is just unsettling. After all, no other energy source leaves behind radioactive waste that lasts for tens of thousands of years.
But nuclear energy is also widely misunderstood. And as the climate crisis accelerates, many experts believe that it may be one of the best tools we have for eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters, today, the truth about nuclear energy in the era of climate change.
Reuters: Representatives from nearly 200 countries will convene in Glasgow, Scotland at the end of October for the COP26 conference to strengthen action against global warming.
Greenpeace USA: No! Nukes! No! Nukes!
KPBS: So, what’s your biggest fear? A meltdown, a spent fuel fire, sabotage, tsunami, earthquake, man-made error, human mistakes, engineering mistakes, not sure which one’s biggest.
Forbes Breaking News: Nuclear energy, it’s a non-green house gas power generation source and a crucial tool in the battle against climate change.
Gabrielle SIERRA: All right, well, I mean let's talk about the big question. What role is nuclear energy currently playing in the battle against climate change? And what role do you think it should play?
Leslie DEWAN: It's my belief that nuclear is crucial for moving the world away from fossil fuels.
DEWAN: I'm Leslie Dewan. I'm a nuclear engineer and I run a radiation detection company called RadiantNano. And I became a nuclear engineer in the first place, because I've always been an environmentalist. Right now, nuclear is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. So between about a half and two thirds of the carbon free electricity in the US comes from nuclear, somewhat similar numbers worldwide.
So let’s put this into perspective a bit. In 2020, fossil fuels generated about 60 percent of the electricity in the United States. Nuclear accounted for roughly 20 percent, that’s about the same as solar, wind, and all other renewables combined.
Now it’s important to understand that electricity production is only part of the overall carbon picture, but it is a big part. In 2019, electricity production accounted for about a quarter of all global carbon emissions. Even if the world got that down to zero, there would still be emissions from cars, the shipping industry, and many other sources.
But why use nuclear power at all? Why not stick to safer options like wind, and solar?
DEWAN: So the big advantage of nuclear is the base load energy supply. Basically, it can produce a constant amount of power without needing to store electricity in battery backups. So I'm 100% in favor of expanding the amount of solar and wind that we're using, but the tricky thing with wind especially is that you can have days when you have a lot of wind and there's a large oversupply of electricity, and you need to find a way to store it. Or you can have days where there isn't any wind at all and you need to find a way to make up for that shortfall. So nuclear is very, very good at basically helping to smooth out those peaks and troughs in supply.
JACKSON: We are all, I think, more interested today in having as low a carbon footprint in our activities as we can.
This is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson. She is the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Institute professor of physics, applied physics and astronomy, as well as a professor of engineering sciences. In 1995 Dr. Jackson was appointed by President Clinton to run the US Nuclear Regulatory commission, meaning that she was the chief authority on nuclear safety in the United States. She has been a global leader in the effort to advance and safely regulate nuclear power for decades.
Shirley Ann JACKSON: And obviously power generation is important for maintaining societies and uplifting lives. And so we have to work out a plan based on all possible energy solutions, and with the high energy density, it's reliability when well-managed, and the low carbon footprint of nuclear plants, I think we have to think about nuclear energy as part of an overall strategy. And that is why it should matter to us.
SIERRA: How safe is nuclear energy?
JACKSON: Well, what people worry about is exposure. People think about radiation. They think maybe when they see vapor that really comes from cooling towers at a nuclear plant, they're thinking that it's a radioactive release, it is not. Some fear that there might be a release in wastewater coming from the plant. And there are myriad systems that are built in to keep that from happening. People are not just willy-nilly operating things in an unsafe manner. And so that, I believe, should help to allay people's fears.
The safeguard systems that Dr. Jackson referenced do a very good job of preventing nuclear disasters in the United States. That said, 49 percent of Americans oppose nuclear energy and only 47 percent of Americans believe nuclear power is safe. Part of the problem is that most of us don’t understand what’s happening inside those plants.
SIERRA: Can you give me a 101 on the science of how nuclear energy works?
DEWAN: Nuclear energy is basically just a fancy way of boiling water. So within a nuclear reactor core, you have your uranium oxide fuel rods, they're cooled and moderated by liquid water. And the fuel rods are in a configuration where they've achieved what's called criticality. So they have a large stable number of nuclear fission reactions that are generating a great deal of heat. That heat is carried away by the water flowing past them, boils the water up into steam, the steam drives the turbine that turns the generator that produces electricity.
Nuclear fission is the process by which atoms split, creating enormous amounts of energy. Nuclear reactors are basically just structures that are able to control this process in a safe and useful way. But not all reactors are the same.
SIERRA: So let's talk about reactors. What do they do and are there different types?
DEWAN: So the majority of nuclear reactors operating today are what's called light water reactors. They’re sometimes called conventional reactors or traditional reactors. These reactors are actually not first developed for power production, not for really producing electricity, they were actually first developed in the 1950s for nuclear powered submarines. So they came out of the US Navy initially. And then it wasn't until around 1956 at the height of the Cold War when the US said, all right, we want to have nuclear reactors used for power on land. And as a point of national pride, we want to get these up and running as quickly as possible. We want to get this done specifically before the Soviet Union does. And so they took these submarine based reactors and put them on land. And that means that there's a lot of room for improvement. And so that's what the next generation of reactors, the so-called advanced reactors, are trying to adapt to, trying to basically make nuclear reactors that are impeccably well suited for use on land. And there are a few different varieties of these advanced reactors. So the one closest to my heart is called a molten salt reactor that uses liquid fuel rather than solid fuel. There are also reactors that use uranium metal as fuel and they're cooled and moderated by either liquid sodium or liquid lead. Those are called metal fast reactors. And then there are reactors cooled by gas, reactors that use, instead, fuel rods, pebbles of fuel. And they all have different safety benefits and some of their own new drawbacks as well. But overall, the hope is that these new reactors will be much more lower cost, more proliferation resistant and easier to roll out and higher efficiency as well.
SIERRA: I love that you described a reactor as being close to your heart.
These new reactors are designed to address the weak points of nuclear energy. And there are weak points. The problems fall into four basic buckets: cost, waste, security, and the rare but serious possibility of disaster.
WNEP: An unexpected release of more radiation today from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant has led to a series of consequences.
ABC News In-depth: Massive quantities of radiation have apparently been released at an accident at the Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine.
TODAY: Fukushima. It began with the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history, one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.
DEWAN: I think that’s something that the nuclear industry needs to be really, really open about, talking about what went wrong in those accidents, talking about how the existing nuclear facilities are different from that previous generation of plants. So what went wrong in all three of those cases in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima is basically those plants lost their electricity and then lost the cooling water that went over the uranium oxide fuel rods. So lost electricity to the pumps, the pumps the cooling water, cooling water drained away. And then your uranium oxide fuel rods would heat up and heat up and heat up with nothing to cool them down. And eventually they heated up so much that the structural integrity of the fuel rods was compromised. They started to bend, they started to melt. And that's what a nuclear meltdown is. The newer generation of nuclear reactors have very, very different cooling requirements. And so in many cases, it's just not possible for them to have a meltdown, like in the case of a molten salt reactor. And so I think that's an important piece to get across is that the technology of these advanced reactors is so different that it really obviates some of the prior failure modes that were there.
Meltdowns are terrifying and tragic, but it would be a big mistake to think that nuclear is the most deadly power source. A recent Harvard study found that air pollution from fossil fuel combustion was responsible for 8.7 million deaths globally in 2018 alone. By comparison, nuclear power has caused about 5,000 deaths in a 38 year period from 1971-2009. Deaths from nuclear power are typically caused by onsite accidents, whereas deaths from fossil fuels are largely caused by the air pollution they create. Exact comparisons are difficult, but the difference in scale is obvious.
JACKSON: Well, I actually visited Chernobyl in my first year as chairman of the NRC, and that does focus the mind. And I actually visited the site, and I had to wear every dosimeter known to man or woman. Both ones that would measure longer term exposure over the time I was there, as well as what are called alarming dosimeters if things start to get hot on the spot. And then I had to go to NIH before I left for a whole body scan, and another one when I got back. But I felt it was important to understand what countries were dealing with, in this case Ukraine.
Any technology sits on a knife edge, and there can be sometimes accidents or sometimes things may be deliberately used for ill. But on average, nuclear is much more regulated, and has much more oversight than your typical fossil generating station or your typical chemical plant that people deal with every day. And so I would not, as a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, tell you that one can just operate these facilities willy-nilly. But at the same time, I would say you have to ask yourself as you look over a time, how much has happened because of a nuclear accident compared to chemical plant accidents and the like.
SIERRA: So the idea sounds like if you do it safely, and the right precautions are put in place, the right oversight, there shouldn't be this impulse of not in my backyard. It should be a pretty safe thing to have around a town.
JACKSON: I would say so, but citizens have the right to demand that there be that appropriate oversight, and that there be transparency about that oversight. And I always, as chair, felt that that was my responsibility, and talking with people. So whenever I visited a nuclear power plant, I also met with the local population as well as having a press conference even if there was nothing in particular to talk about, but it was important to answer people's questions.
Disasters are rare, but there’s another problem that will always be part of the nuclear equation. Radioactive waste. Nuclear reactors use radioactive material like uranium for fuel. The problem is that once the process is finished, there’s still a lot of radioactive stuff leftover, stuff that will remain deadly for tens of thousands of years. So the question becomes one of figuring out how to store this material as safely as possible.
In the United States, spent fuel from nuclear power plants is put into rods and stored in cooling pools at or near the site itself. But these sites are considered temporary.
Scientists agree that the most promising long-term solution is to store radioactive materials deep underground, and there have been plans to develop such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada for decades. But so far it has not been politically feasible.
JACKSON: There are really two kinds of nuclear waste that people think about the most. One is what's called low level waste. And that's waste that where the radioactivity is low, and where the disposal is easier, and can be disposed of in fairly shallow types of repositories. The problem comes with high level waste, and spent fuel is the type that one thinks about. And the fuel comes in the form of rods. And these spent fuel rods are very highly radioactive. They have very long live radioactivity and they generate a lot of heat. And so they require very careful handling over a very long period. And so we actually have about 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel around the country. And about 2000 metric tons are generated every year. And by 2055, the belief is we'll have about twice as much. And this is spread around at 75 different operating and decommissioned nuclear plants all across the United States. And worldwide, I think the estimate is about 300,000 a metric tons. But to this point, all efforts to create a permanent deep geologic repository have failed.
DEWAN: There are some nuclear reactors today, like some of the ones that are operating in France that do what's called reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. So you take the spent fuel that's coming out of a reactor, deconstruct it, repartition it, put it into new nuclear fuel assemblies and you're able to extract some additional energy from it, say, another three or four or five percent of the energy that you could potentially get out of the uranium. There are some other companies and research groups today that are working on making that much better, being able to extract even more of the energy out of the spent nuclear fuel, so you're leaving behind less waste in turn. But that problem is definitely not solved yet. And even with those reprocessing facilities, there's still waste coming out of the backend of the design. And so people are figuring out better ways to store that in the long term, because this is waste that you need to keep a handle on for on the order of 10,000 years. So it's very much a geological timescale problem.
Dealing with radioactive waste is tricky and dangerous. It’s also expensive. And advanced safety protocols are only part of the reason that nuclear power plants are a costly investment. There’s also all the materials and technology that go into building the facility, and then the operational and maintenance costs required to keep it running under a strict regulatory system.
DEWAN: The expensive nuclear is, to my mind, one of the biggest aspects that's holding back the construction of more nuclear power plants. Some of the reactors that are being built today in the US and Western Europe have very, very significant cost overruns. And these are plants that would have been, you know, their initial estimates were still very expensive. You have a plant that was initially expected to cost $7 or $8 billion, it ends up costing $13 billion. And that's just not sustainable. And so I think this isn't the most glamorous part of engineering, but I think there's so much potential for just streamlining the construction process, making more modular nuclear reactors. There's a whole category called small modular nuclear reactors where in general, you'd be producing all of the components at a central location and then shipping out the reactors to where they're ultimately going to be installed. And I think that decreasing that overall cost, increasing modularity while still keeping the same safety benefits, I think will be crucial to building more nuclear worldwide.
The last issue with nuclear power doesn’t have to do with the technology itself, but with the possibility that it could be attacked, stolen, or exploited by adversaries.
SIERRA: What type of terrorism risks do nuclear power plants present? Can someone hack them and cause a disaster?
JACKSON: Well, what ends up happening with most nuclear plants frankly, is that the nuclear plants don't tend to be directly connected to the internet. And so that's not to say that one, people don't think about how they might reach into a plant because nefarious actors will always do that, but the plants are designed to not be so easily accessible, and it's not something that is discussed publicly. Secondly, the plants do have controls which tend to shut them down very quickly if, in fact, there is some irregularity. And so that's all I would really say about that.
But a direct attack on a nuclear plant, whether cyber or traditional, is not the only security fear.
DEWAN: So what you need to be really careful about is monitoring the nuclear material that's going into the plant in the form of fuel rods or any other type of fuel form rather, and then also tracking the material that's leaving the plant. So when you take out your spent fuel rods from the reactor and put them in a spent fuel pool to cool them down or put them into dry cask storage on the site after you've extracted the energy that you can extract from the fuel. So it wouldn't practically speaking be possible to take that spent fuel or that fresh fuel and turn it into a full fledged nuclear bomb, but it is radioactive material. And so you need to make sure that people aren't diverting that and turning that into a dirty bomb, for example. So you do have to have very, very strict security and safeguards protocols to monitor where that is at any one time.
SIERRA: So let's talk a bit about the connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. What's the connection? Is there a connection? And where do we see a potential problem playing out?
DEWAN: Looking at it from an engineering perspective, so the nuclear material that goes into weapons is very different from the nuclear material that's used in power facilities. And if you are making a nuclear weapon that nuclear material has to have greater than 90% or typically greater than 95% uranium-235 for it to be feasible to be used in a bomb. In nuclear power facilities, it's approximately 5% uranium-235. So you couldn't take the uranium from a nuclear reactor and turn that into a nuclear bomb. It just would not be physically possible.
JACKSON: In order to get to that, it requires additional capability in terms of the ability to actually do that enrichment. And that takes a lot of infrastructure, money, focus, and time. But of course, then what gets monitored by the organizations like the IAEA is just that whether they are facilities, be they, most of the time, clandestine that a country may have where it's looking to create weapons-grade, uranium, or plutonium. And so those are the things that people spend a lot of time focusing on being able to detect.
SIERRA: Sure. So the concern is that a nuclear power program could be a cover for a nuclear weapons program?
JACKSON: Well, that is something that, of course, a nation would worry about, that a country like ours would worry about. That's why people worry about centrifuges in certain countries, and how many stages to the centrifuges there are because those things link to how much uranium can be enriched, and enriched to the point that it becomes what's called weapons-grade. I mean, these are very sensitive issues as you can imagine.
This concern isn’t hypothetical. Take Iran for example. Their nuclear energy program began in 1957, with the help of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. Many believe this initiative set the foundation for Iran to secretly develop a nuclear weapons program by providing dual-use technology, equipment, and education.
It’s just one example of how nuclear technology is never a trivial matter. And why it requires such strict regulation.
DEWAN: So the majority of nuclear plants in the US are run by private energy utilities. For example, Southern Company owns and operates the vast majority of plants within the southeastern United States. But throughout it, there's a very, very strong government oversight process, throughout basically every stage of the plant from the early design to pouring the concrete to operating the facility. And that oversight is almost entirely done by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at basically all stages.
SIERRA: Is there oversight of nuclear power at the global level?
JACKSON: Oh, sure. Well, how does that occur? I mean, it emanates from, in our case, from the national to the global. And let me explain that. There's a layered effect. So there are laws in this country that govern that regulatory oversight. They began with the Atomic Energy Act which has been in existence for 70, 80 years, but it's also governed by the various environmental acts, the NRC policy acts, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and what's called The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 that created the NRC. But then that plays against a larger background that links to bilateral agreements between countries as well as work through multi national organizations. And what are they? The one that most people hear about is the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This organization was created to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to prevent it from being used for military purposes. It’s a forum for cooperation on peaceful nuclear technology, but it’s also a watchdog that has the authority to conduct inspections of nuclear facilities to ensure that they are safe, and that they are not being used to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA derives its authority from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, an agreement between 191 countries, that aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
JACKSON: So there, any number of international agreements that provide an overall safety envelope. In addition, there are international agreements and treaties that relate to nuclear weapons as well. And all of those are meant to provide a framework that ensures that there's the highest level of focus and adherence to nuclear safety, and what I call nuclear safeguards. And so these are things that play what happens at the national level into what happens at the international level.
SIERRA: Does the need for regulation and safety increase the end cost of nuclear energy?
DEWAN: It does increase the end cost, but it's crucially necessary. Like, I think that if there's any field at all whatsoever that should be regulatory heavy, nuclear is certainly it. So I view all of those regulations as being just an integral part of the process. And along the lines of regulation, I think that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has become very, very forward looking when it comes to thinking about, say, how you regulate the next generation of nuclear reactors. And so it's been really, really interesting to me and it's a very, very welcome change that they're starting to embrace, like what do these new designs look like.
As some scientists work to refine traditional nuclear technology, others are working on a moonshot breakthrough that could change everything we know about energy. It’s called nuclear fusion, and it’s the same process that has powered the sun for billions of years. If we can replicate this reaction on earth, it would generate virtually an unlimited supply of energy, with no radioactive waste and no greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists around the world believe fusion is the energy for the future. But safe and limitless energy is no easy feat.
DEWAN: The joke is that fusion is 30 years away and always will be. But if it works and there actually has been a lot of really interesting progress on that front, just over the past few years, it would be able to provide large amounts of electricity and much more cleanly than nuclear fission. The tricky thing is there are a lot of scientific unknowns and a lot of engineering unknowns. And then after you lock those down, you still need to deal with how you construct these plants in an economical fashion. So there's a lot of work still to be done, but there are some really brilliant people and even some just fascinating private companies that are making really great strides on developing commercially viable fusion plants for the future.
Fusion would represent an unparalleled breakthrough in the fight against climate change. But it may still be a long ways off. For now, countries have to weigh mounting climate and energy pressures against the expense and stigma of existing nuclear technology.
Some countries, like Australia for example, have no nuclear power at all. At the other end of the spectrum you have countries like the UK, which plans to center nuclear to achieve a fossil-fuel free energy grid by 2035. China is planning a 40% increase in nuclear capacity. India has 7 new plants under construction. And France is setting aside 1 billion Euros for small modular reactors.
DEWAN: So France in particular has a very high fraction of their electricity coming from nuclear. I think right now it's about 80%. In the past it was slightly higher. Yeah. And so France among every industrial country has by far the lowest greenhouse gas production, because so much of their energy comes from nuclear. And France in particular when they were building a lot of these reactors in the 1970s were especially good about streamlining the construction process as well. They built very, very similar reactor units across the country, which allowed them to cookie cutter style, just roll them out one after another, after another. And just streamlining the actual construction is one of the most crucial pieces for making sure that these plants can be built on time and on budget.
So where is the United States in all of this? We still derive about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power, but the infrastructure is aging. 12 reactors were permanently closed between 2013 and 2021, and in many cases this led to an increased use of fossil fuels. If these trends continue, the nuclear share of U.S. electricity generation could fall to just 11 percent by 2050.
SIERRA: What is the risk if we don't pursue further research and implementation of nuclear energy?
DEWAN: I think that nuclear is crucial for hitting our climate goals. I think there's no way that we'll be able to hit our climate goals with solar and wind and hydro and geothermal alone. To get a little bit more specific on that, there aren't very many more places in the world where we can install additional hydro or geothermal and wind and solar. They're fantastic technologies, but we need to couple them with better grid scale energy storage or else they won't be useful for the grid. One of the craziest things to me about the electric grid in general as a system is that you need to across an electric grid match very, very closely the amount of electricity being produced at any one time and the amount of electricity being consumed at any one time. And you can get halfway decent estimates for how much electricity is being consumed at any one time. You can say, okay, well this is baseline, how much people in businesses use. And okay, there's a heat wave coming up next week. So we can guess that people are going to turn on their air conditioning units and it'll increase a little bit. But if you couple that with an unpredictable supply from solar and wind, it becomes a very, very, very tricky problem. And again, to emphasize that I'm 100% in favor of expanding solar and wind, we definitely need to expand that as well, but we also need to figure out better types of storage in order to be able to use them properly.
And we’re running out of time. Scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that the earth’s average temperature could hit the dangerous threshold of 1.5 degrees warming by the early 2030s.
SIERRA: It's fascinating to me that we need to expand nuclear, because it felt like when I was growing up, nuclear energy was thought of as something that was very bad for the environment. And now it seems that the reverse is true. There's still a little time left just 10 years, according to some studies. And this is a tool that we have that we know works.
DEWAN: I think that's exactly right. I think one of the more urgent pieces actually is when it comes down to whether you want to keep existing nuclear power plants open or not, because there's a large number of about 99 operating in the US, about 440 worldwide, of this older generation of conventional light water reactors. And there've been a number of places in the US where these plants have been shut down, say, in New England where I'm originally from. Then after the old nuclear plants are shut down, the balance of electricity production is made up for with coal power, which is just catastrophic environmentally. So I think it's really important also to not shut down the existing facilities prematurely. They're operating safely, they've been operating safely for 30, 40, 50 years. And you want to make sure that you keep reaping the benefit of them. I think there is the potential for people to start having warm feelings towards the next generation of nuclear power plants. And I think I'm not completely insane in saying that, but they can say, "Okay, that is a carbon free source of electricity. It's safe. It is good for my community. I am glad that it's part of the community." And that's my hope, at least.
If you enjoyed this episode, head over to CFR’s Instagram, where I recently had a live video chat with Leslie. While you are there check out the other live chats we have done with various guests from the show.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Asher Ross, Jeremy Sherlick, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our associate podcast producer. Our intern is Natalia Lopez.
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Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!
The climate crisis is considered by many to be the world’s most pressing issue. Today, nuclear energy is the largest provider of carbon-free electricity. But disasters such as those at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island have shaped public opinion around its use. Nuclear energy could be vital to global climate action, but at what cost? Scientists, policymakers, and citizens alike are weighing the risks of nuclear waste against the prospect of continued reliance on fossil fuels. As the climate crisis intensifies, the appetite for nuclear energy grows.
“The Fukushima Disaster Didn’t Scare the World Off Nuclear Power,” Lindsay Maizland
“The Activists Who Embrace Nuclear Power,” New Yorker
“UK to put nuclear power at heart of net zero emissions strategy,” Financial Times
“Mini nuclear reactors vie for key role in UK’s push to hit climate targets,” Financial Times
Watch and Listen
“Do We Need Nuclear Energy to Stop Climate Change?,” Kurzgesagt
“Tiny Nuclear Reactors Are the Future of Energy,” Vice News
“Nuclear power: why is it so unpopular?,” Economist