On Wednesday, Feb. 16, at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host an online event asking, “How much of our future is nuclear?” For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
The year is 2072. Any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is long dead. Earth’s mean temperature is about 2.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—and climbing still, with human beings struggling to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero.
More than 9 billion people now call this warmer Earth home. Thanks to the advance of clean technology, their everyday activities emit far less CO2 than ours do today. Worldwide fossil fuel emissions are now perhaps 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, around one-quarter of annual emissions in the early 2020s.
The consensus worldwide is that society took far too long to reach even this disappointing milestone. The final push to net zero, scientists and policymakers project, could take another decade. The youth of 2072 blame a multitude of factors for the slow pace of decarbonization, from the entrenched interests of powerful industries and political lobbying groups to insufficient investment in clean energy earlier in the century. But you might be surprised by whom else they blame.
In particular, the young adults of 2072 find it absolutely unfathomable that “environmentalists” 50 years prior could have been so vehemently opposed to nuclear energy.
After all, in 2072, nuclear power is commonplace. Perhaps 20 percent of global primary energy is produced by nuclear reactors. Small nuclear reactors are a normal sight, individually powering factories, mines, island nations, and rural communities, while larger reactors and clusters of six to 12 small units supply heat and electricity to cities. All of this nuclear energy is generated as cleanly as that produced from solar or wind farms. Students see reactor operation and nuclear engineering as growing clean energy fields that offer promising and prestigious career options. Thanks to enormous advances in safety technology made in the 2010s and 2020s, there has been no notable nuclear accident anywhere in the world for many decades.
This is a future in which the costs of a missed opportunity decades ago are obvious. Nuclear energy could very well deliver its long-sought technological promises. At the same time, the world at large could easily fall short of climate goals, leading subsequent generations to wonder why their predecessors didn’t pursue clean, proven nuclear energy earlier and more aggressively. Such a scenario is all too possible to imagine even from our perspective today.
Today, the future of nuclear power is more assured than many realize, especially once one looks beyond Europe and North America. Regardless of the success of American, Canadian, or British nuclear research efforts, the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are already building the next generation of reactors. About 20 new reactors are under construction in China, with at least 30 more units planned. Advanced designs that skeptics of nuclear power have long dismissed as eternally stuck at the R&D stage are now operating commercially, including miniature pressurized water reactors and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. Russian and Chinese reactor exports are already securing deals across much of the world. Even in Europe, where nuclear capacity has declined over time, attitudes are shifting, with France and the U.K. both recently signaling intentions to build new reactors. It is only a matter of time before even nuclear-anxious nations reverse course and bolster neglected nuclear energy programs.
In the long run, anti-nuclear advocates will not succeed. It remains an utter fantasy to imagine that activism will bring about an end to the atomic age at a time when nuclear technology is poised for revolutionary steps forward. But in the near term, opposition to nuclear power can certainly succeed in preventing and slowing down the advance of a sorely needed climate solution.
Time is not our ally when it comes to climate action. The planet could be on track for global warming of perhaps 2.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100—a future that is not only all too imaginable but perhaps even optimistic. On this “middle-of-the-road” climate path, the oceans could sit a full half-meter higher in 2072 than they did in 1900, climbing perhaps another 20 centimeters by 2100. The global effects of climate change, from droughts to wildfires to extreme rainfall, will intensify. And over the coming decades, air pollution impacts from the prolonged use of fossil fuels could easily claim hundreds of millions of years of human life.
In the face of such threats, anti-nuclear movements continue to fixate upon concerns do not have merit. Some nuclear opponents continue to express worries over safety, uranium mining, or the storage of spent fuel. Such anxieties are understandable, but they are based on misleading and outdated perceptions of nuclear technology. Nuclear energy today remains statistically one of the safest sources of energy, on par with wind and solar. Next-generation designs possess inherent safety advantages that will make tomorrow’s reactors orders of magnitude safer still, such as highly temperature-resistant fuels and passive cooling systems. Techniques for uranium mining have improved, with much of today’s uranium produced via in situ injection of solvents into uranium-bearing rock rather than through traditional pit or underground mining. Meanwhile, both the transportation and storage of spent fuel from power plants have demonstrated admirable safety records. From recycling of used fuel to underground storage to techniques for sealing nuclear materials in layers of glass, the solutions for spent fuel also continue to multiply.
Other nuclear-skeptical climate activists claim not to be opposed to the technology but disqualify nuclear power on the basis of its price tag. Yet expense is a questionable justification for opposition, given how such groups often argue, rightly, that society should eagerly pay any price to cut emissions given the colossal costs climate change will exact on future generations.
Activist groups are even campaigning hard to shut down existing nuclear power plants that provide abundant, affordable clean energy and whose construction costs are no longer remotely relevant. Prominent environmental NGOs like the Natural Resources Defense Council have issued public celebratory statements upon the decommissioning of nuclear plants. Nor are nuclear opponents limiting themselves to blocking nuclear power solely within their home countries. Perceiving an opportunity to preemptively “rescue” developing nations from nuclear energy, development and environmental groups have supported bans on international financing of nuclear power plants in Africa and Asia. Such policies may leave nuclear energy inaccessible to many low- and middle-income countries that lack the capacity to self-finance nuclear plants. Countries like Bangladesh that have nevertheless chosen to develop nuclear energy have done so not only with limited Western international support, but often in the face of direct opposition by Western activists.
In many cases, opponents of nuclear power are even willing to accept climate tradeoffs in order to shut down or block nuclear projects. In California, “temporary” emergency fossil gas generators are being planned to fill the void left by the proposed closure of the state’s last nuclear facility. In Taiwan, government leaders are seeking to build new gas terminals rather than reconsider a nuclear phaseout. In uranium-rich Australia, a 1998 ban on nuclear power is approaching its 25th anniversary, even as the country’s energy system remains under the grip of powerful coal and gas interests.
Other sources of clean electricity can help carry the torch of climate action, but they may struggle to replace harmful fossil energy without nuclear power. While nobody doubts the theoretical ability of wind, solar, hydropower, and hydrogen to do most of the hard work of decarbonization, challenges will arise in practice. Land-scarce countries like Korea, Taiwan, and Japan might struggle to site new solar and wind farms after exhausting optimal locations. Key raw materials including lithium, cobalt, copper, and rare earth metals may run short, particularly if local and environmental opposition to new mining projects constrains supplies and drives up costs. Even in hypothetically spacious countries like Canada, Australia, and the U.S., local communities have increasingly opposed nearby clean energy projects and transmission lines, slowing and constraining deployment. There may not be enough clean hydrogen to cover non-electricity forms of energy demand across sectors like shipping, fertilizer, and industrial heat, a bottleneck that might prolong humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Nuclear generation can alleviate many of these constraints: It is land-efficient, materials-efficient, reliable, and co-produces heat and hydrogen. Stubborn opposition to nuclear energy, however, threatens to leave us saddled with an even more difficult path to a carbon-free future than the one we already face. Our grandchildren will not judge us kindly for such shortsightedness.
In the future, climate impacts are severe and widespread. One of the biggest news stories of 2072 is a report from marine biologists that over 90 percent of tropical coral reefs have bleached white. In equatorial regions, outdoor labor now takes place at night to avoid mortally dangerous conditions for workers. Climate summits involve continued arguments over climate injustice, thorny climate adaptation efforts, and stubbornly enduring fossil fuel emissions.
To be clear, the warmed climate will be a product of much more than just a single technology choice. Nuclear power is on an upward trajectory, but it will not single-handedly enable humanity to limit global warming to 1.5 C or 1.8 C. Climate change was and remains a global challenge far beyond the capacity of any one technology to solve alone. But the prevailing consensus 50 years from today will be that more nuclear energy would unequivocally have helped.
Half a century prior, major environmental groups had disparaged nuclear power as a “regrets” solution. Yet if the people of 2072 were to name one regret about nuclear energy, it was that they had not built more of it sooner.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.