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President Obama and other world leaders are in Paris for talks to limit climate-altering emissions. Now the problem here is that a) the world needs to get richer, b) that requires more energy, and c) more energy has meant rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.
So we have to get better, a lot better, at de-carbonizing our energy. As the Ecomodernist Manifesto correctly notes, ” … rising energy consumption is tightly correlated with rising incomes and improving living standards. … For that reason, any conflict between climate mitigation and the continuing development process through which billions of people around the world are achieving modern living standards will continue to be resolved resoundingly in favor of the latter.”
The solution is clean-energy abundance for a high-energy planet — not scarcity — with the goal of decoupling human progress from its potential impact on the climate. That path forward would seem to be one that rests on advancing solar and nuclear technology. In a New York Times commentary, venture capitalist Peter Thiel focuses on the latter:
While politicians prepare a grand bargain on emissions limits that future politicians are unlikely to obey, a new generation of American nuclear scientists has produced designs for better reactors. Crucially, these new designs may finally overcome the most fundamental obstacle to the success of nuclear power: high cost. Designs using molten salt, alternative fuels and small modular reactors have all attracted interest not just from academics but also from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists like me ready to put money behind nuclear power.
However, none of these new designs can benefit the real world without a path to regulatory approval, and today’s regulations are tailored for traditional reactors, making it almost impossible to commercialize new ones.
Fortunately, we have solved this problem before. In 1949 the federal government built a test facility at Idaho National Laboratory to study and evaluate new nuclear reactor designs. We owe our nuclear power industry to the foresight of those New Dealers, and we need their openness to innovation again today. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling for reform of our national laboratories; recently, the White House hosted a summit meeting to support nuclear energy. However, now that the speeches are over, we still lack a plan to fund and prototype the new reactors that we badly need.
Both the right’s fear of government and the left’s fear of technology have jointly stunted our nuclear energy policy, but on this issue liberals hold the balance of power. … Like Nixon’s going to China, this is something only Mr. Obama can do. If this president clears the path for a new atomic age, American scientists are ready to build it.
In its 2013 report, “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” the Breakthrough Institute offers a plan that would seem to sync with what Thiel recommends. It includes both expanded support for public research as well as regulatory reform “so developers can demonstrate and license reactor components; and lower the costs, regulatory barriers, and time to market for new designs.” And certainly there are examples of government and private sector working together successfully on energy advances, most notably the shale energy revolution.
Full-throated presidential support for nuclear would not only help with the funding and regulatory issues, but also public acceptance. Venture capitalist Sam Altman has said that he believes that just as “the 20th century was clearly the carbon century … the 22nd century is going to be the atomic power century. … It’s just a question of how long it takes us.”
And that transformation will require public support. But even Altman concedes he finds nuclear power a bit unsettling: ” I know all of the physics, I know a lot about the engineering, and I know that it’s totally safe. And I do not want a nuclear power plant on my block. I really don’t. And it’s totally irrational, but I understanding why people feel that way.” As we have seen with other controversial issues, persistent use of the bully pulpit can sway opinion.