This story was originally published by HuffPost and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is a recent and painful memory in Japan. Yet in the lead-up to last month’s United Nations climate summit, newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to restart the reactors the country shut down after a tsunami flooded the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011 and caused a meltdown that contaminated more than 300 square miles with hazardous levels of radiation.

Workers at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant work among underground water storage pools on April 17, 2013. Photo by IAEA Imagebank / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Japan was hardly alone in rediscovering its enthusiasm for nuclear power. As negotiations to phase out coal fizzled, the United Kingdom announced an investment in Rolls-Royce’s next-generation nuclear reactors. Ghana and Indonesia unveiled plans for their first reactors. And China, the world’s No. 1 carbon emitter, promised to construct an unprecedented 150 new reactors in the next 15 years ― more than the entire world built in the last 35.

In the United States, where nuclear power plants have been steadily shutting down for the past decade as they struggle to compete with natural gas and renewable energy sources, the Biden administration pledged to shore up existing reactors and invest in new ones. The $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law Nov. 15 provides aging, financially troubled nuclear plants a $6-billion lifeline to stay open and directs billions more for research into next-generation mini-reactors. The $1.7-trillion Build Back Better legislation currently being negotiated in the Senate adds billions more in tax credits for nuclear generation. The Energy Department recently approved the country’s first permits for a next-gen small reactor and helped broker a deal for a U.S. nuclear startup to build one in Romania.

Nuclear is even getting a boost on the state level. Unlike New York and California, where nuclear plants are shutting down, Illinois passed a clean-energy law in September that boosted cash-strapped reactors with new subsidies.

The flurry of new policies and announcements raises the question: Are we at the dawn of a nuclear renaissance?

It’s a question that’s been posed before, most recently in the mid-2000s. Though they are among the least deadly and most reliable sources of electricity, new reactors remain extremely expensive, slow to build and unpopular. But advocates and market analysts see the dual crises of rapidly worsening climate change and growing demand for dependable electricity driving a shift toward nuclear power.

“When people talk about decarbonization, they talk as if it’s this mysterious thing that’s never been achieved,” said Isabelle Boemeke, a Brazilian advocate for nuclear power who tries to recast the energy source as chic with her fashion modelling and TikTok videos. “When you look at the technologies that have decarbonized grids, it’s hydro and nuclear. People are starting to realize that if they want electricity on at all times, and clean electricity, they’re going to have to have nuclear be a part of that.”

We’ve heard these claims before. But the mounting scale of the climate and energy conundrum is fuelling more money and favourable policies into atomic power. #ClimateChange #NuclearEnergy

Yet anti-nuclear activists say this comeback, like past ones, is at best hype and at worst a dangerous distraction that threatens to siphon away already-insufficient government funding for clean energy.

“Of all the available options for keeping fossil fuels in the ground, nukes are likely the worst. This is an expensive distraction when renewables are hiding in plain sight,” said Lukas Ross, a program manager at the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which opposes nuclear power. “The nuclear industry has always been better at putting out press releases than building reactors.”

Radioactive reputation

Nuclear power was born into a violent time. The concept of harnessing radioactive energy was first conceived after 1934 when physicist Enrico Fermi discovered that neutrons could split atoms and artificially create radiation.

Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi received the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for identifying new elements and discovering nuclear reactions by his method of nuclear irradiation and bombardment. Photo by NARA

Fleeing with his Jewish wife from fascist Italy’s anti-Semitic laws, Fermi ended up at the University of Chicago, where on Dec. 2, 1942, he carried out the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in a laboratory. It was almost one year after the United States, his adopted country, had entered the Second World War. Within months, the U.S. government recruited Fermi into the Manhattan Project.

The destructive power of split atoms was revealed just three years later when the U.S. dropped the only nuclear bombs ever used in war on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died instantly, while the invisible scourge of the radiation that lingered in the blast zone killed tens of thousands more with cancer and other diseases for years. The Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb just four years later, igniting the Cold War atomic arms race that would inaugurate a new human era in which the complete destruction of and by our species emerged as a distinct possibility.

In 1951, a government-run experimental reactor in Idaho produced the world’s first usable electricity through atomic fission. It channelled the intense heat from a chain reaction of split uranium atoms to boil water, which spun turbines and generated power. Two years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pitched his vision of “atoms for peace” in a 1953 speech at the United Nations and launched a program that would continue the proliferation of atomic weapons while orienting more nuclear research to electricity generation. In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency was established to oversee the global growth of nuclear power.

Construction began on nuclear reactors across the world, reflecting the fuel’s distinct benefits. Hydropower dams are geographically limited, require enormous feats of geological engineering and can be rendered useless in extreme droughts. Coal-fired plants wheeze filth into the air and produce mountains of toxic ash. Gas-fired generators spew pollution, too, and prices flutter wildly in the geopolitical winds. Nuclear plants, by contrast, produce no air pollution and can run almost 24/7.

But every 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor produces about three cubic metres of radioactive waste per year. In television and movies, nuclear waste is often depicted as sloshing green-glowing goo. In reality, throughout much of the world, high-level radioactive waste is simply sealed in metal containers and stored at plants, or — in the best-case scenarios — mixed with silica in a process known as vitrification, creating a solid material that looks like black glass. It is kept in stainless steel containers and sealed in concrete before being disposed of deep underground at special sites, where it takes up to 10,000 years to decay back to the radioactive levels of the original mined ore.

Where and how to store waste that remains dangerous for so long has been contentious. A proposed storage site in Yucca Mountain, a remote location in the Nevada desert, would bury waste 1,000 feet underground but has faced vehement opposition from state officials and Native American tribes since it was first proposed in the 1970s, over fears that groundwater could corrode the waste receptacles and create a radioactive monster beneath their feet. Scientists have warned that even without water intrusion, the metal containers holding nuclear waste could break down after 1,000 years. In the meantime, most waste is stored without vitrification in dry casks on site at depots and plants, where, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson told Scientific American in 2009, the agency could guarantee the safety of waste receptacles for “at least 90 years” ― a tiny fraction of its half-life.

In what some in the industry hailed as a “game-changer,” Finland is digging the world’s first deep repository for waste ― an isolated underground cavern about 1,500 feet below the Earth’s surface.

IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano tours the underground rock characterization facility (ONKALO), a nuclear waste repository, during his official visit to Posiva Oy, near Olkiluoto, Finland, on Aug. 23, 2012. Photo by IAEA Imagebank / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The threat of radioactive waste, of course, needs to be weighed against the mounting toll of pollution from fossil fuels. Radioactive minerals dredged up during gas drilling now contaminate communities across the U.S. Toxic heavy metals from coal ash have seeped into water sources. The U.S. suffered 137 oil spills in 2018 alone. And the air pollution from burning fossil fuels already causes 1 in 5 deaths each year and is linked to increases in dementia, impotence and mental illness.

There’s also the problem of mining the uranium that, with the plutonium made from processed uranium, fuels reactors. From 1944 to 1986, the U.S. extracted four million tons of uranium ore and then abandoned more than 500 mines in Navajo territory, leaving behind radioactive dust and mine tailings that sent local cancer rates soaring. Stewardship aside, scholars debate how much accessible nuclear fuel is even left in the world, with estimates ranging from 90 years’ worth to 200 years to maybe hundreds of thousands of years if uranium could be extracted from seawater.

But solar panels, wind turbines and the batteries needed to store their power rely on rare earth metals mined in Myanmar, lithium extracted from the sensitive Chilean desert and cobalt pulled from polluted communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Industry analysts fear shortages of key minerals as early as 2025 as clean-energy manufacturing booms.

It was the threat of an accidental reactor meltdown, however, that ultimately stymied nuclear power’s rise. In March 1979, one of the valves that controlled the flow of coolant water to a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., jammed, causing the radioactive core to overheat. The partial meltdown that followed caused no deaths and, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report, not even one additional cancer case in the area. But the accident captivated national attention and cemented anti-nuclear activists’ fears that no reactor could ever be safe enough.

Then in 1986, operator errors and design flaws led to a meltdown and a series of explosions at the nuclear plant 10 miles northwest of Chernobyl, Ukraine. The disaster killed a little over two dozen workers and firefighters and forced nearly 115,000 people to relocate away from the 1,000-square-mile irradiated exclusion zone. Estimates of how many people died from radioactive fallout vary widely. In 2005, a team of 100 UN scientists concluded that about 50 people had died of exposure-related diseases like thyroid cancer that were ultimately projected to kill 4,000 more. The World Health Organization pegged the number of thyroid cancer cases linked to Chernobyl alone at more than 11,000. In 2006, Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear energy, forecast the total deaths linked to the disaster at 93,000.

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe seemed like the final strike. An earthquake sent a tsunami wave crashing into the plant on Japan’s northeast coast, flooding the reactor’s systems and causing a meltdown. There were no attributed deaths until 2018, but the accident cast hazardous levels of radiation over 300 square miles, an area that now is populated by eerily dystopian ghost towns.

Japan shut down about 50 reactors. South Korea’s ruling liberal party made the shutdown of the country’s nuclear fleet a platform issue. Germany, which had already embarked on its Energiewende policy to eliminate nuclear power, hastened its closure of reactors.

In the U.S., where the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) had made natural gas cheaper than ever, nuclear power lost its appeal. As concern over climate-changing emissions grew, environmentalists who cut their teeth protesting the construction of reactors in the 1970s and 1980s embraced solar and wind as the ideal sources for zero-carbon electricity, particularly as green industrial policies in China dramatically lowered the costs of imported solar panels and wind turbines. For those worried about providing dependable 24/7 “baseload” power ― the minimal amount of electricity needed to meet demand on the grid ― there was natural gas, which produced less carbon than coal.

In 2012, U.S. nuclear power generation peaked with 104 reactors. By 2021, that number fell to 93, with nearly two dozen more reactors slated for shutdown in the coming years.

An increasingly heavy load

Nuclear seemed on the cusp of a comeback in the mid-2000s.

The world was in a familiar place to today. Energy prices were soaring. The nation was still nursing the wounds of a historically disastrous storm that seemed to function as an exclamation point on scientists’ increasingly dire warnings over global warming. Seeking some way out of the chaos, President George W. Bush marshalled his party’s control of Congress and even won over a decent number of lawmakers from the opposition party that loathed him to pass legislation aimed at reviving the nuclear industry.

The law, enacted in 2005, promised generous subsidies for power companies that stepped up to build the United States’ first new reactor in three decades. By 2007, several dozen new reactors were in various stages of the permit process.

“I think the nuclear renaissance is here,” the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that year. “I believe that dirt will be turned.”

But the only project to turn any real dirt soon became a money pit. Fifteen years after it was first announced, Plant Vogtle, a pair of nuclear reactors in eastern Georgia, is still under construction, announcing new delays just this month that inflated the total cost of the project to nearly $30 billion ― double its initial estimate.

But in those 15 years, the climate picture has gotten even bleaker. Preventing catastrophic warming requires a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel use worldwide, and rich countries like the U.S., which has the highest per capita emissions, need to make changes even faster than the rest of the world. Yet as of last year, oil, gas and coal still accounted for about 80 per cent of total U.S. energy consumption and 61 per cent of electricity production.

Eliminating the fossil fuels that propel vehicles, heat buildings and flame kitchen stovetops requires swapping out gas-guzzlers for battery-powered trucks, furnaces for heat pumps and gas appliances for electric ones. In the U.S. alone, that could increase electricity demand nearly 40 per cent by 2050, according to a Department of Energy study.

And that isn’t accounting for the growth of other industries that could add significant demand for more electricity.

There are plenty of power-hungry industries set to emerge in response to the climate crisis. Hydrogen, for example, is considered a promising fuel to decarbonize airplanes, heavy-duty trucking and steel production ― but 99 per cent of the world’s supply of the gas relies on fossil fuels. The one per cent that is considered truly “green hydrogen” depends on the energy-intensive process known as electrolysis. Then there’s the issue of freshwater supplies disappearing amid prolonged droughts. Desalinating a year’s worth of seawater for just one average American household requires about as much electricity as it takes to run a refrigerator.

Then there are even more risky endeavours. Each year the world blows past its emission-cutting targets, the amount of carbon that needs to be removed from the atmosphere in order to keep global warming in a relatively safe range of increase. That may well require by the end of this decade a significant deployment of direct air capture, machines that suck CO₂ from the air and render it into a liquid or solid form that can be stored underground. The technology is still nascent, but if deployed at scale in present form, the machines would need roughly one-quarter of global energy supplies by the end of this century, according to one 2019 study in the journal Nature Communications.

Then there are plenty of emerging industries that have little to no climate utility, such as the rise of cryptocurrency. The computing power used to extract Bitcoin, the most popular of the decentralized digital currencies, from chains of code online already needs about as much electricity as the entire nation of Thailand, and rival online tokens are rapidly proliferating.

That all makes efforts to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid a twofold problem. The country must not only replace more than 200 coal plants and roughly 2,000 gas power stations, it also has to add enough electricity to meet growing demand.

Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho. Photo by Sam Beebe / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

There are competing visions for how the country can do that. One involves decentralizing electricity production ― glazing every available roof with solar panels, equipping homes and businesses with batteries, and using electric vehicles as batteries, essentially distributing the job of fueling and balancing the grid among many individual producers. Another involves replacing the existing centralized capacity with enough zero-carbon alternatives to meet demand.

Problems dog both approaches. In many jurisdictions, there simply isn’t enough available sunlight, wind or space to accommodate the machines that harness those resources to meet the electricity demand. And getting huge volumes of wind or solar energy from the places where they’re abundant ― the sun-soaked Southwest or the windswept Great Plains, for example ― means building many more transmission lines across states and terrains. But for much of the past two decades, that has proved incredibly difficult, thanks to Byzantine regulatory regimes and powerful local opposition. Just this month, Maine voters, spurred on by an alliance between environmentalists and fossil fuel companies, overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure barring construction of a transmission line to carry zero-carbon hydropower from Quebec into the New England electricity grid.

Nuclear power faces its own hurdles, not least of which is the cost and time it takes to build a new reactor.

“If you have a more narrow, technocratic mindset about the climate crisis, you ask three questions: How much carbon? How much money? And how much time?” Ross said. “The nuclear lobby only has part of a good answer for one out of three.”

But unlike renewables, which largely require massive new transmission lines to scale up, nuclear plants tend to work well within the same infrastructure used to carry electricity from coal and gas plants. And reactors offer what the Energy Department described as “by far the highest capacity factor of any energy source,” meaning “nuclear power plants are producing maximum power more than 93 per cent of the time during the year.”

That makes nuclear 1.5 to two times more reliable than natural gas or coal. With renewables, the gap is even bigger, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

“Nuclear power has a lot of negative connotations, but it can contribute a lot to dealing with climate change,” said Chris Gadomski, the lead nuclear analyst at the energy research firm BloombergNEF. “The analogy I use is that it’s like you’re a football coach and for some reason, you bench your best player and keep losing the game.”

The future grid will likely be a varied mix of zero-carbon generation sources depending on the market, said analyst David Brown, head of American energy transitions at the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

“We think in the U.S., wind and solar will be upward of 80 per cent of power output 30 years from now,” he said. The last 20 per cent is “where we think new nuclear has a role,” he said.

Downsizing for the future

If nuclear power does make a comeback in the U.S., its future may rest in a frontier coal town in western Wyoming.

In tiny Kemmerer ― population just a little over 2,700 ― the startup TerraPower plans to replace an aging coal-fired plant with a set of its mini-reactors by 2028.

The plant could become the commercial breakthrough the next-generation nuclear industry has been awaiting. Traditional reactors are enormous, expensive and rely on expertise that has become rarer over the last decades. But the modular reactors TerraPower plans to make are typically about one-third the size and can be assembled in a factory and transported to the plant location. This, at least in theory, dramatically cuts down the construction costs and time.

Various companies and countries are competing to bring the first small modular reactors to market. Russia recently deployed a small reactor on a floating barge and docked in a Siberian port city, where it was used to heat and power homes, and it has announced plans to build more. China started building its first commercial small modular reactor on the southern island of Hainan this summer. The British government’s pledge to fund Rolls-Royce’s small modular reactor project turned out to be one of the most significant announcements of this month’s UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactor

TerraPower ― which billionaire Bill Gates co-founded and backed ― is charging ahead with a small modular reactor uniquely cooled with sodium, which has a higher boiling point than water and can store excess electricity for hours. It has competitors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the final stages of certifying a design from NuScale Power, based in Portland, Ore., that will likely be used for a dozen of its scaled-down water-cooled reactors at an Energy Department facility in Idaho, which will sell power to a local utility. If it wins final approvals, it would be the first small, modular reactor to get a green-light from U.S. regulators. There are roughly 20 other companies working on similarly sized, or even smaller, reactors.

Small reactors have their critics. David Schissel, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said small reactors have the same problems but in a different package.

“In the 1950s, they said atomic energy would be too cheap to meter, but it hasn’t worked out that way and it won’t work out that way,” he said. “Plus, the question still remains: Where are they going to put the nuclear waste? Nobody wants it.”

Even writer Michael Shellenberger, one of nuclear power’s most fervent evangelists, warned in a recent newsletter that “futuristic nuclear plants are a long ways off, which means it’s misleading at best, and self-destructive at worst, to hype nuclear technologies that only exist on paper.” Instead, he said, countries should follow the lead of France, which generates the vast majority of its electricity from nuclear reactors, and build more traditional plants.

BloombergNEF’s Gadomski said small reactors just need a strong first test case to show investors that the technology is commercially viable. But neither BloombergNEF nor Wood Mackenzie expects the industry to start taking off until the 2030s.

Climate changing around nuclear

And yet nuclear power remains deeply unpopular. Dogged by pop-culture references like HBO’s Chernobyl series and the careless plant-safety operator Homer on The Simpsons, just 49 per cent of U.S. adults said they favour nuclear power in a 2019 Gallup poll, down from a record high of 62 per cent in 2010. Overwhelming majorities of self-identified Democrats, women and those without college degrees opposed nuclear power.

An August 2020 survey from Morning Consult found one in three U.S. adults thinks the country should keep existing nuclear plants open but not build any new reactors. Just 16 per cent of respondents said the U.S. should build more reactors, and just six per cent said the country should keep current plants running, build more reactors and promote nuclear power programs overseas.

But nuclear power suffers from a “perception gap,” according to an analysis last year from Bisconti Research, a polling firm that frequently examines public attitudes on atomic energy and has routinely found more favourable opinions than other surveys.

“The U.S. public perceives public opinion toward nuclear energy as less favourable than their own opinion. This perception gap can lead persons who favour nuclear energy to fear speaking out in support of nuclear energy,” the analysis concluded. “That silence, in turn, could reinforce erroneous perceptions of public opinion.”

Nuclear power advocates hope those numbers could start to shift as the scale of the planet’s emissions crisis comes into clearer focus.

“There have been years of indecisiveness, but the climate is changing around nuclear,” said Kirsty Gogan, managing director of the British clean-energy think tank Terra Praxis.

Another is that renewables alone have not proved to be completely reliable. Throughout this past summer and autumn, Europe experienced less wind than usual, adding to the energy crunch that has sent prices soaring across the continent. The British power company SSE, for example, said the lack of rain and wind led its hydropower and wind turbine facilities to produce 32 per cent less electricity than expected.

It remains unclear why the wind stopped blowing as hard, but recent studies have shown that climate change could reduce gusts in what one researcher called the threat of “global stilling.”

Though few credibly argue against investing in renewables, the shortfalls show the need for more zero-carbon sources of power that can run with as little interruption as fossil fuel plants. She compared the role nuclear could play to the way plant-based meat giant Impossible Foods offered a compelling substitute for beef.

“We need impossible burgers for energy, a drop-in substitute,” she said. “We’re not bending the curve on emissions because in the power sector we still need reliability, making the idea that we’re going to phase out coal unforgivably unrealistic right now.”

Keep reading

Here's the first misstep:

"The worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is a recent and painful memory in Japan."

It's painful only for the citizens. For the Japanese government, it has been pleasurable. As the English-language version of "The Mainichi" reported on April 2, 2012,

>Japan's Feb. tax receipts up 4.8% on LNG consumption
>TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese tax revenues in February increased 4.8 percent from a year earlier to 3,348.73 billion yen as rises in the receipts of tobacco, energy and other taxes more than offset declines in major components, the Finance Ministry said Monday.
>Of the revenues on a general-account basis, those from petroleum and coal tax expanded 12.1 percent to 39.57 billion yen due apparently to more consumption of liquefied natural gas by utilities, which have boosted thermal power generation as an alternative to stalled nuclear power following the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant …


No! Not again! This comes up about every twenty years and the same problems are present every time. Those who, like cancer, want eternal growth, will destroy us one way or another. The problem is not to find energy sources which allow us to continue to live lives of excess, but to cut back to a sustainable level. Let us not forget how long radioactive waste lasts.

It's not a question of *forgetting*, rather, of learning truth for the first time.

A cubic metre of commercial nuclear power waste means a cubic metre of tightly baled $20 bills, revenues from oil and gas taxation, that government didn't get. Much government income of this kind still survives. It pays for disinformation, which must be unlearned. Let's see how quickly this chase can be cut to ...

What if imperial Rome had had nuclear reactors? Bored schoolchildren on school trips would today be walking past fuel rods that burned out 2,000 years ago, nakedly on display in museums. People say the rods will be a *burden* at that sort of age. Fools and liars all.

At a hundredth of that age, a person's lifetime bequest of the stuff, one CANDU bundle, could in principle harm someone. Its rays are 30 times more energetic than the Roman rods' would be, and also more penetrating. More of them escape a fuel rod rather than just heating it. Staked down two metres away, for a solid day, a person could be harmed.

But in practice, nuclear fuel retired 20 years or more, even *Soviet* nuclear fuel, has been utterly harmless.

Because of the lost government income it embodies, had this not been true, we would certainly have heard.

To get to nuclear waste fresh enough to have a history of actual harm we must look a thousand times closer in time to its creation, into its first week. Now 80 times more powerful than at 20 years, it can melt uncooled reactor cores, as at Fukushima.

Another 100-fold age reduction brings us to its first hour, the time domain in which it has a history of killing people (SL-1, Chernobyl, Russian submarine accidents). It is only four times stronger than week-old waste, which also could have killed, had it ever managed to catch people unshielded. But all our experience with power reactor mishaps suggests if it doesn't accomplish this in the first hour, it never will.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels back up renewable energy, and both kill people for real. It's OK to hate excess and long for sustainabililty, as long as what you're trying to sustain isn't those deaths and that money.

I am very disappointed in the Observer for running this. We were sold nukes originally to create waste material to use in bombs. They have never been economically sound, requiring amazing levels of corruption. Now, they are claiming that electricity can't be stored without rare earth elements, among other lies.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking article. I am very concerned about the prospect of 3-4 degree C temperature increases by the end of this century and 7-9 by the end of the next century if we continue relying on fossil fuels for most of our energy, much more so than I am concerned about any risks from nuclear. I am very well acquainted with both. I think we must use every tool at our disposal to reduce GG emissions, because we are truly screwed if we do not bring them down. At least there is some doubt whether we will be screwed with nuclear. I am not pro-nuclear, but I am pro-planet. I have absolutely no doubt that Canada (at least) could satisfy all of its energy requirements with renewable energy combined with large improvements in energy efficiency and expanded storage options for heat and electricity, but I see a lot of political and social opposition to even small departures from the status quo.

I had been considering subscribing to the National Observer for some time, but one of the reasons that was stopping me was that its coverage of nuclear energy for the provision of electricity was sparse and generally unbalanced. The November 12 article from COP26 by Natasha Bulowski changed my mind and I subscribed. This article, even though it is quite long, is not as good. For one, it is very USA-centric, which I guess is not surprising given that it was written for and first appeared in the Huff Post USA. While it trots out the "usual suspect" of France as a hydro-constrained country that gets most of its electricity from nuclear, it does not bother going beyond or to look North..... Just in Europe, Belgium and Slovakia are hydro-constrained countries that get a majority of their electricity from nuclear and Switzerland and Finland are at around 40%. Here in hydro-constrained Ontario we get 60% of our electricity from nuclear from Canadian-made CANDU reactors. This electricity is the second lowest priced in our Ontario grid, (hydro is lowest), cheaper than gas, wind or solar.

It's cheaper only if you disregard the fact that government pays hugely for construction, repair, and eventual decommissioning. All were built with *huge* cost overruns; none take into account the cost of disposing of the spent fuel.
And BTW, those rods are more highly radioactive once spent than they were brand new.
The half-life of what's left is on the order of some 25 milennia, and that simply does not turn into a short period of toxicity.
Just do a little research yourself. The information is not new, either. It's been around for a long, long time.

One omission from this otherwise balanced article is the possibility of Thorium based reactors (See: for advantages, issues and status). While needing further development there is obvious benefit over existing nuclear reactors if developed successfully. It seems to me this should be an area government R&D funding should be backing.

The key factoid here is that China is going to build 150. That doesn't depend on US or European opinions. It is enough reactors to kick in "Wright's Law", where products that are manufactured in volume become cheaper, quicker, and higher-quality, because 'we learn by doing'.

That's the nuclear renaissance, whether the West gets on board, or not.

I've championed nuclear for going on 50 years, at this point. I still have my copy of "The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear", which harps on the 24,000 dead/year in the USA alone, from coal smoke. That's over a million dead since Three Mile Island. I went to "The China Syndrome" in the middle of the TMI incident, and imagined it to be a pro nuclear-power movie - in the sense that the builders made mistakes, covered them up, covered up the problems the plant then had, and finally sent SWAT to machine-gun Jack Lemon in the control room, bullets flying into the control consoles...and then the computer routinely triggered the THIRD-level safety system for a quiet shutdown. Hell, you can't MAKE the things fail! Imagine my naive teenage surprise that the story didn't play out that way.

But now, nuclear is in a kind of race with batteries and renewables. David Roberts, at Vox, wrote a crucial article summarizing an MIT study that concluded if you could develop multi-day power storage for a capital cost of $20/kWh stored, you could turn existing renewables into simulated 7x24 base-load supply. At the time, the cheapest storage was five times that cost, but a bunch called "Forge Energy" have convinced at least the Wall St. Journal that they have developed exactly such a battery. If they aren't lying to trick investors (which is common in battery development), then nuclear of any kind has a tough challenge to beat.

Maybe we should be content to sit back and let China take the R&D risks, but I don't think it's in our nature.

Form Energy (iron-air battery) has passed several technical reviews independent of the investment bank hype. So has Ambri (liquid metal battery) which is now entering the commercialization (real world) phase at scale in two applications. Both are batteries that use common, cheap materials (that is, NOT lithium or cobalt). Both are extraordinarily promising when coupled with renewables for stationary power storage in great quantities.

Nuclear has killed far, far fewer people than coal, but it is still subjected to some very tough knocks: it receives grossly exaggerated tranches of fact-free fearmongering by the left and organizations like Greenpeace about millions of radiation deaths even in France, which conveniently ignores the strict rules of scientific analysis; the cost remains very steep -- even small modular reactors still require initial steep investments; and the waste products, unless some SMRs are designed to consume the last generation waste stockpiled at conventional power plants and render it down to much lower levels of radiation while also producing power.

Overall, while not rejecting nuclear in geologically stable areas and produced under law subject to best management practices, I'd like to see geothermal power explored with the same zeal.

Right. And arsenic has killed far fewer people than radiation. So let's just spread that about, too.
Anyone relying on 50 year-old information to make decisions is IMNSHV likely to make bad decisions.
National Observer seems to have published this piece without benefit of fact-checking.