Speaking about climate change in 2013, President Obama said that our grandchildren will ask whether we did “all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem.”
So far, the answer would have to be no — unless he seizes this moment. Supporting nuclear power with more than words is the litmus test for seriousness about climate change. 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.
We still lack a plan to fund and prototype the new nuclear reactors that we badly need.
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.