Third Way Tries to Revive Nuclear

Third Way Tries to Revive Nuclear

Third Way, the Washington think tank, has taken upon itself the unenviable task of trying to convince liberal Democrats that nuclear energy is an important part of the battle against global warming.

Third Way occupies the position once held by centrist Democrats. Granted there are only a few of them left and the position seems to be completely missing in the Democratic Presidential debates. Scoop Jackson was the premier representative of the position but there are no Scoop Jacksons on the horizon. Third Way lists Democratic Senators Tom Carper, Claire McCaskill, Joe Manchin, Chris Coons and Jean Shaheen among its supporters. Jim Webb, the former Democratic Senator from Virginia, also might have filled the bill but he only lasted one round of the debates.

Third Way likes to pride itself in being practical and pragmatic. It says that both sides often have a point on critical issues and that “If people cannot compromise they should not be in politics.” It has staked out a middle ground on issues as diverse as education, health care and financial regulation. But where it is making a name for itself – and where it is likely to have the most impact – is in its support of nuclear power.

“The American energy sector has experienced enormous technological innovation over the past decade in everything from renewables (solar and wind power), to extraction (hydraulic fracturing), to storage (advanced batteries), to consumer efficiency (advanced thermostats),” writes Samuel Brinton in a Third Way paper called “The Advanced Nuclear Industry.”

What has gone largely unnoticed is that nuclear power is poised to join the innovation list. A new generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and investors are working to commercialize innovative and advanced nuclear reactors. This is being driven by a sobering reality—the need to add enough electricity to get power to the 1.3 billion people around the world who don’t have it while making deep cuts in carbon emissions to effectively combat climate change.

Third Way is celebrating the flowering of a new generation of nuclear engineers that is reviving forgotten technologies from the Golden Age of Nuclear that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. “It was all so fresh, so exciting, so limitless back then,” MIT graduate Leslie Dewan told Josh Freed, vice president for Third Way’s energy program. “They were designing all sorts of things: nuclear-powered cars and airplanes, reactors cooled by lead. Today it’s much less interesting. Most of us are just working on ways to tweak basically the same light water reactor we’ve been building for 50 years.”

So Dewan and fellow MIT alumnus Mark Massie founded Transatomic Power, a start-up dedicated to reviving the molten salt reactor designed by Oak Ridge Director Alvin Weinberg and shelved because it didn’t product plutonium for the weapons program. In all, Third Way says is has uncovered a nuclear renaissance among small companies in the United States and Canada. “In total, we have found over 45 projects in companies and organizations working on small modular reactors, advanced reactors using innovative fuels and alternative coolants like molten salt, high-temperature gas or liquid metal instead of high-pressure water,” says Freed. Third Way sees the small modular reactors as a “bridge technology” what will eventually pave the way for molten salt and other more extreme novelties. “The main advantage of SMRs is that they will be using the old light-water technology and will therefore have a let up in getting through the regulatory requirements at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” says Freed.

Third Way clearly identifies the NRC as the major roadblock to these new developments. “The NRC does not yet have the processes and know-how to regulate advanced reactors,” writes Brinton. “If there is not a pathway for these reactors to get licensed in the United States, they will be licensed and built in other countries, with less robust regulatory agencies.”

This was emphasized at the White House Summit on Nuclear Energy held on November 6. Although the all-day program featured representative from a dozen small companies working on new reactors and lots of self-congratulations on what a great job the Obama Administration is doing in supporting nuclear energy, there was a huge elephant in the room. Lee McIntyre of Bill Gates’ TerraPower was one of the featured speakers. Yet no one ever mentioned that TerraPower has already given up on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has signed a deal with the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation to develop its Travelling Wave reactor.

Also upsetting Third Way is the closing of reactors around the country because they cannot compete with natural gas. The think tank worked with a pair of MIT-trained researchers to scope out what will happen if nuclear reactors continue to drop off the grid. “Regardless of the scenario we ran, the answers were dire,” says Freed.

“In the worst case, emissions would revert back to peak levels in 2005, basically eliminating a decade of progress in carbon reduction,” he says. “Under the current policies, renewables growth has been strong but can’t keep up to replace the lost nuclear power.” Freed believes that even with the rapid expansion of renewables there is no chance they will be able to make up the difference if seven or eight more reactors are retired.

To keep the ball rolling, Third Way will be sponsoring another Advanced Nuclear Summit & Showcase in Washington on January 27th in conjunction with the Idaho, Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. “Other countries outspend the U.S. in nuclear R&D, meaning the U.S. risks losing its international leadership on nuclear energy and mitigating climate change as well as a slice of the $1 trillion in nuclear infrastructure the world needs by 2035,” says the promotional brochure.

Third Way is fighting an uphill battle. There isn’t too much enthusiasm for nuclear among liberal Democrats these days. Most of the energy goes toward promoting renewables and shutting down older reactors. But Third Way believes the world’s confrontation with global warming is at stake. “Without nuclear there is no chance that we’re going to win the battle,” says Freed. “It’s a choice we have to make.”

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