Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, said nuclear power “is at this incredibly exciting point, and I say that as a professor of nuclear engineering.”
Kammen said a wave of investment from the public and private sectors has led to unprecedented innovation in recent years, focusing on so-called “modular” reactors that are much smaller than conventional nuclear plants.
These smaller reactors could theoretically be scaled up or down to meet different needs. But Kammen said it is too soon to say whether they will overcome one of the biggest hurdles facing nuclear power plants: they are very expensive to build. The first test reactor is still several years away from operation, and no matter its success, modular reactors will need to compete with wind and solar power paired with energy storage, the costs of which are falling rapidly.
Kammen said scientists also have not solved how to handle the radioactive waste produced by the reactors. The waste issue has bedeviled nuclear power plants, with no clear solution for how to dispose of or store the materials long term.
“There’s a real renewed interest, certainly, thinking about how renewable energy and nuclear power can be seen as partners in the low-carbon economy,” Kammen said. “There’s very exciting opportunities here, but again this waste and cost and risk question is still unresolved.”