This Startup Says Nuclear Power Could Be Our Most Effective Climate Solution

This Startup Says Nuclear Power Could Be Our Most Effective Climate Solution

From 1850 to 2019, human activity was released 2.4 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Only in 2022, we released 37 billion tons more. While renewable energy makes a difference, it is small: last year it was only offset 230 million tons of emissions—less than one percent of the total.

Energy demand is expected to triple by 2050. Amid calls for emissions reductions and net-zero targets, we need a reality check: how can we reverse climate change if energy is everywhere of what we do, and the energy itself contributes to the problem?

We need solutions that help us pull trillions of tons of carbon from the air without adding more to the process—a tool more powerful than solar panels or wind turbines. This tool already exists, and it is nuclear power.

In a conversation with South by Southwest this week, Bret Kugelmass, founder and CEO of Last Energy, explained how nuclear power has been misunderstood and devalued for decades, and the price we’ve paid as a result. “Infinitely abundant, carbon-free, always on, and incredibly energy dense, nuclear energy can meet and exceed our energy needs,” he said.

Instead, this powerful technology has stagnated for decades, leaving us scrambling for other forms of energy that won’t keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Kugelmass left a career in Silicon Valley with the sole purpose of finding a key technology to combat climate change. He visited 15 countries and all kinds of facilities to learn about nuclear power and compare it to other forms of energy. His conclusion is that if it’s done right, nuclear can enable continued growth—and a cleaner planet—in a way that no other power source can.

How did we get here?

So why does a power source with so much potential stop? In 1963, then President John F. Kennedy said nuclear power will answer for half of all US energy production by the end of that decade. His administration put together a vision for the rapid development of nuclear power production, and he ordered the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct a study on the role that civilian nuclear power could play in the US economy.

According to Kugelmass, the effort stalled not because of public perception or safety fears, but because of economic malfeasance. Instead of focusing on standardization, “We continued with larger, more complex construction projects…from 1968 to 1970, we saw a 10-fold increase in the cost of building gigawatt-sized plants,” he said. . Much of the cost of nuclear energy, he added, is in the interest accrued during the construction process. “It accounts for 60 percent of the delivered energy cost,” he said.

The result, not surprisingly, is that nuclear has become too expensive to compete with other power sources. The US is now nearing completion of its first new nuclear project in decades—and at the end of 10 years and $20 billion over budget, it still not over.

If we had done nuclear in a practical way since the 1960s, we would be living in a different world today: less pollution, less panic about carbon emissions, more energy security, cheaper prices for consumers. Is it too late to turn things around? “There is nothing wrong with the nuclear technology we have today,” Kugelmass said. “What’s broken is the business model, and the delivery model. What nuclear has to scale is not novel: manufacture, modularize, and mass-manufacture.

Nuclear Return

Kugelmass founded a non-profit research organization called Energy Impact Center (EIC), that in 2020 launched the OPEN100 project to provide open-source blueprints for the design, construction, and financing of a 100-megawatt nuclear reactor. EIC’for profit spinoff is Last Energy, which purpose to connect private investors with opportunities to develop new nuclear projects around the world.

Instead of experimenting with newer technology, Last Energy sticks to the tried-and-true pressurized water reactors (the type used in the last few decades), but bringMr their expensess down through technology is made modular and standardized. They play from the oil and gas industry, which can build entire power plants in a factory then deploy them to their final location.

“There’s a whole avenue of innovation related to constructability, rather than your underlying technology,” Kugelmass said. “If you deviate too much from the standard supply chain, you see hidden costs everywhere.” He estimated, for example, that the construction of a pump to move salt molten salt reactorsthat uses molten salt as a coolant instead of pressurized water, requires a billion dollars in research and development costs.

Standardize the building small modular reactors, however, can be done for less than $1,000 per kilowatt. Making nuclear power affordable means it can be used for energy-intensive industrial applications that will become increasingly necessary in the coming years, such as water desalination and carbon removal.

Time for a Revival?

Energy underlies everything we do, and it is essential for modern societies to thrive and develop. It enables human well-being, entrepreneurship, geopolitical freedom, security, and opportunity. Given our current geopolitical situation and the unsustainable energy costs in Europe, could now be the time for a nuclear revival?

Kugelmass hopes. “Every 10 to 15 years the industry thinks it’s going to have a renaissance, but then it collapses,” he said. “Now global macro issues have given nuclear an opportunity to have another shot.”

In fact, Last Energy is looking to launch in Europe, where the need for affordable energy is dire. The company has signed deals in Romania, Poland, and the UK, and the first set of reactors is set to come online in the next two years. Kugelmass noted that negotiations with utilities and governments in these countries are more honest than in the US. “Maybe we’ll go to the US one day, but we can sell hundreds of gigawatts in Europe before that happens,” he said.

There may still be hope for the US: in 2020 the Department of Energy launched its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, investing $230 million in research and development for small modular reactors.

Kugelmass is committed to making a solid product, no matter where it is going to be used. “We’re an American company and we’re building reactors here in Texas,” he said. “What used to take decades to develop and cost billions is now a scalable product that can be pre-fabricated and deployed in under two years.”

Photo Credit: Albrecht Fietz / Pixabay