A new generation of environmentalists is learning to stop worrying and love atomic power.
Emma Redfoot stands at a whiteboard in a small conference room, sketching neutrons, protons and nuclei, her voice rising enthusiastically as she explains nuclear fission: A neutron blasted into a uranium-235 atom shatters the atom, releasing energy and yet more neutrons that split other uranium atoms, causing a frenetically energetic chain reaction.
“The crazy thing about nuclear energy is that it turns mass into energy,” she says, her gray-blue eyes opening wider. “It. Destroys. Mass!” On the other side of the thick glass window here at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) on the outskirts of Idaho Falls, Idaho, the mercury approaches 100 degrees, the sun an angry orange blob behind the thickening gauze of smoke from wildfires across the region — a reminder of the toll fossil fuels are taking on the planet.
But Redfoot says that the situation isn’t hopeless, that we can slash greenhouse gases and still have nice electrified things, including this comfortable climate-controlled room, without making the planet hotter and drier and smokier. To do so, however, we must embrace nuclear power — conquer our irrational fears of radiation and return to “a story that can be told in terms of abundance in the world we live in.”
Redfoot is a nuclear engineer, a devout environmentalist and an unflinching advocate for nuclear power. Renewable energy alone is not enough, she says; only if we use nuclear too can we eliminate fossil fuel burning. Sure, nukes have their problems, she says. But in true technophile form, she assures me that those problems can be fixed — through engineering.
One such problem is nuclear power’s inflexibility. Redfoot explains that when a nuclear plant operator tries to ramp reactor output up or down in response to changes in electricity demand or in solar or wind power production, xenon-135 and samarium-149, or “fission product poisons,” build up. She pauses when she sees my eyes widen with alarm at the term, then looks ruefully back at her whiteboard: “Nuclear is really terrible with names.”