One Tech Billionaire Sees Nuclear As The Path To Clean Energy, But Is He Right?
The United Nations climate summit begins today in Paris and already there are headlines. The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, and a slew of his fellow billionaires have announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition: an effort to take private money to advance promising clean-energy ideas from the lab to the marketplace. Gates suggests wind and solar have made good progress, but given the daunting scale of the challenge ahead, we need to look everywhere we can for promising ideas and develop them as quickly as possible. One thing he doesn’t talk up much is nuclear power, which just days earlier got some very positive words from another tech billionaire, number 234 on the Forbes list, Peter Thiel, who penned “The New Atomic Age We Need” for The New York Times.
In around 1,000 words, Thiel lays out a cogent case for a nuclear renaissance, arguing that were it not for two events in 1979 — the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and the critically acclaimed film The China Syndrome – the U.S. would have gone mostly carbon free for power generation decades ago. And he could be correct. The fear generated by a near meltdown in the populated northeast and a Hollywood horror film back in the era when we we were made to fear tall buildings, shaky ground, and giant apes contributed to the end of the nuclear era in the U.S. The explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union seven years later made sure there wouldn’t be a comeback either.
That said, with nearly three decades between Chernobyl and today — and only the Fukushima accident in Japan in between — nuclear has established a safety record that argues for a rebirth, right? Perhaps if today were 1979. Unfortunately, the world has changed and nuclear hasn’t changed quickly enough. There is, you see, a country that wasn’t intimidated by a single Carter Era incident and Jack Lemmon film into abandoning its quest for clean power: France, which today gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear, compared to 19% in the U.S.