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The Nuclear industry is in a renaissance: UNC Berkeley Prof. of Energy

Dan Kammen, University of California, Berkeley Professor of Energy joins the Yahoo Finance panel to discuss the Nuclear energy outlook.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Over in Japan, the country is marking a decade since the Fukushima nuclear disaster this week. An earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 triggered the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and it prompted a handful of countries to phase out nuclear energy. But concerns about climate change are prompting many to give nuclear energy a second look.

Let's bring in Daniel Kammen. He is Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, UC Berkeley. It's good to have you on. Let's start by talking about how things have shifted over the last 10 years. Because it really does feel like the industry has gotten this tailwind around discussions about climate. How do you think that's prompted a second look at nuclear energy, as more and more countries look to decarbonize?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, certainly, the decarbonization path that we need to be on means that we need to look at all technologies, and nuclear is in a renaissance-- small modular plants, plants that have more built-in safety factors, a building wave in China and South Korea. So there is a whole lot of excitement around certain nuclear technologies, and the question is going to be, do these play out differently than the large nukes we have today that have not hit cost points; they have been slow and long to build, and, obviously, we've seen the problems at Fukushima and other plants.

AKIKO FUJITA: I want to get to the technology around the small modular reactors in just a bit, but it does seem like on traditional nuclear power plants, there really is a divide here between advanced and emerging economies. You look at countries like China, who have really sort of doubled down on this as they see the energy needs grow along with a growing middle class.

DANIEL KAMMEN: Right. China and South Korea and the Middle East are all in a wave of building plants, and there's a number of really exciting potentials. The United States will be testing some plants later this decade. And so there is a building wave going on. And, really, the question for nuclear is not, can you build the hardware up front? It's, what are the costs and what are the risks downline, and what do you do at the end of that fuel cycle? And those questions can only be answered with operational experience, and that makes proponents excited and opponents very nervous about the potential costs and disasters.

AKIKO FUJITA: The risks around nuclear as well as the cost overruns have always been the key concern when it comes to building out some of these power plants. How do the small modular reactors change that?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, a small modular reactor is about a tenth the size of a standard large reactor. And so you get a couple benefits. One is that the entire reactor assembly-- all the fuel rods, everything-- can be delivered on a truck or on a ship and taken away again back to a reprocessing site. So that not only means that the whole unit is self-contained, but what it also means is that the nuclear industry can get on the so-called learning curve.

And by that, I mean, the more we manufacture of technologies that are scalable and mass producible, we learn. And that's a very steady process. We see it in solar panels. We see it in batteries. We see it in calculators. Those costs to clients are massive. They can be 20% or more on the cost every time you double the number of units produced.

So if you make nuclear reactors a lot smaller, that learning curve is expected to speed up. And so there are real benefits of getting into that process, which the very big plants we build today, we don't get a lot of that learning process.

AKIKO FUJITA: So what's the case against SMRs?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, I mean, so one of them is pretty straightforward, and that is, instead of one reactor being monitored-- hopefully very closely-- you have 10 or more reactors that each have to be monitored. Now, a proponent will say they're inherently safer. The controls are now much more automated than they were decades back.

The other side is that, well, if any one of those goes wrong, it can take out the others. And the extreme bad case is what happened in Fukushima, where we all watched on television while one of the reactors after another built up hydrogen and exploded. And so the worry is that that smaller size might mean that we can have a accident that affects one and then others.

And so there are pros and cons. But in terms of the science, the physics of the reactors, and the design principles, these small ones look like a very attractive technology base, lower cost per overall unit, faster to construct, and hopefully more of this adaptive learning as one goes.

AKIKO FUJITA: All of this is, of course, happening in the context of this goal that has been set for by the Paris Climate Agreement, getting to net zero emissions by 2050. Those who are pro-nuclear will say you can't get there without nuclear energy in the mix. Those who are opposed to it say it's too risky to put it back in the mix in a more significant way. Which side do you stand on?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, I don't think we need nuclear. People argue that with solar and wind ramping up-- geothermal, wave energy, offshore wind-- that we can get to 80% or more of our zero carbon goals. I think we can get to 100% when we mix in renewables and energy storage.

But that doesn't mean I'm opposed to nuclear. What I'm saying is that there is a path without it, but in terms of plants that are essentially always on-- or baseload 24/7 as they sometimes say-- nuclear would be a real benefit if they can meet those criteria. But meeting the criteria of cost, long-term reliability, and ability to play nice with other technologies is a challenge. Many nuclear plants want to just be on and left on and not ramp up and ramp down as demand rises and falls. Solar and wind are things that you'd like to take first when they're available. So having the nuclear industry that is a partner and not essentially an economic conflict with renewables and with storage is something we need to see.

Now, there are some exciting options. Japan is not only thinking about building out a great deal of wind, looking at new nuclear, but one of the options here is to think about our plants that are online-- but aren't needed that moment-- might make hydrogen, and that could be from solar or wind. And proponents of nuclear will say they can do that as well. So there are some trade-offs, and what we really need is to get the technologies to compete in a market, but partner in that market. And that's something where there's a lot of work for nuclear to do.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, certainly a mixture of options there, especially when you've got this very strict timeline moving forward. Daniel Kammen, Professor of Energy at UC Berkeley, it's good to talk to you today. Appreciate you joining the show.