Obama Wants More Nuclear Power. Does that Make Sense?

The president said he wanted to support nuclear power, but no new nuclear power plants have come online in years. What's holding us back?

Clean energy advocates may have noticed that President Obama didn't just tout solar and wind in this week's State of the Union address; he also encouraged the construction of new natural gas, clean coal, and nuclear power sites. Natural gas and clean coal aren't all that clean (that's for another column), but nuclear may be a decent option. Should we be paying more attention to it?

Nuclear plants produce power by grabbing the energy released from the nucleus of an atom via nuclear fission, a process that splits atoms into at least two nuclei and creates byproducs of heat and gamma radiation (radiation made out of high-energy photons). Fission is triggered by the absorption of a neutron by a fissile atomic nucleus like uranium or plutonium. At the most basic level, the heat generated from this nuclear reactor is used to boil water, which turns a turbine and creates energy.

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Bill Gates Hopes for “Energy Miracles” at TED

During his TED speech on Friday, Bill Gates took on climate change, saying the world needs serious breakthroughs in energy technology. "What we're...

During his TED speech on Friday, Bill Gates took on climate change, saying the world needs serious breakthroughs in energy technology. "What we're going to have to do at a global scale is create a new system… So we need energy miracles," Gates said, suggesting that we use the next 20 years to develop these breakthrough technologies…and the following 20 years to deploy it. Brad Plumer at TNR thinks that "seems somewhat misguided," and I agree. As Plumer explains "radical breakthroughs in the energy sector don't come along often-and it can often take a very long time for a truly novel scientific discovery to translate into widespread technology." Joe Romm's got a lengthy, comprehensive breakdown of Gates' talk on Climate Progress, which he describes as "like a miraculous ice cream cone made up of 80% homemade chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream and only 20% bat guano." (Maybe you'll have to read for yourself.) Alex Steffan at Worldchanging saw a lot of positive, calling it "the most important climate speech of the year."Interestingly, Gates spent a good chunk of his talk hyping up a certain technology–the "traveling wave reactor"–that could turn spent uranium fuel rods into energy, spotlighting one company, TerraPower, that's leading the charge. (Gates happens to be a principal owner of the company. Warrants mentioning.) We'll embed the talk itself when TED loads it to their site.Photo (cc) Flickr user magnifynetThis post originally appeared on, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or to submit your own idea today.