With Oppenheimer in the cinemas right now – nuclear is top of mind. But does nuclear energy deserve its bad reputation? Climate Curious asks and answers.

Transcript: Climate Quickie: Oppenheimer – What is nuclear energy?

TEDxLondon Climate Curious

Listen now: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | RSS | Android

Nuclear energy gets a bad rap, but is it deserved? To clear up the confusion we’re joined by this week’s Quickie expert, Mark Dyson, a Managing Director with the Carbon-Free Electricity Program at RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute). Live from Climate Week NYC, tune in to understand how nuclear stacks up against oil, gas, coal, wind, and solar power as an energy source, and whether it’s part of an affordable, carbon-free energy future. 

Listen now: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | RSS | Android


Ben Hurst 0:01
Welcome to climate quickies, bite sized nuggets of climate goodness from our TEDx London experts in under five minutes.

Maryam Pasha 0:09
In this week’s Quickie, we tackle a question that many of you have asked us about nuclear energy and whether it is part of a carbon free future. So over to Mark Dyson, the managing director of Rocky Mountain Institute’s carbon free electricity programme to tell us more. Can you start by telling us what is nuclear energy? And how does it relate to the kinds of other kinds of energy sources that we have right now.

Mark Dyson 0:38
Nuclear electricity in particular, which is the basically the only way that we use nuclear energy right now is the use of radioactive materials to heat water to make steam to spin turbines to send electricity over wires into people’s homes and businesses. And in a nutshell, that is the sequence of events that make up nuclear energy in most of the world today,

Maryam Pasha 1:04
that immediately sounds less dangerous than I first thought, well, this is a question I was gonna ask is, is nuclear, obviously it has a real, like moral, ethical people have real strong opinions about it. Is it from your perspective, or the experience you have? Where do you come down in this conversation?

Mark Dyson 1:23
I focused on the economics, I focus on just the dollars and cents or the Euros and pounds of the role of nuclear energy in our decarbonisation transition.

Maryam Pasha 1:35
And and so to be clear, nuclear energy is is not a fossil fuel, right? If we’re just looking at carbon emissions, it is better than oil, gas and coal.

Mark Dyson 1:46
Yeah, the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, and it’s far less co2. It’s not zero, right? No, technology is really zero, but it’s very, very low compared to coal and gas.

Maryam Pasha 1:59
And then in the terms of the operation of it, it also is it’s essentially

Mark Dyson 2:03
zero in operation. That’s right.

Maryam Pasha 2:04
And that’s why it’s sometimes part of the conversation when we’re talking about renewables, right? So I

Mark Dyson 2:09
lead the carbon free electricity team at Rmi. We include any technology that qualifies as carbon free or very, very close to carbon free in the remit of our work.

Ben Hurst 2:22
So is it good or bad? Is it is it? No, I know, that’s like a, maybe a silly question. moral question. Right, right.

Mark Dyson 2:30
If you want to decarbonize the global economy, you should be considering every technology that emits close to zero carbon and nuclear certainly qualifies from an economic perspective, it really depends, right? So folks who work in the nuclear industry have, especially in recent years, made some advances and certainly claims that the next generation of nuclear power plants that could come online in the next say, 10 years could be really cost effective, really safe. compared to today’s technology, nuclear power plant technology, and AI. That might be true, that might not be true. But what is often missing from that conversation is the competitive landscape, right? Nuclear power. 10 years from now, we’ll be competing against continued advances in other forms of carbon free electricity, including solar, including wind, including battery energy storage, and those technologies are on clear downward trajectories in price, and are beating the socks off of every nuclear power plant that has come online or will come online soon. In the world, right. Where we’ve seen recent projects in the UK Hinkley. We’ve seen projects in the United States vote will take, you know, years beyond their anticipated construction schedules and triple in budget before they come online, if they’ve even come online at all. Yeah, right. And so these, this is the kind of headwind facing the nuclear power industry, if it wants to be a meaningful contributor to fighting climate change.

Maryam Pasha 4:08
And so that’s really, for me, that’s a really nuanced take on this. I really appreciate because it’s not about getting into the moral conversation about good or bad. It’s about getting into the conversation of if we need to move fast at speed and scale and needs to be cost effective, then what are the solutions that fit that bill today? What are the solutions that fit that bill going forward? And actually, then you’re looking at this, as you said, mix of different solutions being appropriate for different geographies, depending and also seeing what happens in terms of technological advances. And that drive might drive the price down?

Mark Dyson 4:44
Yeah, there’s a there’s a story and a rationale to place bets on different technologies. We shouldn’t be putting all of our eggs in one basket. But if we had to pick a basket, it would be mostly full of wind and solar and storage for the next five to 10 years. Big cuz we know how those technologies work. They’re cheap and getting cheaper and they are definitively safe right? And we know that we can make significant progress on decarbonizing electricity and actually decarbonizing the rest of the economy with these technologies that are already proven and cost effective. And maybe there’s a role to place a bet on some future nuclear technology that can help us make progress even more in the 2030s. But, again, if we had to pick a set of solutions now it would predominantly be made up of these existing cost effective technologies.

Ben Hurst 5:32
Thanks for listening to this quickie.

Maryam Pasha 5:35
This episode was created by our superstar podcast team at TEDx London, and supported by our headline partner, the global bank city. Until next time,

Ben Hurst 5:44
stay curious.



Suggest a topic you’d like Climate Curious to cover.

Josie Colter

More from this speaker
Skip to content