Update: Untitled Nuclear Film
Approximately 2 years into a long-term research and art project on nuclear energy, I have made great progress.
Two years ago, I heard a wise inventor describe a future of abundant clean-energy made possible high-tech solutions. The technology he spoke of was “the microreactor”, a new form-factor for nuclear power that he thought could radically disrupt energy systems around the world.
Since that time, I have been swimming ever deeper into the caverns of nuclear power, energy policy, and documentary filmmaking to understand and eventually help share the inventor’s conjectures and my own. Right away, several items relating to climate change and decarbonization became mind-numbingly obvious, by way of repetition by scientists:
We cannot run a global, power-abundant society with zero carbon emissions on wind, solar, and hydro power alone. We will need a geographically universal, base-load electricity source.
The only geographically universal base-load source of carbon-free power is nuclear energy.
The alternative to nuclear energy is fossil fuels. This is clearly demonstrated when large nuclear power plants are shutdown, and a given region’s electricity source switches over to natural gas.
Nuclear energy, by the data, is extremely safe. About as safe as wind turbines and solar panels, and 1000x safer to your health than coal, oil, and natural gas. This safety accounting includes risks from accidents and waste—nuclear is safe.
While it became obvious to me that if we wanted to decarbonize Earth, we needed nuclear power, and quickly, it was less obvious why very few people who talked about climate change talked about this.
I also became aware of a situation within nuclear energy that was frustrating to many scientists, inventors, and observers:
The American nuclear industry had a forty-year moratorium on new reactor builds. For overlapping reasons, America failed to deploy new, power-generating commercial reactors for forty years (appr. 1983-2023). Nuclear energy spent 40 years wandering in the desert. There are some fudges in the timeline here, since some reactors get commissioned, and then stopped, and the re-started, but overall, the industry stopped building.
After a while, the American nuclear industry lost the know-how to successfully build new reactors. A culture of cost-overruns and delays calcified. Corruption blossomed. (This also relates to a generational slowdown of construction productivity in America)
The American nuclear industry is a very small group of companies and people. It started as an oligopoly. Four companies, Westinghouse, General Electric, BWXT, and General Atomics, dominated. Today, only two, Westinghouse and GE, remain in the civilian reactor business (The other two still exist, and supply nuclear reactor parts for the military). The power to define the industry collected into two, small corporate board rooms. Though lots of good science went on during the moratorium, the industry’s failure to evolve ties back to this oligopoly which stopped innovating and bred corruption.
Recently, an energetic pulse has surged through the nuclear research community and broken cracks in the stasis on the industrial side of things. How can we build new reactors? Inventors, financiers, and entrepreneurs are asking. The answer is not coming from the old nuclear industry.
This leaves a power vacuum. Young, hungry scientists and entrepreneurs are rushing to fill the void.
While the old industry is slow and mistrusted by the public, they still have legacy contracts, deep ties to the American regulator, longstanding relationships with the Department of Defense, and a grip over much of the global nuclear supply chain.
What we are about to see is an epic, generational clash between the brittle, powerful old nuclear industry and a loose cohort of young, idealistic, climate-focused startups, entrepreneurs, and individuals who see an opportunity. That clash—with myth, heros, and the future hanging in the balance—is what I hope to focus a camera-lens on in the coming years. What’s more, it’s all real.
Here are some of the central research questions I have pursued:
1/ Why did the nuclear industry stop innovating? Why did America stop building nuclear reactors?
1b/ How much did public sentiment contribute to the moratorium on new nuclear reactors, and how much was it a function of economic, regulatory, and technical reasons?
2/ To what extent is the nuclear industry private and to what extent is it public? To what extent is nuclear energy controlled or led by public entities, like government agencies, regulatory bodies, and national labs?
3/ What is the public sentiment on nuclear energy, and why is it what it is? How does public sentiment affect policy?
4/ What strategies are being proposed to break the nuclear moratorium on new builds, and who are articulating strategic paths forward?
5/ Who does the moratorium benefit? Who does it hurt?
Now for the more personal side: I am working gigs in New York while supporting this research and long-term art project. I am taking steps to turn this into a documentary feature film. I’ve applied to several grants including the Sundance Sandbox fund, which offers some angel investment ($25,000) to fund the beginning of filming. I budget that the film will cost about $250,000 to make over a timeline of about three years, for a release in 2026.
This film project will become much stronger with collaborators. I am actively seeking out skilled collaborators in the areas of producing, co-direction, cinematography, and sound-design, but in the meantime, I continue developing a fundraising strategy and cultivating connections within the nuclear industry.
Lastly, there is one other possibility for output; that is a Docu-Series. Since the moment in nuclear is so epic, but also so unknown, it would be great to have six to eight episodes to spread out the many tendrils of complexity and give them each some space to breathe. In a documentary film, we’d tell a narrow, particular story, which would be emblematic of the larger shift taking place in nuclear. I think this would be amazing.
But it would also be amazing, and probably more impactful and educational for the public, to take the time to build arguments about nuclear energy by constructing cultural knowledge from the ground up, with episodes like “Mother nature — where it all comes from” and “Nuclear science for 8 year olds”… and in doing so addressing a wider, mainstream audience.
Thanks for reading, and please don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, feedback, ideas, or just to say hello! Peace ~~
I had no idea that (a) nuclear energy is the path to zero carbon emissions; (b) that it's safe; and (c) building has come to a halt. Very informative and concise post, and your research questions make a lot of sense. I'm wondering whether other countries have made great advances in the past 40 years while we've been under a moratorium?