Nuclear power is having a moment. For decades, environmentalists fought against nuclear plants with a white-hot passion. (I confess to having been in the anti-nuclear ranks myself during my college years.) And they nearly won. By the early 21st century, the U.S. and many other Western countries had virtually stopped building new reactors and instead began shutting down many of their existing plants. Don’t worry, we were told, wind and solar will fill the gap! But wind and solar didn’t fill the gap. Instead, regions that prematurely closed nuclear plants, including Vermont, New York, and California, saw greenhouse emissions spike and electricity prices skyrocket. Germany, the world leader in anti-nuclear fecklessness, now looks forward to shivering in the dark this winter. That country’s Deutsche Bank predicts that German households will soon be forced to burn wood for heat.

So now, not surprisingly, lots of people want their nuclear power plants back. Elon Musk is advising Europe to “restart dormant nuclear power stations.” And many leading climate activists are belatedly discovering nuclear’s advantages: affordable, carbon-free energy that doesn’t depend on the whims of the weather gods. (To be fair, a small, sensible contingent of environmental “eco-pragmatists” has long favored nuclear power.) Even the Biden administration, which so often kowtows to its party’s radical progressive fringe, supports saving today’s nuclear plants and developing new ones.

So will nuclear power make a comeback? I hope so. But first, nuclear advocates will have to win over the scaredy cats. And they are legion. Despite the recent pro-nuclear buzz, fear of nuclear power remains deeply ingrained among the progressive left, and that anxiety filters out to the public at large. The fear can be distilled into a single word: “waste.” You can go on any social-media platform and make an airtight case for nuclear power—why it’s safe, why it’s good for the planet, why it’s more affordable than filling the countryside with wind turbines and solar panels. But within two minutes, someone will respond, “Until they solve the nuclear-waste problem, no thanks!” It’s the ultimate deal-breaker.

Pop culture has been amplifying these atomic anxieties for more than seven decades. Rogue radiation spawned that “50-Foot Woman” who attacked Los Angeles, not to mention Godzilla and the Teenage Werewolf. A plunge into a vat of glowing goo created the Toxic Avenger, “the first superhero born out of nuclear waste!” Homer Simpson literally eats the stuff. Alleged comic John Oliver did a whole episode on “America’s terrifying nuclear-waste problem,” and asked why “our country still doesn’t have a nuclear toilet.” Supposedly serious journalists can’t resist nuclear hyperbole either: The U.S. is “awash in radioactive waste,” wrote Fred Pearce in the New York Times in 2018. Wired recently warned that even the next generation of advanced reactors “may still have a big nuclear-waste problem.”

So let me break it to you: America’s “nuclear-waste problem” is a myth. Just a few weeks ago, I visited a facility some might call a nuclear-waste dump. It’s about 30 miles from my house, but I would happily move in next door. On a thick concrete pad the size of a small parking lot—and surrounded by fences and well-armed security guards—stand several dozen squat steel and concrete cylinders. They look a bit like truncated farm silos and are known as dry-cask storage units. They sit on the grounds of New York’s recently retired Indian Point power plant, and they contain almost all the uranium fuel that plant has consumed over 50 years of operation.

So-called nuclear waste is not the green goo seen on The Simpsons. Nuclear fuel consists of small metallic pellets, roughly the shape of Tootsie rolls. These are stacked end to end in zirconium tubes about a dozen feet long. After powering the reactor for five or so years, bundles of fuel rods are removed and submerged in a kind of atomic swimming pool for several more years. Once they’ve sufficiently cooled down, technicians load them into the dry casks and move the casks to the parking lot. (Technically, the concrete pad is called an Independent Spent-Fuel Storage Installation.)  And there they sit. And sit.

U.S. energy policy never actually called for using nuclear power plants as de facto spent-fuel storage sites, at least not for decades on end. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 directed the Department of Energy to build a permanent national repository for spent fuel rods and other waste. Then, in 2002, President Bush and Congress approved Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the best site for a large underground storage facility. Anti-nuclear activists dreamed up every conceivable objection to the plan. When Barack Obama became president, Nevada senator Harry Reid successfully leaned on him to scuttle the project. That move sent $15 billion down the drain and left hundreds of casks stranded at more than 70 nuclear facilities across the U.S. Nuclear critics instantly pivoted: Instead of arguing it was too dangerous to keep all of America’s atomic waste underground in one location, they began arguing that it was too dangerous to keep spent fuel stored at nuclear plants around the country. Check and mate!

They were and are wrong on both counts. Sure, it might be helpful to have one or more underground storage sites. But storing spent fuel rods on the grounds of nuclear power plants is a safe and affordable alternative. Either way, nuclear waste is not the terrifying bogeyman that activists (and too many members of the public) believe. Here’s why:

First of all, there’s not very much of it. Nuclear-energy expert Rod Adams calculates that a pound of uranium will generate 16,000 times more electricity than a pound of coal. (And that’s using today’s technology, which consumes only a small fraction of the energy in the uranium fuel. More advanced reactors will produce many times that amount.) Since nuclear reactors can produce such huge amounts of electricity from such tiny quantities of fuel, they generate a correspondingly tiny fraction of waste. A single person’s lifetime consumption of nuclear energy would produce about enough spent fuel to fill a soda can. Or, to use the Department of Energy’s yardstick, all the nuclear fuel used in the U.S. since the 1950s “could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards.”

Second, spent nuclear fuel isn’t really “waste.” When fuel rods leave the reactor, they still contain more than 90 percent of the energy they started with, as Madi Hilly, founder of the Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, recently explained in a Twitter thread. “That means we can recycle the spent fuel and turn it into new fuel, which is already routinely done in Europe, Russia, and Japan,” Hilly writes. According to Jess C. Gehin of the Idaho National Laboratory, there’s enough residual energy in those spent-fuel rods to power the U.S. for 100 years. That would require the development of next-generation fast reactors, as well as new industrial systems for fuel recycling. Private companies are working on both technologies, and the Department of Energy is helping fund that R&D. Someday, the “nuclear waste” storage sites like the one at Indian Point might instead be seen as precious repositories of clean energy.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with leaving the spent fuel right where it is. After all, nuclear plants—even decommissioned ones—are surrounded by highly trained security guards (many of whom are ex–Special Forces). The casks’ steel and concrete walls are two to three feet thick and designed to be impervious to earthquakes, floods, bullets, whatever. Greenpeace and other nuclear opponents like to argue that terrorists might try to steal spent fuel to make dirty bombs. But it would be a lot easier to steal nuclear material from a hospital or university lab than to break into a well-defended nuclear power plant. As pro-nuclear activist Michael Shellenberger points out, if some thieves tried to drive off with a dry cask in the dead of night, they wouldn’t get very far without “an industrial-sized truck capable of hauling over 100 tons.”

In our modern economy, industries safely manage a devil’s cookbook of dangerous materials: mercury, arsenic, chlorine, benzene—the list goes on. Building electric cars alone requires mining and processing huge quantities of lithium, cadmium, and other toxic materials (all of which will eventually need to be disposed of). As Madi Hilly points out, these materials stay toxic forever, while nuclear waste grows less hazardous with each day. Forty years after being removed from the reactor, she notes, “the heat and radioactivity of the fuel bundle will have fallen by over 99 percent.” And yet, somehow nuclear waste alone strikes existential terror in the minds of activists and the public.

Progressive climate activists are nothing if not bold: They want to re-engineer our entire economy around new (and often unproven) technologies, and they want to spend trillions of dollars in the process. But when it comes to nuclear power—the only reliable clean-energy source that can be scaled up as needed—they suddenly get skittish. Activists don’t balk at blanketing millions of acres with wind turbines, solar panels, and new power lines. But faced with the challenge of storing a quantity of spent fuel that would barely fill a high-school football stadium, they throw up their hands. It’s hopeless! Out of the question!

When radical environmentalists say they fear nuclear waste, I’ve come to believe, they are talking not so much in technical terms but in spiritual ones. Most Americans agree we need to keep our air and water clean and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And they support pragmatic solutions. But on its fuzzier fringes, the environmental movement leans instead toward a kind of 19th-century romanticism, a deep suspicion of civilization and modernity and a yearning for an Arcadian, pre-industrial paradise. You see this especially among progressives, such as the Canadian writer Naomi Klein, whose 2014 book, This Changes Everything, argues that the solution to climate change is to dismantle capitalism and replace it with a kind of crunchy communitarianism. “Real climate solutions,” she writes, should steer “power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture, or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.” Many on the climate left actively promote what they call “degrowth,” a concept otherwise known as poverty.

Such activists imagine that, prior to capitalism and industrialization, humans lived in Rousseauian harmony with one another and with nature. To them, the progress of civilization and technology was a kind of corruption, a fall from grace. And they think the point of environmental policies is to cleanse our society of that contamination—to nudge us back toward a purer, more natural state. (“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” in Joni Mitchell’s words.) As Shellenberger puts it, “they are in the grip of an unconscious appeal-to-nature fallacy.” This mindset judges environmental policies not on pragmatic grounds but on vague spiritual ones. Paper bags seem more natural than plastic (even if their actual environmental footprint is worse). Wind and solar intuitively feel less high-tech and closer to nature—free power from wind and sunshine!—while natural gas and nuclear seem industrial and unnatural.

And nuclear waste? Nuclear waste is the concentrated essence of everything they fear and distrust about capitalism, modernity, and technology. Even if the waste can be safely stored for centuries, it remains lurking, like an evil genie plotting its escape. Opponents of storing spent fuel at the proposed Yucca Mountain site insisted that proponents of the plan prove the facility would remain invulnerable for “thousands or tens of thousands of years.” At that point, fear of nuclear waste becomes less a matter of science or technology and something closer to a religious conviction. Instead of addressing real problems in the here-and-now, these people are obsessing over eternity.

The paranoia about nuclear waste exposes how deeply unserious some climate activists really are. Present them with a safe, practical way to slash carbon emissions—while still powering a vibrant economy—and they get cold feet. A power source that provides economic growth without damaging the planet? That’s too easy! If people have cheap, clean electricity, how will we make them atone for their greedy, profligate ways? I’m not saying these activists aren’t genuinely opposed to carbon emissions. They are. But they are even more opposed to having a vibrant modern economy. That’s their real enemy.

Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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