26 Nov InsideWis: There’s still reason for doubt, but nuclear power regaining favor
A strange thing happened at the global climate summit in Glasgow: Nuclear power was not given the customary back of the hand.
After years of standing outside looking in, atomic power gained a seat at the COP26 international table. Given that nuclear energy is a large and steady source of electricity, minus the carbon dioxide that comes with fossil fuels, many experts argue it was a much-belated invitation.
There’s nothing like a full-blown climate crisis to compel a second look at an industry that has been a part of “decarbonization” since the 1950s and which provides nearly 30% of the world’s emissions-free power.
The rethinking of atomic power – while far from conclusive – is a trend that could increasingly involve the UW-Madison, home to one of the nation’s top-ranked nuclear engineering departments.
Nuclear energy is part of decarbonization plans released of late by the United States, China, Russia, Brazil and the United Kingdom. During the COP26 conference (short for the 26th Conference of Parties), the United States announced a long-term partnership to install five next-generation, modular reactors in retired Romanian coal plants.
“We’re very bullish on these advanced nuclear reactors,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during the Scotland conference. “We have, in fact, invested a lot of money in the research and development of those. We are very supportive of that.”
Over time, some of those research dollars have been invested in the UW-Madison, which routinely shows up among the nation’s top nuclear engineering programs.
The College of Engineering produces graduates who work in nuclear energy generation, but also in fields such as medicine, where radiation and radioisotopes are routinely used to diagnose and treat illness. Controlled radiation plays a role in sectors such as space exploration, food preservation, chemical production, and mechanical and structural safety checks. Wisconsin research has accelerated the nascent field of nuclear fusion.