Is nuclear having a moment? It depends on who you ask.
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we look at the recent reexamination of nuclear energy as Europe faces an energy crunch. Sen. Amy Klobuchar confirmed the antitrust bill won’t go to a vote before August recess. And Big Tech has been uncharacteristically quiet in reaction to the Inflation Reduction Act (hint: it’s the taxes).
In the race to decarbonize the world’s energy mix, solar panels, wind turbines and batteries have taken center stage. Nuclear energy — despite already producing half of all carbon-free electricity in the U.S. and 10% of global power — has decidedly fallen out of favor in conversations about the future of energy. But there are signs that’s now changing, and it’s as good a time as ever to reexamine nuclear, whether you’re a policymaker or a tech executive pursuing net zero.
Europe’s energy crisis has brought nuclear to the forefront. With Russian gas deliveries being curtailed, Europe is trying to make up for a looming energy deficit and also meet ambitious climate targets. But countries can’t install solar or wind fast enough to make up for it.
- That’s pushed many countries — including Austria, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands — back to coal. Oil, methane gas and coal accounted for 70% of Europe’s energy consumption last year.
- Some European countries are delaying plans to phase out nuclear power. Belgium notably postponed its scheduled phase-out of nuclear energy from 2025 to 2035.
- A few European countries are upping their investment in nuclear energy. The U.K. earlier this year unveiled plans to build up to eight reactors by 2030. The Netherlands, in addition to returning to coal, is proceeding with plans to construct two nuclear plants. And Romania, as part of a longstanding plan to phase out coal, may become the first nation in the world to build a small modular reactor.
- Not all countries are on board, though. Germany — which is the most reliant on Russian gas — is sticking with its plans to kill off its final three nuclear plants, even as some polling suggests the majority of Germans want to backtrack.
There’s vigorous debate as to whether nuclear is a short-term fix, a long-term solution or any fix at all.
- “It feels to me, much more likely than, say, 10 years ago, that you will get a new generation of commercial nuclear plants,” Todd Allen, the department chair of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, told Protocol. Allen said concerns around energy resiliency, climate change and the emergence of a next generation of nuclear reactors are all driving the renewed interest in nuclear.
- Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has long been bullish on the potential of nuclear power: “Build 1,000 new state of the art nuclear power plants in the US and Europe, right now,” he tweeted in February. “We won't, but we should.”
- And a 2018 report authored by MIT researchers concluded that, even though nuclear energy had a “highly uncertain” future, it could be important for creating a cost-effective path to deep decarbonization.
- But M. V. Ramana, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, told Protocol this isn’t a pivotal moment for nuclear, and that it would most likely continue to decline as a share of global energy.
- “Nuclear really only produces electricity,” Ramana said. “A lot of the dependence on Russian fossil fuels is for industry, for heating houses — things of that sort. So it’s not a short-term fix at all.”
Nuclear is more expensive than many other forms of energy, but it has some unique benefits.
- Traditional nuclear plants are expensive to build, especially in the U.S. The only new American nuclear plant under construction is running six years behind (and counting) and the budget has nearly doubled to over $30 billion.
- Overall, the estimated unsubsidized cost of nuclear energy is higher than that of wind, geothermal and utility scale solar.
- But nuclear power doesn't require as much raw material as some forms of renewable energy. Nuclear generates “a very large amount of electricity or heat or whatever you’re looking for, and it’s much less mining, much less physical waste to dispose of,” said Allen.
- He contrasted that with solar and wind, which have lower energy density and will “end up using more land, more materials [and] more physical waste that you have to deal with.”
- Small modular reactors could help mitigate some of the cost and construction timeline concerns, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just certified the first one for U.S. use. (It’s slated to go into operation in 2029.)
Regardless of what happens in Europe and the U.S., the future of nuclear is brightest in China. The country is the one exception to the rule of exorbitant nuclear energy construction costs, Ramana told me. China is expected to at least double and maybe even triple its nuclear power capacity by 2030. That might not do much for the climate goals of the U.S. or Europe, but it’s good for the climate as a whole: China consumed more coal last year than the rest of the world combined, and its coal energy consumption outpaced that of nuclear by a factor of over 23 to one.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar confirmed what’s become increasingly obvious: Her bill reining in self-preferencing by Big Tech platforms isn’t getting a vote before the August recess. Klobuchar blames the stall on the Democrats’ massive signature measure on health care and energy. Her bill had been facing headwinds for weeks, though, even as supporters have worried that the chances for it to become law will dim significantly as the whirlwind of the midterm elections kicks off.
The SEC added Alibaba to a list of Chinese companies at risk of being delisted from U.S. stock exchanges. Such a move would still be at least three years in the future, but under a recent law, the U.S. is seeking American reviews of Chinese audits if the companies want to continue to trade in the U.S. So far that seems out of reach, though Alibaba is taking moves that would open it up to more Chinese investors, according to Bloomberg.The FDIC told banks they should be keeping an eye out when they work with crypto firms to make sure the latter aren’t suggesting— falsely — that they’re covered by the federal insurance program for traditional deposits. In new guidance statements, the FDIC also said banks "should take appropriate action to address such misrepresentations."
In the courts
Visa has to face a federal lawsuit in California over allegations the company benefitted from child sexual abuse material on Pornhub. The lawsuit, which is focused on Pornhub parent MindGeek, springs from a video of a 13-year-old that the site allowed to proliferate despite complaints, and that had the girl’s age in the title. The suit alleges that the credit card company knew Pornhub was unserious about stopping child sexual abuse content. Visa did successfully get some of the charges dismissed.
Payments processor First American has agreed to pay $4.9 million to resolve FTC claims it hid fees, auto-renewed subscriptions without disclosure, obscured contract terms and even attempted withdrawals “under different business names to evade stop payment orders.” The agency said much of the activity was aimed at small businesses, especially merchants with limited English proficiency.
A MESSAGE FROM CCIA
S. 2992 could break digital services like Google Search, Amazon Prime, and your phone's security. Americans are feeling the squeeze of record inflation; why do some members of Congress want to set the economy back by an estimated $319 billion?
Big Tech is keeping pretty mum about the Inflation Reduction Act, aka the Democrats’ attempt to pass a decade-defining piece of legislation, including $369 billion in climate spending, in one week. Only Salesforce sent out a message of support when asked by Protocol, despite companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft regularly patting themselves on the back for how much they want to save the planet. A likely complicating factor: that new corporate minimum tax.
TikTok is becoming an increasingly important vector for misinformation. A sizable — and growing — number of people internationally say the app is where they get their news, even amid reports of rampant falsities and deliberate attempts to manipulate the spread of fake news and propaganda through the service.
In the media, culture and metaverse
A Gizmodo investigation revealed more than 30 U.S. data brokers selling access to digital identifiers “from some 2.9 billion profiles of people pegged as ‘actively pregnant’ or ‘shopping for maternity products.’” The report comes as tech continues to create legal hazards for people whose data may reveal they have terminated a pregnancy after the Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights.
Google is delaying the rollout of cookie-blocking on Chrome yet again, this time until late 2024. Privacy measures on phones and other browsers have increasingly managed to stop or slow the tracking of users by the voracious digital ads industry. Google, as an ad tech giant, though, would need to do so in a way that doesn’t mess up its main line of business — and also doesn’t overly attract scrutiny by competition regulators for screwing over its rivals.
A MESSAGE FROM CCIA
Some policymakers are intent on passing S. 2992—flawed legislation that could undermine free and reliable digital services that families use daily. Without Amazon's guaranteed 2-day shipping, Google search, or phone security, consumers' finances will be squeezed even further.
That sure is something to discover …
A Reuters reporter tweeted that Spotify put John Hinckley, who shot and nearly killed President Ronald Reagan in 1981, on her Discover Weekly list. Hinckley has been making music and apparently tweeting since his release earlier this year.
Thanks for reading — see you Wednesday!