Oppenheimer’s Legacy: Nuclear Energy?

During the Eisenhower administration, groups like Atoms for Peace were created with impetus from J. Robert Oppenheimer to acknowledge the risks and hopes and of nuclear energy and answer the public’s fears about atomic power as a  force of destruction. With backing from the U.S. government, large (and costly) reactors were built in the 60s and 70s. To this day, we produce 20% of our energy in the U.S. from nuclear.

But accidents like Three Mile Island (1978), Chernobyl (1986) and later Fukushima (2011) made the public wary of nuclear energy. Statistically, fatalities and on the job injuries sustained at nuclear reactors are low compared to coal and hydro-electric plants. But between bombs and plant meltdowns, public opinion has been tainted against thinking of nuclear energy as a viable alternative to other renewables. Other cons include enormous costs along with how to safely retire, transport and handle nuclear waste.

Oppenheimer encourages us to look at the data to explain the nuclear story. “You can talk about fear and media perception, and then you can talk about things that you can measure, like how many people got sick. If you were going to use facts to measure it, it’s turned out to be one of the safest, cleanest possible sources of energy that’s based on gigawatts produced.” The fear, he says, “never matched the facts.”

One of the things that the U.S. did famously wrong in the heyday of building large nuclear plants, says Oppenheimer, is that we didn’t do what France did, which really centered on refining one reactor design and using it across the country. Instead, he says, the U.S. experimented.

Renewables like solar and wind are important, says Oppenheimer, but the investment hasn’t yet measured up to the amount of carbon freedom gained. He points to Germany as a country that’s made a huge investment in renewables, but still relies on fossil fuels for a majority of its energy.

There is no one silver bullet to producing alternatives to coal, but Oppenheimer believes fusion-based nuclear power should play an important role in the mix. “It is proven science and engineering, and we know it’s scalable.” He is particularly excited about the idea of smaller, efficient and mass produced reactors called SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) and their smaller counterparts, microreactors. These, he believes, can be mass manufactured at affordable prices.  “With new engineering techniques to create smaller reactors you could start stamping them out, factory-style with great efficiency.”

As for the required uranium supply, Oppenheimer says that it’s one of the most plentiful resources in the world. “It’s not like the rare minerals that go into our cars, our electric vehicles and our renewables. There’s enough uranium to power the world for millions of years.”

The Summer of Climate Goes Nuclear

Somehow, it’s fitting that the 2023 summer of climate change: forest fires, hurricanes, extreme heat, flood and droughts, was also the summer that brought the story of the original planet killer, the A-bomb, to the big screen. Oppenheimer relates the two. He told me that he lost his own home in the Lahaina fires in Hawaii, reaffirming his belief that the time to act is now.

At its essence, the Oppenheimer Project is about “worldwide cooperation in dealing with existential threats.” Charles often gets asked if he thinks the United States can sit down at the table with Russia, India, China, and other countries and agree to talk about nuclear energy and climate change.

“We all have weapons; they’re all pointing at each other. It is difficult to discuss things with people who have diametrically opposed views to yours, but there are things we can agree on. Energy is one that is really easy to agree on,” he says.  “I can’t promise world peace in every area, but let’s work on the framework we can agree on.”  Even in the U.S., where there’s so much polarization, it’s easier now than ever to find political common ground, he points out. Oppenheimer also believes that developing countries will play a big part in adoption of nuclear energy. In the same way that they leapfrogged the world in terms of mobile phone adoption because they didn’t have a landline infrastructure, they’ll skip coal and move to nuclear energy with the right investments.

AI: The Next Existential Threat?

Oppenheimer says he gets a lot of questions about what his grandfather would say about AI.  “Humans are always creating some version of science and technology. And that will always pose a threat,” he said. “So, what did we learn last time and what can we do this time around?”

Growing up in the shadow of both the greatness and flaws of his famous grandfather, Oppenheimer says he never felt pressure to follow in his footsteps, nor right the world’s wrongs. “On the other hand,” he says, “there was an idea that one of the most important things in the world was the threat from nuclear weapons. That threat felt real, and quite personal to me.”

Another core question: should we do science even when it poses a danger? “My grandfather gave a clear answer on that. We must do science.”  Famously Robert Oppenheimer said “There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry … There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.” His grandson and the Oppenheimer Project intend to carry on that legacy.