Project Report:
A High-Energy, Low Footprint Planet
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


From China to India to sub-Saharan Africa, industrializing countries are leading the way on energy innovation, with the development of advanced nuclear a key piece of their portfolios. Given the twin challenges of expanding energy access and shrinking the human footprint, the need for nuclear power is great. But much work remains to accelerate nuclear's development and deployment. As such, Breakthrough is seeking support to continue playing a lead role in researching how nuclear is a critical energy and conservation tool. Our strategy is to demonstrate how, due to its small footprint, nuclear has the ability to meet energy needs while sparing more land for wildlife and habitats. We also propose to survey historical costs for nuclear, with the goal of challenging the consensus that nuclear is intrinsically expensive and justifying the expansion of advanced nuclear.


In the past several years, Breakthrough has helped establish why nuclear is key to meeting the twin challenges of climate change and energy access. But energy analysts, conservationists, and the broader public have yet to fully embrace nuclear’s central role in not only mitigating global warming and energy poverty, but also ensuring that there are wild spaces for future generations. Going forward, nuclear will need to be situated as a comprehensively pro-environment technology – in terms of cost, reliability, emissions, and land footprint – to support and justify its development and deployment.

Meeting the Need

Through our reports and analyses, communications work, and events and conferences, Breakthrough will establish nuclear as such a comprehensively pro-environment technology and situate its benefits in a much more inspiring context: how humans save nature. The soon-to-be-released “ecomodernist manifesto” will provide a broad overview of the global need for nuclear and how to understand its role in an ecologically vibrant future. The report Nature Unbound will offer an empirical basis of this vision through the concept of decoupling. Other research will thoroughly examine the historical costs of nuclear builds, with the goal of understanding the claim that nuclear is intrinsically expensive. A symposium featuring women in nuclear, co-hosted with Japanese partners, will signal a new era for nuclear, highlighting the next-generation technologies that are being developed and deployed across the globe.


Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation
In September 2015 we published Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation. This report, three years in the making, details a conservation strategy for using less nature through substitution and intensification – two primary drivers of decoupling. Historically, decoupling has not been possible without greater inputs of energy. The report details how sources of scalable, cheap clean energy can decouple human prosperity from carbon emissions, along with other decoupling strategies in food, materials consumption, and other environmental indicators. The report was debuted at Resources for the Future in Washington, DC, and its coauthors toured it to many European universities over three weeks in the fall. Bloomberg’s Justin Fox said the report “may be the most important news of our time.

A Manifesto for a New Environmentalism
An Ecomodernist Manifesto, published in April 2015, earned more attention than feedback than we could have hoped for. Dozens of responses are available on the manifesto website, including plaudits from the New York Times, Slate, Nature, the National Review, USA Today, Bloomberg, New Scientist, and other leading outlets. The manifesto has been featured for two years in a row at the annual gathering of the American Association of Geographers, is already being taught in university environmental studies courses, and has kicked off a budding movement of grassroots ecomodernists, including Ecomodernists Moms and Dads and the Ecomodernist Society of Finland. Translated in 11 languages, the manifesto has significantly accelerated the growth of Breakthrough’s community and network, and has attracted new enthusiastic appeal to our ideas about innovation, human development, and environmental protection.

The Land Footprint of Energy Sources
The difference between a planet using nuclear energy and a planet using renewable energy is a land area the size of Russia. That is the uncomfortable reality lurking behind many soft-energy-only scenarios that exclude nuclear. Breakthrough’s research program is now finalizing research that will enable policy makers and the public to understand the land use requirements of various energy sources, including wind, solar, nuclear, fossil fuels, and bioenergy. The study includes a thorough analysis of the methodology behind 20 studies estimating the land use intensity of energy, as well as empirical work completed by Breakthrough staff and Breakthrough Generation fellows in the summer of 2015. Breakthrough will continue to finalize the text for submission into an academic journal this year.

The Economics of Nuclear
In spring 2016, the academic journal Energy Policy published Breakthrough’s groundbreaking review of nuclear plant cost trends in seven different countries. One of the most trenchant arguments against nuclear centers on cost and the technology’s supposed “negative learning curve,” where capital costs inherently keep rising. What is less known is that such statements are based on costs from the early pioneer countries in nuclear power: the United States and France. The conclusion shifts if one considers the later adopters of nuclear – Korea, Japan, and India – whose historical data is commonly excluded from the literature. The paper was covered by Vox and CityLabs and has already changed the way the nuclear industry talks about cost and innovation.

Our database covers more than 370 reactors culled from a broad range of sources. Given the difficulty of obtaining data and the uncertainty of reported numbers, Breakthrough enlisted help from the World Nuclear Association, and also reached out to the International Energy Agency and leading nuclear engineers and policy experts to collaborate on the project. The the need is great: as long as policy makers continue to think that nuclear is intrinsically expensive, nations will be less likely to deploy it.

The Day-to-Day Work of Advancing Nuclear
Beyond the reports, speaking engagements, and manifestos, Breakthrough will do the hard day-to-day work of showing why nuclear is needed for climate change and the protection of nature. This is the type of work you cannot predict in advance: when Mike Grunwald writes a TIME piece citing the exorbitant costs of nuclear, for example, energy analyst Alex Trembath does the math and finds that the Vogtle reactors will generate a kilowatt of power at half the cost of solar thermal from Cresent Dunes. When an environmental organization says that we don’t need nuclear because we have energy efficiency and renewables, energy analyst Jessica Lovering makes a slide deck on future energy demand and how much renewables can meet it. These analyses are then picked up by outlets like the New York Times’s Dot Earth blog and circulated on Twitter and Facebook. If Breakthrough encounters pushback, our research staff follows up by writing new blog posts, engaging in Twitter debates, and answering questions from journalists. By staying informed with what is happening in nuclear around the globe, and continually interacting with other energy analysts, Breakthrough demonstrates why nuclear is an indispensable part of our future energy mix.

Programs, Events, and Publications

The Case for Nuclear in Japan
Having suffered one of the biggest disasters in recent history, Japan is undoubtedly the most important country influencing the fate of nuclear, and it’s essential that the world gets the facts straight about what is happening there. Two of the Japan’s leading energy experts, Masakazu Toyoda, Chairman and CEO of the Institute of Energy Economics Japan and Nobuo Tanaka, former Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, are making the case for safer nuclear technologies, including the integral fast reactor. In May 2015, Breakthrough worked with the Institute for Energy Economics in Japan to organize a day-long seminar on the future of nuclear. We brought female nuclear experts from around the world to participate in the seminar and a series of meeting and site visits that we organized. We also brought leading climate scientists to these meetings which included: visiting the Fukushima Daiichi disaster site, an operating nuclear power plant, and several energy and climate think tanks in Japan. The trip allowed our staff and allies to gain critical on-the-ground understanding of energy issues in Japan, as well as help us build new partnerships with policymakers and intellectual energy leaders in Japan.

Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: The Good Anthropocene
Breakthrough Dialogue is the research institute’s signature annual event, where staff, senior fellows, and Breakthrough Generation Fellows convene with other leading thinkers to explore and further develop the ecomodernist agenda and to form collaborations with new allies. Breakthrough Dialogue 2015, themed “The Good Anthropocene,” was our most ambitious event yet, with approximately 170 participants from across the globe.

The 2015 Dialogue included leading ecomodernist thought leaders such as Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas, Ruth DeFries, and others. We also hosted critics of our framework, including Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton and French sociologist Bruno Latour. Leading environmental journalists were also in attendance, including the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, Meera Subramanian, Charles Mann, Grist’s Nate Johnson, the Economist’s Oliver Morton, and the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, several of whom covered the Dialogue for their respective outlets. Finally, the Dialogue allowed Breakthrough to continue to internationalize our work, with contributions from India’s Joyashree Roy, Kenya’s Margaret Karembu, China’s Zhongmin Wang, Ghana’s Kwaw Andam, and other leading international scholars.

Breakthrough Generation
Breakthrough’s summer program trains a new generation of scholars and policy experts to do groundbreaking research with a social impact. In 2015, we hosted five fellows to work on the land footprint of energy, case studies in agricultural and energy technology complexity, and World Bank funding of energy projects in emerging economies. Much of this work has already been incorporated into drafts of research papers that will be published in 2016, including a framing paper on energy for human development and our peer-reviewed study on the land use impacts of energy technologies. In August 2015, Generation Fellows presented their findings to a group of Breakthrough funders, friends, and allies. Fellows Jack Shaked and Shaiyra Devi were hired following the fellowship as analysts.

Breakthrough Journal
Breakthrough Journal is the institute’s annual publication of long-form essays that shape the contours of, and offer the critical thinking required for a robust ecomodernist movement. Issue 5, themed “The Good Anthropocene,” was published and released at Breakthrough Dialogue 2015. Collectively, the essays explore different ways that scientists, scholars, activists, and environmentalists are working to translate positive visions of the Anthropocene, the human-dominated geological epoch, into a reality. Key essays include “The Return of Nature” by Jesse H. Ausubel, which gives evidence of the ways that humans are treading lighter on the planet and leaving more room for nature; “Rewilding Pragmatism,” by Martin Lewis, which examines how Kruger National Park in South Africa is a pragmatic model for future conservation and wildlife management efforts; and “A Theology for Ecomodernism,” by Mark Sagoff, which offers a more nuanced view of how decoupling can allow humans to enjoy nature more for spiritual and aesthetic reasons.

The Breakthrough Institute reports to the Walker Foundation the key goals that have been met on a yearly basis through our annual report and on as through our newsletter. We will update the narrative sections on the website as we progress through the project, and intend to share published papers, reports, and articles, as well as media coverage of our work, as they are released.


Four years after Fukushima, nuclear energy is gearing up for a global renaissance. From India to Russia to China, nations are driven to innovate for clean, cheap, and reliable energy. But the nuclear renaissance still faces significant technological hurdles as well as infrastructure, regulatory, and economic obstacles. Following the release of our report How to Make Nuclear Cheap, Breakthrough began research to understand the historical costs of nuclear, including the late adopters – Korea, India, and Japan – which are commonly left out of the literature when energy analysts claim that nuclear is intrinsically expensive. This key research will provide a more complete picture for nuclear's cost, which shapes our ambitions and challenges for the next generation of nuclear.


This proposal is international in scope, focused on researching and developing policy reforms to advance next generation nuclear energy in the United States, China, and throughout the world.

Information Dissemination

The Breakthrough Institute disseminates our research through targeted communications to journalists, policymakers, and academics. Over the years we have built strong personal relationships with expert journalists in environmental policy, politics, energy systems, and economics. We also broadcast our research through an extensive email list and through social media. With partners at other think tanks in Washington, DC, and elsewhere, we share our findings with policymaking staff at the US federal and other levels. Through our Generation and Senior Fellows programs, our research reaches the broader community of scholars and researchers studying environmental economics, politics, and policy. We also tour our findings through events including our own Breakthrough Dialogue, workshops, and speaking engagements at universities, think tanks, and popular gatherings.

Amount Approved
$30,000.00 on 6/5/2015 (Check sent: 7/13/2015)

Nature Unbound
In 2015, Breakthrough published our flagship conservation report "Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation." The report describes how innovation, intensification, and substitution can lead to environmental benefits.

Nature Unbound

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Grace Choi
Operations Director, The Breakthrough Institute

Posted 3/27/2015 1:53 PM
Updated   7/21/2016 7:41 PM

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