Project Report:
Nuclear Economics and Innovation
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


Through our original reports and analyses, communications work, and events and conferences, Breakthrough will address several policy and knowledge gaps in the nuclear space. Our work would clarify cost drivers in nuclear power plants and reveal options for cost reductions; it would disrupt the conversation around nuclear security and nuclear exports, opening new space for international nuclear innovation and deployment; it would expand the policy options for nuclear deployment, including state-directed energy policy and bottom-up nuclear entrepreneurialism; and it would get closer to the bottom of opposition to nuclear power in rich and poor countries, hopefully paving the way for new types of nuclear advocacy.


Over the past decade, the Breakthrough Institute has helped lead a growing coalition within environmental civil society in support of existing nuclear power plants and innovation towards next-generation nuclear technologies. Perhaps more than any previous years, 2018 and 2019 have seen significant progress towards those goals. States like California and Illinois, and corporations like Google and Xcel Energy, took steps to recognize the value of existing nuclear power. The Union of Concerned Scientists, long skeptical of all forms of nuclear power, came out in support of keeping existing plants operating. Promising nuclear legislation has worked its way through Washington, including the passage of the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) and the advance of the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act.

Much of the substance behind these supportive policies and the coalitional shift in favor of supporting nuclear energy can be traced to the work of Breakthrough and our allies. More work is needed: plants around the world remain threatened, and the advanced nuclear industry still faces numerous obstacles. But nuclear’s intellectual, research, and advocacy support have never been stronger.

Over the past year, Breakthrough produced the following work in support of our goals.


Clean Energy Standards: A report co-authored with Third Way, which establishes why states should expand their renewable portfolio standards to include other low-carbon options like existing nuclear, advanced nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and large hydroelectric. The report was released in June 2018, was covered in Greentech Media, Utility Dive, and elsewhere, and led to op-eds in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. In September 2018, California passed a law transforming its renewable portfolio standard into a clean energy standard.

Planting the Seeds of a Distributed Nuclear Revolution: A report we co-authored with ClearPath and R Street that makes the case for expedited licensing and commercialization of micro-nuclear reactors. It was published in September 2018 and complemented with a panel on Capitol Hill featuring speakers from the Heritage Foundation and NRDC. This collaboration is an outcome of the Bottom-Up Advanced Nuclear Workshop we co-hosted with R Street Institute in Spring of 2018. Participants included senior officials from ALEC, Heritage Foundation, ClearPath, Hoover Institute, Niskanen, and several other organizations.

Online Analysis:

Nuclear for 1.5°C: Energy analyst Jameson McBride looks at the latest IPCC assessment of the role of nuclear energy in deep decarbonization and finds that meeting strict emissions targets requires more nuclear energy.

Deregulation and Decarbonization: Energy analyst Jameson McBride and Breakthrough Generation Fellow Jessica Dunn offer the first analysis of electricity sector deregulation and carbon emissions, finding that path dependency and technological change are more determinative than market structure or regulatory approaches.

Beyond Yucca Mountain: Energy analyst Jameson McBride looks at alternative waste disposal strategies and proposes that the nuclear industry consider smaller, more distributed technological solutions for storing and recycling nuclear waste.

How Not to Save Nuclear: Energy analyst Jameson McBride critiques the Trump Administration’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would subsidize existing coal and nuclear plants, arguing that, for technical and political reasons, nuclear interests should not ally with coal interests. This analysis followed up on earlier writing by McBride and also was published by Greentech Media.?

RIP Transatomic Power: Breakthrough Founder and Executive Director Ted Nordhaus provides meaningful insight on why the failure of advanced nuclear darling, Transatomic Power, makes the case for advanced microreactors even stronger.

A New Day for Nuclear Advocacy...and Environmentalism?: Ted Nordhaus reflects on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ troubled relationship with nuclear energy and considers what the organization’s recent support of the technology could mean for the future of the nuclear industry.

Nuclear Energy Leadership Act a Big Step for Advanced Nuclear: Director of Energy Jessica Lovering reports on the introduction of the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 903) and summarizes key points of the bill.

Why Advanced Nuclear Reactors May Be Here Sooner Than Many Imagine: Published on Greentech Media, Ted Nordhaus and Jessica Lovering evaluate the state of nuclear energy in the United States and highlight the potential of advanced nuclear reactors to leapfrog traditional light water reactors.

Ongoing Research:

Nuclear Economics: This work is currently being integrated with our nuclear learning curves project. Our energy team is conducting analysis for a peer-reviewed, econometric study of the full history of nuclear construction costs in seven countries, based on data originally published by Breakthrough. We are exploring possible academic partners at Mines ParisTech, UC Berkeley, and other universities. We are also planning to release a series of blog posts on the history of nuclear construction over the course of the research.?

Nuclear Cognition: A report focused on how people think and talk about nuclear energy. This research reviews the public opinion and social scientific research on attitudes toward nuclear, and it points to the potential of advanced reactor technology — along with better community engagement — to disrupt the political coding of nuclear energy and redefine for the public what nuclear energy is. Our Content Director Kenton de Kirby is lead on this project and we expect to publish it in Winter 2019.?

Nuclear Proliferation: Breakthrough co-hosted a workshop on this topic with the Partnership for Global Security in Washington, D.C. in June 2019. We are now preparing a white paper summarizing the assessment and recommendations of the experts who participated.

Nuclear Waste: A report that will survey the current state of nuclear waste policy and technology, then propose a set of concrete solutions that federal and state governments could take to ensure a sustainable future for American nuclear power. Energy Analyst, Jameson McBride has taken the lead on this project and we expect to publish it in August of 2019.

Carbon Reduction Scenarios: (Formerly called Innovation and Carbon Pricing) A paper that will review the climate-economic modeling literature, taking this case directly to environmental economists and policymakers. Our goal with the paper is to integrate Breakthrough’s expertise and authority on energy innovation and energy transitions to make the case that a focus on technology, as opposed to a focus on price signals, will be the most effective climate policy.

Land-Use Intensity of Energy: A paper that considers the full land use implications of a broad range of energy technologies and how they can help policymakers better balance the trade-offs between energy systems and optimize decarbonization efforts to minimize land use impacts and public opposition to the growth of zero-carbon energy infrastructure. Director of Energy Jessica Lovering is lead on this project and we expect it to be finished by the end of Summer 2019.

Network-Building and Partnerships

Breakthrough serves as a network-building hub, convening ideologically diverse and open-minded partners. By doing so we believe we can change key discourses to create a new environmental politics and, ultimately, shift policy and practice in more pragmatic and productive directions. Our ability to connect with economists, journalists, thought leaders, philanthropists, and policymakers serves as an indicator of our progress and uniquely positions us to make the case that a focus on technology will be the most effective climate policy.

Bottom-Up Advanced Nuclear Workshop: An event co-hosted with the R Street Institute in Washington, DC in April 2018 to discuss new ideas for energy policy and investments that can appeal to libertarian thinkers and organizations. Participants included senior officials from ALEC, Heritage Foundation, ClearPath, Hoover Institute, Niskanen, and several other organizations. Following the workshop, several organizations expressed interest in partnering on a white paper and a series of workshops with academic institutions and companies developing reactors to further expand on ideas discussed at the workshop. In September 2018, Breakthrough published Planting the Seeds of a Distributed Nuclear Revolution with ClearPath and R Street.

Nuclear for Conservation: Breakthrough hosted a planning session with RESOLVE in September of 2018 to advance the first in a series of workshops meant to deepen public knowledge of nuclear energy’s benefits and build broader support for nuclear power within the environmental community. With support from Breakthrough, RESOLVE is now spearheading planning efforts for the workshop which will convene leading environmental NGOs in a joint fact-finding process on nuclear energy and its role in addressing climate change.

Breakthrough Dialogue 2019: Our flagship event that we have hosted for the past eight years in Sausalito, California. This year’s Dialogue was themed Whole Earth Discipline in celebration of the life and legacy of Stewart Brand, who received our annual Paradigm Award. The Dialogue included discussions on decoupling, ocean conservation, long-term thinking, beef production, energy innovation, ecomodernism and religion, large-scale farming practices, and more. Participants included MIT economist Andrew McAfee, Mission Blue’s Sylvia Earle, the Stockholm Resilience Center’s Victor Galaz, and Vox’s Dylan Matthews.

Ecomodernism 2018 - Achieving Disagreement: The second iteration of our recently launched east coast dialogue, which took place just outside of Washington, DC last fall. The event was designed to model what constructive debate looks like and featured a series of debates about climate change, conservation, the American food system, and urbanization — giving full-throated partisans the chance to make their arguments and rebut their opponents. We also challenged speakers to accurately articulate the positions they disagree with and note the weaknesses in their own arguments. Additionally, we invited respondents on stage to complicate those debates and challenge the premises upon which they are prosecuted. Participants included Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Kim- Mai Cutler of Initialized Capital.

We also hosted a number of issue-specific convenings around our June and September events:

Energy for Development: A workshop that discussed how US government agencies and the World Bank are balancing energy demand for household uses with demand for productive uses that meet economic development needs.?

Advanced Nuclear Energy: A workshop that used a series of interactive group exercises with experts from government, industry, and think tanks to prioritize policies that accelerate the commercialization of advanced nuclear energy technologies.


Breakthrough also prioritizes communications and network building to steer the conversations around our chosen issue areas and to leverage strategic partnerships and out-of-house expertise to advance our research and policy agenda.

Congressional Testimony: In May of 2018 our executive director Ted Nordhaus provided Congressional testimony to the US House Science Committee on Technological Solutions to Climate Change along with the president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Phil Duffy and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Oren Cass. This was an encouraging signal in times of rampant polarization that Congress is interested in hearing from voices that acknowledge mainstream climate science while being open to productive and civil debate about technological solutions and policy responses.

Breakthrough Dialogues: Our podcast which airs every other Monday and is hosted by our Deputy Director, Alex Trembath. Each 30-minute episode features guests who offer innovative solutions and new ways to think about environmental challenges. Guests have included Charles Mann, Suzy Hobbs-Baker, Rachel Pritzker, Varun Sivaram, Hannah Ritchie, and Julio Friedmann. This podcast is another part of our effort to reframe environmental debates in pragmatic new ways and to defuse long-standing tensions between the many factions within the environmental community. Over the next year, we will continue to engage in more conversations that push us and our listeners to think outside the box and bring our message to a wider audience.

Breakthrough Journal: The Breakthrough Journal was introduced in 2011 to modernize environmental thought for the 21st century and challenges conventional wisdom in service of crafting a relevant and powerful new ecological politics. Our Summer 2019 issue focused on the theme of “Whole Earth Equity,” and asked readers to consider what a just and equitable future for mankind looks like on Earth. Features by S. Margot Finn, Jonathan Symons, and Leigh Phillips reexamined popular notions of environmental and food justice, while the journal’s Seeing Different series sought to catalyze the reader’s imagination by presenting them with aspirational images of the past, present, and future. One of the largest shifts within the last year has been our transition to a brand new website, which prioritizes external-facing research areas rather than an internally-focused organizational structure. Our key hope was to streamline the navigation and make it easier for our audience to find Breakthrough commentary on issues of interest and stay on the site longer. We’re pleased to report that our bounce rate dropped drastically: -20% from February 2018 to February 2019, meaning 20% fewer people navigated away from after viewing a single page. Correspondingly, the number of pages per session was boosted by 35%, and the average user’s session duration was up by 15%. As we continue to shift toward audience-driven design, we’re eager to see continued improvement in the quality of engagement.

Breakthrough Newsletter: In 2018 we prioritized connecting more regularly with our network and increased our Breakthrough Newsletter publication cycle from monthly to weekly. We redesigned the newsletter and added a staff corner to introduce our team to our audience. This engagement strategy has been successful, as the newsletter now generates double the typical amount of reader opens and clicks in the nonprofit industry.


More work must be done to ensure the continued operation of existing nuclear plants and, even more importantly, the development and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors. In the past years, we have shifted the policy conversation towards a new framework for accelerating innovation in advanced nuclear power. That has included our reports “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” “How to Make Nuclear Innovative,” and “Planting the Seeds of a Distributed Nuclear Revolution.” Making clean energy cheap is a public-private partnership, and innovative firms and entrepreneurs must be involved every step of the way. The goal of Breakthrough's research, communications, and network-building is to design and advance policy proposals that accelerate technological innovation so clean energy technologies can compete. Market-based instruments like carbon taxes will be all the more effective with cheap, scalable clean technologies available.


This project is mostly targeted towards a US audience, while also relevant to other countries – including countries in the developing world – that also seek cheap, clean, scalable energy technologies. Our aim is for thought leaders and policy makers in the United States to adopt our proposals and partner with leaders in emerging economies, where demand for energy is growing fastest, to demonstrate and deploy new clean energy technologies.

Amount Approved
$10,000.00 on 12/14/2018 (Check sent: 1/11/2019)

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Nuclear Innovation

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Grace Choi
Operations Director, The Breakthrough Institute

Posted 12/14/2018 8:42 PM
Updated   12/15/2019 10:50 AM

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