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Could Nuclear Power Save Us from Climate Disaster?

Image credit: The New Fire

A documentary called The New Fire tells a controversial yet hopeful story about the young entrepreneurs fueling a new energy revolution, working to turn a vilified technology — nuclear power — into a global solution to climate change.

The 2017 film, by Emmy-winning director David Schumacher, highlights next-generation nuclear startups Oklo and Transatomic and their work to create advanced generators that address safety and waste issues — aspects of nuclear energy that have posed huge threats to its progress and sustainability — which the young innovators think could salvage not only the technology’s reputation, but our global energy future. From reactors that claim to consume existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, to a plan for the mass production of small, self-regulating plants; this film presents a variety of approaches to solving the biggest impending crisis of our time. 

The young entrepreneurs heading this energy revolution realize they’re up against more than the climate clock — they need to convince the world that the “new nuclear” is safe and achievable.

Filmed across four continents over the course of 22 months, Schumacher’s film focuses on how the generation facing the most severe impact of climate change is fighting back with ingenuity and hope. MIT students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie founded Transatomic with a goal of designing an advanced molten salt reactor that generates clean, safe, proliferation-resistant, low-cost nuclear power. In Silicon Valley, husband-and-wife Oklo co-founders Caroline Cochran and Jacob DeWitte are developing a microreactor for off-grid and other special applications where, today, diesel is the only option.

Their work is being supported by nuclear advocates all over the globe: The film goes to Paris to follow activist Eric Meyer, as he evangelizes to Parisians at COP 21; and renowned climate scientist James Hansen, as he makes the case for nuclear with a team of his colleagues. Hansen then travels to China, where he organized an unprecedented and controversial meeting between US and Chinese climate and nuclear experts. Meanwhile, back in the US, the film follows Bill Gates, who is putting his weight behind TerraPower, a company he co-founded to bring affordable clean energy to developing countries.

The film also features Ken Caldeira, atmospheric scientist at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science; and Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT.

“This isn’t a film about politics, or about how much damage we’ve already done, or pointing fingers at who is to blame. This is a film about a path forward, to show audiences that there is a technological solution — one that may surprise them,” Schumacher said in a statement. “The United States was on a path to developing ground breaking nuclear technology in the ‘60s but then it stalled. Why haven’t we gone back to these promising discoveries to address the most pressing problem that humanity has ever faced?

“Well, it turns out that we have ... I just hadn’t heard about it. Rather than a large, Manhattan Project-scale effort, it’s several small startups, some founded by really impressive, idealistic young people who are determined to prove that nuclear energy’s best days lie ahead.

“This was the beginning of my obsession with the subject of nuclear power. But it wasn’t until I met the people at Transatomic Power and Oklo that I knew I had to make this movie,” Schumacher said. “These brilliant young people — some of the most gifted engineers of their generation — believe deeply that nuclear power could play a key role in saving the planet. And they are acting on that conviction. They are the new face of nuclear power, and to me, the newest and most unlikely climate heroes.

“I want audiences to come away from The New Fire with a new perspective about a technology they may have dismissed until now. And new sense of mission to try and save our planet before it’s too late.”

After making the rounds of the independent film festival circuit in 2017, The New Fire will be available to stream from Amazon, Google Play and iTunes starting October 18.

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