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A dream goes dark: how nuclear power lost its way

In the early years of the Space Race, the prospects of nuclear energy seemed limitless. As scientists in the US and USSR pushed the boundaries of physics, unlocking the secrets of the atom, nuclear power promised an abundant source of clean energy to fuel humanity’s future. Towering figures like Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller became celebrities, nuclear energy their dazzling starlet, her potential waiting to be unleashed.

But today, that once-bright nuclear future has utterly failed to materialize. While over 400 reactors provide 10% of global electricity, nuclear has flatlined, eclipsed by media-friendly, comforting ideas about cheaper sources like solar and renewables. New plants are rare and mired in emotional rhetoric, delays, and cost overruns. Nuclear accidents like Chornobyl and Fukushima loom large in the cultural psyche. And now, the promise of atomic energy has faded, written off by many as a 20th-century pipe dream, impractical and unsafe for the modern age.

As with many complex stories, the truth lies deeper than conventional wisdom suggests. Nuclear power's stagnation was not an inevitability—it was a choice driven by psychological quirks and ideological forces as much as hard economic realities. The nuclear industry and its proponents zigged at key moments when they should have zagged.

For better or worse, a technology with immense potential found itself boxed in by fear, politics, and failures of imagination.

The dream of nuclear energy captivated some of the brightest scientific minds of the 20th century. Men like Fermi, Teller, Oppenheimer — their genius and determination brought the nuclear age into being. Fission had been discovered in 1938, and the Manhattan Project harnessed it into a terrifying weapon. But after the war, the focus turned to “peaceful” applications. The first nuclear power plant opened in Russia in 1954. The US, UK, France and others soon followed suit. President Eisenhower extolled the “peaceful atom” and its potential to provide abundant energy, power desalination, and more. Its role as an energy source was never entirely pacifistic — in the depths of the Cold War, no technology and no industry was neutral to the power struggle between East and West.

But cracks soon appeared in the nuclear dream. And if we can be sure of anything, it’s that “cracks” and nuclear energy are incompatible.

While effective at generating electricity, the first plants proved more expensive than anticipated. Costs spiraled as regulations tightened and construction times stretched out. The 1970s oil shocks briefly boosted interest in nuclear as an alternative to foreign oil. But then came Three Mile Island in 1979, crystallizing public fears of a catastrophic meltdown. It was a PR nightmare for the industry.

And it wasn’t over.

Chornobyl came in 1986, a far more severe disaster that would ultimately kill thousands.

The graphite-moderated Soviet RBMK reactor had crucial and predicted design flaws, and the accident resulted from a botched safety test, political suppression, and the floundering reality of Soviet bureaucracy and economics. But to a public already primed with nuclear jitters, it mattered little that Chornobyl’s reactors bore minimal resemblance to Western designs.

Nuclear power was unsafe at any speed, end of story — or so many came to believe.

These beliefs crashed into an emerging anti-nuclear movement driven by environmental groups like Greenpeace and Sierra Club. They portrayed nuclear as a looming existential threat, and their political clout grew. In the US, the Shoreham reactor completed in 1984 was never switched on due to public opposition. Austria built a plant but kept it mothballed. Italy closed its reactors after a 1987 referendum. The world’s nuclear capacity kept growing into the 90s but at a slowing rate.

Several cognitive biases were at play. Advocates overestimated how quickly and easily nuclear could scale. The vivid, catastrophic nature of nuclear disasters gave them an outsized psychological impact compared to the slow, invisible harm of air pollution. The conflation of nuclear power with weapons made it uniquely emotionally charged and susceptible to ideological opposition. Radiation’s invisibility only heightened the sense of dread.

These perceptual hurdles collided with real challenges around economics, waste disposal, and weapons proliferation that proved thornier than expected. Optimists hoped advancing technology would make nuclear power cheaper and safer. But a complex web of incentives and regulations pushed the industry in the opposite direction—pursuing ever-larger, more expensive reactors to recoup massive upfront costs. Molten salt and other alternative designs discussed since the 1960s remained niche. Waste disposal solutions never materialized at scale.

By the early 2000s, the nuclear dream seemed all but extinguished. Then, concerns over climate change reignited interest in low-carbon nuclear, sparking talk of a “nuclear renaissance.” But it fizzled almost as soon as it began. The 2011 Fukushima disaster, while far less severe than Chornobyl, reawakened public fears and led countries like Germany and Japan to turn away from nuclear. The revolution in fracking unleashed a glut of cheap natural gas, undercutting the economic case for new nuclear. Renewables kept getting cheaper as well. The nuclear industry seemed trapped in an expensive, inflexible paradigm while nimbler competitors danced circles around it.

Some say the nuclear dream was doomed from the start — an example of technological overconfidence colliding with human psychology and real-world complexity. There’s certainly some truth to that. But it’s also clear that nuclear wasn’t given the chance to evolve and adapt like other energy technologies. Regulatory hurdles and public hostility constrained innovation. Alternatives like thorium and fusion were starved of R&D. Safer; standardized designs could have sped deployment and cut costs. Pushing ahead on waste solutions could have blunted a potent anti-nuclear argument.

Perhaps most crucially, nuclear advocates lacked imagination in telling their story. They talked up nuclear’s potential but failed to grapple with its challenges and limitations. Overheated rhetoric about “too cheap to meter” energy made it easy for critics to paint them as naïve or deceptive. When disasters happened, the industry was flatfooted, attempting to explain them away on technical grounds rather than forthrightly addressing valid concerns.

There were roads not taken, and branches of possibility were never explored. We’ll never know for sure if things could have played out differently. What’s clear is that the story of nuclear power is shot through with ideological, political, and psychological, as much as technical and economic factors. Like many technologies, it became a screen on which society projected its hopes and fears.

Perhaps it never stood a chance.

Or perhaps the nuclear story is far from over.

As the need for clean energy solutions grows ever more urgent, there are flickers of renewed interest in nuclear from climate advocates and investors. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe not. The human factors that shaped nuclear’s trajectory aren’t going away. Overcoming them will take more than better reactors. It will take a new story.

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