What is the Nuclear Energy Grand Challenge?

Nuclear power is an essential tool in the fight against climate change producing massive amounts of energy without any greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, deploying nuclear power at scale worldwide represents the most efficient path to deep decarbonization. Despite this potential, the nuclear power industry is hindered by social, political, and economic challenges in many parts of the world. The Nuclear Energy Grand Challenge represents a series of prize competitions organized by the Energy Impact Center to spur a new approach to nuclear power deployment on a time frame that can make a difference.

The first prize competition, Reimagining Nuclear Waste, is taking place over the Fall 2019 and Winter 2020 semesters in partnership with the University of Michigan. It is designed to advance the clean energy economy by engaging collegiate innovators and entrepreneurs to tackle one of the most unique challenges facing the nuclear energy industry – the perception of nuclear waste.

Why a prize?

When Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig prize in 1927 and became the first aviator to make a trans–Atlantic crossing, it defied what was thought possible for human transportation and transformed the aviation industry. Prize competitions accelerate progress towards ambitious goals by providing an incentive for innovators and investors to solve complex problems. Prizes particularly lend themselves to situations where there is no clear route to a solution, or there may be many different pathways for innovation. They can produce breakthroughs even when there is no developed market for solutions and prompt the development of whole new industries.

The nuclear waste “problem” represents this exact type of challenge. Political gridlock has stalled progress on the development of viable “solution”, and there is little to drive (or support) for innovators to invest in alternative technologies that go beyond storage.

Why Waste?

The nuclear industry has historically responded to calls against its “waste” by offering solutions around concentrating, storing indefinitely, and separating it from humans, which only further—albeit counterintuitively—deepens the public’s distrust, misunderstanding, and wariness of the energy source at large. This prize competition represents the first of several efforts to flip the script on the byproducts of nuclear energy generation, by identifying new commercial opportunities to transform nuclear “waste” from a liability into an asset.

Spent nuclear fuel has unique properties that can be taken advantage of for commercial use, including (1) low, predictable, continuous heat, (2) self-producing energy for hundreds of years, (3) unique tracing and identification abilities, and (4) potential hormetic biological benefits.

You can learn more about the state of used nuclear fuel in the United States here.