If scientists announced today the discovery of a brand new technology that could prevent catastrophic climate change, it would be celebrated the world over in the same way as the Apollo 11 moon landing. Yet, we already have discovered a technology with similar virtue: nuclear energy.
David Schumacher is the director of The New Fire, a new independent documentary that explores the work of young nuclear engineers and entrepreneurs developing next-generation nuclear reactors. These young innovators are leading the fight to bring advanced nuclear to the forefront of the climate discussion. The film presents the powerful story behind the creative brilliance of these small groups hoping to provide clean and safe solutions to the world’s energy needs, as they try to bring their reactors to market.
David jokes that he was an unlikely candidate to become an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He is a musician by training and played professionally in the Bay Area for seven years. He had never made a feature length film before. He explains that his passion and love for creating he found in music carried over into storytelling.
“I grew up in Canada. I remember as a kid we’d go on family vacations in the States, (though I can’t remember where we were driving), and once we drove past giant cooling towers and I thought they were nuclear reactors. My thoughts at the time were: can the radiation get into the car?”
David is humble about his introduction to both nuclear technology and filmmaking, but his personal story speaks to a common experience many people can relate to. “I would put my childhood nervousness about nuclear in the same category of thinking as seeing the earthquake on the Bay Bridge as an adult and feeling an inexplicable fear. I realized it’s not really a phobia of earthquakes or nuclear that puts people on edge. It’s just thought games that you play with yourself.”
“I first found out about advanced nuclear at a conference in 2011, a couple months after Fukushima, where Bill Gates was talking about nuclear. I learned about non-light water reactors, which seemed interesting but a long ways off. In the wake of Fukushima, reading about his comments on nuclear energy felt surprising. It seemed so against the zeitgeist.”
Next generation reactors are engineered so that meltdowns are virtually impossible. They can run on spent fuel and have lower proliferation risks. “When you think about all the risks and objections people have to our current nuclear technology, you wonder what can possibly be holding back this advanced reactor technology. It solves all the problems that people worry are too great a risk with nuclear technology.”
The film navigates the frustration and challenges associated with the “solution hiding in plain sight.” Recently, prominent members of the climate science community have asserted the need to maintain the world’s current nuclear fleet - and even expand it - to stay on track to meet carbon reduction targets in the coming years. Advanced reactors with the potential to contribute enormous new nuclear capacity to the energy mix have already been invented, tested, and demonstrated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The question is: Why we aren’t building them?
The challenge stems from the late 1960’s, when anti-nuclear campaigners waged a deliberate misinformation campaign under the assumption that cheap, clean energy would lead to overpopulation. In the decades to come, a handful of high profile meltdowns solidified public perception against nuclear. This perception has lead to an onerous regulatory environment that makes it hard for today’s plants to stay afloat, and for tomorrow’s to even exist.
Terrapower, Transatomic, Oklo, and many other companies are trying to change that.
David wanted to find out why nobody knew about these companies struggle to save the planet. “We already sort of solved climate change in a way. We had the answer right in front of us. But we just didn’t chase it down with the same intensity as we did the Manhattan project. Nuclear technology was already done and demonstrated, but we didn’t get that commercialization.”
“Nuclear developed as just this thing we could do. The government was spending a lot on research, plastics, semiconductors, computers. We were researching all this amazing technology until the 70s, sometime during the time of Vietnam. When you look at that time and think about the nuclear technology that we were developing. . . we never needed another energy technology.”
The New Fire touches on multiple overlapping themes relevant to the younger generation, who are watching climate change unfold in front of them and looking for inspiration in technology. As young groups look for new and creative ways to approach the urgent task of powering our world safely into the future, they are moving the industry out of the old paradigm - nuclear energy as an adaptation of wartime technology that continues to carry a burdensome association with weapons and destruction - to a new paradigm: one of hope, security, optimism, and an ardent innovative spirit.
“Nuclear carries this image that it’s a kind of really advanced science - like quantum physics. It’s hard to understand what’s going on unless you’re an engineer. It’s like how quantum physics is kinda funny - it’s just so hard to understand that it can be a sort of vague joke. So when you say radiation - it’s this invisible, scary thing. We think of dramaticized images of waste, bombs, explosions.”
“This is something totally worthy of government engagement on a commercial scale. But [our government] hasn’t been doing it. So here you have these idealistic, brilliant entrepreneurs, trying to start companies to develop next-generation reactors themselves. And this stuff has already been done! Some countries have already decarbonized in the way we need to.”
David explains that the prevailing narrative on climate mitigation has no scientific basis to speak of. Politicians continue to push solutions that, because they have no scientific merit, actually pose a threat to our ability to address the issue with any immediacy. Environmentalists have touted solar and wind for the last 20 years even though the intermittency and low energy density of those technologies prevent them from being the sole solution to climate change.
“It’s kind of ironic to say, as someone who’s saying we should look at nuclear, that we’re at a point of departure. It’s already new and exciting to say we need next generation nuclear. What about fusion at some point? Even if it seems far off, we should be chasing those technological questions down with extreme efficiency and urgency. I can’t think of anything that merits more effort than the pursuit of technology.”
David hopes The New Fire will inspire young people to come up with and pursue new ideas. He believes in the creative intuition of the younger generation, and his film delivers a stunning portrayal of the conviction and drive of a generation staring in the face of the single largest threat in human history. After traveling around the world capturing perspectives and stories, he brings us a powerful call to action that serves as a reminder to remain engaged, lucid, and always fighting. “It’s just like playing improv - you have to respond to the other person with ‘yes, and…’ and keep the scene going. I want people to spend a lot of thought and effort on this, and keep thinking on their feet, and in doing so celebrate humanity. This is what we do as humans.”
Visit the official website for The New Fire: