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Nuclear energy needs a rebrand

Illustration of a smiley face with radiation symbols for eyes.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Nuclear energy needs a rebrand if it is going to play a primary role as the U.S. transitions its energy consumption away from fossil fuels, Lux Capital's Josh Wolfe tells Axios.

Why it matters: Nuclear energy remains a divisive topic in the sustainable energy debate, which includes everyone from early-stage entrepreneurs trying to build smaller scale reactors all the way to the public at large.

What's happening: Wolfe, whose firm Lux Capital is an early-stage VC, argues that nuclear energy should be included in a broader categorization of "elemental energy," which would include other earthly elements like solar and wind.

Context: Nuclear waste remains one of the biggest outstanding questions for energy bears, who often point to its disposal as a large asterisk on nuclear's claim of being a "clean" energy source.

  • In 2008, Lux started Kurion, a nuclear-waste removal company that was deployed during the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Wolfe was the chairman of the startup, based in Irvine, California.
  • The company ultimately sold to French utility management giant Veolia for $350 million in 2016. It had raised roughly $6 million in outside capital.
  • "We got lucky when Japan got unlucky, but we did something that actually changed the world," Wolfe says.

Zoom out: Even with Kurion's successful nuclear exit, Wolfe says the industry's detractors remain a barrier to areas of nascent innovation like reactor development and design.

  • Nuclear has to be part of the equation for a carbon-neutral grid, Wolfe says. Giving it a new name — elemental energy — could help erase decades worth of what Wolfe boils down to a misunderstanding between nuclear power and nuclear energy.
  • Nuclear has been powering Europe for decades, providing about a quarter of the continent's energy. It hasn't reached quite the same scale in the U.S.

Yes, but: Other questions still remain, such as how to sustainably mine uranium or, yes, what to do with the waste.

  • The industry will also need a sizable capital infusion upfront, given the early stages of some of the technology. Actually flipping the switch, regardless of what it's called, could take long to realize.

The bottom line: A flashy new name might get more Americans on board with nuclear energy, but it still has a long way to go.

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