iSEE Critical Conversation 2021:
The Role of Nuclear Power
in a Clean Energy Future

Wednesday-Friday, May 5-7, 2021, Online

iSEE and the Department of Nuclear, Plasma & Radiological Engineering (NPRE) brought together diverse stakeholders to discuss the role of, and potential areas of growth for, advanced nuclear energy technology in a low-carbon energy future. The event facilitated high-level thinking about the policies and scientific research needed to address the uncertainties with nuclear power as we confront the certainties of climate change and the urgent need to eliminate fossil fuels as an energy source.

iSEE — in collaboration with NPRE faculty members Caleb Brooks (Assistant Professor), Kathryn Huff (Assistant Professor), James Stubbins (Donald Biggar Willett Professor), and Rizwan Uddin (Professor and Department Head); and Spring 2021 iSEE Levenick Resident Scholar Denia Djokić — organized the 2021 Critical Conversation.

Critical Conversations are supported by a generous gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund, iSEE’s founding benefactor. The Baum Fund is administered by Joel Friedman and Erika Cornelisen.

Read iSEE’s notes from the event >>>

Read a Nuclear News article by some of the event organizers on a proposed experimental reactor for the U of I campus >>>


KEYNOTE: The Critical Conversation started with a public keynote from noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, by James Hansen, Director of Columbia University’s Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions Program.

  • Title: “Global Climate Change: Implications for National and Global Energy Policies”
  • Abstract: The reality of human-caused global climate change is finally beginning to be appreciated by the public. The scientific and engineering communities, although long aware of the climate problem, failed miserably to affect energy policies in ways that could have minimized climate impacts. The greatest failure was adoption of renewable portfolio standards — rather than clean energy portfolio standards — and exclusion of nuclear power as a clean development mechanism. Science and engineering can still address climate and energy so as to minimize undesirable consequences of climate change, but it will require promptly overcoming political obstacles to effective policies. Hansen will describe the situation and provide some suggestions.
  • Hansen Bio: Formerly Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Hansen is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he directs the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions. He was trained in physics and astronomy in the space science program. His early research on the clouds of Venus helped identify their composition as sulfuric acid. Since the late 1970s, he has focused his research on Earth’s climate, especially human-made climate change. Hansen is best known for his testimony on climate change to congressional committees in the 1980s that helped raise broad awareness of the global warming issue. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 and was designated by Time Magazine in 2006 as one of the 100 most influential people on Earth. He has received numerous awards including the Carl-Gustaf Rossby and Roger Revelle Research Medals, the Sophie Prize and the Blue Planet Prize. Hansen is recognized for speaking truth to power, for identifying ineffectual policies as greenwash, and for outlining actions that the public must take to protect the future of young people and other life on our planet. Read more >>>

View the video of Hansen’s talk:

WORKSHOP: The two-morning workshop (8 a.m.-1 p.m. Thursday-Friday, May 6-7) convened academics, nonprofit organizations, the private sector, and regulators. The conversation followed Chatham House rules with no attribution of the discussion to any individual. Discussions will center on major questions involving nuclear.


Wednesday, May 5

Noon-1:30 p.m. — Keynote Address: James Hansen, Director, Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program, Earth Institute, Columbia University, “Global Climate Change: Implications for National and Global Energy Policies”


Thursday, May 6

8-8:30 a.m. — Welcome and Introductions
       Madhu Khanna, Interim Director, Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
       Rizwan Uddin, Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
       Sarah Fisk, Facilitator, Community At Work, San Francisco

8:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

Panel and Discussion I: Safety — How do concerns about safety, risk, and the environment affect trust in the institutions that design, deploy, and govern advanced nuclear and other technologies?
       Goal: To consider the safety, perception of safety, and the environmental impact of advanced nuclear (and other technologies — wind, solar, storage) in clean energy strategies for the future.

       Key Questions:

  • What are the appropriate metrics for comparing the safety of current and advanced nuclear energy to other energy sources?
  • How might nuclear power institutions regain lost trust and help the public to overcome perceptions of danger?
  • What are the real and perceived environmental justice impacts of the nuclear fuel cycle and how can they be addressed? (e.g. What are the environmental justice issues that persist while the federal plan for spent fuel remains in limbo?)


      • Lightning Q and A
      • Discussion Groups Round 1
      • Discussion Groups Round 2


Casual Connections

Panel and Discussion II: Resilience — How can governance of nuclear and other energy technologies (grid planning, legal and regulatory frameworks) create a resilient and sustainable post-pandemic future?
       Goal: To consider the role of advanced nuclear in a resilient, post-pandemic energy future (a centralized model and a distributed model in relation to protection of the grid).

       Key Questions:

  • What current or future policies could underpin the most critical characteristics of a resilient energy grid? (e.g. Is a more centralized grid more (or less) secure than a distributed grid?)
  • How can advanced nuclear technologies uniquely ensure (or undermine) resilience? 
  • How does instability in the energy supply chain endanger trust in our energy infrastructure?


      • Lightning Q and A
      • Discussion Groups Round 1
      • Discussion Groups Round 2


Friday, May 7

8:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

Welcome and Summary of May 6 Conversation

Panel and Discussion III: Economics — How do the economic dimensions of advanced nuclear energy technology affect energy equity, energy access, and public trust?
        Goal: To consider the competitiveness and carbon mitigation benefits of advanced nuclear in relation to other clean energy strategies and its implications for policy.

       Key Questions:

  • How do the economics of energy systems impact equity, access, and public trust?
  • How can advanced nuclear technologies reduce or increase costs and access to energy? 
  • Barriers to entry due to high capital costs requires long term investment at a larger scale than solar and wind, requires large scale financing. Should the government share the risk of building nuclear power plants?


      • Lightning Q and A
      • Discussion Groups Round 1
      • Discussion Groups Round 2


Integration: Priorities for Research and Action

Next Steps

Closing Remarks


Climate change is a real and imminent threat, and nuclear power is being reconsidered as an indispensable source of electricity as the world aims to divest from carbon-emitting energy sources. Outstanding questions remain about the role of, and trust in, nuclear energy technology in a clean energy future.

The goals of this multi-stakeholder Critical Conversation were to understand as many diverse perspectives on this topic as possible to inform future research, and to initiate a collaborative network that will continue to consider multiple perspectives in developing a research agenda geared toward finding actionable solutions.

From the workshop discussions, we aim to develop a high-profile publication that outlines a collaborative vision for a structured research program and innovative research projects that can deliver regional solutions.