An Opinion piece on the Chronicle of Philanthropy by Senior Advisor, Theo Kalionzes

March 19, 2024

Philanthropic investment can lead to a paradigm shift on the climate-nuclear nexus.”

Thirty world leaders met in Brussels the week of March 18 to pursue the most important climate solution that philanthropy doesn’t want to talk about: nuclear power and its role in fighting climate change.

The summit is part of a growing wave of high-level policy support for nuclear power. In December at COP28 — the United Nations climate meeting in Dubai — two-dozen countries signed a declaration to triple global nuclear capacity by midcentury, citing nuclear power’s essential role in eliminating or reducing carbon emissions and ensuring access to clean and affordable energy.

But expanding nuclear power across multiple continents should not be left to governments alone. Philanthropy clearly has a role here, but few grant makers are interested. I worked on this issue for several years as a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation and appreciate the hesitancy. But I believe my experience offers lessons for how grant makers can effectively approach the nuclear power debate — and use their unique role as donors to expand understanding of any controversial issue that deserves a second look.

On one hand, the discomfort with nuclear power makes sense. The Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents live on in nightmares. Russia has turned Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, into an active war zone. Details about where nuclear power and nuclear weapons meet — and where they don’t — tend to be poorly understood. And many people express concern about how to manage growing stockpiles of radioactive nuclear waste.

But these criticisms harbor a fatal flaw: They fail to offer any viable plan to eliminate carbon-based fuels without nuclear power. In other words, they miss the bigger picture.

As a nuclear power convert myself, I’ve come to accept the growing scientific consensus that this form of energy is critical to addressing the climate crisis. In 2015, I joined the MacArthur Foundation determined to help solve nuclear challenges posed by proliferation and mushroom clouds, not to explore how peaceful nuclear uses could save the world. But it didn’t take long for my thinking to change.

As it turned out, 2015 was a potent year for both nuclear and climate policy. The Obama administration was presiding over a global, high-level diplomacy effort to curb nuclear risks. December of that year brought the Paris Climate Accords, the most significant global climate treaty yet. Meanwhile, MacArthur was launching its “big bet” era, concentrating its resources on fewer, larger programs that had the potential to create significant change. In a fortuitous twist, the foundation’s board selected both nuclear risk reduction and climate solutions as its new big bets.

(The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is a financial supporter of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

At MacArthur, nuclear power represented an obvious and meaningful link between the two new programs, but we were developing the grant-making strategies in isolation from each other. So I decided to join the climate team as an internal adviser. Up to that point, the foundation was largely doing one of two things on nuclear power: ignoring it altogether or investing in individuals and institutions that held a longstanding and fervent bias against the technology.

Avoiding Biased Views

With the climate crisis intensifying, this wasn’t good enough. By wittingly or unwittingly funding people with biased views on the admittedly controversial topic of nuclear power, we were not just sitting this one out. We were actively undermining a policy debate that demanded serious inquiry. So we decided to reverse course.

Listening to experts. We gathered grantees from our climate and nuclear programs. We funded projects to bring together influential experts and officials in government and industry to explore how climate and nuclear phenomena are converging and interacting with each other. And by pairing nuclear power enthusiasts with top-notch nonproliferation experts, we set down markers in the policy debate about how to ensure that a world more dependent on nuclear power could remain safe and secure.

Bringing together unlikely allies. We also made use of our position as grant makers to wade into more controversial waters. By supporting a handful of maverick nuclear nonproliferation experts to forge ties with the nuclear power industry, we sought to establish strong working relationships between communities that had spent too long as antagonists rather than collaborators.

These investments helped build trust and spark productive discussions about how to ensure that new reactor designs considered safety and security concerns from the earliest stages. They also influenced the emergence of a series of significant pieces of legislation aimed at rekindling U.S. leadership on nuclear power, including the Inflation Reduction Act’s billions of dollars in pro-nuclear subsidies.

Testing results. As some of these investments on the climate-nuclear nexus began to reach maturity, outside evaluators found the foundation’s approach had facilitated “important linkages” between the climate and nuclear fields. Grantees working in this area also repeatedly called for more investment in policy development at the climate-nuclear nexus, leading MacArthur’s board to approve an additional $3 million in 2020 to, among other things, continue encouraging productive dialogue on the subject.

The climate crisis demands setting aside tired antagonisms among advocates of various carbon-free energy sources, which pit solar and wind boosters against nuclear power supporters. These divisions harm our cause and serve fossil fuel interests.

Instead, advocates and the donors who support them need to focus on what’s most important for the future of our planet: envisioning, anticipating, and managing the consequences of rapidly developing large volumes of clean energy sources. Nowhere is this more critical than with nuclear power, which is fundamentally connected to the world’s most destructive weapons.

Recent data from the ClimateWorks Foundation puts climate philanthropy at $8 billion to $12 billion a year. A fraction of that would transform efforts at the climate-nuclear nexus, but only a limited group of foundations in the United States are investing in this area. In addition to MacArthur, whose time-limited funding on nuclear topics is now ending, they include the Pritzker Innovation Fund, Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy, and the Spitzer Charitable Trust.

That isn’t close to enough. Philanthropic investment can lead to a fundamental shift in this work — a shift that must begin by recognizing a difficult truth already understood by energy experts: doubling or tripling nuclear power is required to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Experts have begun to sketch out what this will take, including a daunting list of reforms to rethink how nuclear projects are built, regulated, and financed. Nuclear policy expertise is also urgently needed to help strengthen international governance of new reactor designs and identify creative ways to deliver nuclear power while controlling technologies used to make and reuse nuclear fuel. Some imaginative proposals have come forward, such as creating an international bank of low-enriched nuclear fuel. But much more is needed to untie this Gordian knot.

Grant makers are at their best when they serve as honest brokers on thorny issues and foresee challenges on the horizon. By this measure, the future of nuclear power should be a top priority for foundations interested in addressing the climate crisis. As two dozen countries forge ahead with a rapid nuclear expansion, the window to influence policy is swinging open. Philanthropy needs to step in.