The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These ‘nuclear bros’ say they know how to solve climate change

Meet the internet subculture obsessed with nuclear power — and proud of it

(Washington Post illustration; Unsplash; iStock)

The typical “nuclear bro” is lurking in the comments section of a clean energy YouTube video, wondering why the creator didn’t mention #nuclear. He is marching in Central California to oppose the closing of the state’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. His Twitter name includes an emoji of an atom ⚛️. He might even believe that 100 percent of the world’s electricity should come from nuclear power plants.

As a warming world searches for ever more abundant forms of clean energy, an increasingly loud internet subculture has emerged to make the case for nuclear. They are often — but not always — men. They include grass-roots organizers and famous techno-optimists like Bill Gates and Elon Musk. And they are uniformly convinced that the world is sleeping on nuclear energy.

Meet the fans of nuclear power

Nuclear advocates often meet each other on the internet — on large shared WhatsApp groups, sharing news on the subreddit r/nuclear, or on Twitter. It’s also on the internet that they have earned the moniker “nuclear bro,” a catchall term of unknown origin that places men who are pro-nuclear alongside the likes of “Berniebros,” “Crypto bros” and “brogrammers.”

The “nuclear bro” label — often wielded by environmentalists and others skeptical of nuclear power, some of whom are in return labeled “renewabros” — serves to cast nuclear supporters as all being of a particular type: young, White, millennial men with a singular focus on splitting atoms. It alludes to a few factors of “bro culture” that can make interacting with some nuclear bros frustrating and bizarre. The criticism is that these types of bros mansplain, refuse to accept other arguments, or otherwise harass their interlocutors.

But while some portion of the pro-nuclear community online certainly fit that description, many pro-nuclear activists argue that the label is misplaced. They say that the movement is a diverse group of men and women who come to nuclear energy mostly due to fear of climate change and with a science-based perspective.

Chris Keefer, a 40-year-old emergency medicine physician who lives in Toronto, has always been on the political left. Before the birth of his son, he said, he was “tribally anti-nuclear” — opposed to the energy source simply because everyone else he knew was opposed to it.

But after his son was born, in 2018, Keefer began to read more about climate change, and was horrified by the dangers of a much hotter world. He put his scientific training as a doctor to work, reading research about the energy transition and trying to understand how to power the economy without emitting billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

What he found surprised him. “It became quickly apparent that hydro and nuclear are basically the only two tools that have helped achieve deep decarbonization,” Keefer said. (“Deep decarbonization” means eliminating almost all fossil-fuel energy sources.)

He cites the example of Norway, which generates around 95 percent of its electricity from hydropower, and France, which generates around 80 percent of its power from nuclear plants.

By 2019, Keefer was organizing in-person rallies with a group that he co-founded, Canadians for Nuclear Power. First, the rallies were not much more than a folding table in a park — with a Geiger counter as a prop, Keefer adds — but they grew over time. Today, the organization has a board of eight people, around 80 active members and a mailing list of around 1,000. Keefer participates in pro-nuclear rallies around the world (sometimes with friends dressed in polar bear suits), hosts a podcast that covers nuclear energy and once confronted the Canadian environment minister on camera, grilling him about his opposition to nuclear power.

Philip Ord, a 31-year-old from Denver, followed a similar path. He thought nuclear power was “extremely risky” until he watched “Pandora’s Promise,” a 2013 documentary featuring famous environmentalists like Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas coming to grips with their support for the technology.

Ord also read a 2005 study from the World Health Organization, which found that the deadliest disaster in nuclear power’s history — Chernobyl — had caused not tens of thousands of deaths, as originally predicted, but around 4,000 deaths in local residents and emergency workers. He began to feel that nuclear wasn’t so risky after all. Ord now hosts a pro-nuclear podcast and runs a small advocacy organization known as Americans for Nuclear Energy; his Twitter name includes an emoji of an atom and a lightning bolt.

The surge in nuclear activism from people like Ord and Keefer comes as many countries and states are rethinking nuclear power. (Both men say they have never taken any funding from the nuclear industry.) After the tsunami-induced meltdown of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011, which covered 300 square miles with hazardous radiation, many countries backed away from the energy source. Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors; Germany closed half of its own.

But over the past few years, climate change — and more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine — has forced countries to reconsider. Japan is now considering building next-generation nuclear reactors and plans to restart others. Germany, faced with shortages of natural gas and a tough winter ahead, recently announced that it is delaying the planned closure of some of its plants.

In California, the planned shuttering of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near San Luis Obispo faced strident opposition from pro-nuclear advocates (and support from anti-nuclear groups). After a multiyear fight, California lawmakers decided to keep the plant open for five more years to help support the state’s straining electricity grid.

Armond Cohen, the co-founder and president of the environmental group Clean Air Task Force, says he was once opposed to nuclear. But now, he says, “We’re just staggered by the size of the energy system and the pace at which we have to replace fossil fuels.” Nuclear, he argues, has three benefits: Its power doesn’t fluctuate, like solar and wind; it has a small land footprint; and it can be scaled up dramatically over a period of decades. Many modeling studies find that the world’s electricity could be powered by around 70 to 80 percent renewable energy, like solar and wind, but that nuclear could help support the grid [and] fill the remaining gaps after that.

Nuclear’s opponents, on the other hand, argue that the technology is too dangerous and high-cost to be used even for 20 percent of the world’s electricity. Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that opposes nuclear power, argues that nuclear plants take too long to build and that the problems of waste and aging reactors haven’t been solved. “The nuclear industry can’t prove that they can build reactors on time, at cost, and at scale that will make a dent in the climate crisis,” he said.

Cohen acknowledges that nuclear has faced some challenges, but argues that it shouldn’t be taken off the table. “Our general philosophy is just to throw everything you’ve got at the problem,” he said.

Nuclear ‘bros’ and their opponents

But while Cohen says he doesn’t adopt a “cultlike” enthusiasm for nuclear power — or any other source of energy — others are more dogmatic about the potential of nuclear.

“Occasionally I am met with skepticism about the existence of Nuclear Bros,” the climate writer David Roberts once said on Twitter. He then posted the screenshot of an email sent to him that began with “Hey dips---!!” and ended with “The answer to ALL our energy needs is in one word: THORIUM!!” (Thorium is an element that can be used to fuel nuclear reactors.)

Part of the battle over the “nuclear bro” label is that some nuclear supporters believe that renewables have been overhyped and that nuclear alone is the pathway to a clean energy transition.

This puts them at odds with groups who might be their natural allies — moderate environmental organizations who support an expansion of nuclear power along with growth in wind, solar and geothermal power. It also sparks numerous online fights between supporters of renewables and supporters of nuclear.

Sometimes, those fights are filled with profanity and name-calling; other times, they’re simply funny.

“Focusing on renewables for your climate strategy is like doing nothing but leg extensions for your quads and wondering why your legs aren’t getting much bigger,” tweeted one nuclear supporter, who goes by the handle @nukebarbarian.

Alex Trembath, the deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that supports nuclear power, says the “nuclear bro” label is an “attempt to associate support for nuclear energy with an easily imagined political, even demographic, villain.” (Trembath, who got married this summer, does not consider himself a “nuclear bro,” but he does wear a visible sign of his affection for nuclear power: A wedding ring made of black zirconium, a key ingredient in nuclear fuel rods.)

And even if men dominate nuclear supporters, they are by no means the only ones. (One study found that over 60 percent of men support nuclear power, compared with less than 40 percent of women.) “Some of my favorite ‘nuclear bros’ are women,” Keefer jokes.

There is Heather Hoff, the co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear, who works at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and fought to keep it open with her fellow employee and co-founder, Kristin Zaitz. They try to take a different, gentler approach to pro-nuclear activism. “We can talk to people with empathy,” Hoff said. “‘We understand their fears because we had them, too.”

Then there is Isabelle Boemeke, a fashion model turned nuclear influencer who makes surreal TikToks about nuclear power’s role in fighting climate change. Boemeke, as illustrated in one of her most-viewed videos, believes that nuclear should be part of a suite of solutions: “We all waste precious time and energy fighting over our favorite form of electricity production,” she wrote in a message.

The future of nuclear

Even the most pro-nuclear energy experts say that it’s unlikely that nuclear will ever provide 100 percent of electricity in the United States or in other countries that have begun to shift away from the power source. Nuclear plants have also taken a historically long time to build; according to an analysis of the world nuclear industry, plants built over the past decade have taken about 10 years, on average, to complete. Even in the best-case scenario, nuclear projects started today likely won’t go online until 2030 or later.

Trembath argues that nuclear could shoulder a significant amount of electricity production from 2030 onward. But he adds that a 100 percent nuclear future “is not happening, and is not going to happen.” “Having more diversity and optionality in our energy system is a no-brainer,” he said.

And long-held perceptions of nuclear power as dangerous and scary are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Spencer Weart, a historian of physics and the author of “The Rise of Nuclear Fear,” says that splitting the atom has been associated with monstrosity, pollution and danger since even before the development of the atomic bomb. Nuclear power, he argues, arouses fears of the “unnatural,” the “mad scientist,” and much more.

But grass-roots nuclear groups have begun to succeed in the fight to keep power plants like Diablo Canyon open — plants that are providing critical carbon-free electricity to the grid. In Michigan, pro-nuclear activists are pushing to reopen the Palisades nuclear plant, which once provided around 5 percent of the state’s total electricity generation. Similar efforts are underway to try to extend the life of the Pickering nuclear plant in Canada.

“We still have to prove that this nuclear renaissance won’t fizzle out,” Trembath said. But, he added, the pro-nuclear activism — even from the bros — has given the movement a boost. “There has never been a civil society around nuclear before,” he said. “Now there is.”

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

Have a question about climate change or climate solutions? Share it with us. You can also sign up for our newsletter on climate change, energy and environment.