During this year’s IAEA Scientific Forum—Nuclear Innovations for Net Zero—held as part of the 67th IAEA General Conference, leaders of countries and energy officials gathered to share their visions for nuclear energy in their power systems. We learned that the United States—a country where nuclear power is the most significant source of clean energy—must at least triple its nuclear energy production to meet the 2050 net zero goals.
International interest. France, one of Europe’s most prominent nuclear energy proponents, called for innovation and cooperation. South Korea advocated for the private sector to take the lead. Many countries underlined their interest in developing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), with Ghana, Morocco and Sweden looking for easily deployable sources of clean energy—which is precisely what SMRs are. All the attendees agreed that nuclear power is invaluable, in meeting the increasing demands for clean energy.
Nuclear energy is undergoing a renaissance of interest, of some sort. The various reasons that countries have cited for the resurgent interest in nuclear energy illustrate that no single factor makes it a universally appealing energy option. Rather, it’s a confluence of environmental, economic and practical goals, coupled with vital technological advancements and a public perception that’s slowly but surely turning towards a more favorable opinion.
Environmental concerns tend to be the most pressing ones. Nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source that can produce enough energy to meet ever-increasing demands. It also can be an invaluable addition—or even substitute—to renewable energy sources, in national decarbonization strategies. Renewable energy sources have failed to deliver on their promise for many reasons, including low-capacity factors, intermittency, location and land requirements and waste production.
When Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power stations and rely more on renewable energy sources to reduce its carbon emissions, the plan backfired and had the opposite effect. Not only did the country have to buy increased amounts of energy created by fossil and nuclear fuel, but it also saw an increase in energy prices, a loss of energy security and an overall larger carbon footprint.
The economic landscape is also changing in a way favorable to nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants are notorious for being expensive to build, but they are not too costly to run. One of the reasons they were so expensive to build was due to financing-related costs associated with funding capital costs. Historically, this could cost up to 70% of a civil nuclear project’s budget.
Smaller reactor systems might reduce those costs. The Idaho National Laboratory and the University of Texas have found, for example, that mass manufacturing of SMRs can lead to capital reductions of up to 70%. At the same, other forms of energy that have been around for longer, such as solar or wind, have probably plateaued already, as far as their cost reductions are concerned. It’s unlikely they will become any cheaper.
Much of the recent interest in nuclear energy stems from the Small Modular Reactor technology developments. Portable microreactors are an interesting option, for a variety of use cases, Fig 1. For example, they can provide a clean, stable and long-lasting energy source for various operations that rely on diesel fuel. In Canada, for example, it is estimated that over a hundred small villages use diesel fuel for their energy needs. There are other countries where remote habitation requires an alternative energy source—including Sweden and South Korea—due to their large numbers of islands.
Those same reactors could be an invaluable tool in situations where the power supply needs to be reestablished quickly, such as in the wake of earthquakes or storms. Unfortunately, some of these extreme events will become more common, as the planet warms up. An emergency supply that’s easily dispatchable and capable of producing decent amounts of power can be a central feature of any disaster relief strategy.
Portable microreactors also can be used to foster economic opportunity. Because they are easy to deploy, they can be used to power remote mining sites, helping countries access their mineral wealth more efficiently and with reduced expenses. And any country that seriously wants to consider the electrification of its transportation will have to eventually resort to using microreactors. It’s the most versatile and accessible way of powering remote charging stations for electric vehicles. At NANO Nuclear, the company even foresees that their generators might be used in replacing the bunker fuel used for shipping vessels.
Thanks to the new technological advancements that have led to the development of SMRs and fourth-generation reactors, today’s nuclear power is safer, produces less waste and is easier to deploy. All of these factors contribute to the overall thawing of the public opinion towards nuclear energy, leading to an increased acceptance of nuclear power.
Looking to the future. But the increased interest goes well beyond the practical, environmental or economic factors. Having a stable power supply has become a matter of security. It certainly decreases the reliance on energy imports, which can have political and economic implications.
For the countries that have set their goals to reach net zero by 2050, nuclear power will likely become the number-one contributor to their national grids. However, an effective transition to a more carbon-neutral energy system will have to include a combination of various energy sources that are best-suited to each use case.
In the world’s predicament, any step forward is a positive one. The United States, for example, reduced its carbon footprint significantly when it transitioned from coal to natural gas—not an ideal solution. Still, it might be the necessary interim solution for some countries and in certain use cases. It isn’t easy to estimate the energy mix that will emerge in the coming decades, but nuclear—whether driven by climate initiatives or not—will grow in use worldwide, given the significant increase in end-users who can now benefit from nuclear power.
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