Innovation Raises Nuclear Profile as Alternative to Carbon-Based Power Generation
Today’s nuclear energy solutions are getting more traction thanks to a number of innovations. Nuclear has historically been the most controversial energy source because of its role in the production of weapons of mass destruction. However, the nuclear reactors that are creating power today are substantially different from earlier generation reactors.
Scientists have transformed massive, government-funded nuclear energy reactors into much smaller, faster, safer, and more efficient advanced microreactors. Because of these innovations, new and advanced nuclear reactors have the potential to help countries reach their decarbonization goals. Currently, nuclear energy produces 20% of the electricity supply in the U.S.; however, the industry is only expected to have a compound annual growth rate between 2.5-2.8%.
Traditional Nuclear Criticisms
The main concerns regarding nuclear energy are upfront costs and skepticism about their safety. Advanced nuclear reactors are very expensive and have high upfront costs, while traditional nuclear reactors were typically funded by the government. Since the start of the twenty-first century, the government has disdained subsidizing the nuclear industry and only one plant has been constructed in this time frame. This shift in attitude away from nuclear energy is a result of skepticism around fears of catastrophic meltdowns that would cause nuclear fallout and nuclear proliferation, which are derived from nuclear energy’s applications in the past and events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
One of the main differences between old school and new school reactors, other than their size, is how they are fueled. Traditional nuclear reactors were powered using Uranium-238, whereas advanced nuclear reactors sustain faster nuclear fission through the use of alternative fuel - the more enriched and higher concentrated Uranium-235 Isotope. Being smaller and faster than traditional nuclear reactors makes advanced reactors more cost-efficient than the previous technology. With U-235, they only have to be refueled every ten to twenty years, which reduces fuel costs as well.
One way to mitigate the cost issue is by downsizing to smaller scale reactors, known as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). These reactors are more cost-efficient because they require less materials and are transportable, making them versatile and applicable to projects in multiple settings. One drawback of SMRs is that they generate less energy than traditional reactors; traditional reactors generate 500 megawatts to 1 gigawatt compared to SMRs, which generate around 300 megawatts. However, this is still a significant amount of energy, as with some examples, like NuScale Power’s SMRs, 60 megawatts is enough to power about 50,000 homes.
The application of nuclear energy extends beyond the production of energy. Nuclear energy can be adapted to the industrial process - around 80% of the world’s energy goes to the industrial manufacturing process and is not for direct energy consumption. The process of nuclear energy produces heat, which could replace the fossil fuels currently being used for industrial manufacturing. For example, the production of both steel and concrete are dependent on the creation of heat, and as a result, produce high carbon emissions. Implementing nuclear reactors in these industries could be successful in helping to decarbonize them.
Nuclear energy could also be used in the production of hydrogen fuel, which uses heat to pull hydrogen out of water. Currently, 95% of the hydrogen produced in the U.S. comes from natural gas, but nuclear energy has the potential to increase the efficiency and decarbonize this process because the heat needed for creating hydrogen fuel can be generated as a byproduct of nuclear energy. These applications alone suggest that this is a technology that society would benefit from greatly.
In addition to being cost-efficient, there are many other benefits to nuclear energy that argue for its adoption. First of all, nuclear energy doesn’t emit any greenhouse gasses, making it ideal for countries trying to limit their carbon emissions, such as China and France. Some officials who support nuclear have even gone so far to say that it may be impossible to meet their future climate goals without implementing nuclear solutions. If countries want to decarbonize while maintaining cheap, stable baseload energy sources, nuclear energy can check these boxes.
Recently, the natural gas industry has been relatively unstable, with some of Europe currently in an energy crisis as a result of these shortages and increased oil prices due to the war in Ukraine. Nuclear energy provides a sustainable option that allows countries to no longer be dependent on oil and gas for their baseload energy supply.
Another benefit is that nuclear energy emits hardly any waste. All of the nuclear waste that has been produced by the commercial nuclear energy industry since the late 1950s would cover a single football field. Additional innovation known as “fast reaction” has emerged, which converts nuclear waste into usable, less radioactive material, such as recycled fuel.
The nuclear industry has worked hard to counter the skepticism surrounding the safety of nuclear power, given the historical distrust and stigma around nuclear energy and power plants. To address the fear around nuclear proliferation, or the creation of nuclear weapons technology, the nuclear energy industry has taken measures to ensure that the nuclear power sector is distinct from the weapon sector by putting regulations in place that make it impossible for any one distributor to produce weapons.
Compared to the past, current power plants significantly reduce the risk of disaster, or nuclear fallout, by enacting strict safety measures to the point that they have “inherent safety,” meaning that the process has a low level of danger, even if something were to go wrong. The design of advanced nuclear reactors is a product of lessons learned from the mistakes of traditional reactors, and they are made considering many more levels of safety than traditional reactors so that the same mistakes are not made again.
Nuclear energy has come a long way from the massive power plants that first began producing electricity in the 1950s. The industry has embraced newer, safer, and more efficient technology that can generate baseload power in a sustainable manner. Nuclear energy innovation contributes to decarbonization and community energy stability, and these benefits should only continue to grow as more power generators take a second look at this technology.
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