Nuclear power is needed for net zero and more
The world is concerned with reaching net-zero emissions to combat climate change. Nuclear power can be a base load to back up intermittent power sources such as wind and solar. A base load is a steady supply of electricity that covers the minimum, or base demand, in an electricity grid.
Some advanced nuclear technology plants could be designed to ramp up and generate what is called dispatchable electricity. They could add to what is called peak load capacity, not just base load.
Nuclear plants always run, except when the spent fuel needs to be swapped out every 18 to 36 months depending on the variety of the plant. Some small modular reactors, also known as SMRs, could run even longer before fuel needs to be changed, much like nuclear submarines and ships that can go with the same fuel for an exceptionally long time.
Nuclear power is independent of the weather. It does not rely on the wind or the sun to work. It also does not rely on pipelines for fuel supplies. It has a small footprint. For instance, a nuclear plant per megawatt takes up a much smaller space than coal, oil, natural gas, wind, and solar generation.
Nuclear fuel is a very dense source of energy. A tiny nuclear fuel pellet of slightly enriched uranium is 1 centimeter high and 1 centimeter in diameter, yet contains the energy of 149 gallons of oil, one ton of coal and about 493 cubic meters of natural gas.
Uranium is plentiful in the world in natural deposits of varying degrees of quality. The proven reserves of uranium will increase with growing demand, and lead to increases in the price of the element. There are many unconventional sources of uranium that can be used, such as uranium in the ocean, in some granite structures, in phosphates, in black alum, and in storage in various countries and organizations. There will be enough to grow the nuclear industry for an exceptionally long time to come.
Per megawatt hour, a nuclear plant produces minuscule amounts of emissions, especially compared to gas, coal and oil electricity generation plants. Along the entire supply chain and across the life cycle of the plant, nuclear is climate-competitive even with solar and wind. Greenhouse gas emissions are produced during the uranium extraction and processing steps, and in the construction and decommissioning of the plants.
Nuclear is one of the safest sources of electricity per megawatt hour. Yes, there have been major incidents in the past. Yes, we need to consider these, and they are well known. Less well known is the considerable loss of life caused by the coal, oil, and natural gas industries over the years. If all of this happened all at once every so often, more people would see the relative safety of nuclear energy.
Again, the statistics show, contrary to much popular opinion and popular media, that nuclear power is one of the safest sources of energy. That says a lot about nuclear, but also a lot about coal, oil and natural gas.
Nuclear not only produces less greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal, natural gas and oil, but also produces less small particulate pollution over its supply chain and life cycle. More than 4 million people die of air pollution each year. None of these deaths are caused by nuclear plants. A lot of those deaths came from the use of other fuels.
All of the nuclear waste ever produced by the US would cover a US football field slightly over 10 meters deep. The waste problem with nuclear is an issue not because of volume, but because of the difficulties trying to find places to store it. Part of that issue could be resolved with more reprocessing, but due care is needed, because spent nuclear fuel in the common plants already in existence contains fissile material. Advanced nuclear reactors can use TRISO fuel, which is less proliferative and is far more robust and safer than uranium. Thorium is another fuel source that could reduce such risks.
Water desalination can be done with nuclear power. Nuclear could be used to create hydrogen and ammonia. The heat from a nuclear plant could be reused in cogeneration. That heat could be captured for district heating and cooling. It could be applied to industrial and other processes, including production.
Small modular reactors can be built in factories in standard ways, hence cutting the costs that have been such a problem for the historically bespoke nuclear plants that have dominated the industry. The advanced nuclear reactors and small modular reactors being developed give greater hope for more standard reactor designs globally that would allow parts and other equipment to be logically, cheaply, and easily made, and then stored, shipped and refitted.
When the goals are controlling climate change, safety, reducing air pollution, and putting in efforts towards energy, water, and food security, resilience and reliability, nuclear — given that certain conditions of skills, expertise, safety, maintenance cultures and more are met — could be a solid choice for many places in the world.
Nuclear power can make huge contributions to the energy security, reliability, and resilience of a country. When combined with geothermal, solar, wind, energy storage, increased energy efficiency, more — and more effective — applications of circular economy, circular carbon economy principles, investments and actions, climate and economy-friendly energy and related policies, nuclear can be a driving force to a better world.
Nevertheless, the expansion of nuclear power, especially in countries that have never had it, needs to be done with care within the regulations and remits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, The International Atomic Energy Agency, and other international rules bodies, treaty organizations and law enforcement agencies that may apply. The way that the UAE is developing its program is a gold standard to be followed and understood.
• Dr. Paul Sullivan is a senior research associate at KFCRIS and non-resident fellow, Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council.