Nuclear Energy has slowly disappeared from the focus of most policymakers. In the shadows of accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima, the risks were deemed too high. However, new technologies and the climate urgency may have to prompt a rethink.
When Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed that nuclear energy will remain a central component “France’s energetic and ecological future”, European neighbours were not surprised. After all, 75% of French electricity is already generated in nuclear facilities, which is in itself unique in a continent where nuclear energy has faced a steep decline in the past. Macron’s ardent support for the technology is rooted in the belief that the global transition to clean energy requires modern nuclear power at its core. Most international leaders, however, have not followed suit. But can the world afford to eschew nuclear power any further, given the urgency to limit CO2emissions in the fight against climate change? Could new technologies prompt a rethink of global energy policy?
At the moment, the global outlook for nuclear energy is grim. As of 2020, 452 reactors are currently operational, and 54 have been constructed over the past year, while 182 have been shut down. New plants are mainly being built in China and Russia, while progress in the EU and the United States is slow. The horrors of the 1986 explosion in the reactor of Chernobyl have, as it seems, irreparably tainted the reputation of nuclear fission as a reliable source of energy. The accident in Japan’s Fukushima facility in 2011 have forced even the most optimistic policymakers to realize that public opinion had irreversibly shifted against any further maintenance of nuclear power.
How can this be reconciled with the global need for clean energy? After all, reactors do not emit CO2 when generating electricity. They are also remarkably powerful: one reactor alone can produce as much energy as 3,125 million solar panels. Therefore, according to the IEA, nuclear energy is an indispensable component of clean energy sources needed to fight climate change. It is estimated that 55 gigatons of CO2 have been spared using nuclear technology over the last 50 years, and the IEA concludes that to realistically attain the 2 degree-limit set forward in the Paris Accords, the world must double their efforts immediately to build sufficient facilities. Currently, 455 gigawatts will be produced from nuclear by 2040. However, sustainable development scenarios require that number to reach 601 gigawatts instead.
A possible solution might lay in the fact that most reactors are decades old and still use the conventional methods to extract energy from enriched uranium, the most common fuel. But that does not mean that technology hasn’t evolved.
Traditionally, the uranium would react with surrounding elements in the form of nuclear fission, generating heat that is extracted by an exchanger, which in turn creates steam that can power a conventional turbine. Such an elaborate reaction can only take place under close oversight in highly pressurized containers. Additionally, this process produces radioactive waste, which can remain hazardous to human health for thousands of years. The core containing the fuel must be cooled constantly. Failures to do so could provoke meltdowns and explosions that could blast this hazardous material across hundreds of miles and poison wide swathes of land, as was the case in Chernobyl and Fukushima. To make matters worse, storing nuclear waste safely is a costly logistical nightmare.
TransAtomic Power, a company founded by two MIT graduates in 2011, aims to build safer, cheaper and more modern reactors. To do so, they suggest using molten salt, mixed with uranium, as the reactor fuel, as opposed to conventional uranium pellets. They claim that this technology could reduce waste by 52%. It is also safer because a liquid fuel would require much higher temperatures to be damaged, which are unlikely to be reached – there can be no meltdown if the fuel is already molten. In case of a mechanical failure, the fuel can be simply drained into a tank, where it would solidify and cool off. The reaction can operate under atmospheric pressure, which means that even in a worst-case scenario, a fuel leak would only contaminate the most immediate premises of the reactor.
Other explored alternatives include nuclear fusion reactors, which aim to replicate the process by which the sun generates energy: under incredibly high temperatures, hydrogen isotopes collide and release vast amounts of heat, which in turn generate the turbine-powering steam. Nuclear fusion reactors, however, are incredibly complex and expensive, as they need to achieve temperatures of around 100 million degrees Celsius for the reaction to be successful. In France, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is slated for completion by 2025. In South Korea and China, smaller test reactors have demonstrated the potential of this technology. Critics point to the high investments the research requires, while it can take decades until a fusion reactor is ready to provide electricity on a large scale. ITER alone has already cost around $14bn by 2015.
What can we expect to hear from nuclear in the future? Most likely, research will be conducted under the radar of the wider public, as it remains risky terrain for global policymakers. However, that does not mean that research and development is not worth pursuing. Given how the demand for (clean) energy will increase, especially if trends such as the electrification of automobiles continues, all options to promote the transition towards emissions-free electricity must be explored. Only then can the world hope to realistically combat climate change in the future.