The Nuclear Energy Option Remains Compelling, Viable and Likely Indispensable
Did you see the series “Chernobyl” that HBO makes available? The impact that show had on me was akin to a firm punch in the gut – visceral, gritty, scary. The events that took place during the destruction of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union on April 26, 1986, and its aftermath will never be forgotten – such can be the nature of extreme nuclear incidents.
As terrible a tragedy in terms of the human and environmental impacts that Chernobyl imposed, I’m a firm advocate for nuclear energy as a source of abundant and manageable clean energy to power our world into the future.
Recent figures from my home country of Canada indicate nuclear energy displaces 80 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, equivalent to 15 million fewer cars on the road annually. We’re talking only 19 reactors in service supplying about 15% of our nation’s electrical demand and generating enough electricity to power over 10 million homes.
For context, let’s consider a snapshot of the global nuclear industry in 2020:
Presently, 449 operable nuclear reactors generate 398,000 megawatts of electric power (MWe).
Fifty-five reactors are under construction, primarily in China and India, with another 111 reactors on order or planned. There are additionally 328 reactors proposed for development.
Thirty countries around the world lay claim to nuclear-powered electrical generation. In the number of reactors, the top six are the USA with 97 operating nuclear reactors, France with 58, China/Taiwan 46, Japan 37, Russia 36 and South Korea 25.
In 2017, fossil fuels generated over 66% of the global electricity, whereas nuclear generated 10.6% and hydro 16%. Compare this to Canada, where hydro was responsible for 60% of electricity generated, followed by fossil fuels at 18% and nuclear at 15%, with non-hydro renewables making up the rest.
In 2018, global emissions of CO2 exceeded 33 billion tonnes, and fossil fuel use was the primary source of those emissions. If low-carbon nuclear replaced the coal and gas-fired electrical generation presently operating, global greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by almost 13 billion tonnes annually. This figure represents the equivalent of removing 480 million passenger cars – nearly half the global total – from the road.
From a lifecycle analysis of the carbon footprint of various sources of electricity generation and accounting for the emissions arising from construction, mining, operation, and decommissioning, nuclear power is indeed a clean energy source. Yes, hydro power is cleaner but is only feasible with the right geography and plenty of water. Solar and wind power are clean, but they require backup energy generation roughly 80% of the time. If the backup is fossil-fuel-fired (commonly the case), then the emissions profile increases dramatically. See the table below.
Assessing Nuclear Energy
There are plenty of reasons to support the ongoing development and deployment of nuclear-powered electrical generation.
Consider energy density – nuclear fission reactions release 100 million times more energy per atom than the chemical energy derived from combustion reactions. Talk about an efficient way to generate electrical power! Picture this – one 20-gram uranium fuel pellet can produce the same amount of electricity as 400 kg of coal, 410 liters of oil or 350 cubic meters of natural gas.
Another important aspect is how “tidy” nuclear generation is in terms of waste. If supplied by nuclear, it is estimated that the amount of electrical energy you or I will ever use would create no more waste than that which would fit in a can of soda pop. Whoa…
If we were to consider the costs involved in producing a kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electrical energy, nuclear is most attractive. The following illustration using data from the province of Ontario in Canada, where the bulk of Canada’s nuclear generation resides, makes the point.
We need to be mindful that roughly half of the cost of nuclear generation involves constructing the plant facility. Once the facility is built, operational costs are a relative pittance amortized over its 60+ year lifetime.
When we refocus the lens to encompass the broader nuclear energy industry that benefits food and water safety, medicine, research, and innovation, the value proposition supporting nuclear becomes even more apparent.
For example, we know that nuclear technology:
Improves pest control with plants and helps to increase crop resilience to disease and climate change
Helps to detect and treat diseases and cancers
Can reduce wastewater contamination to make water safer for reuse
Offers a way to research and understand the health of the world’s oceans and to protect them
Is used to assess environmental risks to protect forests and reduce the loss of biodiversity
Provides avenues for research and innovation into future energy sources and technology improvements.
The Elephant in the Room
One of the lingering concerns, of course, remains the radioactive waste that all nuclear power generating facilities create. High-level waste (HLW) is spent fuel rods and is highly radioactive. Intermediate-level waste (ILW) includes reactor components and other materials used near nuclear fuel. And low-level waste (LLW) includes such items as personal protective equipment, mop heads and other items worn or used by workers in nuclear facilities. In Canada, over 98% of nuclear waste by volume is LLW.
In Canada, used nuclear fuel is safely managed at licensed storage facilities with plenty of monitoring oversight. Ultimately, the safe and secure long-term storage of used nuclear fuel in Canada will be at a centralized location roughly 500 meters underground in a seismically stable region. Siting analysis and a final decision on location is expected in 2023.
Coupled with this long-term storage plan are the ongoing oversight and implementation of best-practice transportation methods to deliver radioactive substances on public roads, railways and ships. In Canada, to date, there has been no transportation incident that has resulted in the release of radioactivity causing harm to people or the environment. Transporting nuclear fuel is a serious business taken seriously.
The feather in nuclear’s cap? The accident rate of fatalities and injuries incurred using nuclear technology is the lowest per unit of generated electricity. Safer than renewables, hydro and fossil-fuel-fired generation. Indeed, nuclear power generation has proven more reliable than any other commercial means of electrical production.
Next-generation nuclear reactors will differ considerably from the legacy large-scale nuclear facilities built in the 70s and 80s. Small modular reactors, or SMRs, sport capacities of one MWe to 300 MWe and are designed to be built in factories rather than on-site, resulting in massive cost and time savings during construction.
SMRs are easily scalable and offer a viable clean energy alternative to fossil-fuel-fired generation for applications in remote or smaller communities. SMRs would ideally power up mining, hydrogen production, desalination and other power- and heat-intensive industrial activities, and provide a supplementary power source feeding existing utility grids. They can be coupled with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to form a reliable source of power for grid use 24/7/365.
Next-generation reactor technologies include:
Gas-cooled fast reactors
Lead-cooled fast reactors
Sodium-cooled fast reactors
Supercritical water-cooled reactors
These six designs can deliver more flexible output power using different fuel types while producing less waste. Four of the six can generate hydrogen or other process heat in addition to power generation.
Presently, more than 45 SMR designs are in development, and Argentina, Russia, and China are constructing four SMRs. Projections show the global SMR market becoming a 400-600 billion dollar business.
This SMR is the IMSR Advanced Modular Reactor - courtesy Terrestial Energy https://www.terrestrialenergy.com/
Further, advanced nuclear fuels are continually being developed:
Thorium occurs naturally and is more abundant than uranium.
Reprocessed (recycled) uranium is treated for reuse from ‘spent’ fuel rods recovered from legacy reactors, reducing the degree of high-level waste products. An interesting point – only about 1% of the total energy in uranium fuel rods is consumed before the rods are replaced, providing an ample fuel resource for advanced reactor designs.
MOX is a fuel derived from plutonium recovered from spent nuclear fuel and depleted uranium.
So, What Do You Think About Nuclear Now?
I recognize the deeply embedded anxiety that may exist about the possibility of experiencing another Chernobyl or Fukushima. Perhaps humankind would be better off not messing around with the energy of the universe. It may be that, despite all the precautions we take, we can never completely eliminate the risk of a nuclear catastrophe far worse than what we have so far experienced.
However, Pandora is out of the box. And I am convinced we have developed the technology to the point that the present state-of-the-art and what is coming down the pike (nuclear fusion) will offer many more benefits than risks to our global well-being.
As always, time will tell.
I truly enjoyed sifting through “The Canadian Nuclear Factbook 2020” available from the Canadian Nuclear Association and which was the source for much of the information I shared in this blog. I highly recommend anyone interested in nuclear energy production to give this document a read.