Net Zero Needs Nukes
A Decarbonized Power Grid will require the resurgence of nuclear power
SVP Product & Nuclear Engineer, US Navy (Veteran)
Nuclear power has a bit of a branding challenge.
Nuclear accidents like the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Fukushima in 2011, and a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island have sensationalized the potential dangers of nuclear power. The question of what to do with nuclear waste remains largely unresolved. However, the health risks of fossil fuels are immensely higher than nuclear, significant progress has been made on waste disposal, and new smaller reactor designs promise greatly reduce cost and risk. Finally, and most critically, a world confronting the clear and present danger of climate change cannot leave its only proven and scalable source of zero carbon base load generation sitting on the bench. Will Nuclear energy experience a renaissance?
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has become a top priority for governments and industries worldwide, who are setting ambitious goals to reach Net Zero emissions by mid-century. To reach those goals, the electrical grid currently powered mainly by fossil fuel power plants will have to transform into one powered by renewables, massively upscaled energy storage, and a dispatchable generation resource to provide base load – the minimum amount of electricity required to meet a community’s needs at any given time. In addition, if transportation is to become all electric, the total demand for electric power will increase by around 40%. Nuclear power is the only shovel-ready resource to meet that increase in demand, within that time frame, while ensuring grid reliability.
Nuclear power has a high energy density. A single nuclear fuel pellet contains as much energy as a ton of coal, making it a highly efficient way to generate electricity. This means that nuclear power plants require far less fuel and real estate than fossil fuel power plants to produce the same amount of electricity. In addition, modern nuclear power plants are incredibly safe, with multiple redundant safety systems in place to prevent accidents.
Despite these advantages, commercial nuclear power has faced significant opposition since its first deployment in the late 1950s. This is due in part to concerns over the safety of nuclear power plants, as well as the issue of nuclear waste disposal. While these are valid points, every energy source has trade offs and relative risks. Engineering a solution to climate change will require weighing those risks against their existential alternative.
“We’ve run out of time to be afraid.” – Oliver Stone, “Nuclear Now” documentary film
France went from 2% to about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power in about twenty years. Sweden generates over 40% of its electricity from nuclear power, and the country has set a goal of being fossil-fuel free by 2045. In the United States, nuclear power plants currently provide around 20% of the country’s electricity (another 20% comes from renewables). However, many of these existing plants are nearing the end of their operating lifetimes. Extending the life of the existing fleet – many of which are at risk of being decommissioned – should play a key role in decarbonizing the electrical grid in the United States.
Until recently, there were no plans to build new nuclear power plants in the country, but Southern Company changed that. Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 will be the first newly constructed nuclear units built in the United States in more than three decades. Unit 3 has completed testing and is now in commercial operation; at its full output of 1,100 megawatts of electricity, Unit 3 can power 500,000 homes and businesses. Unit 4 is also nearing completion and is scheduled to enter commercial operation by March 2024.
In addition to traditional large-scale nuclear power plants, small-scale nuclear reactors (SSNRs) or small modular reactors (SMRs) are also being developed by companies like NuScale, Last Energy, X Energy, and Terrapower, as a potential solution to decarbonizing the electrical grid. SMRs are designed to be smaller, simpler, and more affordable than traditional nuclear power plants, and can be used in a variety of settings, including remote areas, military bases, and industrial sites. They typically have a capacity of less than 300 megawatts, which is significantly smaller than traditional nuclear power plants that can have capacities in the thousands of megawatts. They also represent the potential to retrofit retired coal generating facilities to nuclear upgrades.
“Coal-to-nuclear transitions could save millions of dollars by reusing the coal plant’s electrical equipment (e.g., transmission lines, switchyards), cooling ponds or towers, and civil infrastructure such as roads and office buildings. “ – DOE Office of Nuclear Energy
One advantage of SMRs is their modular design, which means they can be easily assembled and transported to their desired location. This makes them ideal for use in remote areas where access to electricity is limited or nonexistent. Additionally, their small size means they require less land than traditional nuclear power plants, making them more suitable for deployment in densely populated urban areas.
Another advantage of SMRs is their potential to operate for longer periods of time without refueling. This is due to their use of advanced fuel designs, such as high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which have a higher energy density and longer fuel cycle life than traditional nuclear fuel. This means that SMRs could potentially operate for several decades without needing to be refueled, reducing the need for costly downtime and maintenance.
HALEU is uranium that has been enriched so that the concentration of the fissile isotope U-235 is between 5 and 20% of the mass of the fuel, which is far below the 90% assay used to make weapons. But there are still other challenges to the deployment of SMRs, including regulatory barriers, public perception, and the issue of nuclear waste disposal.
The SMR vendors claim that waste from SMRs will be more manageable than conventional nuclear plants, but some scholars dispute this claim. No power option is without trade offs, though, and weighed against the certain human health impacts of coal and other fossil fuels and the environmental and geopolitical impacts of climate change, SMRs have the potential to play an important role in decarbonizing the electrical grid, particularly in remote areas and industrial sites
“ Advanced nuclear is widely regarded as a clean, firm power source that can reliably complement widespread renewable energy buildout … this technology has the potential to create long-term, high-paying jobs and deliver new economic opportunities for traditional energy producing communities that already have pre-existing power generation infrastructure, such as coal communities.” – Energy.gov
Several countries are already investing in SSNR/SMR technology. In the United States, the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy has launched the Advanced Small Modular Reactor program, which is designed to accelerate the development and commercialization of SSNRs. Similarly, the United Kingdom has announced plans to invest in SSNR technology, with a goal of deploying the first SSNRs by the early 2030s.
To maximize the potential of nuclear power in decarbonizing the electrical grid, policymakers should prioritize investing in research and development to improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear power plants. This could include developing new reactor designs, improving fuel efficiency, and improving waste management technology. In addition, policymakers should also consider implementing policies and regulations that incentivize the deployment of new nuclear power plants. Some have argued that nuclear alone should be the energy source deployed.
Regardless, nuclear power needs a bit of a brand refresh. Perhaps is as simple as capitalizing the C so it become NuClear power. It also doesn’t hurt that Miss America 2023 is a nuclear engineering student. Maybe we’re ready to give this proven carbon-free baseload power source another chance.
“We must get over our cognitive and political bias: Nuclear energy is necessary and safe, and not the same as nuclear weapons.” – Charles Oppenheimer (grandson of RJ Oppenheimer), TIME
Stanford | Small Modular Reactors Produce High Level Nuclear Waste