Yes Energy News and Insights

Is Nuclear Making a Comeback?

“When people talk about decarbonization, they talk as if it’s this mysterious thing that’s never been achieved,” - Isabelle Boemeke, Brazilian advocate for nuclear power (Huffington Post, 2021)

Decreasing the use of fossil fuel generation is a topic of increasing importance as we continue into the future.  Following the COP26 conference in Glasgow, it’s clear there is significant work to be done if we are to keep warming under 1.5 degrees celsius, compared with pre-industrial levels.  As world leaders, policy makers, investors, scientists, and innovators work to devise solutions that will provide electricity reliably - without carbon emissions - an existing generation source has come to the forefront - nuclear power.

However, nuclear power is an extremely controversial method, steeped in history, of generating electricity.  The concept of nuclear energy came about prior to World War II when Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, discovered that neutrons could split atoms, releasing energy.  The first nuclear power plant was run as an experiment in Idaho in 1951.  Soon after, nuclear reactors were constructed around the world.  Nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste, part of what makes it a controversial generation source.  Long-term, safe disposal of the waste is challenging.  

Additionally, there have been a couple of well-known incidents that have made the public, as well as governments, wary of nuclear power.  The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was caused by a meltdown at the nuclear plant in Ukraine.  The disaster was caused by operator error and design flaws, but the results were devastating.  Over 24 people were killed, and almost 115,000 people were forced to relocate following the disaster.  It is still unclear how many people have died due to radioactive-related illnesses stemming from the Chernobyl Disaster. 

Then, in 2011 a tsunami caused a nuclear plant to meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, similarly displacing a number of citizens.  As a result, it seemed the final nail had gone into nuclear power’s coffin.  However, as the focus on producing massive amounts of electricity without carbon emissions increases, nuclear has reentered the picture. 

Planning, permitting, and building new generation facilities (regardless of type) is a difficult process. Nuclear generation facilities possess their own unique challenges. Nuclear power’s benefits are the reason why the re-emergence and re-investment in nuclear power generation is a hot topic.  Nuclear energy does not produce any carbon emissions - nor contribute to air pollution - and it can operate, practically, around the clock. 

To achieve stated global climate goals, it will be necessary to replace coal and gas plants (which currently produce almost two-thirds of the world’s electricity) with carbon-free energy sources.  While renewables and large scale storage facilities are coming online at unprecedented rates, it’s difficult to see how these technologies will fill the entire baseload generation void left by gas and coal plants.  Renewables are inherently challenging due to the intermittent nature of their fuel sources.  Storage facilities are anticipated to help solve this problem.  However, the question remains if they will be deployed quickly and at the scale required to be the sole solution, because not only do we need to replace current generation sources, we need to plan for additional energy demand, especially as electrification becomes more popular.  Additionally, it bears considering what the negative environmental and health effects of battery manufacturing and disposal may be.  Nuclear power certainly has some challenges, however, its capability of providing round-the-clock clean power, without intermittency challenges, is appealing to some of those seeking to solve the climate challenge. 

In Europe, France is currently producing significant amounts of nuclear energy, and reinvesting in their atomic energy program.  Poland, Romania, and the Ukraine, which have been extremely reliant on coal, are investing in small nuclear reactors.  The countries have formed an alliance, advocating for the E.U. to approve nuclear energy as a sustainable investment.  European countries aren’t alone though.  Japan is planning to restart some of their reactors, China has announced that they will install 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, and the recently signed U.S. infrastructure bill provides $6 billion to nuclear power plants to stay open.  While some countries forge ahead with nuclear power, others are less certain.  Germany shut their nuclear program down following the meltdown in Fukushima, and they are joined by Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Spain in trying to prevent the approval that the France and Eastern European alliance is trying to gain from the E.U. due to concerns over the waste produced by nuclear power.  

While world leaders debate the widespread deployment of nuclear power, some companies and investors are forging ahead.  Rolls Royce, and Terra Power headed by Bill Gates, are some of the companies working on mini reactors that would be less expensive, and easier to install, than traditional nuclear facilities.  

Nuclear power is a complex issue, and it remains to be seen if it will be the answer to our woes or a blip on the radar.  Whether nuclear power becomes the norm, or we banish it out of existence, whatever decision is made is likely to have significant impacts on the dynamics of our evolving power grid.

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