Nuclear power is needed for net zero and above
The world is keen to achieve net zero emissions to combat climate change. Nuclear power can be a base load to support 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 a power grid.
Some state-of-the-art nuclear power plants could be designed to ramp up and produce what is called dispatchable electricity. They could add to what’s called peak load capacity, not just base load.
Nuclear power plants are always in operation, except when the spent fuel must be replaced every 18 to 36 months depending on the plant variety. Some small modular reactors, also known as SMRs, could operate even longer before needing to switch fuels, as can nuclear submarines and ships that can use the same fuel for an exceptionally long time.
Nuclear energy is independent of the weather. It does not depend on the wind or the sun to function. It also does not depend on pipelines for fuel supply. It has a small footprint. For example, one nuclear power plant per megawatt occupies a much smaller space than coal, oil, natural gas, wind, and solar generation.
Nuclear fuel is a very dense source of energy. A tiny pellet of slightly enriched uranium nuclear fuel is 1 centimeter high and 1 centimeter in diameter, but contains the energy of 149 gallons of oil, one ton of coal and about 493 cubic meters of natural gas.
Uranium is abundant throughout the world in natural deposits of varying quality. 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 power plant produces trace amounts of emissions, especially compared to gas, coal and oil-fired power plants. Throughout the supply chain and throughout the life cycle of the plant, nuclear is climate competitive, even with solar and wind. Greenhouse gas emissions are produced during the uranium mining and processing stages, as well as during the construction and dismantling of factories.
Nuclear is one of the safest sources of electricity per megawatt hour. Yes, there have been major incidents in the past. Yes, we have to take them into account, and they are well known. The considerable human losses caused by the coal, oil and natural gas industries over the years are less well known. If all of this happened at the same time from time to time, more people would see the relative safety of nuclear power.
Again, statistics show, contrary to much popular opinion and popular media, that nuclear energy is one of the safest sources of energy. This says a lot about nuclear, but also about coal, oil and natural gas.
Nuclear not only produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal, natural gas and oil, but also produces fewer particulate pollutants throughout its supply chain and life cycle. More than 4 million people die each year from air pollution. None of these deaths are caused by nuclear power plants. Many of these deaths are due to the use of other fuels.
All the nuclear waste ever produced by the United States would cover an American football field just over 10 meters deep. The waste problem with nuclear is a problem not because of the volume, but because of the difficulties in finding places to store it. Some of this problem could be solved with more reprocessing, but caution should be exercised as spent nuclear fuel in existing common power plants contains fissile material. Advanced nuclear reactors can use TRISO fuel, which is less proliferative and much more robust and safer than uranium. Thorium is another fuel source that could reduce these risks.
Water desalination can be done with nuclear energy. Nuclear could be used to create hydrogen and ammonia. The heat from a nuclear power plant could be reused in cogeneration. This 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 as standard, reducing the costs that have been such a problem for the historically bespoke nuclear power plants that have dominated the industry. Advanced nuclear reactors and small modular reactors being developed give more hope for more globally standard reactor designs that would allow parts and other equipment to be logically, cheaply and easily manufactured, and then store them, ship them and reinstall them.
When the objectives are the control of climate change, safety, the reduction of air pollution, and the effort of energy, water and food security, resilience and reliability, nuclear power — given that certain conditions of skills, expertise, safety, maintenance cultures, etc. are met – could be a solid choice for many places around the world.
Nuclear energy can make enormous contributions to a country’s energy security, reliability and resilience. When combined with geothermal, solar, wind, energy storage, increased energy efficiency, more and more effective applications of the circular economy, principles, investments and actions to circular carbon economy, climate-friendly energy and related economics and policies, nuclear can be a driving force towards a better world.
Nevertheless, the expansion of nuclear energy, particularly in countries that have never had it, must be done carefully within the regulations and powers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the International Atomic Energy and other international regulatory bodies, treaty organizations and law enforcement agencies that may request it. The way in which the United Arab Emirates develops its program is a reference to follow and understand.
• Dr. Paul Sullivan is Senior Research Associate at KFCRIS and Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News