One of the greatest human technological advances is undoubtedly the splitting of the atom. The atom, which takes its name from the ancient Greek language meaning “unbreakable”, was for a very long time considered the smallest unit of matter that existed until the beginning of the 20e century scientists figured out how to split large atoms by bombardment with wayward neutrons. This ultimately releases huge amounts of energy in the process. However, the heat and energy produced as a result of the splitting of the atom does not produce any gases that can lead to global warming.
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Nuclear technology has caused catastrophic damage due to the negligence and poor design of nuclear power plants. Notable incidents include the Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Miles Island accidents. These incidents are some of the reasons for doubts about the widespread acceptance of nuclear energy as a renewable energy source.
Nuclear energy as a source of energy
New nuclear technology has the potential to change the outlook for nuclear energy. It attempts to address and correct previous flaws that existed in the past and introduce a new vision for the future of nuclear energy. The goal is to ensure increased nuclear fission with a low-carbon energy source. In the United States, nuclear energy provides 20% of the electricity supply.
Nuclear power generation has undergone various changes and advancements over the past five decades. Additional and improved reactor designs are currently being developed around the world, with compound annual growth rates ranging from 2.5% in China to 2.8% in Germany.
Several generations of power reactors have been developed over the past decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, first-generation nuclear reactors were introduced and used to generate electricity commercially.
The last first generation nuclear reactor was shut down in the UK in 2015. Generation II nuclear reactors were much more advanced than their predecessors. They were initially designed to have a lifespan of between 30 and 40 years, while some have had their lifespans extended to around 80 years. Chernobyl’s number four reactor, specifically RBMK-1000, was a Generation II nuclear reactor; the three reactors destroyed in the Fukushima nuclear accident were also generation II reactors, specifically a boiling water reactor (BWR).
The third generation reactors are currently the most advanced, one having been in service since 1996 in Japan. These reactors are simple and smaller, reducing capital costs while being inherently safer and more efficient.
The fourth generation of nuclear reactor models is still mostly theoretical and should be widely used in the years to come. Reactor vendors from Japan, China, Europe, North America, Russia and elsewhere have several reactors that are in advanced planning stages or are already under construction, while others are in development. research or development stage.
It is estimated that well over 85% of the world’s nuclear electricity is produced by reactors derived from designs originally intended for naval use. These and similar nuclear power plants are safe and reliable. Despite this, they are replaced by much better and improved designs.
Advanced nuclear reactors
The third generation reactors have the following features to improve on previous models.
Third-generation nuclear reactors have a more standardized design for each type of reactor to speed up licensing.
They also have reduced construction time and initial investment costs. A simple design allows them to be operated easily, while they are less vulnerable to operational malfunctions. They also have a much longer working life, typically 60 years.
Another characteristic of advanced generation reactors is that they have a reduced probability of accidents induced by the melted core. Additionally, they generally have stronger reinforcement against aircraft impacts than previous designs, thus preventing radiological release.
These reactors have a higher burnup allowing full fuel utilization and greater efficiency. This helps reduce the amount of waste generated with greater use of absorbers or combustible poisons to extend fuel life.
A notable advance in the field of nuclear energy has been the design of smaller nuclear reactors. The reactors manufactured in the 20e century were much larger and more expensive.
These large nuclear power plants could produce enough energy to power millions of homes. The problem is that it took them decades to build with billions of dollars in fixed assets.
A much more modern reactor is the small modular reactor (SMR), which can generate a fraction of the energy produced by traditional reactors but at a fraction of the cost. Existing nuclear reactors can produce between 500 megawatts (MW) and 1 gigawatt (GW) of electricity while SMRs can generate 300 MW.
The advantage of SMRs is that a single reactor can be suitable for projects that consume much less energy. For large energy consuming projects, more reactors can be added to meet energy needs.
Another notable feature of advanced nuclear reactors is their safety. Therefore, these nuclear technologies must guarantee safety beyond reasonable doubt for those living near the nuclear power plant. It is for this reason that advanced nuclear societies have placed it high on their agendas for inherent safety features that will prevent the calamities experienced in the past from happening again.
The risks that can be associated with nuclear reactors can be classified into the following three categories. The risk of nuclear fuel falling into the wrong hands with the intention of weaponizing it, the risk that nuclear power plants could fail, explode and release toxic radiation, and thirdly, the remaining waste is likely to present hazards wherever they may be stored.
To increase safety, the nuclear fuel used in these advanced reactors differs from weapons-grade nuclear fuel because they contain a lower concentration of uranium.
To avoid the risk of disastrous accidents, past accidents such as Fukushima and Chernobyl have been used as case studies and learning experiences to significantly improve the safety of these nuclear reactors. As a result, the use of fuel dissolved in salt ultimately reduces the risk of complete melting..
The future of nuclear energy
Nuclear energy is now poised to return to the main stage as a renewable energy source due to its potential for continued advancement in nuclear technologies, safety, size, and abundant low-power source of energy. carbon emissions. This could ultimately solve the climate-related problems that have been caused by the continued use of fossil fuel power plants.
Recent advances in nuclear fusion and the opportunities they offer
References and further reading
Soltoff, B., 2020. Advanced Nuclear: A Comeback Story of Climate Technology | Greenbiz. [online] Greenbiz.com. Available at: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/advanced-nuclear-climate-tech-comeback-story
World-nuclear.org. 2021. Advanced nuclear reactors | Generation III+ Nuclear Reactors – World Nuclear Association. [online] Available at: https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-power-reactors/advanced-nuclear-power-reactors.aspx
Goldberg, S. and Rosner, R., 2011, March. Nuclear reactors: from generation to generation. Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences. https://www.amacad.org/publication/nuclear-reactors-generation-generation
Farkas, G., 2010. From Generation I to Generation III.