During this year’s IAEA Scientific
Forum—Nuclear Innovations for Net Zero—held as part of the 67th IAEA General
Conference, leaders of countries and energy officials gathered to share their
visions for nuclear energy in their power systems. We learned that the United
States—a country where nuclear power is the most significant source of clean
energy—must at least triple its nuclear energy production to meet the 2050 net
interest. France, one of Europe’s most
prominent nuclear energy proponents, called for innovation and cooperation.
South Korea advocated for the private sector to take the lead. Many countries
underlined their interest in developing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), with
Ghana, Morocco and Sweden looking for easily deployable sources of clean energy—which
is precisely what SMRs are. All the attendees agreed that nuclear power is
invaluable, in meeting the increasing demands for clean energy.
Nuclear energy is undergoing a
renaissance of interest, of some sort. The various reasons that countries have
cited for the resurgent interest in nuclear energy illustrate that no single
factor makes it a universally appealing energy option. Rather, it’s a
confluence of environmental, economic and practical goals, coupled with vital
technological advancements and a public perception that’s slowly but surely
turning towards a more favorable opinion.
concerns tend to be the most pressing
ones. Nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source that can produce enough
energy to meet ever-increasing demands. It also can be an invaluable addition—or
even substitute—to renewable energy sources, in national decarbonization
strategies. Renewable energy sources have failed to deliver on their promise
for many reasons, including low-capacity factors, intermittency, location and
land requirements and waste production.
When Germany decided to shut down
its nuclear power stations and rely more on renewable energy sources to reduce
its carbon emissions, the plan backfired and had the opposite effect. Not only
did the country have to buy increased amounts of energy created by fossil and
nuclear fuel, but it also saw an increase in energy prices, a loss of energy
security and an overall larger carbon footprint.
The economic landscape is also
changing in a way favorable to nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants are
notorious for being expensive to build, but they are not too costly to run. One
of the reasons they were so expensive to build was due to financing-related
costs associated with funding capital costs. Historically, this could cost up
to 70% of a civil nuclear project’s budget.
reactor systems might
reduce those costs. The Idaho National Laboratory and the University of
Texas have found, for example, that mass manufacturing of SMRs can lead to capital
reductions of up to 70%. At the same, other forms of energy that have been
around for longer, such as solar or wind, have probably plateaued already, as far
as their cost reductions are concerned. It’s unlikely they will become any
Much of the recent interest in
nuclear energy stems from the Small Modular Reactor technology developments.
Portable microreactors are an interesting option, for a variety of use cases, Fig
1. For example, they can provide a clean, stable and long-lasting energy
source for various operations that rely on diesel fuel. In Canada, for example,
it is estimated that over a hundred small villages use diesel fuel for their energy
needs. There are other countries where remote habitation requires an
alternative energy source—including Sweden and South Korea—due to their large
numbers of islands.
Those same reactors could be an
invaluable tool in situations where the power supply needs to be reestablished
quickly, such as in the wake of earthquakes or storms. Unfortunately, some of
these extreme events will become more common, as the planet warms up. An
emergency supply that’s easily dispatchable and capable of producing decent amounts
of power can be a central feature of any disaster relief strategy.
Portable microreactors also can be
used to foster economic opportunity. Because they are easy to deploy, they can
be used to power remote mining sites, helping countries access their mineral
wealth more efficiently and with reduced expenses. And any country that
seriously wants to consider the electrification of its transportation will have
to eventually resort to using microreactors. It’s the most versatile and
accessible way of powering remote charging stations for electric vehicles. At NANO
Nuclear, the company
even foresees that their generators might be used in replacing the bunker fuel
used for shipping vessels.
Thanks to the new technological
advancements that have led to the development of SMRs and fourth-generation
reactors, today’s nuclear power is safer, produces less waste and is easier to
deploy. All of these factors contribute to the overall thawing of the public
opinion towards nuclear energy, leading to an increased acceptance of nuclear
the future. But the increased interest goes
well beyond the practical, environmental or economic factors. Having a stable
power supply has become a matter of security. It certainly decreases the
reliance on energy imports, which can have political and economic implications.
For the countries that have set
their goals to reach net zero by 2050, nuclear power will likely become the number-one
contributor to their national grids. However, an effective transition to a more
carbon-neutral energy system will have to include a combination of various
energy sources that are best-suited to each use case.
In the world’s predicament, any
step forward is a positive one. The United States, for example, reduced its
carbon footprint significantly when it transitioned from coal to natural gas—not
an ideal solution. Still, it might be the necessary interim solution for some
countries and in certain use cases. It isn’t easy to estimate the energy mix
that will emerge in the coming decades, but nuclear—whether driven by climate
initiatives or not—will grow in use worldwide, given the significant increase
in end-users who can now benefit from nuclear power. WO
WALKER is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nano Nuclear Energy Inc. Prior to joining the company, he was the project
lead and manager for constructing the new Rolls-Royce nuclear chemical plant.
He also was the UK subject matter expert for the country’s nuclear material
recovery capabilities and was the technical project manager for constructing
the UK reactor core manufacturing facilities. Mr. Walker’s professional
engineering experience includes nuclear reactors, mines, submarines, chemical
plants, factories, mine processing facilities, infrastructure, automotive
machinery, and testing rigs.