“Conventional nuclear power has had its day, but fusion could still be a miracle solution”


Nuclear reactors release a staggering amount of energy. Concretely, a kilogram of uranium can release as much energy as 1,500 tons of coal. Existing nuclear power plants are also cheap to operate and contain CO2-free with the added advantages of the absence of air pollutants.

However, the real problem with nuclear is that the costs of new construction have increased over the years, as have the costs of decommissioning existing plants. In addition, public support for nuclear has weakened following a series of accidents – the most recent of which is Fukushima – as well as the nuclear industry‘s inability to build new plants on time or the budget.

Finally, it is really difficult to obtain a building permit, even for pilot plants of next generation nuclear technologies.

All this raises the question: what role will nuclear power play in the future?

The nuclear industry began in the 1950s and by the end of 2020 there were 443 reactors in service worldwide, with an installed capacity of 393 GW. Some 10.3% of all electricity produced in the world came from nuclear power, with France producing nearly three-quarters of all its electricity from nuclear power. However, the facts of the last decade speak for themselves: nuclear power is in decline.

In 2010, there were only 16 new reactor construction starts, which was well below the peak of 1976, when construction began on 43.

Last year there were only five.

Many power plants have also closed since the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011 and, despite strong nuclear growth in China, there are now fewer plants in operation than before Fukushima.

Growing security needs around nuclear power plants have driven up costs. The UK is a good example, where the new 3.2 GW Hinkley Point power station is now expected to cost up to £ 23bn (at 2015 prices) ($ 32.5bn), up compared to the original 2012 estimate of 12 billion pounds. When it is finally finished in 2026, it will have taken more than ten years to build it and the end customer in the UK will pay a price for this energy which is three times the wholesale market price.

The other element against nuclear is the cheaper alternatives in the form of wind and solar power. Over the past decade, some 50 GW of nuclear capacity has been added to the grid around the world. Over the same period, more than 1,300 GW of wind and solar capacity have been installed.

Why is this happening? It’s easier for governments to meet carbon targets with renewables, which are viewed much more positively by voters, while being much faster to install and less expensive to build and operate. In the United States, some nuclear power plants are closed because they are not profitable; their operating costs are simply too high and they are not competitive with natural gas and renewable energy plants.

Going forward, the logical approach from a climate change perspective would be to modernize existing nuclear power plants and keep them running for as long as technically possible. This is less expensive than many other alternatives and pushes back the extremely expensive dismantling costs, which are heavily subsidized by governments around the world. But even then there is public resistance.

The only light at the end of the tunnel may be the so-called small modular reactors, which are essentially scaled-down versions of normal reactors and can be mass produced, according to theory, and are therefore cheaper to produce. The new designs are safer to use with lower amounts of radioactive waste. However, there are several designs, none on a large scale, which makes it questionable if – rather than when – this technology will hit the market.

This means that the future of nuclear is not so rosy. We will see small incremental additions to the world’s nuclear fleet, but we will not see a nuclear renaissance.

Does this mean that we must give up nuclear power? Without a doubt, no. If we can break nuclear fusion, the energy source used by the Sun, then we will be able to have safe, abundant and carbon-free electricity. To achieve this goal, we must continue to invest and do research and development around nuclear power, as this could be a miracle solution for climate change.

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