Can new nuclear technology solve the energy crisis?


Kanan Purkayastha The Earth’s climate is changing faster than at any time in human history, as a result of our own actions. So, it couldn’t be more important that we all have good information about the real consequences of human impacts on our life-support systems. It has been recognized that we should make sustainable living the default option. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) published in February 2022 mentioned that in case of energy system transitions, the most feasible adaptation options support infrastructure resilience, reliable power systems, and efficient water use for existing and new energy generation systems. AR6 report also recognized the energy generation diversification, including with renewable energy resources that can be decentralized depending on context -- for example, wind, solar, and small scale hydroelectric power; and demand side management, such as storage and energy efficiency improvement. This approach can reduce vulnerabilities to climate change, especially in rural populations. In its 2021 report, IPCC included nuclear energy in all four of its suggested pathways to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The debate over whether we need nuclear power however is much polarized. Some say it is too dangerous and expensive to use nuclear power. Others say that nuclear power is a reliable source of clean energy. For those who are against nuclear power, their arguments primarily rely upon its weapon connection, waste and contamination problem, and construction time and resource problem. A civil nuclear power plant and its use as a nuclear weapon are interconnected. It is a general consensus that without civilian nuclear power, there is no military nuclear power; without military nuclear power, there is no civilian nuclear power. In the United Kingdom, approximately 16% of all electricity was generated from nuclear power in 2020, and as of March 2022, the UK has 11 operational nuclear reactors. On the other hand, 70% of France’s electricity is generated from nuclear power. The UK government has recognized that nuclear power is a reliable and constant source of clean energy and in order to wean off fossil fuels, recently the government has outlined a plan to expand the country’s nuclear power generation to 24 gigawatts by 2050, or about 25% of electricity demand by building small modular reactors. Radioactive contamination from accidents and waste from spent nuclear reactors are two key reasons that raise concern about nuclear energy. Both can be managed by harnessing new technology. Finland is building a new reactor and simultaneously constructing an underground repository for waste that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mentioned as a “game changer.” It is worth mentioning that renewable energies are not waste free. For example, wind turbine blades last for about 20 years. After that they cannot be recycled completely. At this moment they go into landfills. When solar panels reach the end of their lives, they are worse because they contain toxic chemicals such as cadmium and lead. In the UK a review of options and cost for removing oil, coal, and gas from electricity production has been carried out recently. According to the UK-based Centre for Alternative Technology, if we swap fossil fuels for home solar panels, then we need 49 million 3.5kw solar panel systems. The cost would be about 296 billion pounds. If we swap fossil fuels for wind turbines, we need approximately 37,000 offshore and onshore wind turbines and to install it would cost 72 billion pounds. If we swap fossil fuels for nuclear reactors, we need 14 nuclear plants and its estimated cost is 77 billion pounds. These numbers are based on the UK's demand and existing supply of energy. Research suggests that, measured in terms of deaths per unit of energy produced, nuclear is by far the safest electricity source. It has a mortality rate one thousandth that of coal and 300 times lower than oil. The change of nuclear technology can reduce both building cost and waste problem of a nuclear plant. Currently, all nuclear power stations use the intense heat from an atomic reaction to create steam to drive a spinning turbine to generate electricity. The most common are pressurized water reactors (PWR). However, a new technology that has developed very recently is a molten salt reactor (MSR). MSR is being built in Canada and the cost is about a billion dollars, which is approximately five times cheaper than PWR. In this reactor, the radioactive elements such as uranium or thorium are held in a liquid sodium chloride solution. Molten salt also cools the core and transfers the heat into steam to drive turbines. Its great advantage is that it remains liquid at higher temperatures without pressurized containment and creates far less radioactive gas. Ian Scott, a pioneer of MSR, while comparing the MSR and PWR technology, mentioned that the PWR is like the super T-Rex in Jurassic Park, which can only be made safe by a strong cage. On the other hand, MSR is like a T-Rex with no legs, so it will not threaten anyone. It is safe by design and its own waste is much less radioactive. It also takes about three and a half years to build, whereas PWR takes 10-12 years to build. Above all, solar and wind are as uncontrollable as the weather. Energy storage is important for using renewable energy effectively, but capacity for the volume of raw energy required to keep us powered for longer periods is a costly exercise. The nuclear option is good if we can harness new technology. Those countries who are trying to build nuclear power plants should keep their option open to swap their currently installed nuclear technology to newer technology. Otherwise they might end up with a giant infrastructure on their land which be running using obsolete technology and polluting the environment. Bangladesh needs various energy sources in the energy mix by 2050 in order to increase its own contribution to reduce global warming and climate change. This means, it needs to ensure that the latest nuclear technology works with other low-carbon solutions such as energy storage from wind and solar, energy from hydrogen, hydroelectric power, and combined heat and power. Dr Kanan Purkayastha is a UK based Academic, Scientist, Environmentalist, and Author.

(Courtesy Dhaka Tribune)