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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Is This The Only Way To Make Nuclear Energy Work?

The need for efficient, affordable, and scalable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels is more pressing than ever. While clean energy alternatives are already existent and abundant, however, there has been a serious lack of investment and any serious sea change towards decarbonizing the global economy. “Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?” the Secretary General of the UN Climate Change Conference asked his audience last week. 

Indeed, the seriousness of the situation is such that Forbes has accepted the hyperbolic as journalistic, proclaiming that “in recent years the issue of climate change has taken a decidedly apocalyptic turn” and that with the scientific community projecting that we will be hitting a tipping point of carbon emissions with an irreversible trajectory toward catastrophic climate change this century, “the apocalypse had been scheduled.” 

Between all of the politicking and business as usual, there is also the issue of division between those energy experts that believe the world can run on 100% renewable energy and those who think that the reality is more complex and will require a more diverse energy mix. And then there are the ultra-divided camps of pro- versus anti-nuclear proponents.

Nuclear power is a divisive issue for a number of reasons. It’s an extremely efficient fuel source with absolutely zero carbon emissions, but neither is it a clean energy, thanks to the residual radioactive waste created by the process that stays radioactive for millions of years and costs exorbitant amounts of money to store and maintain. It is also a hard sell for both politicians and constituents alike due to a widespread mistrust of the safety of nuclear energy in the wake of high-profile disasters like Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island. 

Those bad optics might not be entirely deserved, however. In fact, some studies show that thanks to the efficiency lack of emissions from nuclear power production, nuclear energy has ultimately saved lives.  Related: The Fastest Growing Energy Sectors Of 2019

Climate scientists Pushker Kharecha and James Hanson argue that nuclear power has already saved two million lives that would otherwise have been lost to air pollution-related deaths from the burning of fossil fuels in their study “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power”, published by NASA. 

Furthermore, other factors that have made nuclear economically and politically untenable in the past (particularly in the United States--by contrast, nuclear has already been flourishing in countries like China and Russia) are starting to be turned around thanks to more investment and innovation in the field in recent years. Perhaps the single-biggest advancement set to transform the modern nuclear energy sector is the adoption of small modular reactors.

These are “basically smaller-than-usual nuclear reactors that are sometimes considered safer due to their size,” explains Canada’s National Post. “They generate less than 300 megawatts of electricity (MWe) per reactor and can be small enough to fit in a gymnasium, so they can operate in areas where less power is required. An SMR could even provide power to off-grid locations where power needs are only between two and 30 MWe. Canada’s current nuclear reactors supply between 515 and 881 MWe. SMRs are called “modular” because they can operate individually, or as part of a larger nuclear complex. Multiple SMRs can be set up at a single nuclear plant to supply a similar level of power as larger generators, which means a nuclear power plant could be expanded gradually, as demand increases.”

What’s more, the size and uniformity of these units means that they can be constructed off-site, allowing for increased affordability and greater standardization across the sector, lowering construction and maintenance costs as well as making the reactors’ upkeep easier and therefore safer. 

These smaller nuclear reactors would have a number of benefits in Canada, says the National Post. “SMRs could replace larger nuclear reactors when they are decommissioned as well as CO2-producing coal plants. They could also be used to provide energy to remote Indigenous communities in Canada that currently rely on diesel. In addition to generating electricity, SMRs can be used for water desalination, and they could be used to generate heat for oil sands production. SMRs are touted as being more attractive to communities that have not previously used nuclear power. However, it is yet to be seen if SMRs can be cost effective enough to compete with large-scale nuclear plants and other forms of energy.”

There are currently a number of startups and energy tech companies working on these smaller reactors in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. The next step is getting the greater energy industry on board, as there is truly no time to waste in the race toward decarbonization. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Erik Flaaten on December 18 2019 said:
    There should be more focus on the benefits of using Thorium instead of Uranium. 4 times more abundant, not suitable for nuclear weapons, and waste is safe after 300 years.

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