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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Nuclear Energy Could Bridge The Energy Transition Gap

  • Nuclear power is making a comeback as it has become clear that renewable energy alone cannot meet global demand 
  • Small-scale modular SMR nuclear reactor may well be the key to a nuclear revival by reducing both the cost and danger of nuclear power
  • SMR reactors have the support of companies in Poland, Britain, the U.S., and Canada, with even big names such as Bill Gates supporting them

Small scale nuclear companies are picking up pace, following the example of bigger nuclear firms looking for their place in future of renewables, as nuclear power finally makes a comeback following years of criticism and fear of power stations.

Two companies in Poland, KGHM and Synthos, are looking to get small-scale modular SMR nuclear reactors up and running in a bid to stake their claim to the future of Europe’s nuclear power. To date, over 70 companies around the world are involved in SMR nuclear reactor projects, with the popularity of small-scale nuclear business quickly expanding. 

Both KGHM and Synthos are planning to work with American companies familiar with the SMR technology to advance their independent projects in Poland, in line with European Union expectations for net-zero carbon emissions within the next few decades. 

Critics of the small-scale projects suggest that opponents of nuclear energy will use the same arguments as those of larger nuclear projects, that because of the cost and safety concerns around nuclear power, alternatives such as wind and solar energy projects are far more useful to invest in and will be more technologically advanced in a shorter timeframe. In addition, much of the small-scale technology still requires extensive testing to ensure its safety. However, small nuclear plants may be able to bridge the gap in energy output that wind and solar energy production faces. When there is a lull in renewable energy production, small-scale nuclear power could plug the gap in a way that is not possible for larger nuclear projects to do due to their high cost to energy value. 

The next step is for countries developing the technology, such as the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, to work alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and national regulators to continue testing the safety of SMR reactors and agree upon international protocols and safety procedures. 

But companies like KGHM and Synthos are simply following the examples of countries like the U.K., the U.S. and France, which have been proponents of nuclear power for years and continue to back nuclear energy despite criticism over safety and potentially life-threatening failures.                                               

Many countries are highlighting nuclear power as a necesity in a zero-carbon future, with the U.K. announcing this week that it is planning for a fossil fuel-free power grid by 2035 through the use of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy will be used by the U.K. as a back-up for renewable energy production during the energy transition period. To drive this transition, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised the construction of at least one large-scale nuclear project by 2025.

As some of the world’s energy leaders are showing their support for large-scale nuclear projects, some popular names are also backing the new small-scale technology. Bill Gates’ Terrapower, for example, is planning to demonstrate an advanced nuclear technology in Wyoming at a retiring coal plant.

A major appeal of SMR reactors is that they can be factory-built and then shipped, adding more as energy demand rises. These reactors have an output of anything between 50 and 300 megawatts but can be combined to form a powerplant of up to 1,000 megawatts. Furthermore, if one of the modules breaks, it can be repaired without completely stopping operations. This reduces the environmental risk as well as the cost of the project – which is often criticized by energy companies and opponents of nuclear power. 

The backing of nuclear energy by several governments, companies, and leading energy names around the world is largely due to the desire to move away from fossil fuels towards renewable alternatives and the lack of scope currently available for renewable energy production. While wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable energies have come a long way, there is still a significant road to track before the scale of these projects can meet the energy demand of 7.9 billion people worldwide. 

But it’s important to remember that nuclear energy still has a bad rep. After the monumental failures of Fukushima and Chernobyl, several countries swore off nuclear power completely. Many people around the world oppose nuclear power for fear of safety issues, fighting governments who want to build new nuclear plants. But many now question if the safety concerns, for both people and the environment, are any worse than those we face because of continued oil and gas use. As the energy transition becomes unavoidable, proponents of nuclear power are likely to remind us of this comparison and the need for something beyond renewable energy projects to bridge the gap. 

Yet, while some small companies and major governments are welcoming nuclear power once again, others continue to reject it. Nuclear power, it seems, is not for everyone - even in regions that are in dire need of sustainable electricity sources such as California. The Diablo Canyon nuclear powerplant, based in San Luis Obispo County, California, is currently in the middle of a ten-year decommissioning project, which will entirely strip the state of nuclear power. This is a questionable decision for a state that has experienced severe electricity cuts in the face of annual heatwaves.

Some of the arguments against nuclear power in California include the risk of earthquakes potentially leading to failures in the plants, utility companies in the region that are not willing to buy nuclear power, and the cost involved in the development of nuclear power plants compared to other energy options such as wind and solar power. So, while nuclear power could provide the low-carbon energy production so direly needed in California, the risks are deemed too costly. 

There seem to be mixed messages when it comes to nuclear power. Advocates believe that nuclear energy is necessary if we hope to meet the world’s energy demand as we transition away from fossil fuels, as well as being more environmentally friendly – providing rigorous international safety guidelines are met. However, not everyone agrees. Whether for the cost or for fear of failure, some governments may never get on board. What we may start to see, however, is the development of small-scale nuclear projects that support renewable energy advances over the next decade, providing competition to larger energy companies that do not want to get involved. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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