The global energy crisis is putting an unprecedented squeeze on the nuclear power industry. The urgent need to shore up energy security in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine has convalesced with the equally urgent need to decarbonize the global energy mix as the line of no return for catastrophic climate change grows ever closer. For many countries, this has meant that public and private sector leaders have been forced to reconsider their attitudes toward nuclear energy, a proven emissions-free technology capable of producing a whole lot of energy reliably and consistently.
The renewed interest in nuclear energy is all well and good for the nuclear energy industry, except the sector is now faced with a major problem. Booming demand after decades of neglect is pushing an aging nuclear fleet to its limits. While some countries, such as China, Russia, and South have continued to invest in expanding their nuclear fleets over the past few decades, the controversial nature of nuclear energy has by and large halted the commissioning of new nuclear reactors in the West. The United States remains the largest nuclear producer in the world, with 92 nuclear reactors running, but also has one of the oldest fleets on the planet, with an average nuclear reactor age of 42 years.
As a result of declining nuclear plant production coupled with increasing nuclear power demand, nuclear reactors have been kept running for far longer than was ever planned. Typically, nuclear reactors are decommissioned after about 40 years. But now, operators around the world are pushing lifespans to as much as 80 years and questioning whether keeping a reactor running for a full century could be considered a safe and acceptable practice.
“By the end of the decade, two-thirds of the world’s currently operating nuclear reactors will be running on borrowed time, splitting uranium atoms longer than they were ever designed or licensed to, in a risky experiment with planetary consequences,” Bloomberg reported last week. The biggest risks associated with aging facilities are brittle concrete and steel, which can raise the threat level for nuclear accidents.
Nuclear accidents are exceedingly rare. Though the tragic disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima loom large in the public consciousness, nuclear power production is, on the whole, a remarkably safe energy source. In fact, on the whole, nuclear energy actually saves lives compared to those which would have otherwise been lost to air pollution associated with the burning of fossil fuels. “For every terawatt-hour of energy generated (roughly the annual electricity consumption of 27,000 people in the European Union) there are 32.72 deaths due to accidents and air pollution associated with lignite,” reports Geopolitical Intelligence Services. “For nuclear energy, this figure is only 0.07 deaths.”
That being said, no matter how low the average threat level is for nuclear disaster, any amount of increase to that level is worrying. As rare as these tragedies are, their potential for disaster is enormous. But in the current context of dual energy and climate crises, more and more people are thinking that the reward may outweigh the risk. An emissions-free baseload power is a hard thing to turn your back on in this day and age. Countries aren’t just putting off retiring their nuclear energy plants; they’re slowly but surely laying the groundwork for new nuclear as well, marking a major reversal in attitudes for most Western leaders.
It doesn’t hurt that nuclear energy technology is changing, becoming safer and cheaper to install and operate. In fact, we are likely on the precipice of a new nuclear era with the impending rollout of small modular reactors. These models, which are currently in development, are considered to be a much safer and more efficient option, as they can be manufactured off site, allowing for a far greater degree of industry standardization and economies of scale.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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