When it comes to clean energy, solar panels and wind power usually dominate the conversation, while cutting-edge and unproven technologies from green hydrogen to nuclear fusion feature prominently in headlines. But the actual powerhouses of the climate-friendly energy revolution receive far less lip service.
“Nuclear power and hydropower form the backbone of low-carbon electricity generation,” reports the International Energy Agency (IEA). “Together, they provide three-quarters of global low-carbon generation.” Nuclear power alone has prevented the emissions of over 60 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past 50 years.
And, contrary to popular belief, nuclear fission is one of the safer forms of energy production out there. In fact, it has been calculated that nuclear energy has saved nearly 2 million lives that would otherwise have been lost to pollution created by fossil fuels since 1971; and that was a conservative estimate when it was reported by a NASA scientist and a leading climate scientist way back in 2013. So why is nuclear such a relatively unsung hero? And why isn’t it featured far more prominently in road maps toward a decarbonized future? For one thing, nuclear disasters such as Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl loom large in the public consciousness, and few people want a nuclear reactor in their backyard. And then there is the very real issue of nuclear waste, which is extremely costly to maintain and stays hazardous for thousands of years. Lastly, nuclear fission just feels like old news. Building new reactors is costly and there are many shinier, newer clean ventures that many investors are keener to back. Related: Oil Prices Near $80 On Tight Global Supply
However, there are some innovations and advances taking place in the nuclear energy sector that may be able to bring the industry into the 21st century and make increased adoption more appealing for nations that are on the fence about nuclear power. One of the key advances in nuclear technology that is close to becoming a reality is the deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs), a smaller-scale version of nuclear reactors which would be mass-produced and assembled on-site, improving efficiency and making building new reactors far more cost-effective.
The nuclear industry has also been hard at work finding ways to make the sector even safer. Some of the solutions are quite futuristic, from employing drones with radiation sensors to keep nuclear plant employees safe, to getting rid of humans entirely and replacing workers with robots equipped with machine-learning capabilities.
There have also been some movements toward reducing the amount of hazardous, radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants. Sodium-cooled reactors are not new technology. Interestingly, these advances are not based on space-aged unproven technologies, but on technology from the 1960s: molten salt reactors (MSRs). The concept is not new, “but extending the concept to dissolving the fissile and fertile fuel in the salt certainly represents a leap in lateral thinking relative to nearly every reactor operated so far,” says the World Nuclear Association. MSRs holds a lot of promise because they can recycle spent fuel within their own cooling systems.
However, in order to rise to the challenge posed by climate change, the global community will have to exploit every low-carbon energy option in its arsenal, and the carbon-saving potential for scaling up nuclear energy should not be overlooked. Decarbonizing the global economy has never been more important or more urgent. Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations (UN) released their 6th Assessment Report on the state of global warming, and the prognosis is grim, to say the least. The UN described the report’s findings as a “code red for humanity,” and stressed that humans have already irreversibly altered the climate, while the window to minimize further damage is rapidly closing.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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The Chinese are now building a small thorium reactor.