This past year, the Biden administration formally re-entered the Paris Agreement and set extremely ambitious decarbonization goals. The shift away from fossil fuels faces the challenge that high living standards require a reliable and abundant supply of energy supplied at a low cost. Unfortunately, every method of producing electricity has its drawbacks. Fossil fuels release CO2 when combusted and have a finite supply; biomass and garbage incineration lack sufficient energy density; solar and wind are unreliable and require lots of land area; hydro has a limited capacity; geothermal and tidal are geographically restricted. But what about nuclear?
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Nuclear power is associated with many issues. A significant challenge it faces in the United States is public perception. Many Americans associate nuclear power closely with the disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima and fear the possibility of a similar catastrophe occurring close to their home. Additionally, there are two significant challenges with nuclear energy from a green energy perspective: nuclear fuel has a finite supply, and nuclear waste, though small in volume, is extremely hazardous and difficult to safely dispose of. Furthermore, there are severe doubts about its economic viability. Despite several obstacles, it is the best long-term solution for energy production in the United States thanks to several new and developing technologies.
The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 turned public opinion strongly against nuclear power due to safety concerns. Today nearly one in four Americans still perceive nuclear power as unsafe. However, on average there has been only one death per ten trillion kilowatt hours of electricity produced with nuclear fission in the US, making it orders of magnitude safer than any other source. If 100% of America’s electricity came from nuclear, the statistics suggest it would directly or indirectly (most deaths are associated with mining raw materials or air pollution) cause a death only every 2-3 years on average, compared to daily with renewables or every 15 minutes with coal. Despite already being one of the safest forms of energy production, researchers are taking steps to improve nuclear reactor safety. Engineers learned from the failures that contributed to previous disasters, and newer reactors have built in fail-safes to prevent future incidents.
There are many types of nuclear reactors, and each bears its own unique safety considerations. The Micro Modular Reactor (MMR®) built by Ultra Safe Nuclear can serve as an example of how technology can minimize the risks associated with nuclear power generation. Before exploring these technologies, it’s worth mentioning that MMR®s are incredibly versatile and can be mass produced – which is the key to inexpensive manufacturing – thus they represent what could be the next wave of energy production.
There is a chemical engineering concept of a Process Safety Hierarchy that ranks four categories of strategies for reducing risk in a process by dependability. We will focus on the first two: inherent safety and passive safety strategies. Inherent safety strategies reduce or eliminate hazards from the process, so that the maximum threat posed is smaller to begin with. MMR®s have implemented several of these strategies. Firstly, it uses Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM®) fuel pellets which are designed with specific considerations for mechanical, chemical, and thermal stability. They are small, and each pellet contains only a small amount of radioactive material. Despite being an extremely high performing fuel, FCM® allows the MMR® to have the lowest power density of all commercial reactors to date. Additionally, the selection of helium as a cooling medium eliminates all concerns with chemical reactivity, toxicity, and phase changes. Passive safety features use physics or chemistry to handle a hazardous event, should one occur. They do not depend on human operation or external utilities, making them extremely reliable. The MMR® is designed to dissipate all its heat into the environment in such an incident, and Ultra Safe Nuclear claims this feature is sufficient to make reactor meltdown completely impossible. Should the reactor be breached in any way, the helium coolant retains very little heat, and the FCM® fuel pellets keep radioactive materials sealed safely inside. New technology reduces, eliminates, and reliably handles the known risks of nuclear power generation.
The next concern is the finite supply of nuclear fuel. The most promising solution is to greatly improve our ability to extract nuclear fuel from the environment. Researchers are working to develop methods for extracting Uranium from the oceans, which contains500 times more uranium than the Earth’s crust. One method of extracting uranium from seawater is filtration. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has recently developed apolymer membrane that early studies have shown is up to 20 times more efficient at extracting uranium than previously studied membranes. Stanford and the DOE are also making advancements inconductive uranium absorbing materials that can absorb uranium with faster kinetics, a greater capacity, and greater longevity. A combination of these two solutions for expanding the supply and usefulness of nuclear fuel could theoretically meet nuclear fuel demandsindefinitely. Technological advances will eventually make this a reality, although it is not clear yet on what time scale.
NEXT GENRATION REACTORS AND ALTERNATIVE FUELS
The limited supply of fuel can also be addressed by extracting more energy from the fuel and using another fuel source. Extracting more energy from the fuel can be done by improving the thermal efficiency of nuclear reactors and by implementing “breeding” technology for thorium and depleted uranium fuels. The next generation of reactors will do just that. The most recent reactors have already improved on fuel efficiency. The Breakthrough Institute report linked above states that “the European Pressurized Reactor uses 17 percent less uranium per kWh than existing LWRs.” There are many different types of next generation reactors, and the Breakthrough Institute Report discusses each one in detail. The biggest takeaway is that Generation III reactors will cap out at thermal efficiencies of roughly 37%, while certain Generation IV designs are expected to be capable of exceeding 50% efficiency.
Thorium is the most promising alternative fuel source, and it bears several advantages. It is more abundant in the Earth’s crust, inexpensive, and if the waste is processed properly, far less high-level waste is produced. Thorium is fertile, but not fissile. It cannot divide and produce energy on its own, but it can be used to breed fissile materials. When a small amount of fissile material is added to thorium, it is able to start a self-sustaining reaction that breeds fissile uranium-233. Unlike uranium, it does not require enrichment in pre-processing. Thorium reactors have several unique challenges as well, but engineers are finding ways to address them. With fourth generation reactors coming online soon, the addition of thorium will greatly expand the world supply of nuclear fuel.
STORING SPENT FUEL
The largest environmental concern with nuclear power is storing the spent fuel. Nuclear waste should be kept in secure facilities that keep radioactive material under lock and key while preventing the escape of harmful radiation. They should be secure in the event of natural disasters and capable of withstanding the test of time. In 2023, Posiva will complete the construction of the world’s first deep geological repository for safely storing spent nuclear fuel. Spent fuel is stored in corrosion resistant boron-steel canisters, ensuring long term containment. The canisters are buried in a specially designed underground tunnel system, securely sealing it away permanently without the need for continuous maintenance. The billion-dollar facility being built in Finland will have sufficient capacity to serve the country for over a century at their current rate of fuel consumption. The geographical conditions necessary to build similar sites exist in locations on all 6 inhabited continents.
Despite all the great advances mentioned thus far, there is one technology that has the potential to trump them all. Nuclear fusion produces energy in a process where hydrogen atoms are fused into helium. Hydrogen has a practically limitless supply, and no radioactive waste is produced. Although there have been countless challenges in the development of fusion power dating back almost a century, monumental advancements have been made in recent years. One such advancement came to fruition in September of 2021 when Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) produced the world’s most powerful electromagnetic field using newly commercially available superconducting materials. The largest hurdle for developing a fusion reactor is developing an electric field powerful enough to force positively charged protons close enough together that they can fuse into helium. Electric fields strong enough to yield fusion are already possible, but they cannot sustain a stable fusion reaction that can yield net-positive energy. This demonstration proves that generating such a magnetic field is possible. While this is a large step towards producing commercially viable fusion power, scalable and cost-effective reactor designs are still in development. To make an affordable energy source, the fusion reaction has to be stable for long periods of time, and the reactor must be significantly smaller than the ones existing today. However, Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS, believes his company will be able to produce electricity for the grid by 2030.
THE ECONOMICS OF POWER GENERATION
What might be the greatest challenge for nuclear power is that it is expensive compared to other energy sources. Economics is about tradeoffs, so we cannot label one source as “too expensive” without considering the next best alternative. Since the global context of the energy industry is that the US has declared intentions to reduce CO2 fossil fuel use and emissions to net-zero, the alternative is wind and solar. It is important to use the levelized cost for comparisons because wind and solar are heavily subsidized by the federal government. Still, solar and wind appear to be the least expensive forms of production.
It is also important to consider all costs, not just manufacturing and installation, many of which the report linked above does not consider. An enormous cost associated with wind and solar is the necessary energy transmission or storage capacity that must accompany it. When the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine, these energy sources cannot meet energy demands. Note that the problems get worse as the share of energy coming from wind and solar increases. Accordingly, the costs associated with ensuring supply and demand match grow.
One way to partially address this issue is to connect intermittent power sources over a larger area of land, so that the total energy production in the control area is less sensitive to local fluctuations in production. This would require an enormous capital investment in energy transmission infrastructure. Estimating the cost of this solution accurately is quite challenging since there has been no attempt to implement such a solution before.
Another way to address the issue is by installing energy storage capacity. A study by Budischak et al. predicts that in 2030 it will cost between $90 and $150 per MWh for stored electricity in 2010 dollars, depending on the storage method used. For context, that makes stored electricity slightly more expensive than coal in reference to Lazard’s levelized cost analysis. However, this theoretical model makes the bold assumption that we have the capacity to produce enough storage at the current market price. The US used 27.2 trillion kWh of energy in 2020, or 3.1 terawatts on average. To sustain the entire US for 8 hours, approximately 25 terawatt-hours of storage would have to exist, without considering that energy consumption is expected to grow between now and 2030. The Tesla Gigafactory in Berlin will be able to produce up to 250 GWh per year, essentially doubling global battery production. At this rate, it would take 50 years and cost tens of trillions of dollars to produce enough batteries for the United States alone. If that much storage capacity magically appeared before us, batteries would reach their end-of-life and need replacing faster than they can be produced. Hydrogen fuel cells would also have a role to play in this equation, but the bottom line is that building such a large amount of storage capacity is unachievable in the foreseeable future. Additionally, the study indicates that with both solutions in effect, excess generation of at least 80% of the energy demand would be needed if the US were 90% dependent on intermittent sources of electricity. That means an 80% increase in the current cost per MWh before factoring in capital costs of transmission and storage.
Furthermore, the cost of waste management should be considered. Although the price tag of the deep geological repository appears large, it is affordable by comparison. Recycling a solar panel can cost between $21 and $23 net per panel. If each panel produces an outstanding 500 watts of power for 12 hours per day and lasts 30 years (superior to today’s technology), Finland will spend slightly more recycling solar panels to generate the same wattage as its nuclear plants. Additionally, the aforementioned batteries would cost a fortune to recycle as well. Performing these calculations is superfluous and difficult since battery recycling technology is also seeing major advances. Regardless, nuclear waste disposal with deep geological repository technology is cheaper than recycling intermittent renewable energy hardware.
After factoring in these additional costs, solar and wind are no longer the inexpensive energy sources that they initially appeared to be. Additionally, installing renewable power generation capacity from 12% of total production to 90% would mean greatly increasing the demand for solar panels, windmills, transmission cables, batteries, etc. Economic principles suggest that as demand increases, so does the price level. In reality, the cost of a predominantly solar and wind powered grid is astronomical.
Since nuclear power does not have the same challenges with variable productivity, it has the potential to be more economical as the primary energy source in the US. However, it is still one of the more expensive methods of producing electricity today. Korean firms are able to construct nuclear power capacity for about $4000 per kW; but in the US, costs are more than double and have been increasing since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Why is this the case? A study by Eash-Gates et al. presents some answers.
The primary sources of cost increases in the construction of fission power plants are related to design, engineering, construction, and administrative services. Although regulation and the cost of materials have increased costs, poor management is largely to blame. Extreme delays have resulted in vastly decreased average productivity. Laborers can spend up to 75% of their paid hours idle during the construction of a nuclear power plant. Delays are frequently the result of beginning construction without finalized plans or the need to redesign features of the plant after construction has begun. The silver lining of these issues is that there is lots of room to cut costs. The study determined that by implementing advanced manufacturing and construction management techniques, productivity could be improved resulting in a 34% reduction in total costs. Additionally, the use of state-of-the-art materials in construction could reduce commodity usage and total costs by 37%.
As alluded to previously, modularity will play a key role in making nuclear power cost effective. Many of the costly issues identified by Eash-Gates et al. are specific to extremely large projects with unique designs. By using the same design repeatedly and manufacturing on an assembly line, production costs could be reduced dramatically.
Despite the many great advances and incredible potential described in this brief overview of new technologies that could redefine the energy industry, it is important to put a check on our imagination with a dose of realism.
At this point in time, nuclear power is expensive and unsustainable. Key technologies that will address these issues are still in development and will require funding and time to be actualized. It would be unwise to dive all-in on nuclear until these challenges are overcome. Likewise, voters and lawmakers must apply that same caution to renewables, which have severe limitations.
In the long run, it is inevitable that we shift our energy sources away from fossil fuels. Whether or not the ambitious climate goals being set by the government are met, change is coming sooner or later. The best we can do is make smart decisions and investments that will lead to a future with inexpensive and plentiful energy. With the potential to provide enormous quantities of energy reliably, economically, and safely, nuclear power should be considered the most promising solution for the future of energy. //
Read another viewpoint: Republicans Need to Embrace Pragmatic Environmentalism
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