About nuclear energy

Don’t like CO2? Nuclear power is the answer!

Renewable wind, solar, hydro and bio-fuels cannot fill the gap

by Jonathan Tennenbaum

So you don’t like CO2? What you need to know, then, is that there’s no alternative to advanced nuclear power.

Concern about the climate effects of man-caused CO2 emissions has prompted gigantic investments into so-called renewable energy sources: wind, solar, hydropower and biofuels. Meanwhile, in a huge mistake, nuclear energy – a reliable CO2-free power source producing 14% of the world’s electricity – has been left far behind.

Germany provides a bizarre example, albeit not the only one. Here the government’s commitment to its so-called climate goals has been combined, paradoxically, with the decision to shut down the country’s remaining nuclear power plants by 2022.

Would it not be more rational, if we believe that human emissions of CO2 are destroying the planet, to expand nuclear energy as quickly as possible, rather than shut it down?

Last December the influential German magazine Der Spiegel ran a story with the title, “Can New Reactor Concepts Save Us from the Climate Collapse?” The article reports on how numbers of international investors and firms, including Bill Gates and his TerraPower, are engaged in a race to develop advanced nuclear reactor technologies as the key to eliminating world dependence on fossil fuels. A goal that could never be attained by the so-called renewable sources alone.

What should we fear most?

Addressing readers who remain terrified of nuclear energy, Spiegel writes: “According to estimates, 800 000 people die every year from the smoke produced by coal, containing toxic substances such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury or arsenic. But concepts must also be demonstrated for how to dispose of the toxic substances contained in used-up photovoltaic cells.”

The magazine explains that “energy generation nearly always claims victims and creates some pollutants. The question is, what costs and risks are we ready to accept? What should we fear most? Global warming, which is sure to come, or a possible regional reactor catastrophe? The objections to nuclear energy are justified. But in view of climate change, is it right to reject nuclear technology altogether?”

New reactor designs such as the traveling wave reactor, the molten salt reactor and small modular reactors promise to be much safer and cheaper than conventional nuclear power. And to have broader ranges of applications. Some could even “burn” nuclear waste as a fuel. Therefore eliminating the need for very long-term storage of radioactive material, which is a major argument against nuclear energy. Standardized modular construction would allow nuclear reactors to be factory-produced in much shorter times.

On this basis, a massive expansion of nuclear power worldwide might be accomplished within the space of 10-15 years. The rapid build-up of nuclear power in France, in response to the 1973 “oil shock,” provides a certain historical precedent.

New agenda

There is no doubt that nuclear energy is back on the world agenda. Even for many of those who have been bitterly opposed to it in the past. And nuclear energy – in the form used today – still has serious problems. But new reactor concepts are on the table. That addresses those issues and could completely redefine the role of nuclear energy in the world economy.

I shall describe some of these reactor concepts in a bit of detail. But first I should try to establish clarity on a crucial point.

I believe we are facing a branching point in global energy policy. What should be the priority? Assuming it should be a goal to drastically reduce world emissions of CO2 in the medium and long term – which I don’t want to argue about here – is it wise to invest so much in renewable energy sources, as many nations are doing today? Or should we allot only a limited role to the renewables? And go for a massive expansion of nuclear energy instead?

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