It is time for a post-Fukushima Nuclear power renaissance

Nuclear power remains one of the most important sources of energy. It helps to secure reliable energy supply and at the same time reduces the destructive impact of fossil-fuels on the environment.

Energy demand is on the constant increase due to the rise of new industrialized countries and energy-intensive economies. According to current global projections electricity demand almost doubled from 1990 to 2011, and is to grow by 81% from 2011 to 2035 (from 19,004 TWh to 34,454 TWh). Therefore, nuclear power – a stable and very affordable source of energy – now plays key a role in the world, as an indispensable option to complement existing energy mixes or become a true pillar for national energy development.

Reasons for the increased interest in nuclear energy lie in its role in reduction of GHG emissions and ability to provide affordable base-load electricity supply with stable production costs. Indeed nuclear power, among hydropower and wind, composes a true safe ground for CO2 reduction and total decarbonization. Presently, nuclear reactors generate a third of all low-carbon power in the world, while the share of nuclear power in the global energy mix is currently around 11%. This figure is to be increased to 18% by 2030 and 25% by 2050 in order to ensure that the goals set at COP 21 and 22 are achieved.

Coupled with its renewability, nuclear energy can also ensure total decarbonization of the global energy sector.  Australian Bright New World climate change think-tank director Ben Heard notes that “if we can come up with the right mix of nuclear and renewable technologies, then we can have the electricity system and an energy system that is completely decarbonized, not just partly decarbonized. And completely decarbonized is what we desperately need for the environment.”

This trend of nuclear renaissance was hampered by the Fukushima NPP accident, which negatively affected public perception in several countries. Nevertheless, after some period of time following this accident, the general situation is improving due to constant development of safety technologies, nuclear education and growing confidence by emerging countries towards nuclear energy.

People stage a protest against the nearby Belgian Tihange nuclear power station in Aachen, Germany May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Global development has been hit hard by economic crisis, but nowadays it is back on track and needs a back-up of stable energy to get to a whole new level. In light of this, innovation in nuclear technologies are not stagnant. And the latest designs for NPPs take into consideration enhanced safety systems and strategies to improve the performance of nuclear units.

Nuclear energy is technologically mature, but it still has room for innovations and further developments to enhance its role in a sustainable energy future. Thus, modern nuclear energy has one main goal: enhance R&D processes in NPP construction, maintenance and operation.

For instance, after a period of research and modernization works the first in the world Gen III + VVER (PWR) unit was connected to the grid in Russia. This new type of reactor was designed to reduce costs without changing the basic configuration of the nuclear steam supply system, while at the same time increasing safety. This reactor design also takes account of Design Extension Conditions, in accordance with the current IAEA safety standards. Thus, all new VVER plants under construction already have design features that take fully into account the main “Fukushima lessons learned”.

The updated safety systems of Gen III + units are designed to have the capability for stable operation under adverse conditions due to natural phenomena such as earthquakes, floods, storm winds, hurricanes, snowfalls, tornadoes, low and high extremes of temperature, as well as such man induced events as aircraft crash, fire, and flooding caused by water pipe breaks.

There is a great potential for new developments in nuclear technologies to enhance the role of nuclear energy in a sustainable energy future. Nevertheless, important barriers to the rapid expansion of nuclear energy still remain. Governments need to set clear and consistent policies on nuclear programs to encourage private sector investment and to deliver objective and prejudice-free information on influence of nuclear energy and technologies on social and economic development.

Nuclear technologies are developing constantly. Today, the scientific world is on the verge of new breakthroughs by developing Gen IV reactors with improved sustainability, safety and reliability, economic competitiveness, proliferation resistance and physical protection. The R&D of Gen IV stems from early 2000s when global leaders in nuclear technologies decided to join efforts to build new generation reactors. These reactors are likely to have closed fuel cycles and use the spent fuel. Fast reactors and closed fuel cycles can extend the use of our resources to thousands of years.

Many Gen IV designs will be fast neutron reactors. This “fast” technology opens a way to closed fuel cycle. The fast breeder technology has the potential to make the production of energy from uranium 100 times more efficient than with the existing thermal reactor, reducing the amount and toxicity of radioactive waste, as well as shortening the waste’s hazardous lifetime span.

As noted by Stefano Monti, team leader for fast reactor technology development at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “fast reactors operating in a closed fuel cycle would be able to provide energy for thousands of years as well as easing concerns about waste.”

Fukushima may have slowed the growth in nuclear power, but it didn’t stop or reverse it. Global bodies like the International Energy Agency (IEA) and IAEA expect expansion in the global use of atomic energy over the next decades, especially in emerging countries. Nowadays of the 30 countries that operate nuclear power plants, 13 are either constructing new units or are completing previously suspended construction projects.

The Russian “Academy Lomonosov”, the world’s first floating nuclear power plant, passes Langeland island, while heading for Murmansk in northwestern Russia, in Denmark, May 4, 2018. Ritzau Scanpix/Tim Kildeborg Jensen/via REUTERS

The future of nuclear power development is linked with energy trends. Conventional resources are to be replaced with clean and sustainable alternatives. Today, energy sources are supposed to be socially, economically and environmentally responsible. And not many conventional sources can ensure all these factors.

With a view of making nuclear energy units more versatile, global leaders in technologies also focus on development of small and medium-sized reactors (SMR), which are capable to bring stable electricity to remote regions, where large plants cannot be constructed due to infrastructure restrictions.

The benefits of such reactors are not limited to low cost and simplicity in construction. Small and medium sized nuclear reactors can also contribute to water desalination procedures. Nuclear desalination uses the excess heat from a nuclear power plant to evaporate sea water and to condense the pure water.  The benefit of nuclear technologies is very obvious – nuclear plant at the same time provides cheap, sustainable energy and clean water.

If these type of plants are built as hybrid electricity and desalination plants, “the amount of fresh water produced from seawater would provide such vast quantities of water that what is now unused semiarid land could be turned into a garden, creating an agricultural industry worth hundreds of billions of rand a year. This has been demonstrated in the semiarid Central Valley of California, which now produces over half the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the US on land that was previously unusable”, argues Tom Blees, the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives (SCGI), an international NGO that includes climatologists, scientists and engineers involved in cutting-edge energy systems.

Apart from conventional nuclear technologies like big and small reactors, industry leaders, especially Russian Rosatom, have gone even further in developing the world’s first floating nuclear plant capable of providing both energy and clean water to remote and deserted regions.

The floating power plant can also be modified as a desalination plant able to produce 240,000 cubic meters of fresh water daily. Like every NPP, the floating power plant has all the necessary safety technologies, exceeding any possible threat level, which makes the reactors invulnerable to tsunami waves or crashes with other ships or on-land structures. Also, nuclear desalination technologies do not emit any dangerous substances into the atmosphere.

The breakthroughs in nuclear technologies do not end with only national energy strategies. Today, more and more nations are combining their efforts to make large scale projects possible. Such projects are of paramount importance for future generations, given their capacity to generate literally limitless and clean electricity.

For instance, nearly 35 nations, including Russia, US, China and EU, are collaborating to build the world’s largest tokamak in France, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers our sun and stars. The experimental campaign that will be carried out at ITER is crucial to advancing fusion science and preparing the way for the fusion power plants of tomorrow. ITER will be the first fusion device to maintain fusion for long periods of time.

Bernard Bigot, the director general of ITER project, says, “fusion could help deliver the energy supplies of the world for a very long time, maybe forever.”