Stories from across the energy transition

Nuclear Energy: Powerful Controversy

Nuclear fission power, a volatile subject to navigate, has always found itself in the crosshairs of international debate. With ties to nuclear weaponry and radioactive waste management, the controversial issues have often overshadowed its potential as an energy source. However, it’s essential to distinguish fission from its futuristic counterpart, nuclear fusion. While the former powers our present, the latter holds promising prospects for our future. Also the costs are often a formidable deterrent to the construction of new large-scale power stations.

Interestingly, the demand for nuclear energy persists, driven by four compelling factors:

  1. Economical Operation: Despite the high initial expenditure on construction and future waste management, the running costs post-establishment are surprisingly low, making nuclear energy an affordable option in the long run.
  2. Dependable Baseload: Nuclear energy has a proven track record of offering a reliable baseload of power, serving as a steady energy source.
  3. Security of Supply: Nuclear fuel isn’t subject to the political and economic uncertainties associated with fossil fuels, nor the unpredictable whims of weather like renewables.
  4. Low Carbon Impact: Nuclear energy has virtually zero CO2 emissions during generation, making it an environmentally friendlier choice in the battle against climate change.

Now, let’s look under the hood of a nuclear reactor. A common process is as follows, a nuclear reactor generates heat by causing the fission of the Uranium 235 isotope, which in turn heats the coolant surrounding it. This heat then propels a steam turbine, generating electricity. The fundamental process, fission, involves the splitting of a heavy atom when struck by a neutron, converting mass to energy through Einstein’s renowned equation, E=mc^2. This transformative capability accounts for the exceptional efficiency of nuclear power compared to combustion-based energy sources.

For a more in-depth exploration of nuclear technology, the World Nuclear Association offers extensive resources. There are primarily five types of reactors, with the UK taking credit for the development of the Magnox gas-cooled reactor:

  1. Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR)
  2. Boiling Water Reactor (BWR)
  3. Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR)
  4. High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor (HTGR)
  5. Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR)

Delving into the annals of nuclear power, the initial experimental electricity generation dates back to 1948 at Oak Ridge, within the X-10 graphite reactor—a remnant of the Manhattan Project. The pioneering large-scale nuclear power plant plugged into the grid on August 27, 1956, at Calder Hall in England. This plant, powered by four Magnox 60 MWe generators, served until 2003, marking 47 years of service. Preceding this, a 5MW reactor had been grid-connected in Russia’s Obninsk in 1954.

As of September 2018, the global landscape of nuclear energy encompassed 454 operational reactors spread across 31 countries, with an additional 55 under construction. China takes the lead in erecting new nuclear power plants, with the recent addition being a Westinghouse Pressurised Water Reactor connected to their grid on August 17, 2018.

Globally, over 2.5 petawatt hours of power were generated in 2017, accounting for approximately 10% of the world’s power. However, the future of nuclear fission is shrouded in uncertainty, due to the financial implications and environmental concerns tied to waste management. Still, this technology is slated to remain a significant player on our energy stage for the foreseeable future.

In the UK, Hinkley Point C (as seen above in the featured image), a mega-project steered by EDF Energy, was green-lit by the UK Government in September 2016. Despite the challenges it has faced and may yet encounter, the project underlines the ongoing commitment to nuclear energy in a world increasingly conscious of its carbon footprint.

Futuristic Note: A Glimpse into Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Nuclear Generation

While the future of traditional nuclear fission might seem uncertain, the potential advent of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Advanced Nuclear Generation promises to revolutionize the sector.

SMRs are gaining traction as a viable alternative to conventional nuclear reactors. These compact, factory-fabricated reactors have a smaller capacity—usually under 300 MWe—which grants them flexibility and scalability, making them a suitable fit for smaller grids and areas with limited investment capabilities. The smaller scale also allows for more straightforward financing, shorter construction periods, and the potential for improved safety and security due to advanced design features.

Moreover, several designs also aim for passive safety systems that don’t require active intervention in case of a failure, thereby reducing the risk of accidents. Companies and nations are showing interest in this technology, with several prototypes under development or awaiting licensing approval.

In parallel, Advanced Nuclear Generation designs are gaining momentum. These next-gen reactors aim to deliver improvements over conventional designs in terms of safety, waste reduction, non-proliferation, and cost-competitiveness. Advanced designs include but are not limited to High-Temperature Gas Reactors (HTGRs), Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs), and Fast Neutron Reactors. These systems intend to use fuel more efficiently and reduce the volume and toxicity of nuclear waste.

In a world grappling with climate change and an escalating demand for cleaner energy, the advancements in SMRs and Advanced Nuclear Generation could offer a way forward, proving that nuclear energy, despite its challenges, may still have a crucial role to play in our sustainable future.

Next Post

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

© 2024 EnergyStory

Theme by Anders Norén