Can a New Generation of Nuclear Reactors Help Us Transition to Renewables?

Nuclear power should be accepted as a necessary bridge until we are able to develop technologies that are widely accepted as ethical and practical solutions.
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You may be a skeptic and deny that the Earth is not warming up because, depending on where you live, the effect may not be noticeable to you. But, hopefully, what you can’t deny is the increasing number of weather-related disasters occurring around the world, which happens to be a really expensive mess we are getting ourselves into. A short video from The Climate Council shows how temperature has varied since 1900, and it is clear that the drastic increase started to happen around the year 2000 — and is continuing.

The heat affects wind flow, which in turn affects weather patterns, rainfall and local temperatures. A major source of this rise in heat levels — 65% to be precise — is due to carbon dioxide (CO2) trapped in the atmosphere. A major source of carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuel for energy — 81% to be exact. A lot of this power was needed for industrial development and all the growth we see today, so we can’t argue that the carbon dioxide we now have is unwarranted. But with the impact of this CO2 concentration unraveling itself, we urgently need to correct this power source to stop adding more of it into the air. We also need to bring down the current levels — but this is a separate issue.

We need to move away from our reliance on coal and gas plants, and to find better ways of powering our homes and factories with electricity. Renewables represent one well-known way of doing that. Another option is nuclear power. Unfortunately, public attitudes toward nuclear power are governed more by fear than by logic. Shows like “Chernobyl” only intensify that fear. The Soviet high-power channel reactor, RBMK, was indeed a bad design the like of which will never be built, and the scientific community knows that.

Apart from that, there are several sources that tell us how nuclear plants have a much lower rate of accidents and deaths than other plants, but these figures don’t seem to matter to people. We tend to focus on the fact that, if an accident did occur and caused a radiation leak, the economic, human and environmental costs of such an incident become exponentially higher.

Another Option

But what if that high cost could be considerably lowered? Maybe the economics of tangible and intangible benefits of nuclear power will start making more sense. What if the amount of radiation damage could be made much smaller, so that even if there was an accident, the effect could be contained and localized to a greater extent? Maybe the tradeoffs would appear more attractive than they are today.

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The answer lies in the next generation of nuclear reactors that are currently still mostly under research and not getting the attention they deserve. The advanced, or generation IV, nuclear reactors are a set of six reactor designs chosen because of their modularity, increased safety features, lower reliance on enriched fuel and lower production of plutonium, among other improvements. In short, they tend to address the three major fears people have.

For those worried about the misuse of fuel to create nuclear weapons, these reactors produce less plutonium. What about if construction takes years and billions of dollars? Modular reactors can be made in factories and transported to various sites. Due to being inherently much safer than the conventional reactors, these new models may also have lesser redundancy built in, which can also bring down costs. Also, if we start including all the external costs for society, health and the environment in the form of carbon pricing for fossil-fuel plants, they would not remain as cheap as they are today.

What about accidents that can cause irreversible radiation damage to current and future generations? Generation IV reactors can greatly minimize the risk of accidents. Due to the nature of the technology, we can’t omit radiation damage, but we can greatly bring down its measurable impact by making smaller reactors that contain less fuel, operating in conditions that won’t cause explosions (which spray out nuclear material) as opposed to current high-pressure reactors. And, for that matter, when large-scale methane leaks happen at a natural gas storage facility, it also impacts current and future generations by impacting the environment.

Next Generation

Out of the six generation IV designs, the molten salt reactor (MSR) with liquid fuel is the one that inspires most confidence and could make nuclear power technology acceptable to all. The MSR uses thorium as fuel, because of which production of plutonium and other long-lived minor actinides is very small, as the process follows the decay chain for Th-232 instead of U-238. Further, to initiate thorium into fissile U-233, plutonium and other transuranic waste elements can be used. This means that existing nuclear waste can be used as part of the fuel mix in an MSR.

There are no fuel pellets, and fuel is a continuously rotating fluid. This enables the fuel to constantly get recycled and prevents build-up of fission products, which means one aspect of radiation damage is removed in case of an accident. Rotating liquid fuel also means that fuel is added as and when needed to maintain criticality, so no excess concentration is needed, as in the case of startup of conventional reactors.

Molten salts have excellent heat transfer properties, a high boiling point, high heat capacity and low irradiation damage. This means the reactor can run at a much safer low pressure value and is more efficient in removing heat from the core as well as preventing meltdowns and explosions. An already molten fuel also means there is no scenario of fuel meltdown. In extreme cases, the hot molten fuel will melt the safety plugs below it and flow inside dump tanks.

Heat is directly released into the coolant, as opposed to conventional reactors where some heat is lost when traveling through fuel rods, air gaps and cladding. No fuel pins also means no regular replacement of material due to deterioration by heat and radiation over time. This enables MSRs to have fuel utilization of up to 90% compared to 3%-4% of light water reactors — the most prominent type of conventional reactor. This greatly minimizes nuclear waste production. Molten salts are also solid at room temperature. This means in case of a leak, they will automatically self-plug.

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Because nuclear is an energy-dense technology and has some of the highest capacity factors among energy generation technologies, a nuclear plant takes 360 times less space than a similar capacity wind plant — or 75 times less space than a solar plant — and provides power around the clock.

Nuclear power is certainly not a perfect technology, but neither are all others. Every type of energy generation comes with its merits and drawbacks. Nuclear should be accepted as a necessary bridge, at the very least, until we are able to develop technologies that are widely accepted as ethical and practical solutions. There is no other way to keep power generation-related CO2 emissions in check on such a large scale, and we are very quickly running out of time.

*[An earlier version of the article mistakenly stated that Molten salts are liquid at room temperature.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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