Nuclear Energy: The Once and Future Power Source

Nuclear Energy: The Once and Future Power Source

By Brandon Ott - October 31, 2014

The fifth in a series of articles this week on energy innovation and the American economy

To say the nuclear industry has had highs and lows in the last 35 years is an understatement. The “atoms for peace” that were intended to wean Planet Earth off fossil fuels, make Western nations energy independent, and provide a clean environment all but screeched to a halt after the disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.  Add in 20 years of weapons of mass destruction talk and sensational sci-fi movie explosions -- all before a tsunami overwhelmed a reactor on the coast of Japan -- and nuclear energy was on the verge of going full dodo.

In the United States, nearly all of the currently active nuclear power plants were built 40 years ago or more. We’d gone almost 30 years without seeing any new ones built. Now, five reactors are under construction, with one close to coming online, and many more are receiving licenses to operate for another 20 years. After four plant closures since 2013, the United States has 100 working reactors with clear support from the American public.

Yet growth has been sluggish, for several reasons. First, the revolution in hydraulic fracturing technology dramatically expanded the supply of oil and natural gas while driving the price of natural gas to historic lows.  Utility companies looking to build new power plants are looking at a third the cost per kilowatt-hour if they employ “nat-gas.”

In the past 10 years alone, the cost per installed kilowatt for nuclear power has risen by a factor of eight.  Years-long delays and plant cost overruns to the tune of billions of dollars hamper both its political and economic viability.  Perhaps most troubling for environmentalist and federal lawmakers alike, the problem of nuclear waste storage has yet to be resolved, as epitomized by the $15 billion (to-date) Yucca Mountain morass.  However, France reprocesses all its spent fuel, stores it and has been a leading innovator in this field.  And then there was Fukushima, which brought to mind every worst-case scenario about the safety of nuclear power in the public’s mind.

But Fukushima’s fatal flaw was its shoddy design.  Psychology, more than policy or science, might be the biggest stumbling block facing nuclear in the years ahead.

Despite those drawbacks, nuclear energy has many advantages.  It’s a 24-7 form of energy that doesn’t conk out when clouds roll in or the wind stops blowing. Planned closures of nuclear facilities have the potential to disrupt a reliable power source and increase the greenhouse gases put into the air.  It already provides nearly 20 percent of our electricity and 60 percent of the clean energy we use.  That’s right.  Nuclear is a (virtually) renewable energy source that produces no carbon emissions.  Throw in some nice subsidies from Mother Government and you’ve got an industry that’s regaining its sea legs.

Nuclear might even garner support from a corner that is ostensibly against its use.  Many Democrats and environmentalists, the so-called “nuclear greens,” are warming to the idea that nuclear power is essential for the well-being of the country.  Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner, as recently reported in The Hill, says it would be “irresponsible” to neglect nuclear. James Hansen, former NASA head and staunch Keystone pipeline opponent, made many mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace see red with his pro-nuclear position, according to a report in Grist.  Their focus is on mitigating the effects of climate change, but their support could be critical in furthering the expansion of nuclear power -- and not just in the U.S.

Countries around the world are meeting more of their energy needs by refurbishing old and building new nuclear reactors.  France, despite voting to reduce nuclear’s share of electricity generation from a world-leading 75 percent to 50 percent, has depended on the cheap energy source for nearly half a century and will continue to do so going forward.  The U.K. got approval from the European Union’s executive commission for two new reactors at the massive new Hinckley Point project.  Prime Minister Narenda Modi of India has asked his country’s nuclear agency to triple nuclear power in 10 years.  Ditto China’s leaders. Even Japan, which closed all 48 of its nuclear reactors after Fukushima, is on the path to restarting the industry. 

Leading this resurgence are three technologies that stand out as the potential next-generation of nuclear energy.

Molten salt reactors (MSR) are smaller nuclear reactors that employ a liquid, not solid, fuel as a coolant. With MSR, the fuel is dissolved right in the sodium moderator and coolant so there is no chance of a meltdown or escape of radioactive steam. They’re also safer in many aspects than traditional systems (think of an automatic “off” switch), are more efficient and produce much less waste that then needs to be stored for tens of thousands of years. And they are much cheaper.  Commercially available molten salt reactors have yet to be built and the technology is still experimental.  The upside, though, is enough to make an energy nerd’s heart flutter.

The second promising innovation is thorium, a chemical element that has been on nuclear physicists’ minds ever since the earliest days of nuclear research. There was nothing magical about uranium. It was the element of choice because it meshed with the weapons program. Enrico Fermi, the father of nuclear, preferred thorium for commercial development. It’s safer and more powerful.  It alone can’t be used to make weapons, and is more easily handled than uranium.  Plus, thorium is also twice as abundant as uranium.  And it can be used in the nuclear reactors we already have.  India, which has the world’s largest thorium deposits, and China are starting to experiment with the technology.   

Finally, the energy world is atwitter with recent assertions by Lockheed Martin that nuclear fusion may be just around the corner. Fusion, a concept that’s been around for decades, smashes two atoms together, safely creating a ton more energy than nuclear fission (the process our reactors utilize now) more cheaply and with miniscule amounts of radioactive waste.

Lockheed hopes its compact reactor, which can fit on the back of a truck, is operational in 10 years. The world has heard this before, however, so skepticism in the scientific community is the norm, rather than the exception. “I’m highly skeptical that they have anything interesting to offer,” Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering, recently told Technology Review, “It seems purely speculative, as if someone has drawn a cartoon and said they are going to fly to Mars with it.” 

Let’s hope Lockheed’s project, and similar ones around the globe, aren’t just another “cold fusion” bust. 

But if someone had said only five years ago that the United States would be a world leader in the production of oil and that the cost of solar panels would plummet seven-fold, he or she would have been escorted out of the room wearing a warm, white jacket.  Today, nuclear has revived from its nadir in the 1970s and 1980s and enjoys generous funding from governments, institutions of higher learning and global investors all in search of the energy Holy Grail.  Given its position today, betting on nuclear is no longer foolish. It may prove eminently wise.

Brandon Ott

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