The formidable task of decarbonizing globally while maintaining energy generation levels will require sound forward-thinking policies and creative solutions.
It wasn’t that long ago that nuclear energy seemed to be on the verge of becoming a dominant source of reliable electricity across much of the developed world. Several countries (France, Russia and the US, among them) forged ahead with a series of nuclear power plants, providing millions of people with electricity generated by nuclear energy.
But then, once ambitious nuclear energy plans began to peter out to the point where today only 5% of global primary energy is gained from nuclear. At the same time, a myriad of coal-fired plants remain in operation, continuing to spew vast amounts of CO2 into the planet’s atmosphere and thereby exacerbating the challenge posed by climate change.
“Worldwide electricity consumption will grow by 45% between now and 2040,” observes David Petti, a prominent nuclear scientist who is director of nuclear fuels and materials at Idaho National Laboratory in the United States. “Most of that growth will be in the East, while the growth in the West will be fairly modest,” he adds.
Encouragingly, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are gaining ever wider traction both in the East and the West. Yet these renewables alone won’t be able to meet modern societies’ ever-growing energy needs, experts like Petti argue. Importantly, renewables are highly weather-dependent, which makes them less than ideal sources of dependable energy in many regions of the world. Meanwhile, efficient energy storage technologies remain relatively scarce and expensive. Current storage systems are also often incapable of storing sufficient amounts of energy during periods when wind and solar farms are in their downtime.
In addition, solar and wind farms take up lots of space even in places where weather conditions are ideal for them. The US state of Texas, for instance, boasts a sunny and windy climate, making the Lone Star State a perfect location to harness the power of sunrays and winds. These renewables are often touted as an integral part of deep decarbonization scenarios in the state.
“In Texas, wind and solar are very inexpensive,” Petti says. “The nominal cost of nuclear is $5,500 per kW, and with a 25% cost reduction from that, about $4,100 per kW. If you put nuclear into the mix, the total energy costs are about 30% less. It’s amazing the difference that nuclear makes in the mix as a base load,” he adds.
That is why without nuclear energy in the mix deep decarbonization scenarios make little sense, Petti says. To help meet energy demands, “you would have to build so many solar and wind farms that they would occupy 5% of the land of the state of Texas,” the expert points out. “If somebody says that doesn’t sound much, then I say they’ve never been to Texas. That’s a lot of land!”
As a result, solar and wind power are often overstated when it comes to the big picture. “What you (often) end up doing is you overbill wind, solar and battery storage at a tremendous cost,” Petti explains. “So this idea that we can’t do it all with renewables comes as no surprise,” he adds. “Looking at China, it’s a little bit different story. You can see that nuclear is actually important at all levels of decarbonization because it’s a lot more economically competitive there.”
Hence, the formidable task of decarbonizing globally while maintaining energy generation levels will require sound forward-thinking policies with a larger share for nuclear power, argue the authors of a comprehensive new study, “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World,” published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US.
“In the 21st century the world faces the new challenge of drastically reducing emissions of greenhouse gases while simultaneously expanding energy access and economic opportunity to billions of people,” the experts note.
“In most regions, serving projected load in 2050 while simultaneously reducing emissions will require a mix of electrical generation assets that is different from the current system,” they explain. “While a variety of low- or zero-carbon technologies can be employed in various combinations, our analysis shows the potential contribution nuclear can make as a dispatchable low-carbon technology. Without that contribution, the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly.”
In other words, without nuclear power playing a far larger role in future energy plans in the developed world, decarbonization efforts will be at risk. Absent more nuclear power, a blow may well be dealt to global efforts to mitigate manmade climate change. Nuclear power remains desirable, the MIT experts note, because nuclear plants can produce large quantities of electricity reliably without interruptions for decades. Nuclear power is also a clean energy source that does not produce significant amounts of CO2 emissions and, unlike solar and wind, requires only limited use of precious resources like land.
And yet “the prospects for the expansion of nuclear energy remain decidedly dim in many parts of the world,” the study’s authors note. “The fundamental problem is cost,” they add. “Other generation technologies have become cheaper in recent decades, while new nuclear plants have only become costlier. This disturbing trend undermines nuclear energy’s potential contribution and increases the cost of achieving deep decarbonization.”
For their study the experts at MIT surveyed recent and ongoing light water reactor (LWR) construction projects worldwide and examined the latest advances in cross-cutting technologies that can be applied to nuclear plant construction for a wide range of advanced nuclear plant concepts and designs under development. Their wide-ranging survey of six regions worldwide also allowed the experts to compare and contrast.
“What we did is we had a decision-making tool developed at MIT that takes the hourly electricity demand in a region, the hourly weather patterns, the capital operating the fuel cost of all the energy sources [like] wind, solar, nuclear, coal, natural gas, and those in sequestration as well,” Petti explains. “And we asked ourselves: in different regions of the world in 2050, what’s the optimal energy mix as a function of the carbon constrain?”
Their conclusion is that developing a variety of low-carbon energy sources in a holistic fashion will be key. “In our study we show through detailed analysis of the electricity market in six regions of the world that a combination of energy sources will be needed to achieve the decarbonization goals with high likelihood of success and cost-effectiveness,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor at MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES) who was co-author and co-chair of the study, tells Sustainability Times.
“Without a nuclear component in the mix, the build-out of renewables, and especially storage, is enormous, and thus enormously costly, let alone risky from a technological point of view,” Prof. Buongiorno elucidates. “As of now and in the near future, electricity storage is not available at the scale and cost needed to succeed and we don’t have much time. We must start to reduce emissions now.”
The reason nuclear power does not enjoy the same kind of support among policymakers in several industrialized nations largely has to do with the high costs that the construction of new nuclear plants entails. Recurrent delays and rising costs during the construction of several new plants have also dampened enthusiasm for nuclear plants. “There are also societal concerns about the disposal of spent nuclear fuel,” Prof. Buongiorno notes. “Robust technical solutions exist, but siting a repository is often challenging if the process is not managed well socially and politically. There are positive examples, such as Finland and Sweden, and negative examples, such as the US.”
To allay lingering fears about the safety of nuclear technology and concerns about its costs, the industry can do more to make a case for the importance of nuclear power during the long and arduous transition to fully decarbonized energy generation. “The industry must pull its act together and bring down costs and start delivering new plants on time and on budget,” Buongiorno stresses in an interview with Sustainability Times. “But success will require also government action in the form of energy policies that are non-discriminatory against nuclear,” the expert adds. “This applies to the existing fleet (remunerate nuclear electricity for its carbon-free nature) as well as incentives for new carbon-free capacity.”
In their conclusions the MIT experts recommend that the nuclear industry adopt several approaches to reverse a long-running trend of cost overruns and construction delays. They urge planners and constructors of new plants to 1) complete greater portions of the detailed design before construction commences; 2) to employ a proven supply chain and a skilled workforce; 3) and to incorporate manufacturers and builders into design teams in the early stages of the design process to ensure that plant systems, structures, and components are designed for efficient construction and manufacturing to relevant standards.
It’s also important, the study’s authors emphasize, that a single primary contract manager with proven expertise and a good track record is appointed for managing multiple independent subcontractors in order to avoid disorganization and work at cross purposes. In addition, they say, it is essential to establish “a contracting structure that ensures all contractors have a vested interest in the success of the project, and [to] enable a flexible regulatory environment that can accommodate small, unanticipated changes in design and construction in a timely fashion.”
“Our answer is,” notes Petti, who was the executive director of the MIT study, “that you need to have nuclear in the mix as you decarbonize because (a) it will be extremely difficult to do without, and (b) it would be incredibly expensive without it. If in fact we can reduce the cost,” he stresses, “the market will expand.”