Nuclear could see a resurgence as world turns to cleaner energy.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, energy prices have soared to 14-year highs globally. Crude oil prices (WTI) have increased by a third to $119 per barrel, and natural gas prices have more than doubled to $9.66. Russia, the European Union’s largest supplier of natural gas and oil, has been using the surging profits from its energy sales (accounting for half its GDP) to fund its war effort. As a result, governments across the globe have finally begun to reduce their dependence on Russian energy, hoping to eventually force an end to this military conflict. But Russia is one of the three largest energy producers in the world, along with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, accounting for about 10% of daily global production.
How will the world power itself without Russian energy? Climate warriors also are concerned about the environment, and their desire to increasingly substitute renewable, zero-emission energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. While much cleaner, of course, these renewable energy sources are much more expensive and relatively unreliable, given current energy-storage battery technologies. Consequently, nuclear is beginning to re-emerge as a clean, relatively inexpensive and more reliable non-renewable energy resource option across the globe.
Nuclear disaster pushback? The initial knee-jerk reaction to the expanded use of nuclear power is the three high-profile nuclear disasters the world has experienced over the past half-century:
- Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, March 1979) The worst U.S. nuclear disaster, due to a cooling malfunction that caused a reactor core to melt. The clean-up lasted for 14 years and cost $1 billion but fortunately did not result in deaths or longer-term health issues due to radiation exposure.
- Chernobyl (Ukraine, April 1986) Nuclear technicians powered off the reactor’s regulator and removed control rods, which eventually led to an explosion. While there were no deaths, the contamination severely impacted the country’s agricultural and timber industries.
- Fukushima (Japan, March 2011) The most powerful recorded earthquake to strike Japan triggered a tsunami, which tragically killed more than 18,000 people and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The cost of decommissioning it and compensating families of victims totaled an estimated $187 billion.
What are the tradeoffs? There are a variety of advantages and disadvantages for governments to make greater use of nuclear energy, which is a clean, reliable, zero-emission energy source that helps to combat global warming and other climate concerns. But a major downside is the environmental impact of storing radioactive waste. Earlier this year, the EU announced that it would classify nuclear power and natural gas plants as “transitional” green investments, to considerably lower their greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear is the only proven non-fossil fuel alternative that is expandable, using new designs to provide energy supply 24/7, which addresses the reliability concerns surrounding solar and wind power.
In the U.S., National Grid announced it is on track to eliminate carbon from its electric system. California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom had initially planned to close the state’s last operational nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon, but now plans on keeping it open as it is possible to construct smaller nuclear plants that would assist with environmental and safety matters. This is important because California has long served as an environmental touchstone for other states.
In addition, new fissile materials, such as thorium, provide great potential for the nuclear industry. It is a low-cost, natural and abundant element that produces less waste when fueling a nuclear chain reaction.
The future is electric There are about two million electric vehicles (EV’s) currently on the road in the U.S. While this market share is relatively small, at less than 1% (compared with 290 million gas-powered cars), we have no doubt that its pace of growth will far outstrip that of gas-powered cars in coming years. As EV adoption becomes more popular and widespread, nuclear energy will become increasingly more important as an alternative for generating electricity for recharging. Industry experts believe that because nuclear plants generate massive amounts of reliable, emissions-free power and operate at night when EV’s are often charging, they will become an important part of our charging infrastructure and keep the vehicles from being powered by traditional fossil-fuel energy sources.
Is smaller really better? In Germany, government officials have concluded that it is far too expensive to keep their last three remaining nuclear power generators working past the end of this year. But Britain and France say they intend to invest in smaller nuclear reactors that can be manufactured in mass quantities to minimize costs. However, construction for these smaller reactors is taking longer than expected. In Flamanville, France, for example, construction is currently running a decade behind schedule and is $13 billion over budget. Despite this, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced earlier this year that the country will produce six mammoth next-generation pressurized water reactors at current nuclear sites around France, starting in 2028.
While nuclear power does not produce carbon emissions, environmental groups focus on the radioactive waste, which requires thousands of years of safe storage. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada was built in 1987 to store high-level radioactive and spent nuclear fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the country’s total nuclear waste covers a football field, 10 yards high.
There is great potential in employing nuclear energy to generate the electricity we need with less global warming. But we must navigate important tradeoffs, starting with improvements in waste disposal and implementation of new technology to avoid disasters.
Research assistance provided by Federated Hermes summer intern Julian Oliveros.