What is the Future of Nuclear Energy?

What is the Future of Nuclear Energy?

By Energy CIO Insights | Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest forms of energies, but it is facing challenges and the future of nuclear power is uncertain.

Fremont, CA: Nuclear power is losing its grip in the energy sector. According to the International Energy Agency, the contribution of nuclear energy in electricity generation has dropped from 18 percent in the mid-1990s to 10 percent today. Further, the agency expects the contribution from 10 percent to five percent by 2040 unless the governments around the world take measures as nuclear reactors can generate energy with low greenhouse gas emissions. The IEA says, to meet the world’s energy needs and curb climate change, low carbon electricity generation must increase from the current 36 percent to 85 percent by 2040.

The global energy transition will be smoother with increased contribution from nuclear power. Alongside renewables, nuclear power can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals. However, hurdles such as aging reactors, high costs to build new ones, the amount of nuclear energy needed in the world’s energy mix, and safety concerns exist.

France is the most nuclear dependent country with 70 percent of electricity generated from reactors. However, the US leads with 98 power plants capable of producing 105 GW. France has 58 reactors and generates 66 GW of electricity. The reactors in countries like the US, the European Union, and Russia are old and nearing their designed lifetimes of 40 years. According to IEA analysts, building new nuclear power plants based on old designs is highly unlikely in developed economies. Old models are conventional, require long construction times, and are expensive to build. On top of that, the electricity marketplace in the US is very competitive as nuclear power has to compete with cheaper alternatives such as natural gas, wind, and solar.

The future of the nuclear industry depends on the new generation of smaller and modular reactors that generates less than 300 MW each. These power plants are still under development. The IEA estimates the cost for maintaining a nuclear reactor for an additional 10-20 years—as per their designed lifetime—would be 500 million to 1 billion USD per GW. IEA says it is the same amount as manufacturing a renewable energy system of the same size. Still, it would effectively generate 1 GW of new, low-carbon electricity without the delay of setting up a new solar or wind farm.           

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of the US has extended the operating licenses of 90 operating reactors out of 98 from 40 to 60 years. Now, the industry is planning to renew the reactors for up to 80 years. As per IEA reports, other countries are planning to extend the lifetime of existing reactors for a shorter period.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which is a nonprofit organization, terms these extensions as a ‘nuclear power dilemma.’ The organization has always been a nuclear industry critic. Rachel Cleetus, the UCS’s climate and energy policy director, said, “We are aware of the climate change and the steps required to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.” The UCS’s solution to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to introduce a low-carbon electricity standard for all energy sources. The UCS believes that by taking specific measures, the construction and development of low-carbon energy facilities and technologies would be bolstered.         

The UCS promotes the temporary funding for the extension of some plants, safety requirements, conditioned on rate protection for consumers, and greater investments in renewables and energy efficiency.  According to the scenarios and mathematical models run by UCS, nuclear power will contribute at most 16 percent of the world’s electricity generation by 2050, even with financial support. The debates about the power plants' costs, operating lifetimes, safety and risks of nuclear reactors, and radioactivity has made nuclear power unpopular in the US, Germany, Japan, and some other countries as well. The future of nuclear power will trigger the world’s need for energy security and impact climate change.

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