Do we need nuclear energy to save the planet?

Every year, the British oil and gas company (BP) publishes its World Energy Statistical Report, which is the most detailed analysis that exists on the subject. The lastest one, published in 2018, was loaded with data that yield to the conclusion that there is a huge discrepancy between the social and political demand for clear actions against global warming and the real rate of reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Last year, global energy demand grew by 2.9%, and carbon dioxide emissions by 2%, faster than ever since 2010. The use of fossil fuels continues to increase and only one-third of global demand is met by renewables.

Spencer Dale, the chief economist of the BP group, during the presentation of the report, said that  "with energy demand and carbon dioxide emissions growing at their fastest pace in years, the world is on an unsustainable path.”BP CEO Bob Dudley added: "The longer carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, the more difficult and costly the adjustment needed to make net emissions zero. Reducing them requires working on many fronts.”

These phrases sound especially forceful because they come from senior executives of a multinational that has its business in fossil fuels, but like others, is already working on a difficult shift towards clean energy sources. The challenge is tremendous because civilization is synonymous with energy. We can see this through the consumption of developed and less developed areas, Europe consumes almost ten times more than Africa, and the United States consumes more than all of Asia and Oceania combined.

Despite the fact that there are different energy-saving policies in developed countries, consumption is clearly increasing and has no sign of falling. Spain, for example, spent 4% more in the summer of 2018 than in the previous year. The set of sources used for half a century - coal, oil, gas and hydraulic and nuclear energy - today produces around 80% of the world's energy - in Spain, the figure goes up to 88% - and according to specialists, they will not be replaced by new ones in at least a quarter of a century. According to BP's report, in 2018 coal generated 38% of the world's energy, the same amount as when 81 countries signed the Kyoto climate protocol in 1999.

For decades, all research in this field has focused on improving the production and extraction processes of oil and gas, reducing emissions and waste, creating energy storage systems, and looking for lighter materials that are resistant to corrosion and high temperatures. Reducing the cost of the production chain is a priority. In essence, we are working on increasing the efficiency of the energy sources that we have been exploiting for a long time. This scenario has led many politicians - and even environmental groups - to conclude that, in order to combat global warming, we need more nuclear energy, whether we like it or not.

"Even researchers associated with the United Nations, who were unfavourable to this source in the past, now say that all plans to keep the planet's temperature rise below 1.5°C depend on a substantial leap in nuclear use," says British-Canadian science journalist Leigh Phillips. 

The vice-president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Thelma Krug, said last April that "it would be interesting" to establish a global tax on carbon dioxide emissions so that nuclear and renewables become "more competitive".

Fear of nuclear energy is a major obstacle to its use as the main alternative to fossil fuels. 

The Ministry of Economy of that country estimates the cost of replacing nuclear with renewables at 0.01 euros per kWh, which would mean 55,000 million euros in the next decade. 

Some institutions - such as the German Energy Agency and the government-owned Reconstruction Credit Bank - estimate that this cost will be much higher, around 250 billion euros. This is a country that ranks tenth in the world and first in Europe when it comes to the price of electricity.

Given these figures, it is clear that very few countries have the money to switch from nuclear to renewables, not to mention technological capacity. This is one more reason why more and more authoritative voices are changing their position.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an organization founded in 1969 by MIT professors and students, say that "if the current situation continues and more plants are shut down, they will be replaced by natural gas, which will increase CO2 emissions. In fact, it is estimated that if all the world's nuclear plants were shut down, 6% more carbon dioxide would be emitted into the atmosphere. Last year, MIT published a study titled, The future of nuclear energy in a world with carbon restrictions,  which considers that "nuclear energy is key to decarbonizing the economy and fighting climate change; without this technology, the cost of reducing carbon dioxide enough would rise significantly". 

Does this imply giving carte blanche to the construction of nuclear power plants? The UCS believes that before doing so, it is necessary to make sure that they are much safer and cheaper than they are now. They have always been very expensive, and that is one of their weaknesses. "Several U.S. plants have recently shut down because they can't compete with shale gas, a cheap natural gas," Phillips says.

On the other hand, although the management of nuclear waste is managed safely and effectively, its complicated management remains one of the main disadvantages of this energy source. We must not forget that other energy sources considered renewable, such as solar energy, require the use of materials that can be harmful to the environment. For example, photovoltaic panels contain a material called TEDLAR, which is highly toxic.

The first generation of nuclear power plants, which emerged in the middle of the last century, was so expensive to build that half of them were abandoned when it was under construction. Those that came into operation faced enormous additional costs paid by their customers in their electricity bills. It is not surprising that in 1985, Forbes magazine described the U.S. nuclear industry as "the greatest administrative disaster in business history. It has only gotten worse: between 2002 and 2008, estimates of the budget needed to build a new plant rose from $2 billion to $4 billion to $9 billion, according to a 2009 UCS report.

The proof that it is not a profitable business is that it suffers from a shortage of private investment and that it has had to turn to governments for aid, loan guarantees and other forms of support. These subsidies have not been few: according to another UCS report, they have cost U.S. taxpayers more than the market value of the energy they generated. This is one of the reasons given by critics of nuclear energy. They argue that an industry that has existed for more than half a century should already be mature enough to stand alone. The predictions of the defenders of nuclear energy, which are often exaggerated, have not contributed to its good image either.

One thing is clear: the sources of energy capable of helping to combat climate change - in essence, renewables and nuclear energy - are expensive and need strong public subsidies.

Will we be able to reduce their cost? If nuclear power plants become a short-term and urgent response to global warming, will we be able to deploy new, safer and more sustainable plants at the necessary pace in the decades to come?

The so-called Generation IV reactors could be the solution. According to the American research institute Third Way, which analyses policy and energy issues, claims that at the beginning of 2018 alone in the United States there were 75 projects to build these reactors, theoretically safer, more sustainable and efficient. Their main distinguishing feature will be a sustainable closed fuel cycle for the reactor: that is, the spent fuel can be recycled for reuse.

In addition, it will improve the energy efficiency of nuclear material so much that the radioactivity of waste will be shortened from millennia to centuries. Work is being done on different types of these new reactors, with differences in the temperature at which they operate, the type of refrigerant... Most are in the design phase, and among the most advanced is the prototype built by China's National Nuclear Corporation, a very high-temperature reactor (VHTR), which reaches 1,000 ºC and is cooled with helium. It appears to reach 210 megawatts (MW), one-fifth the nominal power of a standard nuclear power plant. According to Chinese sources, it will be connected to the country's electricity grid by the end of this year. Another theoretical model at an advanced stage is the sodium-cooled fast reactor - water is common - with prototypes under development in the United States, Europe and Russia. This is an adaptation of an old concept that emerged in the 1950s from research into aircraft reactors. The American company Terrapower - with Bill Gates as one of its main investors - has created one of these devices, powered by depleted uranium.

In 2015, the company signed an agreement with China to build a 600 MW prototype there that would be active in 2022, but the commercial restrictions imposed by President Trump on the Asian country compromise the project. In any case, it is yet another example of China's interest in nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Another variant of the promising Generation IV is the molten salt reactor. It is the safest, as it can cool down even if the system loses almost all of its energy. The Canadian company Terrestrial Energy wants to build a prototype of 190 MW and the first reactors before 2030, with a cost that - they say - will compete with that of natural gas.

We cannot conclude this review of nuclear reactors in development without talking about the modular reactor or SMR, a reduced version of the current ones. Its compact size makes it possible to install it as if it were a prefabricated house in remote or difficult to access regions or to use it to supply energy to small communities or industrial estates. The American company NuScale Power is about to complete the construction of a 60 MW prototype and has signed an agreement to install twelve of its small reactors in the west of the country, to serve a group of fifty utility companies. The advantage of this approach is that it reduces the very high initial costs by creating reactors that can be built in series rather than made to measure.

What is the current situation?

The vast majority of active plants are Generation II - built up to the decade of the 90s - and very few safer Generation III plants. There are about 450 reactors operating in thirty countries and providing more than 10% of the world's electricity, and another hundred are planned, mostly in Asia and in countries with rapidly increasing electricity demand, such as the United Arab Emirates.

Generation IV reactors are expected to come into service in the next decade, but the traditional lack of success in the forecasts of nuclear energy experts invites scepticism. In the much longer term, we face a great hope: nuclear fusion, in which two nuclei of light atoms, usually hydrogen and its isotopes (deuterium and tritium), join to form another heavier nucleus, which releases energy. It is the same thing that happens inside the Sun, where the fusion of hydrogen nuclei forms helium, which generates energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, which reaches us and we perceive as light and heat. Nuclear fusion has many advantages: heavy hydrogen is cheap, an almost inexhaustible and non-radioactive element; unlike fission reactors, the nuclear reaction is not a chain reaction, and cannot be out of control; and the waste produced has low and short-lived radioactivity. But we still do not know how to build reactors that maintain the enormous pressure and temperature that nuclear fusion requires for the time necessary to make it viable as an energy source, despite the fact that there are many projects underway.

The biggest investment to date in nuclear fusion is the international experimental thermonuclear reactor (ITER), under construction in Cadarache (France) since 2010. Thirty-five countries are involved, but delays and cost overruns are constant. The first experiments should have been carried out in 2018, and now we are talking about 2025; it has already cost 22,000 million euros - some 10,000 million were predicted - and captures many of the public resources devoted to research into energy sources. In fact, there are already those who are asking for it to be cancelled. It is not the only project aimed at bottling a star. Some private companies are also taking part in the race.

Will any of these ideas triumph? The social fear of nuclear energy means that governments do not allow prototypes to be built on their soils: only China and Russia are betting on it. On the other hand, there is a reasonable fear that the expected costs will multiply because it has always happened.

In any case, our energy future has yet to be resolved, and the problems are manifold. Renewable energy needs an efficient energy storage system; nuclear energy needs to produce a little high level of waste. But if we want to reduce CO2 emissions in a relatively short period of time, we will have to use all those energy sources that do not produce it, provided that we have sufficient security.

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