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NOW Atlantic: Smart thinking for a changing world
Nuclear generation, as we know it may be dead, but the future of nuclear is bright
BY DANNY HILL
Innovate or die the saying goes. In Phillip Griffin's obituary for nuclear power, he is correct that nuclear as we know it is dead, at least in the west. The generation II and III reactors running today, mainly pressure water reactors using solid fuel, have served us well. They produce large amounts of power, 24/7, rain or shine, using a small land footprint and producing no CO2.
Many of these were designed and built in the '60s, '70s, and '80's with operating lives of 40-60 years. This means that plants are coming offline, some prematurely. Phillip is correct that timelines and costs for building new plants are too high for a variety of factors.
Sadly, it isn't cheap wind or solar replacing these plants, it's mostly natural gas. You just can't replace a nuclear plant operating at close to 95 per cent of its rated capacity with wind (35 per cent) and solar (10-15 per cent).
Not only are the land and resource requirements huge, there just isn't any cheap storage solutions so they need backup. Cheap, abundant, natural gas does most of the work in most places.
I always hear about how wind and solar prices are 'plummeting' and the technology is only getting better. Why can't nuclear do the same? In fact, it is doing just that.
There are over 50 start-ups in North America developing generation IV reactor designs with $1.3 billion in investments. Some, like NuScale, are developing small modular reactors based on the same technology currently used today and are quite far along the slow path to commercialization. SMR's (Small Modular Reactors) can be built in factories quickly and cost-effectively. They are walk-away safe, requiring no operator intervention in case of an emergency.
Other companies, like Terrestrial Energy (Canadian Company), are developing reactors which run on liquid fuels in the form of salts. MSR's (Molten Salt Reactors) have many advantages over the reactors today which use solid fuel. They run at low pressures, which means they don't need large pressure vessels or containment buildings. The fuel is already liquid, so it can't melt down. They can operate at high temperatures (600°C) allowing them to be used in the carbon-free production of synthetic fuels and water desalination. They say they can be built in 4 years and compete with fossil fuel prices.
Some designs, such as Moltex's Waste Burner Reactor, can even run on the 'waste' of existing plants meaning no new fuel needs to be mined. Best of all they can exist with wind and solar, creating a reliable, carbon-free grid.
Innovate or die. Nuclear as we know it may be dead, but the future of nuclear is bright. All solutions are needed so long live nuclear.
- Danny Hill, Charlottetown, is a teacher and energy and climate enthusiast