Nuclear Power: clean tech and clever designs

“If you or I were to use nuclear energy for our lifetime, the amount of high-level waste would fit into a teacup. Obviously, those teacups will add up, and they’re radioactive…but it’s a manageable amount of material, which is true for both advanced reactors and traditional ones.”
~ Jacopo Buongiorno, Professor of Nuclear Engineering

Splitting the atom was one of the greatest technological achievements of the early 20th century. The discovery allowed us to release a vast amount of energy, generating heat and power without the harmful gases exuded by fossil fuels.

But despite this climate-friendly advancement – and despite the fact there are over 400 active nuclear power plants in the world – people are obsessed by the three that were troublesome, namely: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and more recently Fukushima. From these scenarios, the world has drawn the narrow conclusion that nuclear power plants are dangerous, despite the fact that hundreds work perfectly safely.

Innovation and Invention

Apart from our electricity requirements, almost everything we need is made in an industrial facility, and these facilities need heat. This presents a vast market for nuclear innovation to compete in bringing about energy solutions.

Molten Salt Reactors
For several reasons, and particularly because of perception, traditional reactors need to change in scope and design. Currently, reactors can’t exceed 570 degrees Fahrenheit or the coolant will begin to boil off too quickly, creating major safety risks; when that happens solid fuel melts and seeps out of its containment area, hence the term “meltdown”.

However, this is not a problem for Molten Salt Reactors, which can reach temperatures of over 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Most molten salt reactors don’t use solid fuel at all. Instead, their fuel is dissolved in the salt, which removes the meltdown risk entirely. Alternatively, there are high-temperature Gas reactors, which use fuel balls individually coated with protective shields, and which can reach over 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit.

Small Modular Reactor (SMR)
One of the major recent advances in nuclear energy has been the development of smaller reactors. While the 20th century nuclear power stations were huge affairs generating power for millions of homes – and costing time and money to build, the Small Modular Reactor will generate a fraction of the energy, at a fraction of the cost. Existing nuclear reactors generate 500 megawatts to 1 gigawatt of electricity. SMRs generate less than 300 megawatts.

The beauty of smaller reactors is that they’re more flexible than their predecessors. A single small reactor could suit projects with lower energy needs, and multiple small reactors can be added to projects with higher energy needs, rather like adding coaches to a train. A variety of size options opens the door to wider applications for nuclear in a way previously impossible. The advanced Small Modular Reactor (SMR) sports a safety cooling system that is a game-changer, essentially making the reactor walk-away safe—without any action required by the operator to safely shut the reactor down.

Benefits of nuclear in the long run

• Nuclear is a clean energy source, with zero carbon emission. It generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy. The heat released by fission creates steam, which in turn spins a turbine to generate electricity. There are no harmful by-products as is the case with fossil fuels.
• The land footprint of nuclear energy is small, producing more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source. A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate, while wind farms require over 300 times that space, and solar farms over 70 times the space, to produce the same amount of power. Renewables have their place, but nuclear still remains the cleanest, most powerful solution to the energy threat facing mankind.
• Nuclear power plants have much higher reliability than renewable energy sources. Renewables are weather dependent and therefore at best intermittent. The sun doesn’t always shine, nor the wind always blow, nor rain necessarily arrive to fuel the turbines of a dam.
• Nuclear fuel is extremely dense, and therefore the amount of used nuclear fuel is not as large as many detractors like to make out. This waste can also be reprocessed and recycled. In fact, some advanced reactors are currently being designed to operate on used fuel.
• Nuclear power releases less radiation into the environment than any other major energy source. The worst offender is coal, a mineral of the earth’s crust that contains a substantial volume of radioactive elements, uranium and thorium. Burning coal also produces radioactive waste called fly ash. So much coal is burned in the world, and so much fly ash produced as a result, that coal is actually the greater source of radioactive releases into the environment.
• Contrary to popular belief, nuclear power plants are relatively safe, producing far less air pollution which is so damaging to people. Many scientists and experts believe nuclear power is necessary to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, arguing that clean, reliable electricity produced in nuclear plants needs to be part of the solution.

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