Nuclear Renaissance: Too Late or Just in Time?

Policymakers, C-Suite holders, multinational companies, and countries are all working towards a future in which they abandon the non-renewable energy sources that emit huge amounts of CO2, notwithstanding the caution that must be taken when approaching this topic. However, this fight against climate change is not sustainable if it does not generate enough shareholder value or furthers a budget deficit for the ruling government seeking re-election.

The world already has a solution. We have an already proven and implementable efficient next best energy source: Nuclear. For years, whenever people heard “Nuclear Power Plant ” they assumed ticking time bombs capable of mass destruction, largely due to prior incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Due to its negative perception, policy makers at times have not allocated adequate resources towards nuclear power plants for political and approval-rating reasons. Indirectly, this has also caused privately owned entities not to invest as much as they might want to in an energy source like that of Nuclear.

Origins

From its conceptualization in the early 1950s to today, commercial nuclear power stations now account for roughly 10% of the globe’s electricity. Moreover, established scientific literature suggests that nuclear energy is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power, just behind hydropower, accounting for roughly 25% of the globe’s low-carbon electricity. 

As for today’s nuclear capacity, absolute provision of the energy sources is dominated by the likes of the USA and China whilst global players like France and Belgium, where nuclear energy accounts for roughly 70% and 50% of the nation’s electricity, respectively, could arguably be making more proportionate strides towards the transition to clean energy. 

But what is nuclear energy and how is it derived?

Nuclear energy is derived from a process of nuclear fission that releases the energy present in the core (nucleus) of an atom. Put simply, there is a vast amount of energy to be harnessed, due to the dense nature of atoms’ nuclei. As aforementioned, this energy can be used to create electricity, but it must first be released from the atom in the process of nuclear fission at nuclear reactors, or power plants, that control these processes. 

Undeniable Advantages

For starters, Nuclear Energy is a zero-emissions clean energy source. Through nuclear fission, or the process of splitting the nuclei of uranium atoms, heat is released which is then used to create steam that spins a turbine in the absence of the harmful byproducts produced by fossil fuels such as sulfur oxide and carbon dioxide. 

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the USA alone avoided more than 471 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020— equivalent to dispatching roughly 100 million suburban vehicles off the road. 

Furthermore, Nuclear Energy yields a considerably smaller carbon footprint relative to other low-carbon power sources. Put simply, nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source, thus making it one of the more economically desirable energy solutions in terms of output per constraining factor: electricity (MW) per unit of land (square miles). 

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a typical 1,000 MW nuclear facility in the USA needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate. Comparatively, 1,000 MW would entail over 3,000,000 solar panels or over 430 wind turbines, requiring roughly 75 and 360 times more space, respectively. 

The Renaissance’s Impediment

The previously mentioned benefits to nuclear energy seem undisputed across scientific literature, but this once again begs the question: Why the controversy and delays?

It is a common belief that a plan concocted by the US and its Western allies could materialize and deliver on the prospect of a Nuclear Renaissance that works to provide emissions-free power to help in the achievement of the Paris Agreement Climate Accords targets. As behemoth projects taken on by the USA and UK look to take the industry, delays and cost overruns are beginning to highlight the complexity and risks pertinent to large-scale nuclear projects. 

The broader implications of the delays and cost overruns are present in foreign powers’ commitment to the technologies and unstable proof of the energy source’s effective contribution to long-term climate goals due to the capital-intensive and long lead times associated with sourcing uranium and building reactors. 

From technical complexity and shortages of qualified staff to strict regulation and supply-chain disruptions, the challenges the industry and state forces face are not to be taken lightly. Strict western regulations coupled with differences in market structures and legal processes contribute to the longer lead-time associated with powers like the USA relative to China. 

Unless these challenges are to be addressed, the Nuclear Renaissance, might be just another great idea that never came to be. 

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Bibliography:

  1. WNA. “Nuclear Power in the World Today.” World Nuclear Association (WNA), Nov. 2023, world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-power-in-the-world-today.aspx#:~:text=Mexico%20has%20two%20operable%20nuclear,18.2%20%25%20of%20the%20country’s%20electricity.
  2. Costa, Hilary, and Erin Sprout. “Nuclear Energy.” National Geographic, 19 Oct. 2023, education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/nuclear-energy/. 
  3. ONA. “3 Reasons Why Nuclear Is Clean and Sustainable.” Office of Nuclear Energy, June 2022, www.energy.gov/ne/articles/3-reasons-why-nuclear-clean-and-sustainable. 
  4. Smyth, Jamie. “The Clock Is Ticking on the Nuclear Renaissance.” The Clock Is Ticking on the Nuclear Renaissance, 6 Feb. 2024, www.ft.com/content/3777fb7f-4e7c-4ced-91b9-8de12a0cd428. 
Bora Tenargun
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Alejandro Martinez

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