A generation of nuclear reactors is nearing the end of its intended life cycle, but in a world where decarbonization is becoming increasingly important, nuclear energy still has an important role to play. There’s reason to be excited on that front, because as Laura Scheele writes for the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers are developing safer, smaller, and cheaper nuclear power technologies:
The current nuclear reactor fleet is the low-carbon workhorse of the electricity world. In 2014, nuclear power generated about 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the United States. Today’s light-water reactor designs provide a safe, effective and affordable bridge to new nuclear reactor technologies — promising increased flexibility and the ability to match electricity generation with demand.
First across that bridge may be small modular reactors (SMRs), which vary in size from 50 to 300 megawatts (about one-fourth the size of current reactors). With lower initial capital investments and shorter construction timelines than traditional-sized reactors, SMRs are progressing toward commercialization. They could replace aging, carbon-emitting coal power plants, and their smaller size provides more flexibility in where they can be located.
Tomorrow’s fission reactors will broaden our energy options by using innovative fuels and, potentially, alternative coolants such as high-temperature gas and liquid metal or molten salt instead of water. Since many advanced reactor designs operate at a higher temperature than light-water reactors, they are ideally suited to replace fossil fuels for industrial applications that require high temperature process heat (such as oil refining and biofuel production) with nuclear-generated heat at an enormous savings in carbon emissions.
Nuclear innovation doesn’t stop at fission. Companies large and small, along with labs such asPrinceton Plasma Physics Laboratory are studying nuclear fusion — the energy source of the sun and stars — in the hopes of someday harnessing fusion for power on Earth.
Nuclear power doesn’t get much love from greens, but it’s the most important zero-carbon source of baseload power around. While wind and solar energy struggle with intermittency issues, nuclear plants can supply grids power 24/7, making them an absolutely vital component of any future carbonless energy mix.
But for many people nuclear’s risks overshadow its promise, with high profile accidents like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, or more recently the Fukushima disaster, occupying a special place in their imagination. Like any energy source (yes, that includes renewables) nuclear power has potential hazards, but those can be mitigated.
There’s a raft of exciting, more modern nuclear technologies on the horizon, and it’s clear that the U.S. Department of Energy is excited by their potential. Now, if only environmentalists could open their eyes to nuclear’s imminent possibilities…