Advanced nuclear reactors could be the key to reducing emissions

In Isaac Asimov’s SF novel Foundation, the collapse of previously civilised planets into barbarism is exemplified by their reversion from nuclear energy to oil and coal. But Foundation was published in 1951: when nuclear was the clean, limitless power of the future. Over the ensuing decades, nuclear energy quickly became the bête noir of the environmental movement. But as even the promoters of climate hysteria begin – however slowly and grudgingly – to admit that their beloved “renewables” just aren’t up to the task of powering a modern, industrialised society, the potential of nuclear power is once again being considered.

Over the last several years, there has been growing recognition that nuclear energy is an important climate mitigation technology…Building new nuclear plants, however, has been a different story.

But the prospect of nuclear stepping up to meet the twin demands of lowering carbon dioxide emissions while powering a modern society has been stymied by more than environmental alarmism. Nuclear has, to put it mildly, a bad reputation – despite being the statistically safest method of generating power available. More than that, though, nuclear plants are expensive, complicated and take a long time to build. Climate activists who have been warning for decades that “we have only a few years to act” argue that there is no time to build new nuclear plants and still “save the planet”.

As the prospects for a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. based on conventional nuclear technology have dimmed, many nuclear advocates have pinned their hopes on advanced reactors that are smaller and utilize different technologies…Many advanced reactors are already moving toward commercialization, and on much faster timelines and with much less government support than many thought possible.

These new generation, advanced reactors are designed to be small, safe and easier built. Their envisaged usages include as “on site” generators for remote mining operations or off-grid communities.

Almost all of the advanced reactors under development in the U.S. are far smaller than traditional LWRs [Light Water Reactors] — from 10 to 100 times smaller in both electricity output and physical footprint. Smaller sizes help reduce total funding necessary for the first build, but they can also simplify the engineering, making the reactor safer and easier to model, speeding licensing and commercialization.

Their size also makes advanced reactors more attractive to utilities. Funding a 2-megawatt reactor, for example, is feasible for a much broader range of utilities than a 1,000-megawatt power plant.

And it’s not just the reactor technology itself that could hasten commercialization. Improvements in computing over the last few decades have made it cheaper, faster and easier to model internal workings of new nuclear reactor designs and validate their functionality…All of this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about what it would take to commercialize advanced reactors…

Ultimately, advanced nuclear will succeed or fail based upon whether developers are able to find initial markets, develop technologies that meet the needs of modern utilities and other users, and scale their operations and supply chains fast enough to accelerate technological learning and cost reductions.

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But nuclear energy is not a beast to be treated lightly. While nuclear’s safety record, disasters like Chernobyl notwithstanding, is remarkable, it remains a technology that has certain inherent risks.

But then, spaceships are inherently dangerous too. As science fiction writers have long realised, even a small spaceship has the potential to be a devastating kinetic weapon. A two-tonne object dropped from orbit will impact the Earth with the force of a small atomic bomb.

Yet private space exploration is advancing rapidly, with few of the worries that accompany the prospect of small-scale, advanced nuclear. If large-scale deployment of small, advanced reactors is accompanied by the promised advances in safety, there is no reason that emissions reduction should have to rely on expensive, unreliable “renewables”.

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