Energy Transition

Small reactors, big ambitions, is this the future of nuclear energy? 

This image shows a nuclear plant, illustrating discussions about the future of nuclear energy

What does the future of nuclear energy look like? Image: Photo by Nicolas HIPPERT on Unsplash

Stefano Buono
Founder and CEO, newcleo
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Energy Transition

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  • We are experiencing a global energy crisis that surpasses the oil crisis of the 1970s.
  • Nuclear energy is now often cited as the way to reduce dependence on external energy sources.
  • Do the latest innovations in nuclear energy mean that this energy source could become the beacon of hope for a cleaner, sustainable and more stable world?

The last few years taught us some valuable lessons that we, as a society, ignored for too long. We are living through the first global energy crisis, as described by Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, and it's even worse than the oil crisis of the 1970s.

A reliable, affordable supply of energy is now widely recognised as vital for our everyday life and its relevance extends way beyond the lights we switch on in our homes at night. The consequences of poor planning and a lack of independence from external forces have put significant strain on the stability and competitiveness of Western economies and pushed millions of people below the poverty line.

Particularly relevant to conversations held this week at COP27 is the challenge the focus on today’s crisis of supply presents to the delivery of the energy transition, and the need to phase out dependence on fossil fuels – especially coal – across all sectors.

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How is the World Economic Forum facilitating the transition to clean energy?

The promise of nuclear

Held back by an unjustified reputation, nuclear power inherently addresses many of these concerns. It can provide a significant contribution to security of supply and independence with a vastly reduced environmental impact.

Nuclear power plants are well known for their reliability, as their power output doesn’t rely on any external factors and maintenance periods can be scheduled well in advance – resulting in a capacity factor of at least 90%.

Yet, despite its contribution to clean energy sources – being second only to hydropower, nuclear provides around 4% of global primary energy, 10% of global and 25% of the EU’s electricity - fission is surrounded by misinformation, invariably disproven by facts and figures.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General, recently wrote on Agenda about the future of installed nuclear capacity as a response to this crisis. I agree with his take and am sure the industry is ready to step up its delivery capacity.

It is clear that nuclear is experiencing a renaissance. There are 32 operational nuclear countries looking at asset extension or building new nuclear – and 30 are considering its introduction.

Have you read?

Are SMRs and Gen-IV the future of nuclear energy?

Over the past two decades, nuclear energy has been out of political fashion in much of the world. But while research, development and deployment have been set back to the detriment of today’s global energy security, the industry never really stopped working and nuclear energy has taken two evolutionary paths.

Firstly, the Small Modular Reactor concept was born with the aim of exploiting standardisation and modularisation to reduce costs and financial risk by simplifying commercial deployment and delivering the many benefits of industrialisation. Secondly, in the last two decades, designers have explored new reactor concepts. Known as Generation IV, they can provide more sustainable, clean, safe, long-term energy generation and may well be the future of nuclear energy.

At newcleo we believe in the superiority of Lead-cooled Fast Reactors (LFR), as they can provide all that, but with a substantial improvement to the nuclear fuel cycle by using existing and future nuclear waste as fuel. Nuclear reactors produce very limited volumes of waste in proportion to the amount of energy produced. IAEA studies show that assuming that nuclear waste is not reprocessed at all, 30 tons of high-level solid-packed waste is produced annually by a 1GWe reactor. By (horrifying) comparison, 300,000 tons of ash are produced by an equivalent 1GWe coal plant

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Are nuclear by-products really waste?

The short answer is no. Traditionally, spent fuel was disposed of in a deep geological repository. Today, it is possible to reprocess this spent fuel and ultimately dispose of waste with a significantly short half-life.

As an example, the French nuclear industry reprocesses and partially recycles spent fuel left behind from the old generation nuclear reactors. Fast reactors show great flexibility in terms of usage of this fuel and can complement the current commercial (thermal) reactors, enhancing environmental and financial sustainability and further reducing the environmental footprint of nuclear.

2ATK39F Fragment fuel uranium rod element of nuclear reactor
Fragment fuel uranium rod element of nuclear reactor Image: Alamy Stock Photo

The benefits of Lead-cooled Fast Reactors

newcleo is committed to significant investment in MOX manufacturing facilities to prepare fuel for our Lead-cooled Fast Reactors (LFRs). This is because it is possible to mine absolutely zero new uranium, whilst also eliminating the world’s existing plutonium stockpile, when we implement this waste-to-energy strategy. With MOX in LFRs, we can burn up to 1.5 tons/year with a 4GWe installed capacity.

In this scenario, nuclear countries would boost their energy independence by using up fuel that is already available to them, removing the need to store large volumes of waste materials and cutting the waste’s radioactive half-life from thousands of years to several decades. We calculated that with our fuel and reactors, only 233 grams of fuel are required to satisfy the lifetime electricity needs of a human being.

The life-cycle cost advantage doesn’t rely only on the fuel cycle. The careful design process aims at building a machine that would further reduce required building materials, ultimately having a positive impact on indirect emissions and the environmental footprint from a construction perspective.

We are working to engineer the possibilities physics offers us and we feel a strong sense of urgency to deliver our projects on time and within budget, to help meet much-needed objectives for decarbonisation and reliable clean energy production.

Eighty years after the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction achieved by Enrico Fermi, witnessing the commitment and effort private and public companies are putting into the new nuclear is not only reinvigorating for those of us who believe in nuclear, but also a true beacon of hope for a cleaner, sustainable and more stable world.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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