Growing popularity could be undone by accident

21 July 2022, Bavaria, Essenbach: Water vapor rises behind the sunflowers of the cooling system of the nuclear power plant (NPP) Isar 2.

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Nuclear energy is at an inflection point. Early exuberance about its potential was undermined by a series of devastating and dangerous accidents: Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979; Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986; and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan in 2011.

But today, thanks to new technologies and the increasingly urgent need to combat climate change, nuclear energy has a second chance to become an important part of the global energy network. That’s because nuclear power generation creates none of the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

At a roundtable at the United Nations on Tuesday, an array of nuclear energy leaders from around the world came together to discuss the scope of this renaissance and why it is so essential for the industry to work together to ensure that benchmark security measures are adopted everywhere.

A nuclear accident anywhere has the potential to disrupt the biggest momentum the nuclear industry has seen in decades.

$1 trillion in global demand expected

US Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said nuclear power accounts for 20% of the United States’ baseload electricity and 50% of its carbon-free electricity. “And that’s just the fleet we have today without the other additions that we hope to see.”

Future nuclear reactors and power plants will almost certainly use different technology than the current norm, as US labs and private companies fund research into reactors that are more efficient, cheaper to build and generate less waste. Granholm mentioned, as an example, the advanced nuclear reactor that TerraPower, Bill Gates’ nuclear innovation company, is installing in a former coal town in Wyoming.

Demand for advanced nuclear reactors will be around $1 trillion worldwide, Granholm said, according to an estimate from the Department of Energy. That includes the jobs needed to build those reactors and all the associated supply chains that will need to ramp up to support the industry, Granholm said.

“Ultimately, delivering advanced nuclear energy is a priority for us,” Granholm said. “Of course, these technologies must all begin and end with nuclear safety and security.”

The change in sentiment around nuclear energy has happened quite quickly, said Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A photograph shows dogs walking past a ferris wheel in the background in the ghost town of Pripyat near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on May 29, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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“A few years ago, nuclear was not present, and perhaps not even welcome” at the annual conferences of the COP, which stands for Conference of the Parties and provides an opportunity for world leaders to discuss climate change . “The IAEA has moved quite quickly from an intruder to a much-appreciated participant in this dialogue where nuclear has a place.”

The next COP conference will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November, followed by another in Dubai Expo City in the United Arab Emirates. The IAEA plans to participate in both conferences.

“Just the fact that we’re talking about COP with nuclear in Egypt and the Gulf, in itself tells you a lot about what’s going on and how we’re changing and the possibilities we have that could have been almost unpredictable there. just a few years old,” Grossi said.

Safety first

But if nuclear is to continue to be a part of those climate change conferences and conversations, proponents stress that the entire international community must work together to adhere to strict safety and non-proliferation standards.

“No one buys a car today if it has an accident every day. Safety and security… are therefore the basis for a successful deployment of nuclear energy,” Hamad Al said on Tuesday. Kaabi, representative of the United Arab Emirates to the IAEA. .

“The question of how the nuclear industry operates and is viewed globally, any accident anywhere is an accident everywhere,” Al Kaabi said.

The UAE has three nuclear reactors in operation and a fourth reactor in the final stages of commissioning, Al Kaabi said. But building nuclear power plants takes time, and the process in the UAE began about 13 years ago.

Vietnam has considered nuclear power for decades, according to the World Nuclear Association, an international trade group. The country announced a plan to build a nuclear power plant in 2006, but put those plans on hold in 2016, partly because of the expense. Then, in March, Vietnam released an official draft energy proposal that includes small modular nuclear reactors.

Both the United States and the IAEA have helped guide Vietnam in its efforts to include nuclear power in its national energy plan, Ha Kim Ngoc, deputy foreign minister, said at the event. tuesday. The reactors are an attractive option for the relatively small country, Ngoc said.

South Africa has two reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association, and now other countries in Africa are interested in deploying nuclear power.

“Most of the countries in Africa where I come from have very small grids,” said CEO Collins Juma of Kenya’s Nuclear Power and Energy Agency. Advanced nuclear reactor designs, especially small modular reactors, are intriguing, but Juma hinted that paying for such reactors could be difficult. “I’m not sure of the cost, but we’ll discuss that in other forums.”

As Africa strives to decarbonize, nuclear is an essential corollary to the base load of wind, solar and geothermal on the continent. But bringing nuclear power to Africa will require independent and strong regulation to convince people that it is safe.

“Nuclear is a very emotional topic,” Juma said. And this is the one where “everyone is an expert” and thinks they know it’s dangerous. “We have to be very careful when we make a plan for nuclear power. And the public, especially the public, has to have confidence” that the nuclear power plant is safe, he said.

Juma said he was seeking advice from major nuclear powers and organizations. “When you copy, you only copy the best, you don’t copy the worst,” he said.

For countries interested in building nuclear reactors, the IAEA has produced a veritable guide, “Milestones in the Development of a National Infrastructure for Nuclear Energy”. It’s a good starting point for countries, Grossi said.

“The moment is grave, and we know this is a red alert for planet Earth,” Grossi said. “We said it, but nuclear is not for the few, nuclear can be for the many.”

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