Nuclear Fission and Fusion’s roles in the future Energy Economy

By: Jame Huang

Climate change will prove to be one of the most destructive state of affairs that the world will have to face or endure in the coming decades. The political, socio-economic, and special interest group opposition will continue to play major roles in impeding the structured and strategic solutions to mitigate GHG emissions. One such solution is restricting the most impactful to the associated warming of the atmosphere, which is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. In order to successfully cut coal-based electric generation from the power sector, something must be able to fill the gap and meet the demands of the end users. This is where nuclear fission power can be more integrated into our policies to act as a conduit bridge fuel for baseload generation.

There is a global stigma associated with nuclear power, especially after the meltdowns of high profile nuclear power plants such as the ones in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Nuclear energy facilities are primary examples of stigmatized technologies embroiled in controversy and public opposition for their potential harm to the local and foreign communities and the proliferation of components to produce nuclear weapons [1]. Nuclear power has declined in popularity all around the world, the public perceives it as a very risky technology and the nuclear industry has tried several strategies and approaches to break down the resistance to nuclear power but they have not worked out as well as they would’ve hoped [2]. In addition to possible unfavorable public responses to the creation of a nuclear power plant, it can take up to 5 years to be granted permission to undergo construction [3], which is another cogent reason for investors not to pursue nuclear baseload. Although traditional nuclear power faces economic and public resistance, it may be the only practical and realistic way to replace baseload generation from coal.

Even the existing nuclear power plants in the US today are struggling to stay operational due to economic challenges. Cheap natural gas price signals have driven future day ahead and real time power prices lower than a nuclear power plant’s operating costs and prevents a nuclear power plant to break even; if this economic trend continues, owners of these nuclear facilities will decide to ultimately mothball their plants and retire their fleet [4]. The potential loss of these nuclear plants will likely result in more fossil fuel power plants to fill the gap such as natural gas and/or coal, which will speed up the effects of climate change.

There are numerous reasons to not construct nuclear power plants such as the unfavorable economics, regulations, politics, safety, community opposition, and environmental opposition; but one more significant reason why we should – we are already committed to some level of warming that will be felt globally [5]. The baseload generating potential of nuclear power through fission will produce a dependable source of electricity and help suppress wholesale prices; since it is difficult to “turn off” a reactor, nuclear power plants bid into the day ahead markets as a price taker. The power generated from nuclear facilities are offered up at the least cost because once they turn on, they stay on; this allows nuclear power to take a large chunk of the day-ahead/real-time demand and also be one of the cheapest options for ratepayers to pay [6]. With climate change distress on our doorstep, world leaders must realistically look towards decisions that can do a large positive impact and can be initiated quickly. We have the technology and the necessity to offset coal generation. Nuclear power aligns itself as a carbon-free, base load, and price stabilizing fuel – Nuclear power should be considered by more nations as an option to combat climate change.

With the potential construction of these nuclear facilities, innovative ideas will naturally sprout up as well in the arenas of nuclear power as more and more nuclear plants come online. The traditional nuclear fuel we know of such as plutonium and uranium will also eventually be depleted [7]. One interesting development is the rediscovery of using Thorium as a fuel in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR). The use of thorium lost out to uranium back in the early 50’s because LFTRs did not produce enough plutonium required to feed the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR [8]. There is an increasingly popular vision of the future that utilizes liquid-fuel reactors to play a central role in the energy economy and taking advantage of the relatively abundant thorium raw materials instead of uranium. It is inherently safe and generates an insignificant amount of waste [9].

Nuclear fusion may also be on the horizon and will result in an age of cheap and clean energy for the Earth. It would involve heating a plasma of hydrogen isotopes so that they would fuse together into helium; this process will result in the release of a significant amount of energy which can theoretically be harnessed to turn turbines and generate electricity. Many scientists see nuclear fusion as the holy grail for producing cheap carbon free energy; but achieving this best case scenario is very difficult. Fusion reactions requires temperatures to be 10 times as hot as the core of the sun and decades of experiments have yet to produce a self-sustaining reaction – known as “burning plasma” – that are capable to generate the energy required to attain such high temperatures. The International Thermonuclear Experimental reactor (ITER) believes the first step in burning plasma will be achieved in 2025, China is heavily contributing to nuclear fusion research and will be creating their own reactor known as the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor, which will be bigger than ITER and is expected to be operational in 2030 [10]. Continued collaboration will yield more productivity and encourage other nations to look towards these technologies for their own future policies. Until such a time, world leaders can help by quelling the social stigma associated with all things nuclear.

[1] Kasperson, Roger E., Kasperson, Jeanne X. The Social Amplification and Attenuation of Risk. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Volume 545, Challenges in Risk Assessment and Risk Management (May 1996) pp. 95-105. http://www.wdtb.noaa.gov/courses/woc/core/crisis-comms-sm/risk-assess/presentation_content/external_files/Social%20Amplification%20of%20Risk_1996.pdf

[2] Ramana, M.V. Nuclear Power and the Public. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. August 2011. http://thebulletin.org/nuclear-power-and-public

[3] Licensing New Nuclear Power Plants. October 2016. http://www.nei.org/Master-Document-Folder/Backgrounders/Fact-Sheets/Licensing-New-Nuclear-Power-Plants

[4] Roston, Eric. Why Nuclear Power is All but Dead in the U.S. Bloomberg. April 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-15/soon-it-may-be-easier-to-build-a-nuclear-plant-in-iran-than-in-the-u-s-

[5] Responding to Climate Change. Global Climate Change. NASA. http://climate.nasa.gov/solutions/adaptation-mitigation/

[6] Economic Challenges of Nuclear Plants in Competitive Power Markets. March 2016. Harvard Electricity Policy Group. https://www.hks.harvard.edu/hepg/Papers/2016/March%202016/Mohl%20Presentation.pdf

[7] Zyga, Lisa. Why Nuclear Power will never supply the world’s energy needs. Phys.org. (May 2011) http://phys.org/news/2011-05-nuclear-power-world-energy.html

[8] Follows, Mike. Is thorium the perfect fuel? Royal Society of Chemistry. May 2014. http://www.rsc.org/eic/2014/05/liquid-fluoride-thorium-nuclear-reactor

[9] Hargraves, Robert. Moir, Ralph. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors: An old idea in nuclear power gets reexamined. American Scientists. Vol. 98, No. 4 (August 2010) pp. 304-313. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27859537?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[10] Pearce, Fred. China spends big on nuclear fusion as French plan falls behind. New Scientist. July 2015. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27944-china-spends-big-on-nuclear-fusion-as-french-project-falls-behind/

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