Opinion: Nuclear Energy as a Transition to Renewable Energy
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
Should there be a role for nuclear energy in a world transitioning towards renewable energy? Here is the opinion piece written by Jean-Pierre Sursock Ph.D. '78. In short, Jean-Pierre argues that, until renewable energy is reliable, nuclear energy has a role to play in the production of electric supply, along with other clean energies such as hydropower.
By Jean-Pierre Sursock Ph.D. ’78
Renewable energy is steadily gaining ground. Its market share has jumped from 23% in 2015 up to 30% expected in 2022 (International Energy Agency data). Once considered expensive and inefficient, renewable production costs have dropped dramatically in the last ten years (more than a factor of 2 for Photovoltaic solar).
While reliable analyses of production cost are hard to find, most conclude that both wind and solar energies are now competitive with other sources of electric production in an increasing number of geographical regions. There is no doubt that this downward trend will continue for the foreseeable future. So, what possible role for nuclear energy in a world of rising dominance of renewable energy?
In order to answer this question we need to step back a little. One of the most difficult challenges of electric energy is its inability to be stored in large quantities. It must be consumed as soon as it is produced. Electric grid dispatchers are constantly balancing changes in power demand with corresponding changes in supply. Wind and solar depend on local and variable weather conditions that are largely unpredictable and uncontrollable. These conditions can significantly affect the instantaneous output of these installations.
In recent years the challenge has been compounded by the rise of distributed supply. These include small production units such as small wind farms or rooftop solar panels that are connected to the grid and provide power intermittently. This additional power (or power deficit) must also, of course, be matched by corresponding changes in the output of power stations on the grid.
Therefore, high (or exclusive) reliance on renewable energy can lead to frequent perturbations unless excess power generated by those sources during slow usage periods can be stored. Unfortunately, such storage capacity does not exist today and progress in this domain has been painfully slow. Technological breakthrough in large-scale electric storage capacity would undoubtedly trigger a revolutionary change in energy policy and strategic choices. But until that time, attempting to base electricity supply strategies primarily on wind and solar can be risky (and irresponsible). A fully integrated strategy should move the industrialized world from major reliance on fossil fuel to non-polluting, sustainable energies.
Traditional fossil power stations and gas turbines can typically provide steady power and readily handle needed changes in supply. But fossil power is increasingly challenged. Societal pressures and global commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as those mandated by the Paris Accord, are now forcing severe economic and technological constraints on fossil fuel generation. (Not to mention the economics of fossil fuel that are very dependent on coal and natural gas prices.)
In that context nuclear energy has a vital role to play as a transitional power source until such time as renewable or other de-carbonated energies become economically and technologically viable. Unlike fossil generation, Nuclear power plants emit virtually no greenhouse gases and unlike renewable generation, nuclear energy is extremely reliable with capacity factors exceeding 90%. And, up until now, it has been (and still is) among the lowest cost-producing source of electricity. Until renewable energy becomes more reliable, or storage on a large scale becomes more affordable, nuclear energy is the perfect complementary clean option to renewable energy.
To be sure, nuclear power has its own technical challenges. Many of these plants are aging. One third of the world nuclear fleet will exceed forty years of operation by 2020. Life extension of these units to 50, 60 years or even 80 years is feasible and in fact envisaged in many cases as the preferred economic option. However, this life extension would require additional inspections and monitoring and many plants would have to contend with major capital outlays for material and component replacement, thus triggering increasing production costs. In fact, production costs of operating nuclear power stations as well as the construction cost of new plants are, in some cases, already becoming uncompetitive, due, in large part, to the many additional safety requirements imposed after the Fukushima accident.
Finally, radioactive waste disposal remains a public concern. While it is essentially a matter of political resolve, any outstanding technical issues must be addressed and risk evaluations must clearly and transparently be communicated to the public. Fortunately, and by contrast with storage, most, if not all, of these challenges can be overcome with available innovative technologies.
To cite just a few opportunities: materials and fuels more resistant to high temperatures and to corrosion are being developed and should be integrated in the current and next generation of reactors; digital and wireless techniques are replacing older analog instrumentation and control systems to help analyze more plant data more efficiently and to help control the plant more effectively; modern maintenance methods that optimize global operating experience feedback are being introduced to improve safety and control costs. These technologies, when fully implemented, should simultaneously reduce operating costs and further improve nuclear safety.
A fully integrated strategy should move the industrialized world from major reliance on fossil fuel to non-polluting, sustainable energies at a moderate cost. Renewable energies can become fully effective when long-term storage can be deployed economically and reliably. This may take some time.
In the transitional period, nuclear power, along with other clean energies such as hydropower, can provide a reliable part of the electric supply. Technological innovation will be a vital aspect of this transition. Should there be a role for nuclear energy in a world transitioning towards renewable energy? Here is the opinion piece written by Jean-Pierre Sursock Ph.D. '78. In short, Jean-Pierre argues that, until renewable energy is reliable, nuclear energy has a role to play in the production of electric supply, along with other clean energies such as hydropower.