Could it be that the seedlings of a renaissance are beginning to take hold in the nuclear energy industry?
As the world grapples with the necessity of massively reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, politicians are increasingly turning to nuclear energy as a potential solution. That growing momentum of support has led to a handful of notable policy announcements so far this year:
- French President Emmanuel Macron included funding for new nuclear reactors in a recently announced €30 billion national investment proposal
- The U.K. President Boris Johnson committed to building at least one large-scale nuclear project by 2025 in its efforts to wean itself off natural gas
- U.S. Secretary of Planet John Kerry announced he’s shifted away from his previously held anti-nuclear stance
The winds of change have also begun to blow into the commercial sector.
Two companies backed by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are slowly making progress in developing smaller module nuclear reactors (SMRs). The hope in designing these smaller, prefabricated units is to break the trend of cost overruns and permitting challenges that have plagued the deployment of new nuclear reactors globally in recent decades. Said differently, the goal is to make atomic energy both cheaper and safer.
I’m excited about these developments!
As of today, nuclear energy remains the only viable source of scalable energy production that’s both extremely reliable and CO2-lite. If we hope to effectively combat climate change, the world needs more nuclear energy.
This week’s edition has 4 sections:
- 🌲 Climate Change: An Energy Problem
- 🔌 Decarbonizing our Electricity Supply
- ☢️ About Those Safety Concerns?
- 👍 The Enemy of the Good
🌲 Climate Change: An Energy Problem
How about we set aside the complexity of climate science for a minute?
Here’s an oversimplified breakdown of the relationship between climate change and the energy industry:
- The Problem: Climate change is caused by human-generated GHG emissions; the more we emit, the more our climate will continue to change
- The Culprit: Most human-generated emissions are the result of producing and consuming energy, predominantly from fossil fuels
- Our Dilemma: To continue advancing global human prosperity, access to cheap, reliable energy is critically important
In 2016, ~73% of global GHG emissions were attributable to energy production and consumption. That state alone reinforced my belief that climate change is first and foremost an energy problem.
Or, more specifically, an energy-emissions problem.
We’re in quite the pickle – our societies need energy for human wellbeing, but our energy consumption is causing climate change.
What are we to do?
Nuclear energy provides a solution to the duelling challenges of climate change and energy reliance. It’s a safe, scalable, technology that doesn’t produce GHG emissions.
It’s like renewable energy, without the weather-dependency issue!
It will be interesting to observe the differences in how different countries globally approach nuclear energy in the coming years. As it currently stands, the biggest (maybe only) obstacle in the way of more nuclear energy is the technology’s atrocious public perception.
This quote from a Morning Consult poll left me shaking my head.
“Despite the fact that nuclear energy also emits no carbon, the respondents who reported they were concerned about climate change view nuclear slightly less favourably than the general public, at 55 percent unfavourable and 27 percent favourable.”
🔌 Decarbonizing our Electricity Supply
It would be naïve to assume that nuclear energy will solve all of our emission problems. But there’s no question that it would certainly help.
In 2016, electricity and heating were the leading sources of global emissions, making up 31.5% of total emissions globally. Much of those emissions could be negated by deploying more nuclear energy.
At this point, you may be wondering – what about renewable energy?
Well, it’s worth calling out that the lifetime GHG emissions from nuclear energy are comparable to wind and lower than solar. That’s according to a 2014 report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
That reality is often left unmentioned in discussion around the future of emission reductions.
Once again — to produce an equivalent energy output, nuclear energy generates:
- ~45% less GHG emissions than concentrated solar energy
- ~70% less GHG emissions than rooftop solar
Let that sink in for a minute.
As I alluded to earlier, nuclear energy has another critical advantage over solar and wind: its electricity generation potential isn’t weather-dependent.
Our electrical grids depend on a consistent supply of electricity. And, the reality is that we have little control over the day-to-day fluctuations in wind and solar supply.
Renewable energy will undoubtedly serve as a valuable complement in our electrical grids. But sole reliance on weather-dependent renewables won’t facilitate the stable supply of electricity supply on which our society depends.
Or at least, not without better long-duration battery technology…
I can’t help but lament the irony involved in plowing billions of dollars into renewable energy technologies when another carbon-free energy source has been sitting around for decades.
I guess the adage of grass being greener holds true once again.
☢️ What About All Those Safety Concerns?
Any discussion on nuclear energy wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the litany of related safety concerns.
Admittedly, up until recently, I shared the widely held belief that atomic energy was dangerous. But if you had asked me to justify my thinking, my answers would have crumbled in the face of scrutiny.
Frankly, I knew next to nothing about it.
As I’ve learned more about nuclear energy technology, the safety concerns that were previously front-of-mind have begun to seem overblown. The work of Michael Shellenberger, a lifelong environmentalist, has played a huge role in shifting my perspective.
This presentation of his, titled The Complete Case for Nuclear Energy, is well-researched and insightful. It helped assuage some of the concerns I had previously on the safety and efficacy of nuclear energy.
Like all of Michael’s work, I would highly recommend checking it out.
👍 The Enemy of the Good
As the world continues to search for solutions to combat climate change, it might be helpful for someone to point out that we already have one viable solution: it’s called nuclear energy.
Sometimes, the answer is staring us right in the face. That IS the case today.
If we’re serious about the threat of climate change, then nuclear energy needs to play a growing role in our energy systems of tomorrow. It remains the technology with the single greatest potential to eliminate the GHG emissions that are exacerbating changes to the earth’s climate.
The French writer Voltaire once said: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
It seems as though in the eyes of many, renewable energies are the perfect. But as a proven, scalable technology to which the world has access today, nuclear power is the good.
The world needs more nuclear energy. It’s that simple.
Source: The Plug