October 4, 2022

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

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Nuclear power is at an inflection point. The early hype about its potential was undermined by a series of disastrous and dangerous accidents in Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, Chornobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan in 2011.

But now, thanks to new nuclear technology and the increasingly urgent need to combat climate change, nuclear power is getting a second chance to become a prominent part of the global energy grid. This is because nuclear power generation does not create any of the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

In a debate at the United Nations on Tuesdaya collection of nuclear power leaders from around the world gathered to discuss the scope of this renaissance and why it is so critical that the industry work together to ensure that gold standard safety measures are adopted everywhere.

A nuclear accident anywhere has the potential to overturn the most momentum the nuclear industry has had in decades.

$1 trillion in expected global demand

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

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

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

“The bottom line is the proliferation of advanced nuclear power is a priority for us,” Granholm said. “Of course, all these technologies must begin and end with nuclear safety and security.”

The change in sentiment around nuclear power has happened fairly quickly, he said Raphael Grossiits general manager International Atomic Energy Agency.

A photo shows dogs running through a wheel in the background in the ghost town of Pripyat near the Chornobyl nuclear power plant on May 29, 2022, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Dimitar Dilkoff | AFP | Getty Images

“Until just a few years ago, nuclear would not have been present, and perhaps not even welcome” at the annual COP conferences, meaning “Conference of the Parties” and is an opportunity for country leaders to meet and discuss climate change. “The IAEA went pretty quickly from almost an intruder to a very welcome participant in this dialogue where nuclear has a place.”

The next COP conference will take place Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in Novemberand the next one will be in Dubai Expo City at United Arab Emirates. The IAEA plans to participate in both of these next conferences.

“Just the fact that we’re talking about a COP with nukes in Egypt and the Gulf, in itself tells you a lot about what’s going on and how we’re changing and the capabilities that we have that could have been almost unforeseeable just a few years ago.”

Safety first

But if nuclear power is to continue to be part of these climate change conferences and talks, the entire international community must work together to uphold strict safety and non-proliferation standards.

“No one buys a car today if they have an accident every day. So safety and security that an application is the foundation for the successful development of nuclear power,” he said Hamad Al Kaabirepresentative of the United Arab Emirates to the IAEA, on Tuesday.

“The thing about how the nuclear industry works and it’s perceived 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 started about 13 years ago.

Vietnam has been considering 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 due to costs. Then, in March of this year, Vietnam released a formal draft energy proposal that includes small modular nuclear reactors.

The United States and the IAEA have both helped guide Vietnam in its efforts to include nuclear power in its national energy plan, Ha Kim Ngoc, Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, said at Tuesday’s event. For a country like Vietnam, which has a relatively small land area, the small footprint nuclear power reactors take up compared to the amount of power they produce make it an attractive option, Ngoc said.

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

“Most of the countries I come from in Africa have very small grids,” Collins Juma, chief executive of the Republic of Kenya’s Nuclear Power and Energy Agency, said on Tuesday. Advanced nuclear reactor designs, especially small modular reactors are of interest to African countries, although Juma also hinted that paying for nuclear reactors may be difficult for some African countries. “I am not sure about the cost, but we will discuss it in other forums,” Juma said.

As Africa works to decarbonize, nuclear is a critical key corollary to 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 touchy subject,” Juma said. And it’s where “everyone’s an expert” and they think they know it’s dangerous. “We have to be very careful when we develop a nuclear power plan. And the public, especially the public, has to have confidence” that the nuclear power plant is safe, Juma said.

So Juma sought guidance from top nuclear powers and organizations. “When you copy, you only copy from the best, you don’t copy from the worst,” Juma said.

For countries interested in building nuclear power reactors, the IAEA has compiled a practical guide, “Milestones in the Development of a National Infrastructure for Nuclear Power”, and that’s a good place for countries to start, Grossi recommended.

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

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