Want to Solve Climate Change? Let’s Be Pragmatic, Let’s Use Nuclear

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

While the need for urgent and global action against climate change and rising carbon emissions is well understood, we now need effective policies for prevention. As more data becomes available, the due date of reversing carbon emissions is exponentially approaching and nations’ abilities to mitigate its effects will become less tenable.

To meet new deadlines and reduce the costly mitigation policies of the future, nations need to permit the construction and operation of all clean energy, investing in the most beneficial technologies. Essentially, doing what it takes.

This includes promoting the often rejected and feared nuclear energy to be used alongside other renewables.

Fourth-Generation Nuclear Reactors

The fourth-generation nuclear technologies should be a focal point for governments, investors, and environmentalists in the fight against climate change. The new generation of nuclear power is safer, cleaner, more productive, and modular than past versions. Of the dozens of new nuclear technologies being developed, a few exemplify the immense potential to combat climate change:

Terrapower is a nuclear power start-up, backed by Bill Gates, which uses traveling wave reactors (TWRs). TWRs' principal difference from traditional reactors is their use of depleted uranium that would otherwise be wasted in traditional systems. Liquid sodium replaces water as the coolant allowing the reactor to operate at substantially lower temperatures. The system thus does not need operator interventions, can operate without interruptions, and its total waste over 60 years would be equal to 1.5 rail cars.

NucScale, which is nearing is first commercial operations, offers small modular reactors (SMRs). SMRs make the technology highly versatile and new design innovations radically improve safety. While traditional reactors can create a gigawatt of electricity, each SMR only creates 60 megawatts. This enables them to be used in places that would have been prohibitively expensive like rural and remote areas. Through the removal of unnecessary parts, stronger housing, and numerous safety values, risk of an accident and the breadth of that potential accident are many times lower than traditional reactors.

Terrestrial Energy, a Canadian nuclear start-up, and its integral molten salt reactor (IMSR) technology present a fundamental change in nuclear technology. Using molten salt instead of water allows for lower pressures and high-temperature operations. This technology is not only 50% more efficient than traditional reactors but is “walk-away” safe. Terrestrial Energy has gained substantial interest from investors and governments. It is the first fourth-generation nuclear technology company to be jointly reviewed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Despite the evident benefits are nuclear power, especially with its most recent technological advances, there continue to be detractors.

Battling Nuclear Detractors

Despite the benefits from nuclear power, nuclear power plants are aging and there are not enough planned to replace them. Globally, 447 reactors are currently in use, in the next 30 years 200 are to be decommissioned and only 53 are planned to be built.

Almost all decommissioning can found in North America, Europe, and East Asia (except China). If science so vividly shows the benefit of nuclear, why is the decommissioning rate so much higher than the rate of new builds?

Public Fear. Much of this is a product of unfounded fear of nuclear power use and its potential risks throughout rich countries. In Canada, only 37% are in favour of nuclear power with similar statistics in America, and 73% of Australianssupport a ban. Nuclear weapons and nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have driven this fear.

Yet, the combined deaths of the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima accidents were likely no more than 10 000 with nearly all of those deaths being post-accident.[1] This is far less than any fossil fuel. Nuclear’s death by terawatt-hours of energy is 0.07, while the next closest, gas is 2.82 and the worst, brown coal, is 32.72.

Battling Environmental Purists. Environmental purists are another group that opposes nuclear. They argue that all future energy should be derived from 100% renewable energy. The potential of a negative environmental impact no matter how low from nuclear excludes it from this category. Yet, they disregard the low, but existent environmental harms from hydroelectric or wind. There needs to be a realization that decommissioning current nuclear reactors will lead to increases in natural gas and oil use. Renewables are simply not ready to be the sole producer of electricity in most places. An analysis of Germany’s recent nuclear phase-out could cause an additional 1100 deaths each year due to air pollution.

Mitigating Risk

Most countries, including Canada, are currently projected to miss their 2030 climate goals and many of the reductions they have made target low-hanging fruit – replacing coal production with natural gas. If people are serious about resolving climate change, there must be a willingness to utilize all current and future technologies that reduce carbon emissions. With the current projections of nuclear plants shutting down without replacements, there could be an increase in carbon emissions by 6%.

Recommendations for Canada

For Canada, nuclear is not only a necessity for successfully lowering its emissions but presents an opportunity to be an innovative hub for fourth-generation nuclear development. There urgently needs to be a modernization of the Canadian government’s nuclear policy. The current process is inefficient and costly to firms. There must be new policies that allow for economic success and timely development without compromising safety and security. If this is done in done soon, Canadian firms could have a first-mover advantage, placing Canada to be a technological leader in the industry.

In the early stages of development, there should be a risk-sharing mechanism between governments, utilities, and the industry to accelerate production timelines and increase the likelihood of success. Ontario, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick have agreed to build SMRs. Such agreements mitigate initial costs by increasing bargaining power. The Canadian government should leverage the federal bargaining power to be instituting a national plan on nuclear power.

Pairing this with community engagement, including with indigenous peoples, would improve trust between the firms and communities where construction is set. Northern communities, if interested, could find SMRs extremely beneficial as their high reliance on diesel has been a systemic issue.

Nuclear Roadmap

With an SMR Roadmap released two years ago by the Department of Natural Resources, there needs to be tangible action on it. Time is limited, there needs to be a shift in public opinion and pressure on public officials to kick-start this process now.