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Should Nuclear Energy Get Another Chance?

In the latter half of the 20th century, nuclear power was touted as the energy industry’s savior. Not only did the potential of nuclear power offer more efficient energy, but it also provided a useful means of nuclear fission. As time passed, and safety concerns arose, slowly but surely, nuclear energy’s popularity has faded. Though nuclear energy still comprised a percentage of global energy sources, this fraction has fallen. However, amidst climate change concerns and anticipated energy crises, there seems to be a nuclear power revival of sorts. Nations are pledging to recommit efforts and investments into nuclear power in the coming years. But is this even a feasible pursuit given nuclear energy’s past history?

someone realizing the potential of nuclear power
The potential of nuclear power is great–why aren’t we using more of it?

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In many countries, several existing nuclear power plants are nearing the end of the life. At the same time, new nuclear power plant construction plans have lagged behind other forms of energy. Specifically, renewable energy options have shown significant growth while nuclear energy has not. This is not only because the potential of nuclear power is believed to be less than these other alternatives. But the costs and delays related to these investments undermine its capacity to be a viable long-term energy solution. Those that support a nuclear power revival do not necessarily support such views. Instead, they believe nuclear power is an essential part of a broader energy solution. This of course remains to be seen.

International Commitments to Nuclear Power

In March of this year, a global conference on the potential of nuclear power was held in Brussels. The International Atomic Energy Agency held a summit at which 34 different nations attended including the U.S. At the conclusion of the meeting, more than 30 nations agreed to actively pursue a nuclear power revival in coming years. The goal was to not only extend the life of existing nuclear power plants but actively invest in new ones. And there was a consensus that these investments would involve new advances in nuclear reactor technologies. This comes at a time when nuclear power is experiencing a downslide in use. This is especially true when it comes to new nuclear power plant construction around the world.

In terms of existing nuclear power plants, several countries vowed to extend existing ones. This included France, Canada, Sweden and Britain. It’s also worth noting that in Western Europe, Britain is currently building 2 new plants while France is constructing one. Notably, this is a relatively small number and certainly doesn’t support a nuclear power revival. But other countries are more heavily invested in the potential of nuclear power. China, for example, boasts 23 of the 54 total nuclear power plants in the world being built. India has 7 of these facilities. And the U.S. is far behind in constructing new nuclear power plants with its current 90 reactors being an average of 42 years old. Understandably, it’s going to take a lot more than just verbal commitments to realize the true potential of nuclear power.

a atom living its best life
Fossil fuels will always be with us, but maybe nuclear energy should be, too.

Competition with Renewable Energy Alternatives

Part of the reason that the potential of nuclear power has not been realized relates to other options. Renewable sources of energy including solar, wind, and hydroelectric have received a greater share of energy investments as of late. Fueled by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as well as the Inflation Reduction Act, these energy alternatives have gained traction. In fact, solar and wind began outpacing nuclear power in 2021. Compared to the global 375 gigawatts of nuclear power that exists, solar and wind accounted for 400 gigawatts. Given the momentum behind these energy technologies, it seems unlikely a nuclear power revival will actually occur.

The key issue here is not necessarily funding but more practical ones instead. For several years, wind, solar, and hydropower research has been advancing significantly. Their ability to transmit, store, and use electricity can be achieved more efficiently than nuclear. These technologies cost less money at present, and they require much less time to develop and construct. In contrast, nuclear power plants require tremendous financial investments and take years to build. These are major hurdles when it comes to promoting the potential of nuclear power. Conservative estimates in the U.S. alone suggest that it would cost $700 billion to fuel a nuclear power revival. Other less conservative perspectives believe this figure to exceed $4 trillion. Unless these barriers can be addressed, it’s unlikely the U.S. can actually materialize any major potential of nuclear energy.

Does Nuclear Power Deserve a Chance?

nuclear power revival at a power plant
There may be a nuclear power revival on the horizon.

The proposal that emerged from the recent summit in Brussels called for a three-fold increase in nuclear energy. From a realistic point of view, this would mean building three times the number of reactors that currently exist in half the time. Existing ones took over 70 years in the making, and many need renovations in order to persist. Noting the costs and delays inherent to nuclear power plant construction, this doesn’t seem probable. For this reason alone, a nuclear power revival faces tremendous odds. Though the potential for nuclear power to be part of a global energy solution exists, better and less costly options are available. That not only includes solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal but nuclear fusion as well.

It should be recognized that motivations for a nuclear power revival extend beyond those focused on energy. Specifically, some in the International Atomic Energy Agency believe investments in nuclear power have peacetime advantages. By continuing to invest in the potential of nuclear power, the capacity to safeguard against nuclear weapon proliferation may exist. This may or may not be true, but it’s one non-energy perspective that’s also driving a nuclear power revival. Unfortunately, even if valid, the effort, time and costs required in constructing needed nuclear power plants seems excessive. It’s not simply a safety issue anymore but one that involves practicalities. Better energy options now exist that didn’t decades before. As such, it seems that the potential of nuclear power may never be fully realized.

 

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