Time For A Nuclear Energy Renaissance


If governments and international organizations are serious about the aggressive emissions reduction targets they have set, then then they will need a clean and consistent energy supply. That means an energy system that uses renewables combined with battery storage, fossil fuels combined with carbon capture, geothermal energy, or nuclear energy. Of those options, nuclear energy is the only one that can provide energy at scale currently. This fact means that every gigawatt of nuclear energy that we lose is a gigawatt of clean energy that is likely to be replaced by coal or natural gas. This is a phenomenon that was seen in New York when it closed the Indian Point plant. The argument for nuclear energy is even more compelling when you add the need to decarbonize transportation and industry, a task that will require huge amounts of new energy supply to create hydrogen and ammonia. Finally, there is the physical footprint of nuclear energy, a footprint that is set to shrink with the advent of small modular reactors. While renewable megaprojects face resistance due to the threat they pose to ecosystems, modern nuclear reactors pose relatively little threat to the immediate environment. From an environmental perspective, the world is undeniably better off with nuclear energy than it would be without it.

There are few events in modern history that have highlighted the importance of energy security more than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The fact that Russia is both at war with Ukraine and paying Kyiv for natural gas flows is difficult to get your head around. Ultimately, access to energy is existential. Europe cannot afford to stop importing natural gas and Russia cannot afford to stop selling it. When considering nuclear power in this context, it represents a more diversified and therefore more resilient energy mix. Russia is a major exporter of uranium, so any expansion of nuclear energy would have to include a diverse and secure supply chain. But if Europe and the U.S. had backed nuclear energy a decade ago, there is no doubt energy markets would be in a very different place today. Another geopolitical issue of importance is the influence that a large nuclear energy actor can have over nuclear proliferation. According to the IEA’s pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050, two-thirds of new nuclear reactors will be built in emerging markets and developing economies. Meanwhile, of the 72 nuclear reactors being built outside Russia, less than 3% are being built by U.S. companies. China and Russia are building 20% and 50% of those reactors respectively. In short, that means both Russia and China are in an incredibly strong position to influence the international nuclear industry. Between the energy security concerns highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the national security concerns associated with influence over the global nuclear regime, the geopolitical role of nuclear energy is increasingly important.

The final reason to reconsider the role of nuclear power in the modern era is the technological advancements the industry has undergone in the past decade. Nuclear energy is becoming smaller, safer, and faster. While it is necessary to take the promises of new nuclear technologies with a grain of salt, projects like the Rolls Royce SMR are expected to significantly reduce the price of nuclear energy. Bill Gates, predictably, is also getting in on the action with an SMR that is expected to reduce the cost of nuclear by 50%. Other approaches include new technologies to reduce the amount of waste created, new safety features that eliminate the need for offsite electricity, and new coolants such as helium or molten salt. While it could be argued that promises of new nuclear technology are just as valid as promises of miracle batteries and nuclear fusion, the development of SMRs is considerably further along than either of those energy innovations. It is important when considering the future of nuclear energy to recognize that the industry itself is developing and costs and timelines could well fall.

1 Like