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Can a nuclear power Renaissance avoid an energy Dark Age?

What is driving this is the realization in the wake of the so-called COP26 global climate summit held in Glasgow last November that the world cannot shed dependence on fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. (Shutterstock)
What is driving this is the realization in the wake of the so-called COP26 global climate summit held in Glasgow last November that the world cannot shed dependence on fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. (Shutterstock)
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09 Jan 2022 03:01:02 GMT9
09 Jan 2022 03:01:02 GMT9

Anthony Rowley

TOKYO: The world is about to witness a major nuclear reaction – not in the shape of a nuclear meltdown or a war but a revolution in thinking about solving the problem of global warming. The solution will involve a rethinking of the role of nuclear power in generating electricity for an energy-hungry world.

What is driving this is the realization in the wake of the so-called COP26 global climate summit held in Glasgow last November that the world cannot shed dependence on fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas and still attain the economic growth demanded in both advanced and emerging economies alike.

At the same time, it became clear during the Glasgow summit (attended by 197 world leaders) that “renewable” energy resources such as solar, wind and hydropower cannot always be relied upon by their weather-dependent nature to supplement fossil fuel-generated energy to the extent required.

We can “talk about greening until we’re blue in the face,” but it won’t make a scrap of difference to whether or not we win the battle to save the Earth from the ravages of climate change, British peer and former UK energy minister Lord David Howell has said about so-called “green” solutions.

Lord Howell is one of the growing influential figures who believe that new thinking is needed on climate change mitigation versus economic growth so that emerging economies like China and India can catch up with advanced economies while those economies too can continue expanding.

Wider nuclear power has emerged as a partial solution to this problem. Until recently, this appeared to be a wildly improbable scenario given the opprobrium nuclear earned after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan in 2011 and Germany’s subsequent rejection of nuclear power.

The debate now is not about whether to start building more monster and wildly expensive installations like the Fukushima complex on Japan’s (earthquake-prone) east coast or in other coastal areas that are seen as prone to flooding, earthquakes, terrorist attacks or other hazards.

The debate has shifted to so-called small modular reactors or SMRs of the type pioneered in China and actively researched in the US, Britain and now Japan. These SMRs are safer than conventional nuclear fission reactors, much cheaper to build and easier to operate.

Japan will bolster the development of next-generation nuclear power technology in cooperation with the United States and other partners, industry minister Koichi Hagiuda announced on January 6 following talks with his US counterpart, reports said.

Hagiuda told US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm that the Japanese government would urge more energy companies to join an international scheme for testing fast reactors and small modular reactors developed by US companies like NuScale Power LLC and others in Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Hagiuda’s talks came as Japan is ramping up its efforts to develop advanced nuclear power technology such as fast reactors and SMRs. The Japanese government plans to support domestic companies that take part in an international experiment of such new technologies in its national energy plan.

The United States and France are among the other participants in the international scheme. Japan and the US also agreed to work closely in other clean energy sectors such as hydrogen, fuel ammonia, carbon capture, utilization and storage and carbon recycling.

According to the US Office of Nuclear Energy, “Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are a key part of the Department’s goal to develop safe, clean, and affordable nuclear power options. The advanced SMRs currently under development in the US represent a variety of sizes, technology options, capabilities, and deployment scenarios.

“These advanced reactors envisioned to vary in size from tens of megawatts up to hundreds of megawatts, can be used for power generation, process heat, desalination, or other industrial uses. SMR designs may employ light water or other non-light water coolants such as gas, liquid metal, or molten salt.

“Advanced SMRs offer many advantages, such as relatively small physical footprints, reduced capital investment, ability to be sited in locations not possible for larger nuclear plants, and provisions for incremental power additions. SMRs also offer distinct safeguards, security and non-proliferation advantages.

“The Department has long recognized the transformational value advanced SMRs can provide to economic, energy security, and environmental outlook [and] has provided substantial support to the development of light water-cooled SMRs, which are under licensing review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will likely be deployed in the late 2020s to early 2030s.

In the United Kingdom, a very famous name – that of Rolls Royce – is associated with the pioneering and development of small modular reactors.” A small Modular Reactor program presents a truly innovative solution that will redefine methods of delivering low carbon power, “according to Rolls Royce.

“SMRs will be made in centralized UK-based manufacturing facilities and then transported to anywhere in the country or overseas, producing benefits of scale which will drive down costs.” The company is developing a patented modular concept designed for factory manufacture and commissioning,”

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