During the past two decades global energy demands have doubled. The nuclear power industry has grown on demands for electrical power to fuel economic growth plus new technologies that have cut costs and improved safety. The protestors have been brought on side by the stark reality that nuclear power plants produce no carbon dioxide and have become by far the cheapest alternative to fossil fuels.
This ‘nuclear renaissance’ was unthinkable 20 years ago when the use of nuclear power was declining to below 15%.
Yesterday, the global GE Corporation took a bold step into the future with their launch of nuclear power plants for the home and small communities.
“This really means unlimited electrical power for individuals, families and communities. We deliver all the advantages of nuclear energy, with none of the problems,” said Caroline Welch, Sales Director for GE’s Energy Division.
“We cannot just extrapolate the future from past trends – there are some brand new paradigms emerging” she said. “The usage of nuclear power is set to explode.
“We are at the point where the mainframe computing industry was in the mid 1970s. No one could understand how small ‘personal’ computers could ever be a serious alternative. Our ‘personal’ reactors will transform the power industry in the next decade and GE plans to be at the centre of that revolution.”
In many countries, depending on local regulations, unused power will be able to be channelled back into the electricity grid, creating powerful local and national networked grids.
“It is GE’s dream that in our children’s homes they will enjoy electrical energy too cheap to meter,” she said.
(Read the full story in the detailed Analysis/Synthesis section – for subscribers only)
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
Fifty years ago, at 5:30 pm, June 26, 1954, in the town of Obninsk, near Moscow in the former USSR, a nuclear power plant was for the first time connected to an electricity grid to provide power to residences and businesses. Nuclear energy had crossed the divide from military uses to civilian applications.
Nuclear fission was discovered in 1939. The world’s first nuclear chain reaction took place in Chicago in 1942 as part of the wartime Manhattan Project. Electricity was first generated from a nuclear reactor in December 1951, at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho, USA.
Nuclear power grew rapidly in the 1970s and early 1980s. From 1970 to 1975 growth averaged 30% per year, the same as wind power recently (1998-2001). By 1987 nuclear power was generating slightly more than 16% of all electricity in the world.
Nuclear expansion slowed in the 1980s because of environmentalist opposition, high interest rates, energy conservation prompted by the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks, and the accidents at Three Mile Island (1979, USA) and Chernobyl (1986, Ukraine, USSR). The Three Mile Island accident was the first major accident at a civilian nuclear power station. It had no radiological effect on public health but increased opposition to nuclear power, and the large financial loss further discouraged new nuclear investment. The Chernobyl accident was much more severe. The accident broadened opposition to nuclear power and brought the USSR´s nuclear expansion to a halt.
Thus, in the years since 1987, nuclear power´s share of global electricity generation has held steady at around 16%.
Today, there are 442 nuclear power plants operating in 30 countries. Most operating nuclear power plants are in Western Europe and North America, but most new plants under construction are in Asia.
In the U.S. 90% of the carbon emissions from electricity generation come from coal-fired generation, even though this accounts for only 52% of the electricity produced, reports an MIT study.
Today, increasing demands for energy and increased awareness of global warming makes nuclear an untapped resource. Taking all factors into account there are almost no resource constraints on nuclear power development in the 21st century.
“The more we look to the future, the more we can expect countries to be considering the potential benefits that expanding nuclear power has to offer for the global environment and for economic growth,” IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, at the “International Conference on Fifty Years of Nuclear Power – the Next Fifty Years” (27 June – 2 July 2004), Moscow.
2004: Nuclear power in decline while climate fears boom
Asia and Eastern Europe remain the only countries still building new nuclear reactors for electrical power generation – these include in India, four in Ukraine and three in Russia.
Nuclear power remains hugely unpopular, even in light of global warming, being seen as a thoroughly unsafe approach to addressing energy demands.
Less than 16% of the world’s electricity is being generated from nuclear power and this is likely to drop to less than 11% in the next ten years if present trends continue.
At the same time James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, wrote an infuential article in The Independent “Nuclear power is the only green solution. We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources, civilisation is in imminent danger from global climate change. Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientist, was far-sighted to say that global warming is a more serious threat than terrorism. He may even have underestimated, because, since he spoke, new evidence of climate change suggests it could be even more serious, and the greatest danger that civilisation has faced so far.”
2006: Nuclear power identified as economic growth catalyst
Economic growth is in the doldrums and a UN study has identified cheap electricity as a key growth driver. Scarcity of natural resources (such as oil, gas and coal) are driving many countries towards nuclear power in order to become competitive in world marld markets. All renewable forms of energy (wind, solar, tide etc) have proved to be far too expensive a solution to fuel economic growth on a large scale.
“Nuclear power is going to be an important pillar in the electricty mix, especially in coastal areas where power demand is high” said Zhang Huazhu, Chinese minister in charge of the Commission of Science, technology and Industry. “Nuclear energy has to be developed rapidly to meet our economic requirements, society and the environment”. China is expected to build 30 new reactors over the next 10 years, to add to its current 12.
Think tanks are changing their views on the future of nuclear power: “We should increase our investments precisely because it is the most important carbon-free source of power. Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions.”
The prospects for nuclear energy are limited by four unresolved problems: 1. high relative start-up costs; 2. perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; 3. potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and 4. unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.
New nuclear technologies show much promise in addressing some of these issues and are being increasingly piloted with great success.
2008: Re-structuring of the grid continues apace
Restructuring continues to cause fundamental changes in the market for electricity across North America. Small home and community generators are increasingly being integrated into the national grids and are changing the framework for decisions about investment in generation capacity.
In a restructured market the generator is no longer guaranteed a rate of return on assets; instead new investments will earn whatever the spot market or contract market will pay.
Environmental regulations may have a significant impact on that price. There will be massive implications for the future price of electricity and for the future of nuclear power.
2010: New technologies for modular nuclear power
In the 1950s, Dr Rudolf Schulten (‘father’ of the pebble bed reactor) had an idea. The idea was to compact silicon carbide coated uranium granules into hard billiard-ball-like graphite spheres to be used as fuel for a new high-temperature, helium-cooled type of reactor. The idea took root, and in due course, the AVR, a 15 megawatt demonstration pebble bed reactor, was built in Germany. It operated successfully for 21 years.
Then, in the intense wave of post-Chernobyl anti-nuclear sentiment that swept Europe, particularly Germany, the idea was almost submerged. It resurfaced in South Africa in the 1990s.
The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is a high-temperature helium-cooled reactor using a direct cycle gas turbine.Essentially it is a nuclear plant which is inherently safe, presents lower-cost options and facilitates problem-free siting. Its modular design allows capacity to be increased as and when needed. Promoters said that it “delivers all the advantages of nuclear energy, with none of the problems.”
The PBMR programme has been regarded as a Strategic National Project in South Africa for more than a decade, recognized as an important component of the continuing development of the country, and has three major investors, Eskom, the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, and British Nuclear Fuels. They have shared the vision of small, standardized, safe, modular reactors as the best carbon-free alternative for new generation around the world.
The first operational reactor was commissioned in South Africa in January 2010.
“In the longer term, new innovative designs, with shorter construction times and significantly lower capital costs could help promote a new era of nuclear power,” said Yuri Sokolov, IAEA´s Director General for Nuclear Energy. “The decision to adopt nuclear power cannot be made on a ´one-size-fits-all´ basis,” he added, “New nuclear plants are most attractive where energy demand is growing and alternative resources are scarce, and where energy security and reduced air pollution and greenhouse gases are a priority.”
Pebble Bed Reactors start coming into their own – the proven technology is now being touted as the basis for ‘home reactors’ in the not-too-distant future.
2012: Safety concerns abate
Anti-nuclear groups have often opposed nuclear licenses based upon safety and waste management concerns. How these public perceptions about safety and waste issues are being addressed today, in light of new technological changes, will heavily influence nuclear power’s future.
The spent fuel that comes out of a traditional nuclear power plant is highly radioactive. Although its volume is small – all the spent fuel produced annually by the world´s nuclear power plants would cover a space the size of a soccer field to a depth of 1.5 meters – it must be securely contained for tens of thousands of years. Spent fuel was previously stored mainly on-site at the power plant where it was produced.
In the last decade, governments have made investments to dispose of waste material by deep geological burial in suitable hard rock, salt or clay formations, using both natural and engineered barriers to isolate the waste. Finland, Sweden and the US have made the most progress. Finland is building final repository for spent fuel near Olkiluoto, with completion scheduled for 2020. Sweden commissioned a final site in 2007, and US disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, opened in 2010.
It is relized now that more people die in the coal-mining industry every year than have been killed in the entire history of nuclear power – yet we still belived it to be more dangerous!
In view of the big benefits of nuclear energy in its ability to meet enormous energy demand while delivering zero-emissions. The public’s concern for cleaner air will continue to grow, making fossil-driven plants less competitive, causing utilities to reconsider nuclear as a competitive option.
The Scandinavian countries have led the way – “public debate leading to greater enlightenment” – the feared threats have largely been driven into the background by long-term economic realities.
Greenpeace’s new battle-cry is: Split Atoms, Not Wood
2015: Major new nuclear investment initiatives
The new ‘friendly’ attitudes by consumers and pressure groups to the inevitability of nuclear power has unleashed a massive new passion for investment in nuclear technologies.
GE purchases a large stake in South Africa’s PBMR business in return for unlimited access for South Africa in all of GE’s future products.
2022: Home and community reactors become a reality
GE launches its revolutionary range of home and community reactors and transforms the power grid.