Possible Future of Nuclear Energy

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Abstract

Climate change is a threat to the entire planet. The increase in global temperature is significantly altering our planet’s climate, resulting in more extreme and unpredictable weather. Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere and regulate our climate. These gases exist naturally, but humans add more carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels for energy and by clearing forests. Humans have sped the climate change process by relying on fossil fuels for a long time now. It is necessary to shift the focus to more sustainable source of energy. The shift to renewables is a long-awaited transition in the history of mankind. The transition always made sense, but there are innumerable factors- economic, social and political which make this transition difficult. The renewables also have some technological concerns which make the transition difficult. One clean energy resource has been making progress slowly and steadily which could help smoothen the transition and solve the current problems faced by solar and wind, is nuclear fusion energy. The problem with this source of energy is the bad image in public, which makes it difficult to regulate it for the policy makers. This paper attempts to explore the future of nuclear energy amidst the uncertainty of renewables and ignorance of the advantages of nuclear fusion energy.

Introduction

The global temperatures are rising constantly. It leads to melting of glaciers and increase in ocean water level. The world has seen more hurricanes in this decade than in past century. The intensity of the natural calamities is getting severe with each passing year. This results in endangering the species and leading them for their extinction, animals find it extremely difficult to adapt to these drastic changes. The devastation by these natural calamities has left the mankind wondering about their mistakes. A large portion of the educated masses are aware of the disaster that is waiting for the mankind if not immediate steps are taken, whereas few ignorant souls are unaware. Many scientists have given up on the positive outcome of climate change, few estimate that we have less than 40% chance to survive this disaster. It is the need for the future that global community be united under one roof and regulates strategies to fight the climate change.

World treaties and Paris agreement

The world has come together before multiple times to try globally. The first time a global treaty was signed was in 1987 called the Montreal Protocol, which required all nations to phase out CFCs, a chemical used in refrigerators and air conditioners that was munching through our ozone layer. It imposed hard targets for phasing out CFC and it was legally binding. Also, it took into consideration the developing countries by making special allowances for them, so that the initiative is not a hindrance for their progress. That treaty was a huge success, saving the ozone layer.

This led to the world leaders to think that climate treaty on a global level could help fight the climate change. The Paris agreement is not the first climate treaty signed by the global community. It all started with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that split the world into developed and developing countries and the roles for the agreement was divided as per that classification. It binded the developed countries to cut their emissions and developing countries were given leeway to develop their economy. It ended being a complete disaster as the developed countries felt unfair about changing their ways whereas developing countries, grew so fast that they emitted more than what developed countries could stop. After that, in Copenhagen 2009, UN negotiators tried to craft a successor treaty to Kyoto that would require all countries, rich and poor, to make legally binding commitments. But that didn’t work, either.

After the failed climate treaties, it was important to decide a format which would work. we have reached at a stage where if global efforts are not taken, the planet is destroyed. The Paris Agreement central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Every country must try to help fight the climate change and make a serious commitment towards reduction of carbon emissions. The agreement, not being legally binding this time was the strength of this agreement. Every country would start by submitting an entirely voluntary pledge for how it planned to address climate change. The content would be up to each individual government, to decide what works for them economically and technologically. This allowed the nations to have an individual plan without the legal obligations being forced on it. Since every country had different priorities, this approach also allowed countries to tailor their climate efforts to their own individual circumstances. China could focus on air pollution and India could focus on electricfying its villages with solar power. The idea is that cooperation and political persuasion can achieve what the quest for a binding treaty failed to do.

Climate change and carbon emissions

The levels of carbon emissions have been increasing rapidly for the past decade. The problem with CO2 is that it stays in the atmosphere for long periods of time. As a result, even if emissions stopped increasing, CO2 concentrations would continue to increase and remain elevated for hundreds of years. Moreover, if we stabilized concentrations and the composition of today’s atmosphere remained steady, which would require a dramatic reduction in current greenhouse gas emissions, surface air temperatures would continue to warm. This is because the oceans, which store heat, take many decades to fully respond to higher greenhouse gas concentrations. The ocean’s response to higher greenhouse gas concentrations and higher temperatures will continue to impact climate over the next several decades to hundreds of years. Last year, the CO2 levels crossed the threshold of 400 ppm and it is increasing every year. The IPCC has marked that beyond 450 ppm would be a catastrophic carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere. It is extremely important to control the rising emissions. There is on-going research on carbon capture and storage, which would help control the rising emissions.

Ideal solutions for climate change

There are multiple solutions to fight climate change and all of them point towards the transition to renewable energy. It is important to stop the use of fossil fuels to keep the carbon emissions in check. Fossil fuels provide substantial economic benefits, but in recent decades, a series of concerns have arisen about their environmental costs. A few developed countries have implemented policies to limit fossil fuel consumption through a mixture of taxes, fees, or regulation on carbon emissions and subsidies for energy conservation and the development of low- or no-carbon energy resources. (Covert, Greenstone, & Knittel, 2016)

There are multiple positive steps taken in this direction to move towards the renewable energy on a global level. California is proposing to reach 60% renewable energy by 2030; 176 countries have clean energy goals. Hawaii, America’s most oil-dependent state, has pledged to be 100% renewable by th middle of the century. There is a raging debate whether 100% renewables are realistic and feasible. Multiple studies have been made and there is on-going research for both the sides. The optimists argue that it will be more cost-effective than the current system, which largely relies on fossil fuels. The researchers say that the existing renewable energy potential and technologies coupled with storage can generate enough energy to meet the global electricity demand by 2050. The pessimists say that was important to push back against the 100 percent argument because they fear political blowback could undermine the goal of reducing emissions far enough and fast enough to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius.

The term negative emissions is relatively new in the climate change debate. It has been used to describe activities that recover more carbon from the environment than the produce and dispose of it in a safe and permanent form. Without negative emissions technologies it will get progressively more difficult to stop climate change in time. Negative emissions technologies combine capture or extraction of CO2 from the environment with carbon storage. Negative emission technologies can be deployed for canceling out concurrent positive emissions, or they can be used to reduce the carbon content of the atmosphere. Of course, if the world is emitting more CO2 than it recaptures from the environment, a negative emission, even if it is not dedicated to removing a concurrent emission, will only lower the rate of increase, rather than creating a net negative emission. (Anderson & Peters, 2016)

 

There are efforts which can be taken on an individual level like energy conservation efforts at home and work. An energy efficient lifestyle can be adopted which would help save energy. Electrical equipment can be unplugged when not in use. The shift to LED lighting can help conserve energy and save money. Biking or walking to work or other walkable areas or carpooling to work can save the emissions by automobile.

The need for nuclear energy

The question arises from the above discussion that there is no mention of nuclear energy as an ideal solution to climate change and stop carbon emissions, then why should the world be concerned about the future of nuclear energy? Where does the need of nuclear energy arise? The priority for the planet is to stop net emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Putting too much emphasis on wind, solar and other renewables may block off better carbon-reduction paths. After decades of investment, it is wrong to leave nuclear power off the table. Carbon emissions in Germany rose because it chose to phase out nuclear power and so burned more coal. Major electricity generation is done by coal, natural gas and petroleum- all fossil fuels. If we aim to forgo fossil fuels, how will we meet the electricity needs of the country? Nuclear may not be an ideal solution but it is carbon neutral and it meets 20% of the electricity needs of US. The reason world keeps falling back to fossil fuels is because they are reliable, cost-effective, but they also lead to a lot of carbon emissions. Carbon emissions is something that the world cannot afford. Nuclear power’s track record of providing clean and reliable electricity compares favorably with other energy sources. Wind and solar power are becoming increasingly widespread, but their intermittent and variable supply make them poorly suited for large-scale use in the absence of an affordable way to store electricity. Hydropower, meanwhile, has very limited prospects for expansion in the United States because of environmental concerns and the small number of potential sites.

 

Concerns about climate change and air pollution, as well as growing demand for electricity, led many governments to reconsider their aversion to nuclear power, which emits little carbon dioxide and had built up an impressive safety and reliability record. Some countries reversed their phaseouts of nuclear power, some extended the lifetimes of existing reactors, and many developed plans for new ones. But the movement lost momentum, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the massive tsunami it triggered devastated Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. The event caused widespread public doubts about the safety of nuclear power to resurface.

Type of nuclear energy

The foundation of nuclear energy is harnessing the power of atoms. Nuclear fission takes place when a large, unstable isotope, atoms with the same number of protons but different number of neutrons, is bombarded by high-speed particles, usually neutrons. These neutrons are accelerated and then slammed into the unstable isotope, causing it to fission, or break into smaller particles. During the process, a neutron is accelerated and strikes the target nucleus, which in most of nuclear power reactors today is Uranium-235. This splits the target nucleus and breaks it down into two smaller isotopes three high-speed neutrons, and a large amount of energy. This resulting energy is then used to heat water in nuclear reactors and ultimately produces electricity. The high-speed neutrons that are ejected become projectiles that initiate other fission reactions, or chain reactions. (Duke energy, 2013)

Fusion occurs when two smaller atoms collide at very high energies to merge, creating a larger, heavier atom. This is the nuclear process that powers the sun’s core, which in turn drives life on Earth. Fusion reactions have an energy density many times greater than nuclear fission and fusion reactions are themselves millions of times more energetic than chemical reactions. (Vaillancourt, Labriet, Loulou, & Waaub, 2008)

The reasons that have made fusion so difficult to achieve to date are the same ones that make it safe. The point to be noted about Nuclear Fusion plants are not like Nuclear Fission plants aka the nuclear plants we use today and it will not melt down. Let us take a magnetic confinement reactor, these reactors work by using magnetic fields to squeeze plasma in a torus (donut-shaped chamber) so that reactions can take place. If the confinement somehow failed and the magnetic fields disappeared, the plasma would simply just expand and cool and the reaction would literally just stop and nothing more would happen. There is no scare of a possible melt down even in a worst-case scenario.

 

The only problem with Nuclear Fusion is that it is difficult to accomplish since its incredibly messy. While it’s relatively easy to split an atom to produce energy, fusing hydrogen nuclei is a couple of orders of magnitude more challenging. To replicate the fusion process at the core of the sun, we must reach a temperature of at least 100 million degrees Celsius. There are a few risks involved with fusion energy, but they are minor as compared to the fission energy plants. The tremendous energy gain inside the vessel is one of the largest risks of fusion, however, a lot of care has been taken in selecting materials, which will be used to fabricate the vacuum vessel and other plasma facing components to minimize the activation caused by neutrons. Another potential issue is with the storage of tritium, one of essential materials. Since it is a short-term radio-active material, permission from international regulatory body for production and storage of Tritium is essential.

Technological issues

Tokamak reactors use a doughnut-shaped ring to house heavy and super-heavy isotopes of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium. The studies show that it takes 50 megawatts of heat to generate 500 megawatts of electricity in a tokamak. Over 200 experimental tokamaks have been built worldwide, but to date they have all consumed more energy than they produce. A massive international tokamak project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), aims to turn that situation around. The ITER is designed to produce 10 times as much energy as it takes to run, becoming the first ever net energy producing fusion reactor. ITER is collaboration of more than 35 countries around the world. The ITER members are now actively fabricating and shipping components to the ITER site in France for assembly. It is currently being built in the south of France, but with the first fusion experiments scheduled for 2030.

MIT is also developing new technology like ITER but would give quicker results by 2022 or earlier. While tokamaks and stellarators use magnets to confine plasmas, another body of research is focusing on a different strategy to trigger fusion reactions, using high-powered lasers. There are multiple researches going on for nuclear fusion energy and it could be a reality within next 10 years. (Vaillancourt et al., 2008)

Social issues

The 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan was a watershed moment for nuclear in Europe, with Italy deferring and subsequently cancelling new nuclear construction projects, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel kick-starting the country’s energy transition, of which phasing out of Germany’s civil nuclear fleet is a key component. The event caused widespread public doubts about the safety of nuclear power to resurface. In the United States, an already slow approach to new nuclear plants slowed even further in the face of an unanticipated abundance of natural gas. Any reduction in nuclear generation will increase fossil fuel generation and pollution, given the low capacity factors and intermittency of solar and wind. Germany is a case in point. Its emissions have been largely unchanged since 2009 and increased in both 2015 and 2016 due to nuclear plant closures. Reports show that despite having installed 4% more solar and 11% more wind capacity, Germany’s generation from the two sources decreased 3% and 2% respectively, since it wasn’t as sunny or windy in 2016 as in 2015. And where France has some of the cheapest and cleanest electricity in Europe, Germany has some of the most expensive and dirtiest. At the same time, new reactors under construction in Finland and France have gone billions of dollars over budget, casting doubt on the affordability of nuclear fission power plants. Public concern about radioactive waste is also hindering nuclear power, and no country yet has a functioning system for disposing of it. In fact, the U.S. government is paying billions of dollars in damages to utility companies for failing to meet its obligations to remove spent fuel from reactor sites.

 

This change in public perception has led to construction delays and cost overruns that have interrupted the principal nuclear states’ attempts to lead a nuclear revival. Businesses involved in nuclear power try to create new interests by, for example, exporting nuclear plants, fuel and related technology. These new interests mean that nuclear vendors become a new promoter of nuclear power, thus strengthening existing supporters. This allows the nuclear industry to expand and create links with other industries, and in these circumstances, the relevant government agencies are likely to continue to support nuclear power and the advancement of related technology.

 

Majority of the public is unaware about the nuclear fusion and its benefits. A survey conducted by the students at University of Texas, Austin shows that the public opinion on nuclear energy is highly changeable and easily influenced, because most Americans do not feel well informed about the subject. Public opinion about nuclear energy reflects a tradeoff people make between perceptions of need and safety concerns.The percent of well-informed audience was only 21% and among them 54% were in favor of nuclear energy. If the percent of well-informed audience is that low, the results of the survey will be based on the opinions of people who have no idea about the facts and base their opinions on the things they hear from someone. It is important for the masses to be educated in technological progress of nuclear fusion, its advantages and risks involved so that a well-informed decision can be made. The current scenario does not affect the lives of the masses directly in the developed countries, where electricity is cheap for now, they have jobs. It takes deeper awareness to realize the impending doom that the world is facing. One of the biggest challenges that we are facing is creating awareness about the available technology. It’s important to create a society which is well-informed and take logical decisions based on facts.

Political issues

After Fukushima, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent federal agency that licenses nuclear reactors, reviewed the industry’s regulatory requirements, operating procedures, emergency response plans, safety design requirements, and spent-fuel management. The NRC will almost certainly implement many the resulting recommendations, and the cost of doing business with nuclear energy in the United States will inevitably go up. Those plants that are approaching the end of their initial 40-year license period, and that lack certain modern safety features, will face additional scrutiny in having their licenses extended. (Vaillancourt et al., 2008)

Despite these limitations, there is a clear revival of nuclear energy in long-term projections to fill an important part of the gap between the current capacity and the future energy needs of developing countries without increasing GHG emissions. The fastest growth would be in Asia. Many countries are investing in nuclear research and development, encouraging the current or future penetration of new nuclear technologies. The ITER project seeks to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy by building the world’s largest and most advanced tokamak magnetic confinement fusion experiment. ITER is the largest scientific cooperation project ever established, bringing together 35 nations representing more than half of the world’s population and 85% of the planet’s gross domestic product. The contribution of the seven ITER Members is done essentially in-kindChina, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States have each established a Domestic Agency that contracts with the industry to manufacture machine components and installation systems. Except for the European Union, each Member’s contribution represents approximatively 9% of the total value of the project. As host Member, the European Union not only procures its share of components and systems; it is also responsible for delivering the 39 permanent buildings of the installation, which brings its contribution to approximately 45%. Building ITER is also a demonstration that nations, when confronted with a global challenge, can establish a completely new model for international collaboration. ITER marks both the culmination of six decades of international scientific and technological effort and the opening of a new and decisive chapter in the history of fusion research. By demonstrating the feasibility of fusion energy, ITER will answer the question that has obsessed three generations of physicists and engineers. This collaboration sets a huge milestone on international level, which is one of the longest running experiment in the wake of this global crisis. This is making a slow but steady progress. (Bigot, 2017)

The road map to the future

Renewables are not ready to store the energy and that’s why the paper pitches the idea of using nuclear fusion to bridge the gap between the demand and supply without falling back to fossil fuels. It could be argued that nuclear fusion is also in its experimental stages, whereas renewables at least have made some headway in the technology, then how does the argument make sense. I would like to stress that even though nuclear has been in experimental stage, it is being actively pursued and is slated to make its run by 2030. The renewables on the other hand have been satisfied with its progress for now and is still evaluating the idea of PV with storage facilities. The actual implementation will take years of research before it can be a reality. The research process for nuclear fusion have been going on for some time now and its ready to test its results.

With the U.S. federal budget under tremendous pressure, it is hard to imagine taxpayers funding demonstrations of a new nuclear technology. But if the United States takes a hiatus from creating new clean-energy options, be it nuclear fusion, renewable energy, advanced batteries, or carbon capture and sequestration, Americans will look back in ten years with regret. There will be fewer economically viable options for meeting the United States’ energy and environmental needs, and the country will be less competitive in the global technology market.

Conclusion

The greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, finding ways to generate power cleanly, affordably, and reliably is becoming an even more pressing imperative. Nuclear power is not a silver bullet, but it is a partial solution that has proved workable on a large scale. Countries will need to pursue a combination of strategies to cut emissions, including reining in energy demand, replacing coal power plants with cleaner natural gas plants, and investing in new technologies such as renewable energy and carbon capture and sequestration. The government’s role should be to help provide the private sector with a well-understood set of options, including nuclear power, not to prescribe a desired market share for any specific technology. (Bigot, 2017)

These are not easy steps, and none of them will happen overnight. But each is needed to reduce uncertainty for the public, the energy companies, and investors. A more productive approach to developing nuclear power, and confronting the mounting risks of climate change”is long overdue. Further delay will only raise the stakes.

References

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Possible Future of Nuclear Energy. (2019, Jul 31). Retrieved September 19, 2021 , from
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