Global Warming and the Future of Nuclear Power
The pandemic has increased awareness about the need for cleaner air
“Adding 33 new GW of nuclear power capacity annually between now and 2050 is feasible, because this build rate was already achieved by a much smaller industry in the 1980s, but the current rate of construction of less than 10 GW/y would have to triple.”
Senior Communication Director,
World Nuclear Association
At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, with people confined to their homes and cars stuck in their garages, “before and after” photographs showing a cleaner atmosphere went viral. All of a sudden, many people discovered landscapes previously obscured by the smog. If the pandemic has accelerated digitalization across the board to allow for more efficient processes and remote work, it has also highlighted the importance of decarbonization to improve humanity’s health and tackle climate change.
Nuclear suffered a severe reputation crisis after Fukushima, but the decided push toward renewables that followed the Japanese disaster has yet to prove it can reliably replace baseload sources of power. Critics of renewables point at the hidden environmental impact of both wind and solar, considering the large amount of mining extraction required to build wind turbines and solar panels, as well as the large plots of land these farms require –while biomass, increasingly fashionable in countries like the US, is blamed for deforestation. “The only low-cost scalable source of 24-hour per day, seven-day per week, 365-day per year baseload feed to the grid is nuclear,” assured Jeff Klenda, president and CEO of U.S.-based uranium producer Ur-Energy (TSE: URE). “Everywhere that we have seen nuclear reactors shut down prematurely, the immediate impact has been an increase in carbon emissions. So, any low-carbon scenario moving forward must, by definition, include nuclear,” he affirmed.
Leigh Curyer, president and CEO of NexGen Energy (TSE: NXE), said: “Renewables should be incorporated into energy policy, but baseload power is the fundamental to a healthy economy and a healthy climate. Every source of power has a cost”.
The Harmony Goal
With all this in mind and with uranium demand approaching record levels in 2019, this is a favorable moment for advocates of nuclear energy. The World Nuclear Association’s Harmony program, for instance, defends that nuclear should account for 25% of the global energy matrix by 2050. According to the association, global nuclear capacity is expected to reach 570 gigawatts (GW) by 2040, but the Harmony goal would require the construction of 1,000 GW of new installed capacity by 2050, in addition to keeping many of today’s reactors in operation.
Jonathan Cobb, senior communication director of the World Nuclear Association, provided more numbers: “Achieving the Harmony goal would mean adding an average of 33 new GW annually between now and 2050. It is feasible, because this build rate was already achieved by a much smaller industry in the 1980s, but certainly the rate of construction has to accelerate. At present, the industry is bringing online new capacity at less than 10 GW per annum, so we would have to triple that.”
Such a hike would directly translate into much higher uranium demand. Ross McElroy, CEO and chief geologist of Fission Uranium (TSE: FCU), provided some details: “Using a rule of thumb, each large 1 GW reactor consumes approximately 450,000 lb/y of uranium.”
Large reactors are sizeable investments, so improving economies of scale and efficiencies during the engineering and construction phases will be vital to success. In this respect, Jonathan Cobb pointed at series-built reactors, with multiple units based on the same or similar designs, which can help reduce permitting and construction timelines and hence lower interests due on money borrowed by the developer. “This approach is being used in the UK, where the country’s first EPR units are being built at Hinkley Point. There are proposals to build almost a carbon-copy of that plant at Sizewell, and that duplication will help reduce costs,” he explained.
“The only low-cost scalable source of 24-hour per day, seven-day per week, 365-day per year baseload feed to the grid is nuclear.”
President and CEO,
Small and micro reactors
While most of the attention is on traditional nuclear plants, uranium use is not limited to traditional reactors, as Klenda of Ur-Energy pointed out: “By the middle of this decade, we are going to see a massive number of small nuclear reactors providing baseload electricity to several cities. Beyond that, there are also the micro-reactors, which are fueling the local navies in the U.S. and the other world powers, and which are going to be critical for remote locations.”
Small nuclear reactors, or SMRs, offer capacities of less than 300 MW, versus the traditional 1GW to 1.75 GW reactors. According to the World Nuclear Association, these SMR designs can also be used in a wider range of applications, like the floating modular unit that entered operations in Pevek (Russia), which provides water desalination as well as electricity.
Curyer of NexGen Energy developed on this issue: “SMRs can be a real catalyst for economic development. Putting these in some parts of Africa, where often you do not have reliable power at night, would massively improve the standard of living.”
Addressing waste management
The ability of nuclear to continue developing will be determined by countries’ energy policies, which in turn will be dictated by a number of factors. Among the external factors are global warming and the availability and efficiency of alternative sources of power. A key internal factor will be the nuclear sector’s ability to assure adequate nuclear waste management and dependable operational safety, certainly avoiding high-profile disasters such as Chernobyl or Fukushima.
In terms of waste management, volumes are small when compared to other power generation alternatives like coal, oil and gas, said Cobb of the World Nuclear Association: “The entire fuel requirements of a nuclear reactor can be stored in a fuel pool on site for the lifetime of that reactor, which could be 60 years or more, or it can be moved to dry cask storage. It is possible to reprocess nuclear fuel and recycle it as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. For fuel destined for disposal, the first geological repositories are now under construction.”
At a time of low uranium prices, certain players have seen opportunity in the environmental management aspect of the fuel cycle. US uranium producer Energy Fuels (TSE: EFR) has expanded its business into the processing of radioactive residues to produce new uranium for nuclear reactors, including spillage of ores containing uranium, uranium residues from water treatment plants, or residues left over by process plants that uranium producers do not have the license to deal with. Mark Chalmers, president and CEO of Energy Fuels, stated: “Over the past 20 years, we have recycled about 6 million lb of uranium, the equivalent of 12-13 reactor-years of fuel. We are the only company in the US that can offer this solution and we plan to take the same model to the rare earths space, which confronts the same health, safety and environmental issues.”
Reputation will be a key factor promoting or impeding new nuclear generation development, and industry executives in the uranium space are convinced that this pandemic has shown the key role nuclear should continue to have in the upcoming decades. In the words of Tim Gabruch, VP commercial at Denison Mines (TSE: DML): “More people are recognizing the key role that nuclear energy must play as part of the energy mix needed to fight climate change. During the pandemic, the importance of nuclear power has been further highlighted, as nuclear power operators have kept their promise to deliver clean, reliable baseload power to supply critical infrastructure, including hospitals, while also providing stable high value jobs.”
“SMRs can be a real catalyst for economic development. Putting these in some parts of Africa, where often you do not have reliable power at night, would massively improve the standard of living.”
President and CEO,
Photos in this article courtesy of Fission Uranium Corp. and Energy Fuels Inc.