Nuclear power is on the brink of a $1 trillion resurgence, but one accident anywhere could stop that momentum


21 July 2022, Bavaria, Essenbach: Water vapor rises behind sunflowers from the cooling system of the nuclear power plant (NPP) Isar 2.
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Nuclear energy is at an inflection point. Early exuberance about its potential was undercut by a series of devastating and dangerous accidents at Three Mile Island in in Pennsylvania in 1979Chornobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan in 2011.

But now, thanks to new nuclear technology and the increasingly urgent need to fight climate change, nuclear energy is getting a second shot at becoming a prominent part of the global energy grid. That’s because nuclear energy generation does not create any of the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

In a panel discussion at the United Nations on Tuesday, a collection of nuclear energy leaders from around the world gathered to discuss the scope of that renaissance and why it’s so critical that the industry work together to ensure gold-standard safety measures are adopted everywhere.

A nuclear accident anywhere has the potential to upset the most major momentum the nuclear industry has had in decades.

$1 trillion in expected global demand

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said that nuclear energy represents 20% of the United States’ baseload power, and 50% of its no-carbon-emissions power. “And that’s just from the fleet that we have today without the other additions that we are hoping to see.”

Future nuclear reactors and plants will almost certainly use different technology from the current standard, as both U.S. labs and private companies are funding research into more efficient reactors that are cheaper to build and generate less waste. Granholm mentioned, as an example, the advanced nuclear reactor Bill Gates‘ nuclear innovation company TerraPower is installing in a former coal town in Wyoming.

Demand for advanced nuclear reactors will be worth about $1 trillion globally, Granholm said, according to an estimate from the Department of Energy. That includes jobs building those reactors and all the associated supply chains that will need to ramp up to support that industry, Granholm said.

“Bottom line is spreading advanced nuclear energy is a priority for us,” Granholm said. “Of course, these technologies all have to begin and end with nuclear safety and security.”

The change in sentiment surrounding nuclear energy has happed quite quickly, said Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A photograph shows dogs passing by a Ferris wheel in background in the ghost town of Pripyat near the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant on May 29, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Dimitar Dilkoff | AFP | Getty Images

“Until just a few years ago, nuclear would not be present, and perhaps not even welcome” at the annual COP conferences, which stands for “Conference of the Parties” and is an opportunity for country leaders to meet and discuss climate change. “The IAEA has moved quite fast from almost an intruder into a very welcomed participant in this dialogue where nuclear has a place.”

The next COP conference will be in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November, and the one after that will be in Dubai Expo City in the United Arab Emirates. The IAEA is planning to be part of both of these coming conferences.

“The mere fact that we are talking about COPs with nuclear in Egypt, and in the Gulf, in and by itself is telling you a lot of what is happening and how we are changing and the possibilities that we have and that could have been almost unforeseeable just a few years ago.”

Safety first

But if nuclear is to continue to be a part of these climate change conferences and conversations, the entire international community has to work together to adhere to strict safety and non-proliferation standards.

“Nobody’s buying a car today if it gets into an accident every day. So safety and security that an application is the foundation for successful deployment of nuclear energy,” said Hamad Al Kaabi, the United Arab Emirates’ representative to the IAEA, on Tuesday.

“The issue how nuclear industry works and is perceived globally, any accident anywhere is an accident everywhere,” Al Kaabi said.

The UAE has three nuclear reactors in operation and a fourth reactor in the final stages of commissioning, Al Kaabi said. But building nuclear plants takes time, and the process in the UAE started approximately 13 years ago.

Vietnam has been considering nuclear power for decades now, according to the World Nuclear Association, an international trade group. The country announced a plan to build a nuclear power plant back in 2006, but put those plans on hold in 2016, partly because of the expense. Then, in March of this year, Vietnam published an official draft energy proposal that includes small modular nuclear reactors.

The United States and the IAEA have both helped guide Vietnam in its efforts to include nuclear energy in its national energy plan, Ha Kim Ngoc, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister, said in Tuesday’s event. For a country like Vietnam, which has relatively small amount of land, the small footprint that nuclear energy reactors take compared with the amount of energy they produce make it an appealing option, Ngoc said.

South Africa has two reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association, and now other countries in Africa are interested in deploying nuclear energy.

“Most of the countries where I come from in Africa have very small grids,” Collins Juma, the Republic of Kenya’s Nuclear Power and Energy Agency chief executive officer, said on Tuesday. Advanced nuclear reactor designs, especially small modular reactors are interesting to African countries, though Juma did also hint that paying for nuclear reactors might be hard for some African countries. “I’m not sure about the cost, but we shall be discussing that in other forums,” Juma said.

As Africa works to decarbonize, nuclear is a critical baseload corollary to wind, solar and geothermal in the continent. But bringing nuclear energy to Africa will require independent and strong regulation to convince people it is safe.

“Nuclear is a very emotive topic,” Juma said. And it’s one where “everyone is an expert” and thinks they know it is dangerous. “We have to be very careful when we are developing a nuclear power plan. And the public, especially the public, have to have confidence” that the nuclear energy plant is safe, Juma said.

So Juma asked for guidance from leading nuclear powers and organizations. “When you copy, you only copy from the best, you don’t copy from the worst,” Juma said.

For countries that are interested in building nuclear power reactors, IAEA has written an actual guidebook, “Milestones in the Development of a National Infrastructure for Nuclear Power,” and that’s a good place for countries to start, Grossi recommended.

“The moment is serious, and we know it is red alert for Planet Earth,” Grossi said. “We have been saying this, but nuclear is not for a few, nuclear can be for the many.”