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What is the place of nuclear technology in the future energy mix?

Discussions on how to reach net zero are running hot given that energy systems fully based on renewable power are not within reach in the next decades.  The reasons are related to challenges of excess solar or wind energy production in certain periods and insufficient production in other periods, which cannot be effectively absorbed by batteries and demand response at current levels of technological progress. Flexibility of production is therefore achieved by conventional powerplants using fossil fuels. The climate activists are demanding the end of fossil fuels today rather than tomorrow. What possible responses are there to this challenge?  Well, one response is the end of coal fired power plants as they are the ‘dirtiest’ production.  Another response is CO2 capture technologies and green hydrogen production in times of excess wind and solar. But there is also the third possibility to avoid CO2 emissions, and this is to build out nuclear production.

There are a lot of concerns around nuclear technology, which cause many countries including Austria, my country of residence, to decide against using nuclear technology. Austria made this decision in a rather unusual way, by building a nuclear power plant first, and then asking people in a referendum to turn it on or not. The decision not to turn it on paved the way to total unacceptance of nuclear production in the country.

There are 3 common objections against nuclear power production. They are related to safety, investment costs and nuclear waste utilization. Intensive research work is underway to reduce the threat coming from these factors and there has been serious technical progress in all these areas of concern. In this blog I will address 2 of them: safety and investment costs.

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There is global interest in so called small and medium sized or modular reactors (SMR). This technology becomes popular in many countries due to the ability to meet the need for flexible power generation for a wider range of users and applications and replace ageing fossil fuel-fired power plants. SMRs have advanced engineered features, are deployable either as a single or multi-module plants, are designed to be built in factories and shipped to utilities for installation as demand arises. Many SMRs can be transported by truck or by rail and located near places with high power demand such as hydrogen or aluminum production, and they can produce not only electricity, but also heat.

Austria is not only a country strongly opposed to usage of nuclear power, but also the country hosting such organizations as IAEA. This organization puts a lot of focus on the SMRs. In response to an increase in global activities related to non-water-cooled reactors and small modular reactors, IAEA issued a new Safety Report documenting areas of novelty of these technologies when compared to the current fleet of reactors. According to this report SMRs display an enhanced safety performance through inherent and passive safety features, offer better upfront capital cost affordability, and are suitable for cogeneration and non-electric applications.

The IAEA helps member countries interested in this technology to address common infrastructure issues that could facilitate the SMRs’ deployment. IAEA publications report that more than 80 SMR designs and concepts exist globally. Most of them are in various developmental stages and some are claimed as being near-term deployable. There are currently four SMRs in advanced stages of construction in Argentina, China and Russia, and several existing and newcomer nuclear energy countries are conducting SMR research and development.

Europe is not staying aside. The TANDEM Euratom Project, or TANDEM, aims to assess the safety compliance of SMRs to be integrated in the future European energy mix. Other objectives include creating an enabling environment for the development of hybrid energy systems based on SMRs. According to project supporters  SMRs have the potential to strongly contribute towards decarbonization of the entire energy system, thus helping Europe to achieve climate-neutrality in Europe and the Sustainable Development Goals (particularly SDG 7, access to energy for all)  by 2050. The project was presented and got a lot of attention at ENLIT. “It’s very important to have nuclear stabilize the grid,” said Claire Vaglio-Gaudard, Director of Research and senior expert for the TANDEM project.

I am not sure that this project will remove all the objections and concerns of the nuclear energy critics. However, there is a need for serios consideration of production mix, including grid reliability and supply security, as well as decarbonization and sufficient access to energy for everybody. Nuclear energy can play an important role in these considerations and steady technical progress helps to improve all relevant technologies including the nuclear one