This summer saw unusually high temperatures which wreaked havoc in the form of heatwaves, wildfires and droughts -- and this winter will see a record number of people struggling against the cold due to energy insecurity.
These problems are connected, and it is only through developing a sustainable, resilient energy system that we can solve them.
Energy underpins every area of modern human activity, which is why it is essential to develop an energy system that is cost-effective, resilient to geopolitical events, provides cheap energy for emerging economies to prosper, and does not wreck the climate.
We need a radical shift in how we generate, store, distribute and use power to build a sustainable future. We must cut greenhouse gas emissions swiftly and significantly, while ensuring we are no longer strategically reliant on unreliable regions.
We need safe, carbon-neutral energy for baseload power and for peak loads as well as industrial heat for hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as steel, cement, fertiliser, aluminium and especially green hydrogen.
To achieve the above, we must move away from fossil fuels. But what will replace them? What will power our world in 2050 and beyond?
On Tuesday 6th September, the Clean Growth Leadership Network, in partnership with international law firm Cleary Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton hosted a conference to look at the role that new nuclear technologies could play in solving both the climate crisis while providing energy security for all.
The CGLN’s conference focused on three types of new nuclear technologies: small modular reactors (SMRs), 4th generation reactors such as molten salt power generation, and fusion. Uniquely, the event was not just a discussion for nuclear experts about technology; our goal was to bring together a range of diverse speakers and audience:
Private sector finance, who are looking for investment opportunities;
Nuclear technology developers who are looking for funds;
Industrial companies who want to meet their net-zero commitments;
Managers of decommissioned facilities who want to find new uses for nuclear sites and for nuclear waste;
Government who want to meet their Paris agreement commitments ensure energy supply, and create a prosperous economy;
Regulators who are working to modernise their regulation;
Universities who are conducting fundamental research and students who are training to be the next generation of nuclear engineers; and
NGOs who will defend the public interest and provide a public forum for discussion.
The idea was to create synergies between the participants, and momentum to speed up innovation, to get to Zero Carbon and a chance to meet the Paris Agreement goals.
The brilliance, energy and dedication of the scientists, business leaders, policymakers and others we heard was truly impressive. The day served as a catalyst for wider discussions to be had and work to be done in scaling up new nuclear technologies to be part of the wider climate change solution.
The key conclusions and takeaways from the conference were:
1: While we should pursue renewables as much as we can now, they can’t meet our needs everywhere, all the time. We have to develop further sources of energy including renewables and nuclear, to generate not only electricity but also industrial heat to production that needs high temperatures.
2: To outcompete gas and coal, the price for electricity should be no more than 3.5 – 5.0 cents per kWh.
3: New nuclear technologies may offer this promise, and do so without material carbon emissions. New nuclear technologies complement each other: small modular reactors in the next years, Generation IV nuclear reactors by the end of the decade, and nuclear fusion by mid-century.
4: They have a range of applications starting from complementing renewables, to generating industrial heat required for the production of hydrogen, methanol, steel, aluminium, cement, fertiliser, chemicals and other hard-to-abate sectors, as well as water desalination for drought-ridden areas and carbon capture for production of synthetic fuel or to put the carbon back where it came from, underground.
5: While the engineering is making promising progress, there are several challenges, including lack of understanding of nuclear technology and popular misperceptions, and lack of financing for certain sectors. In addition, we need adaptation of regulation originally created for conventional Generation III nuclear mega-plants. Industrial and financial partnerships can help overcome these challenges and move the industry from building prototypes to actual functioning power plants.
We began the day with a look at the economics of the climate crisis. Jostein Kristensen (Oxera), explained the market failures that brought about the crisis: the social costs of climate damage and extreme weather events is not included in the price of fossil fuels. That gives coal, oil, and gas an artificial advantage.
But reducing investment in fossil fuels now, in anticipation of an increase in renewables capacity will take careful coordination. We need to ensure there is a sufficiently diverse energy mix that is able to provide base load as well as being versatile enough to provide peak loads. Nuclear energy can help ensure we can continue to deliver net zero at lowest cost and resilience in supply.
Greg De Temmerman (Zenon Research) provided a foundational overview of the technologies of which we were to discuss - SMRs, 4th Generation (such as molten salt reactors) and fusion.
Greg explained the scale of the challenge we face ahead of us, in that 80 percent of our energy currently comes from fossil fuels. But he also showed the jump humanity made by using nuclear between 1965 and 1990s.
He demonstrated the key role that nuclear has already played in decarbonisation, outlining that “…since 1970, nuclear has allowed us to save about 70 billion tonnes of CO2 from emitted into the atmosphere – roughly 2 years of total global emissions.”
The scientific panel discussed three technologies going forward, as well as the benefits and challenges that flow from them.
Greg and Tom Bergman (NuScale) explained the difference between the nuclear reactors currently in operation and Small Modular Reactors (“SMRs”) have significant advantages over large-scale plants in that they can be:
mass-built in a central location,
based on standardized components,
produced in modular formats, and
shipped to where they are needed.
units can then be added like lego bricks if more capacity is needed.
Tom emphasized that the ‘modular’ element of SMR is more important than their size. Each ‘block’ of the reactor is around 50 metres in diameter and 60 metres tall. A typical reactor has a reactor vessel, a pressuriser to keep the vessel from boiling over, and then 2-4 steam generators all connected by large pipes. NuScale’s reactors contain the reactor, pressure vessel, and steam generator in a single module. They obtained first regulatory approvals in 2020.
Greg and Prof Bruno Merck explained that Generation IV reactors like Molten Salt Reactors (“MSRs”) are not only scalable from SMRs to large plants but:
use up almost all the fuel, producing a fraction of the nuclear waste we are used to, which moreover need only be stored for a few hundred years. They can even use nuclear waste as a fuel;
They can use thorium as a fuel, which is not rare, found everywhere and need not be enriched. So, no strategic dependencies;
They don’t need water coolant, so they don’t need to slow down like conventional light water reactors had to this dry summer, and can run in deserts;
And they are walkaway safe (no meltdown danger, no high-pressure water cooling system prone to explosion, passive safety, and proliferation resistant.)
Finally, Greg and Dr Melanie Windridge (Fusion Energy Insights) set out the long-term promise of nuclear fusion, where there have been significant breakthroughs recently:
A huge energy intensity compared to other technologies
Competitive – 5 cents/kWh
Melanie explained that it is one thing to become net-zero by 2050 and it is a totally different matter to be able to sustain and progress from there. While we are yet to arrive at a stable fusion reaction, she expects this advanced technology of the future to maintain Net Zero in the post-2050 world.
We heard from Prof Klaus Spohr about the potential role for laser technology alongside these technologies - for example, to be used as a starter kit for molten salt reactors or to substantially reduce nuclear waste - an advanced research programme performed by Klaus Spohr and his colleagues at ELI-NP.
Having grasped the foundations of the science behind the new nuclear technologies we then moved on to consider the business perspectives, where representatives of Rolls Royce SMR, Copenhagen Atomics and Tokamak Energy focused on how we can put the new technologies into practice, looking at the steps that need to be taken to bring them to market safely and efficiently.
They considered the unfair competitive advantage of fossil fuels – highlighting that if the true price of hydrocarbons were really included in the price of electricity, to include the climate costs, they would be at least 12 cents per kW hour. If that were to be the case, then nuclear and renewables would already be competitive.
Harry Keeling (Rolls Royce SMR) pointed out that new nuclear technologies move away from mega-project nuclear reactors that are hugely expensive and with substantial lead times to commissioning. The approach that Rolls Royce is taking is in building their power facilities from standardised components in modular formats, which allows it to be shipped to where they are needed allowing for units to be added like Lego blocks if more capacity is needed over time.
Another key challenge that needs to be tackled is when it comes to the public perception of nuclear energy. Mike Christiansen (Copenhagen Atomics) described the molten salt reactors Copenhagen Atomics is working on. He explained how ‘waste burners’ can use nuclear waste as a fuel — solving a huge problem of waste that would otherwise have to be stored for tens of thousands of years. He expects a commercial Gen IV reactor by 2028, provided regulatory approval is obtained.
All of the speakers of the business panel agreed on the importance of adequate finance – a determining factor for the speed of development. Access to conventional sources of finance, be it institutional investors or commercial banks, is difficult. The finance community lacks a common understanding of the technologies. Second, the time scales for the returns on investment may be too uncertain or long, for technologies like Generation IV or fusion, even if they are in advanced R&D and testing stages.
Dr David Kingham (Tokamak Energy) spoke of recent developments in fusion. As an example, Tokamak Energy recently reached 100 million degrees temperature in a spherical tokamak. While this has been achieved before, they were able to do so at a cost of £50 million – not billions – and in a device fifteen times smaller, showing the progress being made.
David pointed out that they are getting significantly better support and funding from private foundations that focus on longer-term solutions to tackle climate change, rather than venture capital. He called for a common regulatory and financial framework to allocate sufficient capital to nuclear to make necessary advances.
After lunch, we heard a keynote presentation from Flibe Energy CEO, Kirk Sorensen. Kirk is famous for having rediscovered the molten salt reactor experiments Alvin Weinberg conducted in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. These were eventually terminated by President Nixon for political and military reasons, even though they promised safer and more sustainable nuclear energy than pressurised light water reactors. Flibe is now bringing this technology to market.
Kirk’s speech is available here. He took us back in time to look at the history of nuclear technology, its connection with weapons production, and the damage that connection has caused in the contemporary development of new nuclear technologies to provide clean energy. He called on the UK to make its stockpile of separated plutonium available as fuel for Generation IV reactors, or for tritium production for fusion, which would allow this stockpile to be used safely and productively, instead of incurring the billions of pounds needed to finance burying it for millennia.