Innovations
Atomic Energy

Redesigning Atomic Energy

Redesigned atomic energy is key to avoid climate collapse

In its assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the expansion of clean energy sources, including atomic energy and renewables, is critically needed if our planet is to avoid a 1.5° C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. 

Atomic energy is already among the cleanest sources of energy: no greenhouse gases or toxic pollutants are released during operations. 

The Anthropocene advocates for the continued operation of existing atomic energy plants and for the development of new reactor designs that are safer to operate and more versatile in use. 

Atomic energy is safe, clean, and reliable

0

US deaths due to power plants operations

30 States

rely on atomic power and reactors

52%

of clean energy provided by atomic energy

1 million

US lives saved by pollution averted 

How much power does atomic energy generate in the United States?

As of 2017, there are 99 nuclear reactors operating in 30 states in the United States. These reactors provide about 20% or 800 terawatt hours (TWh) of the country’s total power mix. As a baseload source, nuclear is operational 90% of the time. The reactors are turned off every 18 to 24 months for refueling and maintenance.

How many nuclear reactors are there in the world?

Worldwide, there are around commercial 440 nuclear reactors today that provide 390 GW of electricity in 31 countries. In 2015, these reactors produced 2410 TWh or 10.5% of the world’s electricity.

In 2015, reactors produced 2410 TWh or 10.5% of the world’s electricity.

How much does it cost to produce nuclear energy?

Among major US investor-owned utilities, the average cost of electricity (2015) from nuclear is about $26/MWh. In contrast, the cost of electricity produced from coal is $37/MWh and from natural gas is $33/MWh. And, this does not include the cost of pollution and waste disposal that nuclear is not associated with. 

How much fuel does a nuclear power plant use?

A 1 GW plant, (for 750,000 homes) consumes only 3 kg of nuclear fuel per day, costing about half as much as equivalent weight in Silver. The nuclear plant releases only steam, or clean warm water. Fuel cost is about one half cent per kWh, much less than consumer energy prices in California between $0.25 to $0.50 per kWh.

A comparable coal plant needs 9000 tons of coal of day which is released into the atmosphere as ?3 times as much CO2, and includes toxic and radioactive materials such as mercury, that causes substantial brain damage. The fuel costs 3.5 times more. By weight U-235 (3% enriched) fuel produces 2.5 million times more energy than coal.

Americans want nuclear power

Support is high regardless of political affiliation

64 percent of Republicans
60 percent of Democrats
Notable rise by Democrats from 56% (2020) and 37% (2018)

Nuclear energy and health

67 percent of Americans support nuclear energy because it does not emit harmful pollutants
Youth support nuclear after learning it pollutes much less

Americans want nuclear innovation

When defined as inexpensive, produces little waste, and is fail-safe, 74 percent of Americans would support “new” nuclear power such as molten salt reactors.
Source: EcoAmerica

What is the lifespan of a nuclear power plant?

The average age of the US nuclear plant fleet in the US is about 35 years. In the US, licenses for 22 reactors are due to expire by 2030. This represents 27.7 GW of capacity or about 215 TWh (4 to 5%) of total electricity generation

Does nuclear power produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?

Unlike fossil fuel-fired plants that burn coal, gas, or oil, nuclear reactors do not produce carbon dioxide greenhouse gas or particulate pollutions during its operation. However, the construction of the facilities uses large of volumes of concrete and steel, which is energy and pollution intensive.

A coal fired plant which powers about 750,000 homes, uses about 6750 tons of coal per day, while a nuclear power uses only 3 kg fuel per day. | Photo Credit: Michael Tuszynski on Pexels

Is there a long term solution for nuclear waste disposal?

There has yet to be a long term solution to the disposal of the spent reactor fuel and uranium mill tailings (the radioactive sludge left after uranium is extraction) in the US or elsewhere. Nuclear experts believe the country needs geologic repositories to permanently separate these materials from the biosphere.

Can nuclear fuel be used for government applications?

Nuclear fuel cannot be directly used to make nuclear weapons. The uranium that is used to make weapons are enriched to at least 90% U-235. However materials along the nuclear fuel cycle from yellowcake to spent fuel can be reprocessed to obtain weapons grade uranium.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) plays a role in ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear power. According to their web site, "the IAEA fosters the efficient and safe use of nuclear power by supporting existing and new nuclear programs around the world, catalyzing innovation and building capacity in energy planning, analysis, and nuclear information and knowledge management. The Agency helps countries meet growing energy demand for development, while improving energy security, reducing environmental and health impacts, and mitigating climate change.

Why invest in atomic innovations?

The US and several other countries have been pursuing newer reactor designs (4th generation reactors) to improve the safety, affordability, and versatility of nuclear power. The deployment of these reactors can contribute to the use of clean energy sources that are economically competitive in both established and emerging economies.

In the West, more than 30 reactor designs have been pursued since the 1990s. Most of these projects have been privately funded with at least $1.3 billion have been invested. 

The US and several other countries have been pursuing newer reactor designs (4th generation reactors)  that are economically competitive in both established and emerging economies. | Photo Credit: Sam Beasley on Unsplash

How are we redesigning atomic energy today?

For decades, the US and other countries have been pursuing innovations in atomic reactor designs that are not only more efficient and safer than current reactors, they are more versatile. Because they operate at higher temperatures (above 600° C), they are amenable for the industrial sector, which contributes to a third of global GHG emissions. These industrial applications include process heat for chemical feedstocks and steel processing, as well as for water desalinization.
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