New, safe nuclear reactors can stop climate change, but they are afraid to build

In 2018, scientists reported the stern news: despite concerns about global warming, coal produced 38% of global electricity in 2017 — that is, exactly the same as when the first climate alert appeared 20 years ago. Worse, greenhouse gas emissions rose by 2.7% last year - the largest increase in seven years. This stagnation led to the fact that even politicians and environmentalists began to think that we need more nuclear energy.

Even UN scientists who have not shown enthusiasm forIn the past, today they say that any plan to keep the planet’s temperature below 1.5 degrees will rely on a significant leap in the use of nuclear energy. But we are moving in a different direction. Germany plans to shut down all nuclear reactors by 2022; Italy voted to block any future projects back in 2011. And even if nuclear energy would find the support of the general public (and this did not happen), it is expensive to produce it: several nuclear stations in the USA recently closed down, since they could not compete with the cheapness of shale gas.

New type nuclear reactors

“If the present situation remains the same,more nuclear power plants are likely to shut down and be replaced mainly by natural gas, leading to increased emissions, ”said anxious scientists in the Union - who have always been considered skeptics about nuclear power - in 2018. According to scientists, if all the stations are closed, carbon emissions will increase by 6%.

At the moment the question is aboutsupport existing systems is not worth it, says Edwin Lyman, acting director of the nuclear safety project at UCS. “The more important question is whether the deployment of new nuclear power plants over the next few decades will be realistic at the right pace.”

In early 2018, only in North America was75 individual nuclear fission projects that tried to answer this question. These projects involve the same type of reaction as conventional nuclear reactors that have been used for decades - fission, or atom fission.

One of the leading technologies is smallmodular reactor (SMR): a smaller version of traditional nuclear fission systems, which promises to be cheaper and safer. NuScale Power, based in Portland, Oregon, has a 60-megawatt design, which is about to be deployed. (A typical expensive installation can produce about 1000 MW of electricity).

NuScale should install 12 small reactors formaintaining the energy needs of 46 facilities throughout the west of the United States, however, the project will be implemented only if the group members agree to finance it by the end of the year. History shows that it will not be easy. In 2011, Generation mPower, another SMR developer, received a contract to build up to six reactors similar to NuScale. He was supported by the corporate owners of Babcock & Wilcox, the world's largest energy producers, but the contract was terminated in less than three years because there were no new customers. No customers means the price will not decrease, which means the project will not develop.

While the NuScale approach usestraditional nuclear reactors with water cooling, reducing them, so-called IV generation systems use alternative coolers. China is building a large-scale sodium-cooled reactor in Fujian province, which will be operational in 2023, and TerraPower from Washington has developed a sodium-cooled system that can run on spent fuel, depleted uranium or uranium directly from the ground. TerraPower - in which Bill Gates invested - entered into an agreement with Beijing to build a demonstration station in 2022.

Another generation IV variant, a reactor withmolten salt is safer than earlier designs, as it can self-cool, even if the system completely loses power. Canada’s Terrestrial Energy plans to build a 190 MW power plant in Ontario, and its first reactors will produce energy by 2030 at a price that can be compared with natural gas.

One of the IV generation reactors may sooncome into operation. Helium cooled reactors, extremely high-temperature, can operate at temperatures up to 1000 degrees. The state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation has a prototype with a capacity of 210 MW in the eastern province of Shandong - it will be connected to the network this year.

Thermonuclear fusion

Many, however, cherish the hope of thermonuclearsynthesis. Thermonuclear fusion reactors mimic the nuclear process inside the Sun, pushing lighter atoms together and turning them into heavier ones, and releasing tremendous amounts of energy along the way. On the Sun, this process is driven by gravity. On Earth, engineers are trying to recreate the conditions of thermonuclear fusion with extremely high temperatures — on the order of 150 million degrees — but it is difficult for them to keep the plasma necessary for the synthesis of atoms.

One of the solutions built is presented by ITER,previously known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which has been under construction since 2010 in Karadasch, France. His magnetic confinement system has global support, but costs have risen to $ 22 billion due to delays and political disputes. The first experiments, originally scheduled for 2018, were postponed to 2025.

Vancouver General Fusion uses a combinationphysical pressure and magnetic fields to create plasma pulses that last for millionths of a second. This approach is less complex than that of ITER, which makes the system much cheaper, but there are still technical problems associated with the manufacture of titanium components that can cope with the workload. However, General Fusion expects its reactors to be deployed in 10-15 years.

California company TAE Technologies, betweenShe spent 20 years developing a thermonuclear reactor that converts energy directly into electricity. This company, which received $ 500 million from investors, predicted in January that it would be commercially viable for five years.

Which of these technologies will succeed? Improved nuclear fission reduces nuclear waste — even uses it as fuel — and drastically reduces the chance of tragedy, like in Fukushima or Chernobyl. But such reactors have not yet received a license anywhere except in China and Russia. Many simply do not believe companies, when they promise that new technologies will be able to avoid old mistakes.

However, the matter is not only in politics: cost is also worth considering. Improved nuclear fission promises to knock off incredibly expensive initial costs of nuclear energy by creating reactors that can be built at the plant, and not on order. This should reduce the cost, as happened with wind and solar energy. But private companies rarely achieved success by completing such projects: the greatest successes were achieved thanks to highly centralized, state-controlled schemes that more easily absorb risks.

General Fusion CEO Chris Mauri agreesthat nuclear fission is facing too many barriers to success. He has experience: he established mPower, a company for the production of small nuclear modules, which was mothballed in 2014. Synthesis reactors will be more difficult to build, but society will more easily accept them. This is where capital injection will begin - investors are confident that the one who will make synthesis work first will become fabulously rich.

But does synthesis really have more space?to maneuver? The fact that low-level and short-lived radioactive waste from tritium does not pose a serious threat, it is true that melting is impossible. But the costs are high, and the terms are very remote - ITER is much more expensive than originally planned, and will not be ready for at least another 15 years. Meanwhile, many already want to close ITER, and people do not see the difference between division and synthesis.

There are no guarantees that nuclear power will become the energy of the future. But it would be very good, would you agree? Or not? Tell us in our chat in Telegram.