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Is nuclear energy greener than we thought?

EU labels nuclear power ‘green’

Nuclear power currently accounts for about 10% of the world’s electricity, with the US and European Union (EU) countries leading the way.

Nuclear energy received the ‘green light’ from the EU in early July 2022 – under restrictions – when it labelled both nuclear power and natural gas as ‘green’. The capacity factor of nuclear energy is about 1.5 to two times more than natural gas and coal units, and it is 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar plants.

As SA’s ongoing energy crisis intensifies, and divesting from fossil fuels presents a very real challenge in a carbon-dependent country, nuclear power seems like a more attractive solution than it did previously. But what are the true costs, both economic and environmental?


Managing nuclear risks

While nuclear power may not be completely ‘green’ like wind or solar power, it is considered less polluting than oil or coal. It is also the cleanest source of energy after solar, wind and natural gas. In any scientific scenario, nuclear power plays a role in the energy transition, because without it the energy transition is more costly. Its major advantage, that it has virtually zero emissions, does offer a pathway away from reliance on fossil fuels. And, despite high-profile tragic accidents such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear power has one of the lowest death rates attached to energy sources.

The dynamics of the industry are also changing, as nuclear technology gradually moves towards a safer means of generating electricity and better solutions to dispose of spent fuel. Meanwhile, the need to deal with potentially catastrophic global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is becoming more urgent, along with the risks of energy security and energy poverty as families become less able to afford higher natural gas prices.

However, the nuclear industry continues to present significant risks, led by the potential for accidents and the problem of safely storing radioactive waste.


Safely storing waste

A growing role for nuclear power in the energy transition debate hinges on effectively resolving the waste issue. The world has a stockpile of about 250 000 tons of highly radioactive waste that requires permanent storage solutions.

The first permanent storage facility is being built in Finland and will open in 2025. The toxic waste will be buried deep in the ground in ultra-stable bedrock, but this will need to be monitored for a long time before it is fully accepted as a proven solution.

Other countries like Sweden, France and the UK are also developing permanent storage facilities. Technology development in this area is critical.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sets out standards and reviews in a recognised system that ensures proper management of these risks. Countries that score well on nuclear safety are viewed as investible.


Costs and viability for South Africa

In 1964 South Africa became the first country in Africa to develop a nuclear power plant. The Koeberg power plant in Cape Town has two nuclear reactors and generates a total of 1 860 MW, or 5% of the country’s energy, and is licensed until 2024. The government plans to ramp this capacity to 10 000 MW.

SA’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) provides a framework for the government to grow the country’s nuclear generating capabilities by up to 2 500 MW of new capacity, at a pace and scale that the country could afford. A request for proposals (RFP) has been issued, aiming to select a service provider to develop a procurement framework for this new 2 500 MW nuclear programme. The RFP closes in 2024.

Plans are underway to extend Koeberg’s lifespan to 2044. Safety concerns have been raised about these plans, but the nuclear power plant has been deemed safe following an IAEA visit in March 2022 to review long-term safety requirements.

Thyspunt in the Eastern Cape was identified as a potential site for building a nuclear power plant, but SA’s National Nuclear Regulator requested additional information earlier this year. It has given Eskom twelve months to provide this as part of its licence application process.

There are also differences of opinion on what SA’s additional nuclear energy options should be. Large-scale nuclear power plants could take up to 12 to 15 years to design and there is a risk that rapidly-changing technologies could result in an outdated plant by the time it comes on line. Some argue that Small Modular Reactors, which are low-cost and short term, are the best way forward.

‘High nuclear energy cost concerns are not specific to South Africa only,’ said Derick Deale, equity analyst at Sanlam Investments. ‘A 2021 electricity generation comparison by the US Energy Institute Administration looks at the long-term levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) and shows that nuclear energy has a very high levelised capital cost. This raises the risk that project delays will raise costs, but the variable costs and operations and maintenance are competitive. This gives nuclear energy a total lifecycle cost that is more comparable to other energy options.’


The future of nuclear

The Russia-Ukraine war threatens the global electricity supply chain, as Russia is a significant producer of enriched uranium, which is key to nuclear energy (fission), and a big player in the design of nuclear reactors, said Deale. The International Energy Agency also reports that, of the 31 reactors that started construction since 2017, all but four are of Russian and Chinese design.

In a blog posted on 16 June 2022, John Kotek, Senior Vice President, Policy Development and Public Affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, expressed the need for secure nuclear fuel sources in the face of the Russia-Ukraine war by moving away from the global dependency on Russia. He said: ‘Ramping down Russian imports over the next few years while Western capacities are increased will ensure there are no supply disruptions which could result in losing thousands of jobs, millions of megawatt hours of carbon-free electricity generation and billions of dollars in GDP.’

Advancements in new-generation nuclear technologies are key to moving away from this reliance.  These advances include the longer-term promise of moving away from nuclear fission, which has been used since the 1960s, to fusion. Nuclear fission splits the atom to create the energy in power stations, and is also used in nuclear weapons. Nuclear fusion merges a hydrogen atom into helium to create energy in the same way that the sun does, and is much safer.

New technology reactors, such as sealed micro-reactors (SMRs) and high-temperature gas reactors, can, because of their smaller and more flexible design, generate power without the need to modify existing grid structures, further positioning nuclear power generation as a viable fuel source. South Korea has already included the development of a SMR in its energy policy. The country’s policy is to generate at least 30% of total energy from nuclear power by 2030.


Renewable or merely sustainable?

As Professor Jason Donev from the University of Calgary put it: ‘Not everything renewable is sustainable, and in turn not everything which is sustainable is necessarily renewable’.

Any resource that naturally replenishes with time, like wind, is considered renewable. Renewable energy simply means that the energy humans extract from nature will generally replace itself.

Nuclear energy is considered to be the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity in the world behind hydropower. Nuclear fission uses uranium to create energy and, once the uranium is used, it is gone. Energy sources are considered non-renewable if they take a long time to be created, like fossil fuels, or if their creation happened a long time ago and is not likely to happen again, like uranium. According to Forbes, nuclear could potentially become completely renewable if the source of uranium changed from mined ore to seawater. Since the uranium extracted is continuously replenished through geologic processes, nuclear energy could theoretically become as inexhaustible as solar energy.

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