Nuclear is unique as an energy source. I say this not because it achieves power by splitting the atom, but because it shares characteristics of both fossil fuel generating electricity sources and renewables. It provides baseload electricity that relies on an internal fuel source (like coal and natural gas) as opposed to external energy sources (wind and solar), but, like renewables, it does not create greenhouse gases. As nuclear energy has evolved, it can be argued that it has taken on more of the characteristics of renewables, as discussed below.
A long while back, I wrote an article that referred to nuclear energy as an “extendable.” The notion at that time was that nuclear could bridge the gap until renewables were able to take over from fossil fuels. Since that time, several key developments have occurred. One is that the licensed operating life of reactors has been extended, first to 60 years, then to 80 years, and most recently a goal of 100 years has been announced. Over the same period, the target for ending reliance on fossil fuels, with the attendant increased use of non-carbon emitting sources, including nuclear energy, has shortened as concerns about climate change have grown.
Another issue that linked nuclear more to fossil fuels than to renewables is the potential for resource exhaustion, and hence the earlier label of “extendable” as renewable implies no resource limitation. However, the view about uranium resource and overall nuclear fuel availability has changed as well. We are not likely to run out of nuclear fuel anytime soon, if ever. Advanced enrichment technology for nuclear fuel is akin to fracking in fossil fuels, extending the life of uranium resources. Other advances in fuel and reactor technology can be made as well, making future fuel availability less of a concern.
A third and very significant development is that a new generation of reactors is being designed to be smaller, safer, more proliferation proof, easier to operate, and more economic. These advances allow nuclear power to better integrate with changing energy and environmental needs. In this regard, smaller nuclear, including microreactors, can be pared with renewables, such as in the Natrium system, to provide ongoing, carbon-free power. In addition, small and very small reactors (microreactors) can also be developed for special situations, including transportation and mining. At the same time, larger nuclear units can continue to provide the baseload power that is essential to meeting energy security and climate goals.
There is still another dimension to new nuclear reactors that could prove invaluable in today’s environment. If one accepts the proposition that climate events, like the recent one in Texas, will get more severe over time, then we will need ways to respond to climate disasters as they emerge over the globe. On this front, portable microreactors could be transported to areas impacted by climate disasters and provide much needed electrical power grid recovery to prevent even more dire outcomes.
Of course, small and advanced reactors are still in the development stage, and governments have recognized their potential and are providing funding. The advent of microreactors may expand the potential pool of investors to include mining companies in remote locations and even insurance companies which may look to mitigate their losses in future climate emergencies. Nuclear energy in general is also gaining more acceptance with respect to its ability to combat climate change, and this recognition should benefit financing as well.
The evolution of nuclear power has not only resulted in the extension of reactor operating lives but is producing a spectrum of reactor sizes and types with advances in safety and operation, allowing nuclear to meet a wider variety of future energy and environmental needs. Chief among these is the mitigation of carbon and other environmental pollutants. Moreover, advances in nuclear power have the potential to lessen the impact of climate disasters after they happen by providing emergency electricity supplies. A key question is the extent to which markets and governments recognize these advances and innovations and are willing to support this evolution.