Can We Trust The New Generation of Nuclear Reactors?

Here's a case for why we should not discard this source of abundant, carbon-free energy.

Priya Aggarwal
Oct 4, 2020 · 4 min read

"Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that's available 24 hours a day." — Bill Gates

ou may be a skeptic and deny that the Earth is not warming up because, depending on where you live, the effect may not be noticeable to you. But hopefully, what you can’t deny is the increasing number of weather-related disasters occurring around the world, which also happens to be a really expensive mess we are getting ourselves into. The recent California wildfires being a case-in-point — they burnt more than 3 million acres of forests and cost upwards of $1B in various costs.

There is a wide consensus that global warming is abetting many natural disasters and intensifying their scale and impact.

A major source of this global warming — 76% to be precise — is due to carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. A big source of carbon dioxide — 27% to be exact — is the burning of fossil fuel for energy.

A lot of this energy was needed for industrial development and all the growth we see today, so we can’t argue that all the carbon dioxide we now have is unwarranted. But with the impact of this CO2 concentration unraveling itself, we urgently need to correct this power source to stop adding more of it into the air.

We also need to bring down the current levels — but this is a separate issue.

We need to move away from our reliance on coal and gas plants and to find better ways of powering our homes and factories with electricity. Renewables represent one well-known way of doing that. Another option is nuclear power. Unfortunately, the public attitude toward nuclear power is governed more by fear than by logic. And shows like “Chernobyl” with their dramatization only intensify that fear. The Soviet high-power channel reactor, RBMK, was indeed a bad design the like of which will never be built, and the scientific community knows that.

The worst power plant accident of all time is not Chernobyl or Fukushima. It occurred at a hydropower dam in China in 1975, which killed 170,000 people, resulted in massive floods and diseases, and destroyed 18 villages.

Apart from that, there are sources that tell us how nuclear plants have a much lower rate of accidents and deaths than others, but these figures don’t seem to matter to people.

We tend to focus on the fact that, if an accident did occur and caused a radiation leak, the economic, human, and environmental costs of such an incident will become exponentially higher.

Generation Four Nuclear Power

What if the high cost, if an accident occurred, could be considerably lowered? If the reactor were cheaper and had less risk of radiation damage, maybe the economics of tangible and intangible benefits of nuclear power will start making more sense.

The answer lies in the next generation of nuclear reactors that are currently still mostly under research and not getting the attention they deserve.

Some startups working on different types of new generation nuclear reactors are — Kairos, Seaborg, Elysium, Moltex, Terrapower.

A Small Modular Reactor will be 1/3–1/4th the size of traditional Nuclear reactors (Source)

The advanced, or generation IV, nuclear reactors are a set of six reactor designs chosen because of their modularity, increased safety features, lower reliance on enriched fuel, and lower production of plutonium, among other improvements. In short, these reactors can address the three major fears people have:

Nuclear Weapons

Traditional reactors use Uranium, the reaction chain of which results in the production of Plutonium. In fact, its production was the reason the traditional design of the reactor was chosen. Many new power reactors use thorium as fuel, because of which production of Plutonium is greatly reduced, certainly not enough to make it weapon-grade.

Radiation Damage in Case of a Disaster

Generation IV reactors can greatly minimize the risk of accidents. Due to the nature of technology, we can’t omit radiation damage, but we can greatly reduce it. As opposed to currently deployed high-pressure reactors, they will bring down the impact by making smaller reactors that contain much less fuel, allow for constant and controlled removal of toxic fission products, and operate in conditions that won’t cause explosions that can spray out nuclear material.

Nuclear accidents and the associated radioactivity are a valid concern. But for that matter, when large-scale methane leaks happen, they also affect current and future generations by impacting the environment around the world, albeit in an insidious way. And methane is leaking almost all the time.

Nuclear Plants Take Billions of Dollar and Many Years to Build

Modular reactors with standardized designs can be made in factories and transported to various sites because of their small size. Due to being inherently much safer than the conventional reactors, these new models may also have lesser redundancy built-in, which can bring down costs.

The reactors that are prominent today were developed because, sadly, that was the era of world wars and countries prioritized nuclear weapons over safe nuclear energy. But we know better now, and scientists have designs that can prioritize safe energy over weapons. They deserve a chance in our desperate fight against climate change.


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