With global electricity demand on pace to double by 2030, the race is on for the world’s key energy players to find clean sources that will fuel their economies but also allow them to meet more aggressive carbon emissions targets. That race is inspiring a global rethink on nuclear power that is producing a variety of interesting results.
A growing sentiment that renewables can’t do it alone
Many nuclear energy supporters are raising awareness of their belief that while renewable energy sources like wind and solar can play an important role in the clean energy equation, Mother Nature’s unpredictability creates the need for backup energy sources. Today, that back up often comes from natural gas, which can detract from the carbon emissions advantages initially driven by wind and solar. Nuclear advocates point to Germany’s recent carbon emissions performance to illustrate their point. In 2016, despite a four per cent decrease in coal use and expansion of renewable energy sources, the country’s carbon emissions actually rose. The CO₂ emissions saved through the drop of coal use were offset by an increase in consumption of mineral oil and a 10 percent jump in the use of natural gas.
An opinion shift amongst environmentalists
The release of Robert Stone’s documentary, Pandora’s Promise, in 2013 was an important milestone in the nuclear power debate. The film positions nuclear energy as a key component in the fight to slow climate change. It was a stark contrast to Stone’s Oscar-nominated anti-nuclear documentary, Radioactive Bikini, that was released in 1987.
That same year, four of the world’s leading climate change scientists published an open letter encouraging anti-nuclear environmentalist groups to reconsider their views. The experts claimed that “Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” The letter went on to ask environmental organizations to demonstrate their real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.
Tech Billionaires Set Their Sights on Nuclear’s Potential
While Bill Gates gets the most media attention for his support of nuclear energy, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Paul Allen, and PayPal’s Peter Thiel are also on board. These high-profile tech investors believe that nuclear power is a wise choice for both the planet and their investment portfolio. Gates has put his money where his mouth is with his incubator TerraPower, which is working on a number of clean energy solutions including an approach to nuclear power that addresses real and perceived concerns about nuclear power due to cost, safety and waste. Gates has signed a joint venture agreement between TerraPower and China to create Global Innovation Nuclear Energy Technology, a company that will build and commercialize the Travelling Wave Reactor. This fourth-generation reactor will use waste uranium to generate energy and could operate without refueling for up to 40 years. This is just one example of how China is betting big on nuclear. It has set a goal of boosting its nuclear power capacity by about 70 percent to 58 gigawatts by 2020. Canada’s SNC–Lavalin also announced a joint venture with the China National Nuclear Corporation and Shanghai Electric Company in 2016 to build Advanced Fuel CANDU Reactors in China and internationally.
The UK gets it first new nuclear plant in over 20 years
In the United Kingdom, all eyes are on the Somerset Coast’s Hinkley Point C. The new nuclear power station being built there will be home to two European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs), which have been designed to generate more electricity from less fuel, require less downtime for maintenance, and reduce the risk of major accidents. The project, which is currently one of Europe’s largest building sites, is expected to be completed in 2025.
The Middle East hedges against oil dependence
The world’s big oil nations are also investing in nuclear as they diversify their energy strategies to keep up with increased demand for electricity. When it comes online in 2020, the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant will provide a quarter of the UAE’s energy and save 12 million tons in carbon emissions each year. Saudi Arabia also has plans for 16 nuclear reactors over the next two decades that will supply 15 per cent of its power.
Canada stays the course
Nuclear energy isn’t a new path for Canada, where the $6 billion sector employs approximately 60,000 people. Canada has been a world leader in nuclear energy since the development of the first CANDU reactor in 1952. Canada is home to 19 of the world’s 446 operable nuclear reactors, which generate 16.6 per cent of the country’s electricity. The Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario is the largest operating nuclear power facility in the world, and has been delivering energy since 1977. Canada is also the world’s leading supplier of uranium and is home to the highest-grade uranium deposits in the world.
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