Advances in nuclear technology are seen as making reactors safer
  • Advances in nuclear technology will result in safer, cheaper reactors, allowing the sector to play a major part in the transition to a low-carbon future. 
  • Small, modular reactors, high-temperature gas reactors, nuclear batteries and fusion reactors are among the safer technologies being developed. 
  • Nuclear power remains controversial, with many experts saying the risks are unacceptable, and there are other energy sources that can help fight climate change.

Advances in nuclear technology may lead to safer, cheaper reactors that would play a part in cutting carbon emissions. At least that’s what some experts are saying.

Nuclear power has long been controversial among environmentalists. Some see it as too risky and expensive, while others believe it should play a part in fighting climate change along with solar, wind and hydropower.

While nuclear power has been retreating in Europe and the U.S., it continues to expand in Asia. Companies and governments there have invested in the sector, developing new technologies that have the potential to revive growth.

“Nukes are part of the solution,” Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, told Karma. “It’s part of the balanced portfolio of low-carbon energy that we need to deal with the threat of climate change.”

The specters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima make the continued operation of reactors controversial in many places and have led countries such as Germany and Spain to phase out nuclear power. China, Russia and India are among the countries building new plants.

“Nuclear power certainly could play a role in cutting carbon emissions,” Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Karma. “The question is how feasible it is to expand enough to play a meaningful role.”

President George W. Bush promoted the industry as a way to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and launched the Nuclear Power 2010 Program in 2002. The revival never took place because of rising costs, the bankruptcy of Westinghouse and continuing safety concerns, The only commercial reactors under construction in the U.S., at the Vogtle plant in Georgia, are billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

“The biggest current obstacle is cost,” Lyman said. “The capital costs are tremendous, and even the operating costs are higher than natural gas and renewables.”

Reactor manufacturers are attempting to cut costs with smaller reactors. The smallest nuclear plant in the U.S., the R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in Ontario, New York, has 576 megawatts of capacity in its single reactor, dwarfing the size of modules being developed now.

“In the U.S., there’s a lot of interest in smaller-scale plants,” Buongiorno said. “Small modular reactors offer a lot more flexibility. The design of the systems makes them more passively safe. In case of an abnormal situation, the system doesn’t need any human intervention thus obviating the risk of human error.”

Oregon-based NuScale Power is the world leader in developing small, modular reactors. The modules can generate 60 megawatts of electricity using a smaller, safer version of conventional reactors. A power plant can house up to 12 modules, allowing operators flexibility. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is developing a 300-megawatt reactor that also uses water-cooled technology.

Fourth Generation reactors are an assortment of designs being researched for commercial use by the Generation IV International Forum. They are looking at six nuclear technologies that will operate at higher temperatures than current plants. Gas-cooled fast reactors, lead-cooled fast reactors, molten-salt reactors and sodium-cooled reactors are some of the systems being studied.

“There are also fourth-generation reactors, high-temperature gas reactors that are cooled by helium,” Buongirono said. “An advantage is the all-ceramic fuel, which retains radioactivity well under all postulated accident scenarios. Helium at high temperature allows for a greater efficiency of conversion of heat to electricity.”

Westinghouse is developing the eVinci Micro Reactor, which can be taken to remote locations and operate independently far from the grid. 

“The system comes in a shipping container,” Buongiorno said. “It runs continuously for a few years and then is shipped back for refurbishment and refueling. There’s no onsite storage. Westinghouse is a leader in this technology.”

Thirty-five countries are building a magnetic fusion device in southern France that is designed to prove the feasibility of the technology. This program, known as ITER, was set in motion by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, and the end of the construction phase is projected for December 2025.

“It is not prudent to count on fusion to help with climates change within the next two decades,”  Buongiorno said. “But that technology is finally maturing in a very promising way.”