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Without the use of nuclear energy, “environmental protection” is an empty word

What may seem strange in Germany is meeting with increased response in the USA from numerous start-ups, engineers, and doctoral students who are backing nuclear energy for environmental protection.

In the wake of the Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011, Germany phased out nuclear energy relatively quickly. While six nuclear power plants will still be connected to the grid in 2020, they will be shut down by 2022 at the latest.

Could nuclear energy also be seen as something positive for environmental protection? In Germany, that seems hard to imagine. A significant disadvantage of this electricity is the excessively long storage time for radioactive waste. If you care about the environment, it seems you have to simultaneously promote renewable energies, abolish nuclear power, and ignore the fact that this makes you even more dependent on coal energy. 

And this dependence comes at a cost – for the environment in Germany and Europe. About 80% of the still active coal-fired power plants in Germany violate EU directives on the limits of pollutant emissions from nitrogen oxides, mercury and soot particles.

The pollutants emitted do not only hurt Germany: Due to the high number of existing coal-fired power plants, Germany is one of the biggest air polluters in the European Union.

After the nuclear phase-out, the phase-out of coal-fired power is now to be finalised by 2038. However, there is a problem with this: bets are being made that renewable energies will fill the energy supply vacuum after the coal-fired power plants are shut down.

It is not always possible to plan particularly well over such a far-reaching period. And so far, Germany is still clearly reliant on running coal-fired power plants.

Instead of betting that renewables will completely fill the vacuum by 2038, or instead of continuing to rely on coal along with the associated air pollution, there is still an alternative: power plants that rely on nuclear energy and thus emit particularly few emissions of CO2 and other pollutants.

What may seem strange in Germany is meeting with increased response in the USA from numerous start-ups, engineers, and doctoral students who are backing nuclear energy for environmental protection.

Technological innovation for environmental protection: the example of TerraPower

One example is the TerraPower project, which has become particularly well-known in recent months thanks to Bill Gates’s support. TerraPower is trying to solve a problem often cited by critics of nuclear power with a new type of nuclear power plant design: Nuclear waste.

At first glance, this criticism seems plausible. Is it worth relying on a relatively clean form of energy like nuclear power if, in return, we have to live with radioactive waste – without knowing when and in what way we might get rid of it?

The so-called running waves and liquid salt reactors that TerraPower relies on exquisitely solve this problem. Unlike regular nuclear reactors, they accumulate depleted uranium, significantly reducing the resulting stockpiles of nuclear waste. This depleted uranium is already found in the inventories of existing nuclear waste – it is just not being used productively.

TerraPower estimates 700,000 tonnes of enriched uranium in the USA alone – just 8 tonnes of this apparent “waste” could supply 2.5 million homes with electricity each year. Globally, all the nuclear waste that already exists could be used to provide 80 per cent of the world’s population with energy for over a millennium. And this supply would take place at the level of an average US American.

In this respect, TerraPower solves one of the main problems associated with nuclear energy in an incredibly creative way: it is not just a matter of producing relatively little nuclear waste in the construction of new reactors. Instead, the existing nuclear waste serves as a kind of fuel – so it is used productively, and one gradually reduces the waste at the same time.

That the resource of nuclear waste will run out at some point also seems unlikely when one looks at the result of the above calculation.

TerraPower serves as an example here to emphasise one point: Like other technological approaches, nuclear energy can be continuously improved. Critics of nuclear power often refer to existing reactors, some of which are outdated. In doing so, they ignore the fact that problems such as nuclear waste can be solved in new types of construction. One should not make the rash mistake of altogether abandoning a clean and cheap form of energy. Relying on coal energy instead is not in the interest of the environment. Betting that the vacuum after the nuclear and coal phase-out can be filled exclusively by renewable energies is a risky bet.

Originally published here.

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