The focus of the net zero carbon debate on coal and renewable sources such as hydrogen prevents any widespread discussion of nuclear power. Which is unfortunate because contrary to popular belief, nuclear is the cleanest and most efficient mass energy source, and therefore the surest way for us to meet our collective global net zero targets.
The tide may be turning though, slowly, as opinions soften about the risks of nuclear power – particularly for the safer small nuclear reactors now being developed.
Any spike in adoption would require a reversal of the current trend, however, since nuclear has been steadily declining as a contributor to global energy supply. Global electricity generation from nuclear power has fallen from 20% in the 1990s to around 10% today, due largely to declining government support and investment. The power of their lobbying ensures the coal and oil industries a dominant position in energy supply for many years yet.
The perception of nuclear power as a danger to life is reinforced by TV shows such as Chernobyl, but the reality is that other forms of energy are much more harmful. As the online facility Our World In Data shows, an average town of 187,000 people completely powered by coal would see 25 people die prematurely every year as a result. Most of these people would die from air pollution. If the energy source was nuclear, a death rate of 0.07 deaths per terawatt-hour means it would take 14 years before a single person would die.
It’s doubtful, though, whether nuclear power can shake off the memory many people have of nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima – unless new technologies can demonstrate much greater safety.
According to Valerie Gardner, managing partner of US-based Nucleation Capital, a venture fund launched in mid-2021, the new generation of safer, smarter and more cost-effective advanced reactors will be critical components of the carbon-free electric grids of the future.
Gardner hit a wall, though, when trying to get big investors to engage with nuclear. “During a period of focused outreach to institutions, we raised eyebrows, not capital. We were not sure whether this was because the concept of nuclear innovation was difficult to grapple with, or whether there was a bit of fossil fuel gate-keeping going on at the investment committee level.”
This is a major obstacle because the biggest challenge remains funding at an institutional scale. Nuclear power plants have high initial capital costs and long construction periods, much the same as a typical infrastructure project. High capital costs combined with low carbon and fuel prices make it difficult for nuclear power to compete. New investment in nuclear plants will only come once people realise that energy demand is growing – especially if we all want electric cars – and cheaper energy alternatives are too carbon-intensive.
London, December 2021