After the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow (CO26) and the declarations from major economies of the world to attain net zero targets within 2050 or 2060 deadlines, nuclear power has become significantly important for overcoming the challenges in power generation and heating. International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi in a recent statement said, 'It will require us to make use of all energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases (GHG). Nuclear power is part of the solution.'
Mr. Alok Sharma, the UK minister and the president of COP 26 in November 2021 noted 'we know that a clean future depends on decarbonising the power sector. And as a source of constant, low carbon power, nuclear can play an important role.'
The Chinese Atomic Energy Authority Chairman Mr. Zhang Kejian considers that Nuclear power is a reliable option to deal with climate change and to fulfill the commitments for emission reduction. Nuclear power remains as an essential part of the China's commercial energy mix. At present, there are 48 nuclear power reactors in operation and 13 more units are under construction in China. Media report suggests that China intends to double its existing nuclear power generation capacity within 2025. Chinese Atomic Energy Research initiative estimates that within 2035 Chinese nuclear power capacity will reach the level to generate 180 GW electric energy (the present installed nuclear power generation capacity in China is approximately 47 GW).
Despite the reliability of Nuclear power, there are safety and cost concerns associated with it. The conventional nuclear power technology is capital-intensive. However, RosAtom, the Russian nuclear power giant has been exporting more nuclear power technology (mainly the large reactors) worldwide than its competitors so far. Published reports indicate that RosAtom has already confirmed orders for its international customers for 27 nuclear power plant reactors and another 9 orders in 'firmly planned' projects are expected to go ahead soon.
So far, world's major electricity generation has been dominantly dependent on fossil fuel energy sources. Achieving the world's net zero emission target becomes realistic only if the reliance on fossil fuel-based power generation (the major contributor of GHG emission), industrial and transportation infrastructure can be brought to a minimum or can be operated free of GHG emission. The renewable sources (solar and wind, hydro) are generally serving as intermittent sources of energy for power generation. Nuclear power is capable of replacing the existing energy supply systems based on 'dirty' fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, petroleum oil). The technological developments in nuclear energy sector show new signs of hope towards the direction. Special attention has been given to Small Modular Reactor technology (small fission reactor delivering up to 300 MW electricity from each module and designed for factory style serial productions). Moreover, SMR offers better control over power supply systems (ten modules producing 100 MW each allow simpler control than a single unit producing 1 Giga Watt capacity).
While EU member countries have been debating on the political future of nuclear energy in the continent, reports inform that John Kerry, the climate envoy of the President of USA has recently announced that 'Romania would be the first country to build a next generation nuclear power station using US designed small modular reactor (SMR) technology.' As reported, US company NuScale Power designed the said SMR and there are plans to install six SMR units in Romania. NuScale has obtained NRC's final approval on its SMR design last September to build its first commercial SMR systems. It is reported that SMR will enter into operation within 2027 first in the US soil at the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems that NuScale is expected to operate. Media reports that the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) announced a US dollar 1.28 million grant for selecting site for installation of SMR reactors in favour of the Romanian Nuclearelectrica S.A. (the state owned company that runs the only operating nuclear power plant in Romania at Cernavoda). The Romanian government considers that the small modular nuclear reactors could help boost the country's electricity output and reduce carbon emissions. In October 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled plans to build small-scale nuclear power plants. United Kingdom has plans to enhance nuclear share in its energy mix to reach net-zero targets. Currently, 16 per cent of generated electric energy in the UK comes from nuclear energy sources. BBC reports that the Rolls Royce SMR ( a consortium of the UK government and private investors to develop small nuclear reactors to generate cleaner energy) has set target for SMR design. As reported, Rolls-Royce SMR plant would be able to supply power to approximately one million homes but would occupy about one tenth of the size of a conventional nuclear power plant. Published information further suggests that the 'SMRs would enable to cut cost for the nuclear reactor building and installation more quickly to ensure clean electricity to people's home.' Rolls Royce SMRs are expected to cost approximately two billion British pounds each (approximately ten times less than the large nuclear power plant unit under construction at the Hinkley Point in the UK). If approved, Rolls-Royce expects to build up to 16 SMR across the UK for power generation.
Dr Tawfiq E-Elahi Chowdhury, the Bangladesh Prime Minister's Energy Adviser addressing the first ever stakeholder's meeting in November 2021 in Dhaka on formulation of an integrated energy and power sector master plan for Bangladesh, said, 'Bangladesh may go for nuclear power use to meet its growing demands for energy consumption'. He added that Bangladesh might concentrate on nuclear power in near future to meet its energy demand as it had zero emission. Bangladesh has set its goal to focus on non-carbon commercial energy development. Currently, renewable energy sources contribute about 3 per cent of the country's total electricity generation capacity. Although nuclear energy option may seem costly for Bangladesh, the country has few alternative sources for carbon emission-free power generation sources to rely on. Therefore, the financial impacts of nuclear energy development need to be kept under control through efficiency at all segments of the energy value chain.
Mushfiqur Rahman is a mining engineer. He writes on energy and environment