Nuclear power is at a critical juncture in its growth where the decision is being made regarding whether or not it is a sustainable form of energy. Many researchers have looked at the past and present of nuclear power performance to gauge the likelihood of its survival as a viable form of energy. The purpose of this review is to inform the public of the consequences and benefits that researchers have stated are results of implementing nuclear energy as a clean replacement to more conventional means of energy production. Benchmarks such as efficiency, environmental footprint, safety, and economic feasibility are a few of the important assessments of any form of energy. Through this review, we will view how researchers have assessed nuclear power and what future changes and innovations will assist in its performance as a sustainable option. In so doing, the review will suggest what reasons have been presented to clarify how nuclear energy should be utilized.
Introduction and Background
For years, national governments have begun funding research and development projects to find efficient forms of energy production. In recent times, however, as more and more conventional forms of energy face finite endings, many countries are looking for clean and sustainable alternatives to the standard plants run by burning coal and petroleum. Using nuclear power for energy generation has been seriously considered as a contender to many other forms of renewable energy sources, i.e. wind, solar, and water.
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Due to nuclear energies very public upbringing, research and development has always been in the public’s eye, which has brought with it many misconceptions and more of a negative view of its operation. Between the Chernobyl reactor meltdown and the more recent incident at Fukashima safety of nuclear reactors has been widely questioned which has led to a lot of the concern. These accidents have made the public question mainly the safety of these reactors but have also raised the question on whether or not they are actually sustainable. Because of these facts, a large portion of the world’s population has not been shown the potentials that nuclear power brings to the table.
As of last year, in 2018, there were about 450 nuclear power reactors operational in a total of 31 countries. Combined, theses reactors produce a combined capacity of about 400 Gigawatts. End of the year statistics went to show that 10% or approximately 2506 billion kWh were produced by these combined reactors. Currently there are 50 known reactors under construction worldwide (Plans For New Reactors Worldwide, 2018).
Currently the most widely used nuclear reactors are based-on fission reactions. Simply stated, this involves the splitting of atoms which causes a release of energy then use to heat water and turn turbines which produces energy. Many of the sources that this paper goes through have agreed that fission is the least effective form of nuclear power and that research into new processes will increase the chances of nuclear sustainability. Later in the review I will discuss what those in the nuclear field are hoping fast breed reactors will bring to the world of nuclear sustainability.
This paper will discuss the potential of nuclear energy through viewing the environmental impact, economic requirements, safety and waste management, and future improvements of these reactors. With information given from researchers in this field
Measuring the environmental impacts of a power plant, regardless of a fuel source, is very important when deciding whether or not it will be sustainable. One of the biggest reasons governments are looking for alternatives is because the current systems we have now are causing too many harmful emissions.
To best assess the viability and sustainability of these nuclear plants, their greenhouse gas emission (GHG) are a critical factor that needs to be studied and understood. BP World Statistical Report 2017 states that this factor varies drastically along with the power generating technology and fuel source used in the power. These greenhouse gasses are any vaporous compounds that are able to retain infrared radiation, which subsequently traps heat within the atmosphere. CO2 emissions levels are used by researchers to understand the environmental impact that power plants have. Worldwide we produce and annual average of 38 billion tons of CO2 emissions, more than 80% of which is based on fossil fuel burning (Poinssot, C., Bourg, S., Boullis, B. , 2016). In addition to the high carbon emissions our society, there will come a point where these fuels will run out leaving us with nothing to provide the energy we need.
In comparison to fossil fuels there are many other options of energy that produce more energy per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted. As viewed in Figure 1., coal gives off close to 900 Tonnes CO2/GWh compaired to nuclear which is less then 50 Tonnes CO2/GWh. Ferenc L. Toth 2014 supports this information by stating that studies completed and reviewed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show that nulcear carbon emissions lie between 2.8 and 24 g CO2-eq/kW h, while also not emitting any air pollutants.
Figure 1. from (Sadekin, S., Zaman, S., Mahfuz, M., & Sarkar, R., 2018)
While the conversion prosses of turning nuclear fuel into energy is reletivetly emission low, the construction of the plants and mining of the fuels is where 70-80% of the carbon emissions is found (Toth 2014). Meaning as these plants age and mining operations better equiped due to a higher demand of fuel, it is possible to lower the overall emissions even more. As the world begins to become more effeicient in their fuels extraction it can be seen that these nuclear reactors will provide a over more clean options to power production.
Efficiency of Nuclear Power
Another top priority of a sustainable energy is whether or not these nuclear plants can output enough energy to fill the current need but also load carry and be able to handle a variance in their output. Lutz Mez 2012, explains that “at present nuclear power plants have a total rating of approximately 368,000 MW and an average operating lifetime of 26 years.” This is a total power rating of running plants in 2012. Though the overall rating seems high, nuclear only plays a small portion in the total generation of electricity worldwide.
Not surprisingly, fossil fuel remains the most dominant in world-wide production. Examination done by Sadekin et al. 2019 into the worlds production of energy shows that coal based plants sourced 38.1% of all energy produced in 2017. In second, the burning of natural gas filled 23.2% of the total generation. Even hydroelectricity, another source of renewable energy, created 15.9% which is still far above portion given by nuclear. BP 2017 supports these numbers and agrees that nuclear is behind most other forms of energy (figure 2). Showing how in recent years nuclear shares have declined by 3.4% and has settled at 10%. Though nuclears contributions remains at a seems relatively low level both reports believe that there is a chance of a nuclear renaissance which would bring it to more of a main contributor of electricity worldwide.
Share of global electricity generation by fuel
Fig, 2, (BP, 2017) found in World Electricity section
To better compare the outputs and generation of nuclear power plants Jackson 2007 compares other forms of power productions and their MJ of output per kg of fuel used. The research shows that the combustion of one kilogram of pure carbon yields 32.8 MJ of energy. In additions for gasoline and oil, their productions are 39 MJ/kg and 45 MJ/kg respectively. Biomass fuels, such as air-dried wood and ethanol can yield 18 MJ/kg 30 MJ/kg. The deuterium-tritium (d-t) fusion reaction yields 350,000,000 MJ for a kilogram of d-t fuel. A typical value for a kilogram of natural uranium consumed in a CANDU reactor is 685,000 MJ. By viewing his research, it is clear that both forms of nuclear reactors out perform their more conventional and renewable counterparts.
No matter how efficient a power plant it, when deciding whether or not a certain power plant is practical is seeing how it manages withwaste management. Most of the researcher discussed in this review agreed that even though nuclear power is relatively clean, nuclear fuel waste is radioactive and potentially dangerous if not handled and disposes of/ recycled. Because of the radioactivity, unless these fuels are weaponized (proliferation), or recycled (fast breed reactors), they have to be treated and put in large containers and buried deep in the earth to prevent their radiation from potentially impacting people and nature. Fukuda, K., Danker, W., Lee, J. S., Bonne, A., & Crijns, M. J. 2003 address this topic saying how these treatments and recycling processes are currently the most environmental, cost-effective, and safe options available. The hope though, is that research and development with fast breeding reactors will improve the environmental footprint and prevents the buildup of spent nuclear fuels in storage.
Sadekin et al. 2019 goes to show that only a small portion of the fuel is actually irradiated, or used. After the fuel has been used for its allotted lifespan, spent fuel still contains close to 96% of Uranium and Plutonium (as seen in figure 3). Wilson 2007 explains how these are valuable materials for electricity production and are worth recycling in order to increase the sustainability of nuclear energy and to increase the over efficiency of the reactors.
Relative isotopic composition of nuclear fuel
Fig. 3. Relative isotopic composition of a 47. GW d/t UOX spent nuclear fuel after 4 years irradiation in pressurized water reactors. This clearly shows that spent nuclear fuel still contains a large amount of energetic valuable material as uranium and plutonium (Poinssot et al., 2012a, Poinssot et al., 2012b).
Recycling of the fuels can be found through the creation of the fast breed reactors we mentioned earlier in the text. These new reactors are called fission or fast breed reactors because instead of splitting, as fusion does, they combine nuclear fuels to form fissile atoms or atoms which are able to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. They are known to create more fuel then consume. Because of this Fukuda et. al. 2003 go to suppose that they will be able to then ‘feed’ slow fusion reactors thus creating more energy while getting more out of the total fuels. Assuming that only 6.3 Mt U of conventional resources are available, fast breeder reactors will provide around 60% of nuclear generation by 2075 (Verbruggen, 2014). Both Fukuda et. al. 2003 and Verbruggen 2014 propose that if fast breeder reactors are not utilized and nuclear power has to solely rely on once-through fuel cycles, nuclear generation would have to fall to around 1400 TWh in 2075 in order to meet the decreasing amounts of fuel available.
As previuosly stated because of past accidents regarding nuclear reactors many researchers believe that saftey improvements are of utmost importance when it comes to deciding whether or not there is a future for nuclear power. Stamford, L., & Azapagic, A. 2011 provide us with an opposing view into the future of nuclear reactors and a large hang up for them is if safety innovation is not addressed, swaying the public opinion regarding nuclear power will be difficult. To further explain the concern researchers with BP 2017 and Sadekin et al. 2019 state that because nuclear fuels store so much energy in a very compact space, if not handled correctly they can cause a lot of damage. Many of the incident regarding nuclear reactors in the past had to do a lot with human error.
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Reactors are designed to regulate all aspects of generating process but before a lot of things were automated, such as at chernobyl, disaster can strike. The explosion at chernobyl was caused by a power spike while many of the safety features were turned off for testing and while power was low already. As shown in Rosen, M. A., & Dincer, I. 2007 with modern designs all of these issues have been addressed and there is small chance of a repeat accident from happening.
In addition to the redundant automated safety feature now fitted to reactors, the fuels themselves cannot, while being used at a reactor site, explode in the general sense causing a mushroom cloud and miles of destruction that movies and old videos show. Once they are repurposed and proliferated however they become very dangerous if not used under proper guidance.
Finally, as discussed in many of the articles reviews thus far, on of the major incentives and deterrents of any form of energy is the cost per watt of electricity. When discussing economics of nuclear reactors many researchers have had issues solidifying data due to the fact that you need access to a current running reactor. Wilson 2007 explains that to best look into the economics of a nuclear reactor you need to view both the capital investment of building and the start up and then the normal operating cost. Because of market fluidity this break down allows researchers to better decide if nuclear reactors are an economical investment for that region.
Wilson 2007 presented data showing that in capital costs for nuclear reactors increased after 1973 to over 10 fold. These prices went from $200 per kWe to $2,000 per kWe. He further explains that for a poorly run plant can cost upwards of $5,000 per kWe. Verbruggen et. al. 2017 also showed an increase in the cost of nuclear reactors capital cost when stating that the French PWR program increased by 5–6% per annum. Both sets of researchers were baffled at these statistics due to the fact that when it comes to technology, over time, they believe that costs tend to decrease due to an increase in availability and efficiency. Verbruggen et al. 2017 believes that this rise in cost stems from a negative public opinion of nuclear power and Wilson 2007 claims that as views become more positive, it is possible to make the investment of nuclear power more affordable
The continual growth and expansion of civilizations causes a significant increase in the demand of electric power. While our requirement for electricity is growing, there are subsequent rising concerns of what is being done that is causing harm to the environment now and for future generations, through the production of this needed energy. Because of these concerns, researchers are seeking out means by which we can satiate our need of electricity in the most efficient way possible while leaving little to no trace of greenhouse gases and assisting in diminishing the effects of global warming. To this end, clean and renewable energy has become a priority for many national governments.
The current fleet of nuclear reactors worldwide have shown the possibilities that contemporary nuclear power can offer. Generally speaking, compared to other forms of alternative energy, nuclear power is one that contains the most benefits. Even with some of its current flaws, the impact it has on the environment shows that electricity can come without the risk of increasing the effects of global warming. These benefits allow nuclear plants to work without having to bend and change as climate policies continue to change and become stricter.
With the discovery of fast breed reactors and the recycling/repurposing of nuclear fuels, one of the largest detriments to nuclear power has a potential fix and will only lessen as funding increases and technology becomes more readily available. Through these processes, nuclear fuels do not have to be buried and guarded, but instead it can be used to power future plants and more effectively utilized. As many of these innovations become commonplace, researchers foresee nuclear power becoming a more economical option to the search for clean and sustainable power.
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