Nuclear is finally living a renaissance: the present geopolitical situation and energy crisis have brought it back high up on the agenda, recognising it as a key energy source to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels.
We are living today with the consequences of allowing short-term needs or emotional perception (such as those of a few years ago) to dictate longer-term decisions on energy solutions. And we should not repeat the same mistakes now.
Data presented at the conference showed that nuclear today provides 8% of global generation capacity, excluding intermittent renewables, 2/3 coming from plants commissioned at least 30 years ago.
Comments highlighted that carbon removal will play an important role in decarbonisation; however, there are constraints to natural solutions and efficient technological solutions are still in early stages of development.
All panellists underlined that stable policies, a long-term vision for change across all key stakeholders (including most importantly governments), and a portfolio comprising diverse nuclear technologies and reactor sizes are all essential.
The conversation touched upon Small Modular Reactors and their possible contribution to the industry. SMRs are in fact smaller than traditional reactors, with a power capacity of up to 300 MWe per unit; they are designed to be simple, compact, flexible and efficient in terms of construction, operation, financing, siting.
Modularity and standardisation both significantly help the business case for SMRs. Components can be fabricated and assembled in a factory and transported on site for installation. Standardisation not only means repeating the same plant design, but also the ability to establish consistent supply chains, construction methods, licensing models, project structures, training, operating models. The more that can be repeated, the lower and the more predictable the cost and time.
Their smaller size and capacity, combined with a careful design and implementation, can therefore lead to a lower overall cost per kWh than a larger nuclear plant – not to mention the lower capital investment requirement, as they can be funded one at a time.
The SMR economics based on economies of numbers, modularity and standardisation are also quite appealing to financial markets, and many currently developed SMRs projects, including newcleo’s, are enjoying the interest of individual and institutional investors.
Elisabeth Rizzotti highlighted the advantages of SMRs and of newcleo’s design in particular – noting all the points above regarding the huge efficiencies that they can bring to fruition. She also pointed out the strong passive safety features, particularly thanks to the use of lead as coolant, and the incredible opportunity to use what today is considered waste as fuel for newcleo’s reactors.
Indeed, the ever-present nuclear waste concern was discussed in the conversation. Many sceptics argue that the issue of how to deal with nuclear waste permanently has not yet been resolved – but this is not quite true. Not only the industry knows how to carefully handle and store the (actually very small!) volumes of nuclear waste with no impact on environmental or human health.
It was also noted that nuclear industry is the only one taking full accountability for its lifecycle by-products: in fact, decommissioning and material disposal are taken care of, and new nuclear projects establish funding plans early in the process.
Elisabeth also explained that fast reactors enable using as fuel plutonium, depleted uranium and minor actinides, burning existing thermal reactors waste, aiming to close the fuel cycle.
This has some important positive consequences: decreasing the environmental and financial cost of disposing of such waste, reducing proliferation risk, completely avoid the need to mine for new nuclear fuel – which is also far better for the environment.