One day, nuclear energy will change the way our world works.
The use of nuclear energy is on the rise. Nations all over the world are announcing that they will keep their nuclear plants running longer or build new ones so they can get clean, safe, and reliable power. These countries are the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Poland, Switzerland, Hungary, Sweden, Ukraine, South Korea, Japan, China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana.
This isn't just a trend; it's a new start. By the end of this century, all of the world's power grids will be powered by nuclear energy. This is because nuclear energy is the only source of reliable, emissions-free energy that has minimal effects on the environment, can be scaled to meet global demand, and is not limited by geography. Areas that can't get reliable energy from their geology will have to switch to nuclear power or keep using fossil fuels.
Weather dependent energies will falter
At the moment, it looks like solar and wind power will be the main sources of energy in the future. There is a lot of government and public support for these well-known energy sources. In August, US President Joe Biden signed a bill that will spend $370 billion on electric cars, wind, solar, and other green technologies. In September, the president of the European Commission said that he supported the EU's "massive investments in renewables" because "they are cheap, they are homegrown, and they make us independent." Solar and wind power are also being used quickly. The International Energy Agency thinks that these sources will make up 95% of the increase in the world's power capacity between now and 2026.
But solar and wind power won't be the main source of electricity for most grids for some basic reasons.
Each new installation takes away some of the benefits of the plants that came before it in a way that other sources don't. In a study of US solar and wind plants done in 2021, American researchers found that their value drops by 30–40% in areas where their annual production reaches 20 percent of generation. Because wind and solar plants tend to turn on or off at the same time across large areas, regardless of when people want them to, adding more of them causes prices to go down, sometimes to negative numbers. This can lead to "curtailment," which is when the power output is cut down on purpose. To stop deflation, people who like wind and solar power say that more transmission lines should be built to move power away from places where prices are low. When you add the cost of new transmission, wind and solar energy start to get more expensive.
Unfortunately, the extra costs of energy that depends on the weather drive up prices for consumers. As a result of shutting down its nuclear plants and spending hundreds of billions of euros on solar and wind power, Germany's electricity prices went up by 50%. In Australia, prices had been going down for 40 years before investments in renewable energy changed that. Denmark, which uses solar and wind power more than any other country in Europe, saw its electricity prices double.
Journalists and people who support renewable energy say all the time that solar and wind are the cheapest ways to get power. However, many of these claims are based on bad math. They usually decide that solar and wind are affordable by dividing the capital costs by the amount of electricity produced. This gives a low value because solar panels and wind turbines are cheap to make and don't need fuel. But this calculation doesn't take into account the extra costs that wind and solar power add to the grid. Solar and wind power can't be used when and where we need energy without a lot of backup power and a lot of new transmission lines. Reliable energy sources like nuclear don't usually need these things.
Unlike nuclear energy, energy that depends on the weather hurts the environment. Due to the low energy density of sunlight compared to that of nuclear fuel, solar plants can take up anywhere from 175 to 600 times more land than nuclear plants. As of 2021, Gonghe in China will be the largest solar plant in the world. It covers 50 square kilometers and makes about 2.8 TWh per year. In the US, the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is on less than one square kilometer of land, but it makes six times as much electricity.
Low energy density is also a problem with wind energy. When birds fly into turbine blades, they die. The US Geological Survey recently found that if wind energy grows as planned, the number of golden eagles could drop by as much as half in 10 years. This would happen in 2040.
Media on the center-left are starting to report on the bad things about renewable energy, just like media on the right. In April 2022, Associated Press ran a story about how the wind energy company NextEra was fined $8 million for killing endangered eagles. In August 2022, AP reported on the effects of rare earth mining for renewable energy on Myanmar. They said that "environmental destruction, the theft of land from villagers, and the flow of money to brutal militias, including Myanmar's secretive military government," were just some of the problems. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post in 2022, the columnist admitted that wind energy kills bald eagles, but he said that the eagles' deaths were a necessary evil in the fight against climate change.
You might wonder: If solar and wind power are so bad, why are they growing so quickly? The answer is that their weaknesses don't add up until their size grows to the size of a grid. A few installations won't cause prices to go up, damage a lot of land, or kill a lot of birds, but a grid made up mostly of solar and wind installations will do all of these things in a big way.
Green backup at scale for weather-dependent energy doesn’t exist
In an interview in 2020, Isaac Orr, an energy analyst at the Center for the American Experiment, said that the MidContinent Independent Systems Operator, a 15-state regional electric grid in the middle of the United States, had "an 80-hour period where wind capacity factors were below 10 percent and a 42-hour period where capacity factors were below 1.5 percent." This meant that there was almost no wind for two days.
So, renewables need enough backup power to keep the grid running for days or weeks without much help from solar and wind. At the moment, fossil fuels, not clean energy, are used as backup power. Renewable energy supporters think that new low-carbon technology will make it unnecessary to use natural gas as a backup, but the fact that solar and wind power aren't always reliable, don't have a lot of energy density, and don't have any new ideas makes this unlikely.
Massive lithium-ion batteries could be used to store things, but there are a lot of problems with this idea. As demand goes up, prices will go up because they need so much stuff. This is a matter of energy density: a lithium-ion electric vehicle battery that weighs a half-ton has the same range as about 12 gallons of gas that weigh 85 pounds. To compare batteries to nuclear power, one pound of nuclear fuel has the same output as a million pounds of Tesla batteries.
Renewable energy supporters say that batteries, whose prices have been going down, will follow the exponentially falling prices of computers, but they haven't done this yet and never will. Mark Mills, an energy expert at the Manhattan Institute, said:
Such a comparison isn’t just flawed; it’s impossible in the physics of energy. If lithium chemistry could emulate digital progress since 1990, an EV today would have a battery the size of a single flashlight C cell, not one weighing 1,000 pounds.
Batteries also don't scale well because they don't hold much energy per unit of space. Mills said, "At today's prices and what's likely to happen in the future, building enough batteries to store 12 hours of electricity for the U.S. would cost about $1.5 trillion, and that amount of storage would still leave the country regularly in the dark like in the third world."
Renewable energy supporters also say that green hydrogen is a promising addition to energy that depends on the weather. Green hydrogen can be burned as fuel or used in a fuel cell. It is made by separating the element from something else, like water, using low-carbon power. The good news about green hydrogen is that we already use hydrogen from other sources to do important things like make fertilizer and plastics. Also, the prices of electrolyzers, which turn water into hydrogen fuel, are going down quickly.
Even though hydrogen has these good qualities, it is not the silver bullet that renewables need. Green hydrogen doesn't have much energy density; it's only one-third as dense as natural gas. This means that a grid that relies on green hydrogen will need a lot more physical infrastructure than the already large natural gas systems we have now. And because hydrogen is more flammable and needs more cooling and compression to move, the infrastructure used to move natural gas would need to be upgraded for a lot of money before it could be used to move hydrogen.
Other reliable forms of energy are also not coming to the rescue. Geology puts limits on how much hydroelectric power, enhanced geothermal, and carbon capture and storage can be used. For example, most of the developed world is at full capacity for hydropower, but most rich countries still use fossil fuels.
Natural gas: spoiler, enabler
Because renewable energy sources need backup power, low-cost natural gas helps them make more money. This backup power needs to be able to respond quickly to changes in solar and wind output while still making money. Natural gas is best for this job because it has low fixed costs like labor. A lot of the cost of natural gas plants comes from the cost of their fuel, so when natural gas is cheap, so is the electricity made by natural gas plants. This makes a mix of renewable energy and low-cost gas energy a good deal that hurts nuclear power.
Policymakers were wrong to think that the fracking revolution would keep natural gas prices at rock-bottom levels, which hurt the case for nuclear power. Still, natural gas prices won't go back to where they were before the pandemic for at least two years, and they're likely to stay high even after that.
The war in Ukraine has cut the world's gas supply because Russia can't send as much of its gas to other places as it used to. This stalemate could last for years, since the war and European sanctions don't seem to be ending anytime soon.
On top of this geopolitical conflict, many politicians in the West are trying to stop natural gas development in their own countries. The EU has put in place a tax on "windfall profits" of 33 percent or more, which will cut into the investment capital of gas companies and raise prices for consumers. Europe's record natural gas prices and a level of energy insecurity not seen since the 1970s oil crisis make it more important than ever for countries that have banned fracking to end their bans. However, most of them have refused to do so, which is an epic act of self-destruction.
In the US, shale companies lost $300 billion in the race to increase production from 2010 to 2020, and investors now care more about profits than growth. And, like their European counterparts, most American leaders are doing the opposite of what they should be doing to increase production. President Biden has criticized fossil fuel companies by threatening to tax windfall profits, promising to get rid of fossil fuels, and canceling energy projects. Even though he quietly gave permission for a few gas export terminals in April, the political threat is still there.
All long-term contracts for natural gas have been bought up until 2026. This is a sign of record demand, shortages, and desperation. European buyers who can't buy from Russia have outbid developing countries, which has led to energy shortages and rolling blackouts in some places.
In short, the natural gas market hasn't been this good for nuclear power in at least a decade, and maybe even longer.
The future is nuclear
Physics makes it hard to use energy that depends on the weather. Solar and wind power are intermittent and have low power densities, which means they need backup power, a lot of new transmission lines, and a lot of habitat to work. All of these things will drive up prices and hurt wildlife. Both lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen have a problem with how much energy they can store, and natural gas is not a good partner for renewables right now.
This is the perfect time for nuclear power.
Even though it works, nuclear has some problems. Anti-nuclear activists are right to point out that building nuclear plants in the West is hard because of crazy costs and delays. For example, Vogtle, the only large nuclear plant being built in the US, is seven years behind schedule and costs $30 billion more than it did before.
In spite of what people who are against nuclear power say, these problems do not mean that nuclear power is doomed. Most of the nuclear plants that are currently running use simple water-cooled reactors, which can be built on time. From 1974 to 1989, France built 56 reactors. This was the fastest rate of decarbonization in history. Each of the six reactors at the Hanul nuclear plant took South Korea five to six years to build. Hanul is one of the biggest nuclear power plants in the world. It makes as much electricity as 4,300 US wind turbines on land.
Today, it takes Russia, China, and South Korea about five to eight years to build a nuclear reactor. Since 2016, Pakistan has built four nuclear reactors, each one in less than six years. In 12 years, the UAE built its first two reactors. One of them is now on their thousand-dirham bill.
Nuclear plants usually need the most money to build than any other type of power plant, but they can make cheap electricity. In Germany, nuclear power is the main source of power that costs the least. Hydroelectric power is the biggest source of energy in the Canadian province of Ontario, where most of the country's nuclear power is made. The International Energy Agency said in 2020 that nuclear energy will be the cheapest source of low-carbon electricity that can be used right away in 2025.
Cost overruns are not as bad as people who are against nuclear power say they are. Since nuclear reactors can run for 60 or even 80 years, the large amount of energy they produce spreads the initial capital costs over a long period of time. Canada is currently upgrading its nuclear reactors to make them last longer. Even if the costs of the upgrades went up by 50 percent over the original estimates, it is thought that electricity rates from the reactors, which are already very cheap, would only go up by 8.9 percent.
Also, nuclear energy provides a lot of energy security, both against threats from dictators and against the whims of the market. In 2021, the US state of Illinois planned to spend $700 million to keep three nuclear plants running longer. This was a smart move. Due to a rise in the price of fossil fuels in 2022 and a unique part of the extension law, Illinois ratepayers will get back more than $1 billion from their utility.
Opponents of nuclear energy like to point out that the cost of nuclear power has always gone up as more plants are built, even in countries where nuclear power has worked well. Between 1971 and 1991, for example, France's costs went up by 50% to 100%, or by 2% to 4% per year. West Germany, Canada, the U.S., India, and Japan all had different levels of the same problem.
South Korea has shown that it is not the case. Since 1971, building costs there have gone down by half. Today, South Korea has 25 nuclear reactors, which produce 27% of its electricity. They kept costs down by using the same construction crews to build a standard design and only making small changes. In fact, the costs of some plants in the US and France went down when they copied what was done in Korea. Russia and China may have also been able to avoid the problem of costs going up, but they don't share those numbers.
Costs went up in these countries because of unfounded fears about radiation, which are often spread by people who don't like nuclear energy. Even though no one was hurt by the radiation from the Three Mile Island accident, costs for nuclear plants in the US went up by 280 percent after it.
Radiation panic kills, which is even worse. After the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, which were caused by a record-setting 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a 10-meter tsunami, the Japanese government shut down the country's nuclear plants out of fear of radiation. A 2019 study found that this action caused energy prices to go up, which could have led to around 1,200 deaths in four years from not having enough heat when it was cold. Only one person died from radiation because of the accident itself.
The Chernobyl nuclear accident, which killed 245 people, is thought to be the deadliest in the history of nuclear energy. However, accidents involving fossil fuels have killed a lot more people. In the US alone, natural gas pipeline accidents have killed 276 people and hurt 1,145 people in the past 20 years. The cleanup of Chernobyl was also more successful than most people thought. After the accident, the level of radiation went down to a point where the reactors that weren't damaged could start up again. Because of what the people who worked at Chernobyl said, the last reactor didn't shut down until the year 2000.
And, of course, there aren't as many deaths from radiation as there are from fossil fuel emissions. Millions of people die each year because of the pollution in the air caused by fossil fuels. Estimates vary, but a Harvard study found that fossil fuels caused one in five deaths around the world in 2018. In fact, by taking the place of fossil fuels, nuclear energy has saved more than 1.8 million lives.
In fact, nuclear power is just as safe as solar and wind once you take into account how much energy it has produced over time. This is because nuclear power as a whole has produced so much more power than solar and wind are expected to produce over their lifetimes.
Nuclear is safer than lithium-ion storage, which gets a lot of praise. In developed countries, more people have died because of lithium-ion batteries than because of nuclear radiation. In New York City alone, battery fires have killed eight people and hurt 130 others since 2021.
When it comes to nuclear waste, people who are against nuclear power are obsessed with used fuel and spread the idea that it is dangerous. Still, radioactive waste has never killed anyone. Even though the waste can be dangerous if it is not taken care of properly, it is easy to store in water pools and concrete casks. In fact, water is such a good shield against radiation that people can swim in cooling pools full of nuclear waste without getting harmful doses.
Carcinogens have been put into the environment by solar energy, but anti-nuclear activists either don't care or don't know about this. Heavy metals like lead and cadmium are found in many solar panels. If the panels are broken by bad weather, the heavy metals can leak into the ground.
In fact, nuclear waste is very useful. Most nuclear plants only use 10 percent or less of the energy in the uranium rods, so breeder or fast reactors can use the waste to make energy while also reprocessing it so that it can be used in regular reactors. This is already done in Russia, and smart people in the West are working on it right now. Because of this and other innovations, there is enough spent or unmined nuclear fuel to last for billions of years.
Existing nuclear reactors are very good at producing electricity, but they are not without problems, especially when it comes to building them in the West. In response, people are working on small modular reactors (SMRs), which are usually 300 megawatts (MW) or less, while traditional reactors are about 1,000 MW.
There are 70 SMR designs being worked on around the world, and there are a lot of committed investors. These designs try to cut down on capital costs by making the reactors smaller, increasing the amount of work that can be done in factories, and building identical reactors. Existing large nuclear plants take advantage of economies of scale, but SMR companies are betting that they can keep costs down by trading size for repeatability. Plus, smaller sizes open up new markets for nuclear energy, such as small islands, factories in remote areas, and countries with few people.
There is proof that the ideas behind SMRs are true. The US Navy uses small nuclear reactors to power its aircraft carriers, submarines, and other ships. It saved a lot of money when it moved more shipbuilding into factories.
GE Hitachi, a partnership between the United States and Japan, is sending the BWRX-300, a 300-MW boiling water reactor, to Canada and Poland. The company has also signed agreements to look into the BWRX-300's potential in the United States, Estonia, and the Czech Republic. The BWRX-300 reactor is a good idea because boiling water reactors are already in use around the world, but they are much bigger. The BWRX-300 is one of the most interesting SMR designs in development because it is easy to build, investors are interested in it, and it has worked well in the past. By 2028, GE Hitachi wants to finish building a BWRX-300 in Canada.
Oklo, based in the US, is also a promising company. It is making micro sodium-cooled fast reactors that can produce anywhere from 1.5 to 15 MW. Their design is different from traditional nuclear power plants in at least two ways: it can use nuclear waste to make power and it can run for at least a decade without being refueled.
Even though they are harder to build than water-cooled reactors, sodium-cooled reactors have a good track record of working well. Since they were first made, these reactors have been running for 450 reactor-years. The Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II), which was built in the US in the 1960s, was the first sodium-cooled fast reactor. Oklo's reactor design is based on the EBR-II.
The EBR-II is a good place to start because it is the safest thing you can think of. In one test, American engineers tried to melt down the EBR-II by turning it up to full power and turning off major safety systems. However, the reactors cooled down on their own without any help from people. This important safety feature is called "walk-away safety," and most reactors in use today don't have it.
Oklo has a smart way of making money. Instead of selling the reactors to utilities, they sign contracts directly with customers like remote communities, colleges, hospitals, and factories. This is how some wind and solar projects are sold today, and it fits nicely with corporate sustainability goals. The company wants to have a reactor up and running by 2026.
Dual Fluid Energy, which is based in Canada, is making a 300-MW lead-cooled fast reactor that is also safe to leave unattended. They hope to have their first one up and running by 2029. Thanks to great physics, the reactor can't get too hot. If the core gets too hot, the fluids will naturally expand. This makes the fissile material less dense, which stops the reaction. This design also lets the reactor heat up to 1,000 °C, which is much higher than most reactors. This would make it easy for Dual Fluid to provide the industrial heat needed to make things like steel or hydrogen.
The history of nuclear power could show where SMRs are going in the future. In the 1950s and 1960s, the first fission reactors were about the size of SMRs today. As time went on, they got bigger to take advantage of economies of scale. The SMRs in the West may follow a similar path. In particular, as GE Hitachi builds more BWRXs in factories, it may find that it can make its reactors and factories bigger without losing the ability to make the same thing over and over again.
People have been on that path before. During the peak of nuclear power in the US, two of the country's biggest companies spent more than $125 million to build a nuclear plant factory on an artificial island. The factory would make identical 1,150-MW nuclear plants that could then be barged to customers. Even though the plan was big, the factory never made a reactor and ended up dying of a thousand cuts. The oil crisis of the 1970s stopped the growth of power demand. President Jimmy Carter put a stop to building new nuclear plants, and then the Three Mile Island accident scared the US.
But people still want to build nuclear plants that are bigger than ever before. Executives at Dual Fluid Energy think that one day they might be able to make their reactors as big as 30,000 MW to match the amount of energy that oil refineries put out.
Even though SMRs have a lot of potential, they face a lot of problems. Most reactors today are big and cooled by water. This is because, of the many designs that have been tried over the years, these are the most reliable and cost-effective. But that doesn't mean that every design got the credit it deserved, and there's still room for new ideas. Even though some, or even most, SMR companies will fail, the need for nuclear power drives businesses and governments to look into all of its possibilities. Energy will change for the better as soon as a few designs become more affordable.
The free world vs. despots
Now, the question is not just what will power the future, but also who will. The free world is in a race with Russia and China to be the leader in nuclear energy.
The free world is in the back, but it is making progress. In Europe, the EU recently said that nuclear power is "sustainable" under its Green Finance Taxonomy. This will make it easier to finance nuclear projects on the continent, which is surprising since the EU has always been against nuclear power. At least ten countries in Europe have plans to build nuclear power plants. Even Germany, which is against nuclear power, has delayed the planned closing of its last three nuclear plants.
In France, President Macron has changed his plan to cut the amount of electricity that comes from nuclear power from 75% to 50% to a plan to build 14 new nuclear plants. Still, France has a long way to go. Mark Nelson, managing director of the consulting firm Radiant Energy Group, said, "Punitive taxes, parasitic expropriation of generated power, and an unnecessarily forced plant closure have helped bring France's nuclear fleet to its knees just when Europe needs it the most." When the COVID lockdowns were over, more than half of France's reactors could not be used.
Over in Europe, the US is supporting nuclear power in a way that hasn't been seen since the "Atoms for Peace" era of the 1950s and 1960s, which was the start of its nuclear buildup. Laws that were just passed give $6 billion to keep nuclear plants running and $3.2 billion to develop SMR. Importantly, the provisions include a production tax credit for nuclear plants that are already up and running. This will help protect them from competition from natural gas.
Even though there is a lot of federal support for small modular reactors (SMRs) and existing nuclear power plants, Congress is not very interested in building more conventional reactors. This is a mistake, since the US government is trying to get conventional US reactors exported to other countries.
South Korea is back in the nuclear race, which is good news for the free world. South Korea's previous government promised to end its nuclear program, but President Yoon Suk-yeol has reversed that decision. Instead, he wants to make South Korea a "nuclear reactor superpower."
Things are going in the right direction for the free world, but they are behind because they are having trouble building nuclear plants and have been against the technology for decades.
China is the leader of the world right now. It has the best nuclear skills and goals in the world, with 52 reactors planned or under construction and another 150 reactors being thought about. With 92 reactors, the US is the largest producer of nuclear energy in the world right now.
China has everything it needs to have a successful nuclear program: direct government support, strong research and development programs with universities, and standardized reactor designs. On the SMR front, China has already put into operation a 200-MW high-temperature gas-cooled pebble-bed reactor in Shandong province. This reactor has a more advanced design than most SMRs. The US's best design of this type won't hit the market until at least the end of the 2020s.
China has to deal with two big problems. They haven't exported any reactors yet, and that might not change in the next 10 years. Second, China's growing geopolitical aggression could make other countries less likely to work with them.
China is first, and Russia is second, but Russia is ahead of the free world. It is one of the biggest exporters and builders of nuclear energy in the world. 87 percent of the reactors that will be built between 2017 and the first half of 2022 will use designs from Russia and China. Rosatom is Russia's state-run nuclear energy company. It attracts the country's best engineers and people who come up with new ideas. The Beloyarsk BN-800, which is cooled by sodium, is the largest fast reactor in the world. On the SMR front, Russia has put in place two 35-MW reactors that use water to cool them.
But Putin has shown that Russia is willing to take advantage of people who buy their energy. It is losing customers in the free world, which is made up of the world's richest countries. Finland and the Czech Republic have already cut Russia out of their nuclear programs, and countries in the West are looking for new uranium fuel suppliers.
At the moment, the free world is at least five to seven years behind China and Russia in the race for SMRs. Other than South Korea, the free world is also ten years behind in the race for conventional reactors. The free world is finally making progress, but for now, the dictators are in front.
It’s morning for nuclear power
There has never been a better time for nuclear energy. The price of natural gas is through the roof, the flaws of renewable energy are becoming more and more obvious, climate change needs to be fixed as soon as possible, and Russia is manipulating energy supplies in a land war unlike any since World War II. People all over the world are starting to see that nuclear power has the potential to make their countries more energy secure and wealthy.
No one knows how long it will take for nuclear power to reach its full potential. Changes in energy can be painfully slow. It took two hundred years to switch from biomass to coal, which was the fuel source that made modern industry possible. Even though coal was widely available in the 20th century, it didn't stop the use of biomass power from doubling.
The speed of the fracking revolution in the US is a good sign. Since 2007, coal production in the US has dropped by 55 percent. This is a huge change in such a short amount of time. If nuclear goes through the same kind of innovative commercialization, it could be used as quickly as fossil fuels.
Most of the world is just getting started with nuclear energy, and it will take decades for it to become the main source of energy for the whole world. But one day, nuclear energy will change the way our world works. Truly, it has already dawned.