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Wikistrat Insider: Climate Change and Nuclear Power

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

As the issue of climate change becomes more and more pressing, the search for a cleaner and more sustainable source of energy intensifies. But is heavily stigmatized nuclear power the optimal solution? And if so, is it limited to first-world countries only? And how important is the problem of radioactive waste? In our latest podcast episode, Marina Guimaraes interviewed David Hess, a policy analyst at the World Nuclear Association, to discuss civilian nuclear power in light of climate change.


David Hess is a policy analyst at the World Nuclear Association. His work focuses on nuclear technology, climate change, sustainable development, and helping the nuclear industry meet the challenge of providing 25% of global electricity by 2050.





Full Transcript:

Marina Guimarães:

Our podcast today discusses nuclear power and civilian use. We invited David Hess who's a policy analyst at the World Nuclear Association. Here, we will discuss topics such as the stigma behind nuclear energy, nuclear energy as a clean source, and its cost. Stay tuned.


Marina Guimarães:

This is Marina Guimarães for Wikistrat, our podcast discusses global events that might affect political scenarios across the globe. This week's topic is nuclear power and civilian use. And to talk about it, we invited David Hess. Mr. Hess it's a policy analyst at World Nuclear Association. His work focuses on nuclear technology, climate change, and sustainable development. Mr. Hess thank you so much for joining us.


David Hess:

Pleasure is mine, Marina.


Marina Guimarães:

When we talk about nuclear energy, there's a lot of stigma around it. Why is that?


David Hess:

There are some fairly well-known incidents in the history of nuclear energy, which have led to the stigma, some notable accidents, which have taken place over time. And it's not really a secret that a lot of people also connect the technology to nuclear weapons as well. I think over time, this has become sort of in trend in the environmental movement in much of the environmental movements today, as being reasons to oppose the technology. And I think in an even larger view now, you sort of look at the world and we have these visions of which way we would like the world to be headed.


David Hess:

For some people, they see a movement and a planet, which is based around an ideal of small technologies, village life, etc. And they really don't sort of necessarily see nuclear energy or technology fitting into that picture, which I think is a great shame because the technology truly has a lot to offer. It shouldn't really be tied down with this baggage of perceptions, which frankly in a lot of cases are out of date by about 10, 20, or even 30 years.


Marina Guimarães:

And when did the first idea of using nuclear energy as a clean source of energy come up? Can you explain a little bit more about this?


David Hess:

It's not really well known that nuclear energy is actually one of the youngest energy technologies we have. It was essentially conceived during wartime. It was the first nuclear energy project that was put together as an afterthought to the Manhattan project, which was the process to create the first nuclear bomb. But even then we knew that there are multiple different potential uses for this technology. You can use it for destruction if you want, but it can also be used as an abundant source of reliable energy. And it grew out of there, but that's something which really dates back just to the 1940s. There might've been a little bit of earlier thoughts from nuclear physicists and scholars about using nuclear for energy purposes before that. But if you look back in history, the first solar panel or something, which uses the sun's energy to create electricity, it was created over a 100 years ago.


David Hess:


We've had wind energy in different forms for hundreds and hundreds of years. And of course, the industrial revolution, which started, I think if I get this right, around about, I'm not even going to get the century right. I want to say maybe the earliest uses of fossil fuel starting in the 16th century and then really exploding throughout the 19th and 20th century. Nuclear energy is a baby in that regard. Pretty much the entire development of nuclear energy to date. It started off in the '50s and '60s. It accelerated rapidly in Western countries throughout the '70s and '80s and plateaued. Now more recently we've seen a surge of nuclear development in newcomer countries, especially China, throughout Asia, and perhaps in the future, I will also see it in Africa as well.


Marina Guimarães:

You talked about the future. If we want to preserve the planet, is nuclear energy the way to do it? Is it the future of clean energy?


David Hess:

Well Marina, people like to look at these things as monoliths. Like questions which have a single answer. As an analyst, I can't say that there is a single answer. I wouldn't describe nuclear as being the future of energy. There are a lot of really good and improving energy technologies out there. We should make use of them, but nuclear is certainly part of that solution. And frankly, it's a very big part of that solution. If we invest in the new technologies now, which can come to market and sort of provide non-conventional uses. Today nuclear power plants are used to predominantly generate electricity. That's essentially what they are doing. They come in, especially these days, they come in a one-size approach. It's about gigawatt scale. It fits into a larger established grid. They're very good at providing baseload electricity, or they can be flexible. And that's what nuclear power plants do.


David Hess:

But as far as the de-carbonization challenges are concerned, it's not just enough to decarbonize electricity. We also need to clean up heating and we need to remove industrial emissions as well. The technologies which are under development in the nuclear sector now, they really do open up these new applications.


David Hess: In the future, we might see clear reactors, especially the small modular reactors, which can be cited alongside the industrial clusters and provide electricity for that plant, but also the heat, which could go into the chemical processes for a chemical feed stock for example. Similarly, there are small reactors again, or even some of the large ones, which could be adapted to supply heat, to district heating networks. It's a way to keep people warm during the winter months, which whilst we might expect to get less severe in a climate impacted world, will still be severe.


David Hess: It's very important that we have reliable sources of heating for that. But these are some of the most intractable problems, which we currently face with climate change, especially for the countries which are trying very hard to address that. There are some of the initiatives, which there hasn't been so much progress, to be frank. There's a lot of hope and electrification and increasing electrification, but it might not get us there.


David Hess:

On the other side of things, it's easy to, especially for somebody like me, perhaps to get distracted by the developed world and think about all the important progress and changes which we're making there, but there's still a very large part of the world, which is developing, where people don't really enjoy perhaps the same quality of life as we do in the Western and developed countries.


David Hess:

There's a huge emphasis on just getting cheap, reliable power plants online as quickly as possible. We're seeing big movements and lots of countries, which are now trying to ramp up the nuclear construction, even if I haven't started these programs before. What we really see is a shift in the established energy picture, at least in a nuclear energy picture, where nuclear technology has traditionally been the domain of elite technologically established club and a slow percolation of electronic technology to emerging countries, which are getting their governance together, getting the nuclear competencies together and are ready to begin their nuclear energy programs now.


Marina Guimarães:

You mentioned less developed countries, and I'm curious about the cost. Which countries would be eligible for giving it a kick?


David Hess:

There was a really good study, which was produced by the United Nations Economic Commissions of Europe. It was looking at the use of nuclear fuel resources for sustainable development, and it identified a lot of emerging nuclear countries and the level they were at in terms of beginning a nuclear energy program. You ask which countries? In theory, all countries have the right to begin a nuclear energy program, but it's not an easy journey. It's actually a famously quite a complicated one, maybe sometimes too complicated. And it requires that countries make progress on certain key milestones. There is a process which is coordinated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, it's called The Milestones Approach, and it lays down I think it's 16 infrastructure areas that countries have to show significant progress on before they can start construction of their first reactors, but it's a milestone-based approach, right?


David Hess:

First, they have to identify the desire for nuclear and they need to work on what they're called infrastructure issues and get to a certain level of competency. Then they're at a point where they can begin a nuclear energy program. There has to be a strong need for nuclear and it has to be a political will to develop it. It's not just something that you can, unlike other energy technologies, not just something you can say "okay, I think today I'm going to do nuclear." No, you need to do a fair bit of hard work to get to the level where others, especially the international community will trust you with the technology. When we look at it in that terms, there are a few countries that are high up the ladder now rapidly approaching the point where they can start construction of their first reactor.


David Hess:

And then there are others whose at the moment their programs are kind of aspirational. They clearly still have a fair bit of work to do. In terms of countries that have just begun these nuclear energy programs or begun constructing their first reactors, the UAE started up their first nuclear power plant just last year, after a program, which took about 12 years for them to get from a policy statement to their first reactor operating. Belarus has started their first reactor as well. I'm not sure on the timeframe they have. Both those countries have a few more reactors under development. Turkey is constructing its first nuclear power plant now. Bangladesh has started its first power plant. Egypt is we believe getting to the point where they're about to start construction of their first nuclear power plant and so on, so on. There are other countries which are further down that list and they're more aspirational and achieving the necessary development to begin constructing their first reactors.


Marina Guimarães:

Is it an expensive way of doing clean energy?


David Hess:

This perception, I think is out there, that nuclear energy is expensive. As a generalization, it's wrong. Especially the countries, these newcomer countries, we're looking at developing the drainage now. They're doing so because of its obvious economic advantages. The economics of an entity is something that is determined by a lot of factors. But one of the things that it's most affected by it is the location and the cost of alternatives. In a lot of these countries, they might not have, for example, a significant hydro-power resource. They might not have a lot of their own domestic coal or gas resources and the cost of energy can therefore be very expensive. Nuclear energy is a way to reduce or at least control these costs. The way nuclear economics works is that you invest a significant amount of money upfront, but then you're rewarded by low and stable operating costs into the future.


David Hess:

If fuel, especially in fossil fuels, is an expensive issue for your country, and developing nuclear is a really good way to bring those costs down, then there's the subsequent issue that it's not just about the cost of an individual technology when it comes to, let's say, your electricity mix. The consumer pays for the entire system as a whole. That system in most countries aims to provide reliable electricity, 365 days a year, however many years, a century. We treat outages and blackouts, very significant events, which we try to avoid because they have significant cost impacts on sales and sometimes they can even cost human lives.


David Hess:

Nuclear energy is a part of a reliable energy mix. Especially if you look at in terms of a decarbonized reliable energy mix, then we have international reports showing us that nuclear energy is actually one of the least cost technologies are for this purpose. Even in a situation where, for example, you have wind and solar they're cheap, you could only install a certain amount of them before you start running into issues with intermittency, adding a flexible baseload or base technology like nuclear energy can really help to control and reduce the overall costs of the energy system. Both in developed countries and in developing countries, in many countries, nuclear energy is an extremely competitive option.


Marina Guimarães:

Mr. Hess, the last question: what about nuclear waste? Is there a safe way for disposal?


David Hess:

Nuclear waste is just another one of those issues that get used to scare people about nuclear energy. But I really feel most people just don't have a very good understanding of what nuclear waste really is. We already have solutions for nuclear waste. We have to, because we produce a large quantity of it, and it's not just nuclear power plants I'm talking about here, but it's the many other applications of nuclear technology like medical institutions and industrial uses. For the low-level waste, this gets buried just in a near-surface landfills, but to very high standards. There are some repositories already existing for intermediate-level waste as well. The solution to nuclear waste, if you're trying to dispose of this stuff is just to put it on the ground.


David Hess:

It shouldn't be that surprising because that's what we do with all waste. The question is: to what standards do you use this? How sort of robust is your repository? How deep do you want to bury it? High-level waste is what most people tend to be concerned about when they hear about nuclear energy. That overwhelmingly consists of the leftover remains of, or what we call, used nuclear fuel, which is used up a certain amount of fissionable energy and has become intensely radioactive as a result. You have options, but at the end of the day, you do want to bury what you perceive as waste, deep underground in a highly secure facility. The international nuclear community has known about this for years, but some countries have made very steady progress now in developing their repositories. Finland is the country, which is currently leading the pack and should have some high-level waste repository open in a couple of years.


David Hess:

Some of the European countries are honestly not too far behind. It's when I said you have options, some countries also choose to reprocess their used nuclear fuel, and this means that they extract the potential reusable and useful elements, even for use in new fuel assemblies in reactors today, or keeping it aside for use in future advanced reactor technologies. It's kind of amazing because so much attention is placed upon this issue, but it actually has so little damage or causes so little actual impact in the real world. I was lucky enough once to visit the French, for the processing facility, which accepts all the high-level waste from France's nuclear power plants. At that time the remains of all the fuel, which they had recycled up until that point in time was contained within a single room of average dimensions.


David Hess:

The other point to consider in terms of volume, there's really not very much of this stuff. And this is why there has never been an urgent need to accelerate this high-level waste to the geological repositories because the volumes are just not that great. All the high-level waste, which has been produced from the operation of a typical power plant that's been operating for 40 years, can be contained pretty much inside a spent fuel pool as part of a plant itself, or perhaps repackaged into canisters, which sit on a parking lot outside, and you can see the pictures of these.


David Hess:

When you realize just how small the volumes are, which are required for the disposal unit, you realize that there's been no urgent need to push for this. But there is, I think, a very important need to be seen as having a functional solution for waste so that the international community understands that this is a sustainable activity, that it does have long-term plans to make sure that there are no eventual environmental impacts from these materials, and that's exactly how it should be.



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