Third Generation Nuclear Energy

Since 2001, a project has been underway to determine ‘alternative’ nuclear technologies, conducted by a large group of scientists from over 15 nations. The list of specifications is very demanding, but with a simple objective: can science provide radical new solutions to allow us to dispense with ageing second and third generation nuclear technologies? The group came up with a set of discoveries promising remarkable advances. So, why does no one talk about them? Nuclear energy, it seems, remains a sensitive subject at the global level. Our reporter, Leah McGrath Goodman, has decided to throw some light on the matter.

It is a little-known fact that the heavily guarded, Cold War era fortress that houses the US Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington is named after – as one official jokes without a trace of irony - “a deeply depressed man.”

That man, James Forrestal, first US Secretary of Defense, died in 1949 under strange circumstances. Depending on whom you believe, he was either assassinated or committed suicide by tying the end of a bathrobe sash around his neck, the other to a radiator, and throwing himself out of a hospital window. His body was found, shirtless, on a ledge, in an alley. The investigation into his death was marred by rumors of foul play, but it appeared he left a suicide note.

Quoting a passage from Ajax, the Sophocles’ tragedy about a warrior who takes his own life after deciding he has lost his nobility and dreads the prospect of living in a world in constant flux, Forrestal wrote: “Worn by the waste of time … Comfortless, nameless, hopeless save … In the dark prospect of the yawning grave.”

Not cheerful stuff, but perhaps a fitting warning for the agency that makes its home at the former compound of the Atomic Energy Commission and continues to devote the majority of its resources to maintaining US nuclear stockpiles and cleaning up the toxic mess left behind by years of manufacturing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the DOE itself could be called a warrior grappling with a world in flux, its throwback existence a metaphor for the bind the world now finds itself in when faced with the future of nuclear. While Washington desperately wants to move forward, it is hamstrung by the failures of the past and the administrative wastes of the present.

Dr. Strangelove (who would feel right at home at the DOE’s concrete-bunker headquarters) would not approve. Still, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown just over a year ago, it is clear that the rumors of the death of nuclear, like those surrounding the demise of General Forrestal, have been greatly exaggerated. Much stands in the way of the nuclear renaissance the world likely needs to avoid a fatal uptick in greenhouse gases, but emerging nuclear technologies with advanced safety features offer a zero-carbon alternative at a time when mankind may need it most.

Interestingly, it is not the specter of Fukushima that has slowed some of the progress on the nuclear front, but a boom in natural gas, which has flooded the marketplace on the back of advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (more popularly known as ‘fracking’). Traditionally, nuclear has beat gas by a long shot as the cheaper and greener energy option, but in recent years that has been less and less the case. Both are relied upon across the continents for their steady generation of electricity, but the ocean of natural gas stemming from perfected drilling techniques has led to rock-bottom prices in some parts of the world. “We are living at a historic moment in the evolution of energy markets,” Rex W. Tillerson, Chief Executive of ExxonMobil, pronounced in June at a conference in Kuala Lumpur. “How we respond will shape the quality of life for generations to come.”

Tillerson was not mincing words. Gas is poised to outstrip coal as the second most widely used source of energy worldwide by 2025. That takes into account soaring demand in Asia, which is projected to grow by more than 50 percent in the next three decades. Coupled with the chilling effect of Fukushima, that does not bode well for the future of nuclear, even with its carbon-neutral appeal. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it is still a fossil fuel that produces its share of dirty greenhouse gases. And that does not bode well for the future of the planet.

“It’s really a pick-your-poison sort of issue: nuclear comes with radiation and fear, while greenhouse gases and climate change come with uncertainty and the potential for serious impacts far in the future,” says Roger Pielke Jr., Professor of Environmental Studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. “As things stand, there’s no way we can produce enough solar and wind and hydro to replace the existing base load and power needs we’re dealing with, let alone the growth in energy demand we’re going to see. And everyone is beginning to realize that.”

‘Base load’ is the term used by experts to refer to the minimum sustained level of electricity needed to deliver power to the world’s energy consumers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If the world’s electricity portfolio was a layer cake, nuclear, coal and natural gas would make up the bulk of the cake, with renewable fuels serving as the frosting. Renewables remain promising and critically important – comprising one fifth of global electricity generation – but they still aren’t reliable enough or robust enough to stand in for the much brawnier fossil fuels or nuclear in the face of current energy demand and global projections for growth. By 2035, says the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), world demand for energy will increase by one-third, with energy-related carbon emissions skyrocketing by 20 percent. A lower rate of global economic growth in the short term would only make a marginal difference to longer-term energy and climate trends.

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By Leah McGrath Goodman