Safe, zero-carbon and proven: is fourth-generation nuclear the energy solution?

What used to be waste can now be fuel.

The world is searching for a “holy grail”: zero-carbon electricity provided safely and reliably, 24 hours a day, in any given location and in quantities that matter for a world that is heading for 10 billion people.

World electricity generation by source (click for larger image). World Nuclear Association

We are told to expect a “portfolio” of solutions, but this is a little deceptive. Right now, just five basic sources (coal, gas, hydro, nuclear and oil) provide over 97% of global electricity, with the fossil fuels making up 67%. And time is against us.

What technologies can step up, take the place of that 67% and the growth to come? What technologies are capable of doing the heavy lifting?

Some say the time has truly arrived for nuclear power, which is already providing 15% of global electricity. But nuclear expansion has been hamstrung by concerns that, while having basis in fact, are blown out of proportion.

The main concerns are:

  • operational safety (for example, meltdown)
  • high-level waste
  • uranium mining
  • availability of fuel
  • proliferation of fissile material.

Some nuclear bashing is pure myth. Can nuclear generators get insurance? Yes, it’s an easily checkable fact. Do they produce high greenhouse gas across the full life cycle? No, current reactors are about equivalent in this regard to wind and solar; advanced reactor systems will beat both of them.

On other matters, nuclear is serially deprived of context, and so painted a villain. Despite being way safer than coal, gas, and hydro, we only hear that nuclear is dangerous.

Nuclear power captures and contains operational waste. Fossil fuels dump greenhouse gas, heavy metals, particulates and other nasties into the environment all day, every day. But two million deaths per year from air pollution, with fossil fuels a major contributor, are apparently a non-issue when trying to keep people scared of radiation.

Uranium’s energy density is about 20,000 times higher than coal using current light water reactors. That means much less of what we don’t like (energy mining impacts) for what we need (energy). In the real world, that’s called responsible decision making. In anti-nuclear campaigning, it’s called “cognitive dissonance”.

Australian Geographic & Heathgate Resources