Mini-Nuclear Reactors… The Budget Solution to Climate Change?

by leafitalone on October 7, 2016 - 5:21pm

In the past few weeks, following Hinkley Point (a $23 Billion nuclear power project) receiving the go-ahead from British ministers, national newspapers have been all over nuclear power like an oily rag. An article posted by the BBC highlighted some worries surrounding nuclear safety and the constant setbacks due to reactor faults encountered by EDF, the energy company behind the project. These are not new concerns; with every nuclear project there is the dilemma of hazardous waste disposal and the risk of environmental disaster in the same vein as Chernobyl. This is not to mention the painstaking amount of time it takes to build a station. It’s surprising that by the time a station is completed, the bit they started on hasn’t eroded away. With climate change pressures relentlessly mounting, time is becoming more and more of a pressing issue.

            Hinkley Point is not the only reason that nuclear energy has been in the news lately, however. The Guardian published an article based on a report from a government-industry collaboration known as the Energy Technologies Institute, which argues that small modular reactors could be fully operational in Britain in the next 15 years. A small modular reactor, according to the US Department of Energy, is capable of producing about a third of the power of your average nuclear plant.

            What’s the big stink? Small modular reactors (SMRs) are standardized, moveable plants that can easily fit into decommissioned fossil fuel plant sites and are able to produce clean combined heat and power that can be fed straight into urban areas. This means a lower cost and consistent clean energy in a shorter timeframe. In Britain, this is most welcome news as the government slashed solar power funding earlier this year.

            Of course, investing in “Low Cost Nuclear Energy” sounds about as safe as machine-gun Russian roulette. The World Nuclear Association argues the opposite though; they believe that the module-by-module construction in a factory setting would actually up the quality. The size and “passive safety features” also make them a viable option for countries yet to experiment with nuclear power. The biggest issue still is the amount of waste that could result from these “pre-fab” plants, especially if they catch on. This past summer I encountered a planning engineer from Bruce Power, a nuclear power plant in Ontario that supplies a large proportion of Toronto with CO2-free electricity. As a Layman I asked him some fairly basic questions, like “how safe is it?”. He explained the process of cooling and storage to me and suggested that burying the waste is actually very safe and low-risk. When comparing the amount of nuclear waste in Britain to the amount of damage the oil sands in Alberta have caused, there’s no doubt in my mind which I would choose to power the future.

            It’s hard to argue the efficiency and cleanliness of nuclear power relative to other fossil fuel methods. The smaller reactors may also reduce risk of catastrophe as they are lower output, and technology has improved so much in the past 20-30 years that previous incidents may now be avoidable.

Cheaper clean energy could potentially be massive for developing countries, especially as their carbon emissions tend to be higher and carbon trading tends to be more expensive for them. Over the course of the next 50-75 years, it may be the only option until we can find a solution that provides completely renewable energy for the planet. It’s not the answer, but it’s surely got to be considered a step in the right direction.

“Mini-nuclear reactors could be operating in the UK by 2030 – report: