As the US nuclear fleet continues to age and the availability of alternate sources of energy continues to rise, it is not surprising that we are seeing more news of permanent plant closures. As of this past June, there were 209 nuclear reactors permanently shut down worldwide, but the United States recorded the largest number of shutdowns, at 41 units.
Nuclear power was once hailed as the perfect answer to worldwide energy problems. But to understand the future of nuclear power, it’s helpful to understand what got us here.
Why Are People Against Nuclear Power?
It doesn’t take many nuclear incidents to make a lasting impression. The public is afraid of the risks associated with nuclear reactors, and that’s understandable, especially for those who remember the Fukushima nuclear disaster vividly.
However, statistics paint a much more complex picture of the risks associated with nuclear power compared with those associated with fossil fuels.
- Estimates of total deaths from nuclear incidents range from under 10,000 to around 1 million
- Air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels, including in power plants, causes 8.7 million deaths each and every year
- Coal power is estimated to kill around 350 times as many people per terawatt-hour of energy produced compared to nuclear power
- Roughly 4,200 home structure fires per year started with the ignition of natural gas, causing an average of 40 deaths per year in the US
- In terms of the number of deaths resulting from accidents, hydroelectric power is actually the deadliest method of generating electricity
By and large, people don’t tend to have nightmares about dams failing, and we’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to the toll that fossil fuel has taken on our health. Additionally, while the Fukushima site is still being treated and monitored, decontamination efforts have shown themselves to be effective.
But nuclear incidents are scary, and they can displace entire communities. The World Health Organization, UNSCEAR, and the International Atomic Energy Agency are all in agreement that the biggest impacts of nuclear accidents aren’t radiological — they’re socio-economic and psychological.
Additional Challenges to Nuclear Power
Traditional nuclear power plants come with an element of risk, and they also have brought additional challenges. They’re increasingly expensive to build. The regulations surrounding them in the U.S. are complicated, change frequently, and vary by state, which adds to the expense. The fuel — uranium and thorium — aren’t plentiful, and the mining and enrichment of uranium isn’t environmentally friendly.
What Is the Outlook for Nuclear Power?
With all of those drawbacks, why do scientists and engineers still have hope for nuclear power? It’s a legitimate question and one we wish people asked us more often.
Nuclear power remains one of the most low-carbon energy sources, it’s reliable, and it’s cost-effective in the long term. Even considering the many challenges facing the future of existing plants, at Verdantas, we believe that we need to consider a worldwide focus not only on designing but also on building new nuclear reactors, lest we be left with only natural gas and coal for baseload power.
Construction expense, regulatory complications, safety, and risk — these are challenges that engineers are making incredible progress on. New cheap and safe plant designs promise to make a meltdown impossible. Thanks to AI and machine learning, plant personnel can be alerted to any faults or vulnerabilities so they can be addressed promptly. With dramatically improved safety, engineers also hope that regulations can be adjusted to reflect the change in risk.
What Are the Future Uses of Nuclear Power?
It’s frustrating that traditional reactor designs have cast a long, dark shadow over nuclear power because it holds a lot of promise for future generations.
Future uses of nuclear power include:
- Making hydrogen to power cars
- Desalination plants that can improve access to drinkable water
- Powering industrial processes
Our Power Engineering Capabilities
At Verdantas, we continue to develop applications for emerging technologies to provide tailored solutions that mitigate risk and reduce costs. Our power facilities team provides 7D+ consulting services, substation digitization and digital transformation, nuclear generating station critical flow modeling, balance of plant engineering, and reality capture outage support.
Recently our team worked with the McGuire Nuclear Power Station in Huntersville, North Carolina, to find out if they needed to invest in a vortex suppression device to prevent air entrainment. Our hydraulic modeling specialists were able to successfully demonstrate that this device wasn’t needed, as their expected water levels during operation would be higher than those associated with air entrainment — saving the station approximately $50,000 in equipment alone.
Click the link below to read more about our team’s work on this project!
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