Climate action versus meltdown risk: This trade-off may have shifted a bit (Photo: Reuters)


As energy security becomes a source of increasing concern, it is clear that the reliable use of renewable resources on a large scale is a distant reality in many countries. This has given a controversial but near-perfect alternative a chance to make a comeback: nuclear. The trouble is, no one wants a reactor in their backyard and memories of past accidents are a serious concern.

But with rising costs and few solutions in hand, governments and companies are turning to nuclear power as a clean and cheap source to help achieve ambitious climate goals. Even if years are away, the development of nuclear power sources and storage methods could enable industrial operations relying on pre-heating processes for raw materials and high temperatures as the world navigates an energy crisis. With all the disruptions in the supply chain, power outages are the last thing consumers and businesses need.

In Japan, the average level of energy costs are much lower than utility-scale solar and offshore wind. A recent survey showed that more than 80% of Japanese companies are in favor of restarting nuclear reactors to meet electricity needs. Electric utility Kansai Electric Power Company is resuming work on one of its defunct reactors ahead of plans to manage energy demand. Bringing the Mihama No. 3 reactor online would reduce the need for liquefied natural gas, and the firm’s nuclear output could grow 76% by 2023 as it brings back more reactors.

It is also proving competitive in India and China, where dirty alternatives such as coal have become costlier. South Korea is focused on reviving nuclear power, which contributes about 27% to the country’s energy mix.

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Earlier this year, the US Joe Biden administration issued a notice of intent for the implementation of a $6 billion nuclear loan program supporting the operation of reactors across the country—”the nation’s largest source of clean power”. Last week, the US Department of Energy provided more than $60 million for 74 nuclear projects. British jet engine maker Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd, backed by the UK government and other investors, said late last year it was going to start building smaller and cheaper reactors. Some of its compact modular reactors are expected to be online by 2029 and regulatory processes are already underway.

The return of nuclear is understandable: the cost of prolonging the lifetime of building power plants and reactors in countries stuck with this form of energy is attractively low. Which are still battling with outdated reactors and lack of alternatives.

However, the biggest hurdles are deep concerns about safety and waste disposal. Memories of nuclear accidents such as Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 still loom large in both public and corporate memory. Yet, what is often forgotten is that on a death-per-unit of electricity basis, nuclear remains at the bottom of the list, while coal is at the top.

The progress made on reducing nuclear energy issues has not been appreciated. For example, safety in reactors is usually based on an assessment of core meltdown risks. To address these concerns, 14 countries have developed low-risk designs and developed a new generation of reactors. These systems would use a variety of coolants, such as molten salt or liquid metals, and methods that would ultimately make nuclear power generation cleaner, safer and more efficient. Reactors using such materials seek to eliminate or minimize the production of hazardous gases that burst under pressure.

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Several startups are working on making nuclear power more acceptable. NuScale Power is building small modular reactors that could eventually power 60,000 homes per unit. The firm, which has received more than $450 million in support from Washington, is working with the US and Romanian governments to build a plant in the eastern European country.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s Seaborg Technologies has teamed up with Samsung Heavy Industries to create a compact molten salt reactor that could transform the use of energy in logistics. Bill Gates-backed TerraPower—also focused on smaller reactors—has partnered with South Korean industrial conglomerate SK Group to build these plants.

Nuclear power could be the solution, or at least fill major energy gaps, in the coming years. In addition to the existing nuclear fission used in commercial reactors, startups are now pushing toward nuclear fusion technologies and have raised billions of dollars from the likes of Tiger Global and Bill Gates. Denying this power source out of fear doesn’t get us too far, and neither is bullying. Companies and countries should not shy away from discussing nuclear energy openly and raising awareness. Public acceptance is important. Without it, we would be breathing dirty air and going through blockages.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia.

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