Nuclear Energy

The future of nuclear energy

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Fast reactors vs thermal reactor

Mains level : Paper 3- future of nuclear

Context

Bill Gates recently announced the decision to launch his own nuclear reactor with an eye on the possibility of exporting fast breeder reactors to power-hungry nations.

About the Gates plan

  • TerraPower, the nuclear company founded by Mr. Gates, has just announced an agreement with private funders, including Warren Buffett, and the State of Wyoming, U.S. to site its Natrium fast reactor demonstration project there.
  • Moreover, since it falls within the “advanced” small modular reactor project of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Department will subsidise the project to the extent of $80 million this year.
  •  Mr. Gates believes that the fast breeder reactors will replace the current reactors.
  • The DOE and other nuclear enthusiasts also believe that small, factory-built, modular reactors will be cheaper and safer, and will be so attractive to foreign buyers.

The impact of Fukushima Daiichi accident on nuclear power situation

  • The Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan on March 11, 2011 completely transformed the nuclear power situation.
  • Countries phased out nuclear power: As the global community turned its attention to strengthening nuclear safety, several countries opted to phase out nuclear power. 
  • The nuclear industry was at a standstill except in Russia, China and India.
  • Liability clause in India: Even in India, the expected installation of imported reactors did not materialise because of our liability law and the anti-nuclear protests in proposed locations.
  • India had to go in for more indigenous reactors to increase the nuclear component of its energy mix.

Regaining place as a climate-friendly energy option

  • Two factors have contributed to the emergence of nuclear power as a climate-friendly energy option once again after the Fukushima Daiichi accident:-
  • 1) Intensive efforts to strengthen nuclear safety, and
  • 2) Threat of global warming is becoming ever more apparent.
  • Countries such as Japan and Germany reopened their reactors to produce energy.
  • Organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) recognise the ability of nuclear power to address major global challenges.

Challenges ahead

  • Delay in adoption: Even as IPCC and IEA recognise the importance of nuclear power, it remains uncertain whether the value of this clean, reliable and sustainable source of energy will achieve its full potential any time soon.
  • Policy and financing framework issue: In some major markets, nuclear power lacks a favourable policy and financing framework that recognise its contributions to climate change mitigation and sustainable development.
  • Without such a framework, nuclear power will struggle to deliver on its full potential, even as the world remains as dependent on fossil fuels.

Concerns with Gates plan

  • Proliferation risk: TerraPower announced in March that Natrium would be fuelled with uranium enriched to 20% U-235 rather than explosive plutonium.
  • The critics believe that there will be a rush to make 20% enriched uranium world wide.
  • The main objection to nuclear enrichment beyond a point in Iran arises from the fact that it would lead to weapon-grade uranium being available for them.
  • Facilitates the production of material used as nuclear explosives: The other objection being raised against is that the principal reason for preferring fast reactors is to gain the ability to breed plutonium.
  • That is surely what foreign customers will want.
  • The way it is configured, the reactor would make and reuse massive quantities of material that could also be used as nuclear explosives in warheads.
  • Focus on India and China: The opponents of TerraPower believe that India and China will be encouraged in their efforts to develop fast breeder reactors and may even want to buy them from Mr. Gates.
  • India’s fast breeder reactor, which is not subject to international inspections, is seen as capable of feeding the nuclear weapons capability of India.

Conclusion

With the threat of global warming due to climate change amplifying with each coming day, the world needs to take a serious relook at the adoption of nuclear technology.


Back2Basics: What is a fast breeder reactor?

  • This special type of reactor is designed to extend the nuclear fuel supply for electric power generation.
  • Whereas a conventional nuclear reactor can use only the readily fissionable but more scarce isotope uranium-235 for fuel, a breeder reactor employs either uranium-238 or thorium, of which sizable quantities are available.
  • Uranium-238, for example, accounts for more than 99 percent of all naturally occurring uranium.
  • In breeders, approximately 70 percent of this isotope can be utilized for power production.
  • Conventional reactors, in contrast, can extract less than one percent of its energy.

Natrium fast reactor demonstration project

  • Natrium nuclear power plants represent a significant advance over the light water reactor plants in use today.
  • The Natrium plant uses a sodium-cooled fast reactor as a heat source.
  • This heat from the reactor is carried by molten salt from inside the nuclear island to heat storage tanks outside the reactor building, where it is utilized as needed for generating electricity or industrial processes.
  • The net effect is that the overall plant can load follow, thus increasing the revenue and value of the plant while maintaining the optimum constant reactor power.
  • At the same time the cost of the overall plant is reduced since many of the systems outside of the nuclear island need not be nuclear safety grade.
  • The Natrium reactor enables these abilities because it operates in much higher temperature regimes than the light water reactor, thus pairing well to the temperature requirements of the molten salt heat transfer medium.
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