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Renewables or Nuclear Energy? It’s Not an Either/or Decision

image credit: © Dirk Ercken |
Francesco Venneri's picture
CEO, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp.

Francesco has more than 30 years of experience as a nuclear engineer and plasma physics specialist. Starting his career at Los Alamos National Laboratories, he rose to the position of Chief...

  • Member since 2021
  • 2 items added with 2,583 views
  • Oct 15, 2021

The social and political mandate to aggressively pursue and implement zero-carbon energy-generation solutions is both powerful and necessary. It’s recreating our energy strategies and will continue to do so for years to come. As we attempt to identify the energy-generation options that are most viable – sustainably, economically, reliably, and politically – we’re compelled to find the one answer. But perhaps that search for a singular solution is too limiting and a successful energy future can be found with an approach that’s less constrained.

Instead of the dogged pursuit of the one solution, we need to identify complementary systems that better enable us to meet our energy goals. In all likelihood, the most viable zero-carbon energy system is a hybrid approach that combines sustainable, renewable technologies and next-generation nuclear.

The primary benefit of renewable solutions, most notably wind and solar, is clear – zero-carbon power. Renewable energy has become more viable as the cost of renewable technologies has declined. But there is a limitation: adequate environmental conditions must exist to generate power, and often the necessary conditions aren’t present during periods of peak demand.

That’s when nuclear becomes an essential complement to renewables. A new generation of very small modular reactors (micro reactors) is capable of on-demand power generation. Simply put, micro reactors can be turned on and off as demand ebbs and flows. Nuclear technology suitable for tomorrow’s hybrid systems diverges from the dominant conventional large reactors. Investment costs and safety concerns related to high power and high power-densities make that category of reactor difficult to support with adequate safety and market economies, as well as being susceptible to fluctuations in political opinions and support.

A number of new nuclear concepts and approaches, including micro reactors, have been developed in recent years. Very small Gen IV reactors offer many game-changing features for nuclear-energy development. In contrast to 50 years of reactor development based on the theory “bigger is cheaper,” Gen IV micro reactors offer an alternative path based on a small, truly modular approach.

Availability of zero-carbon Gen IV micro reactors is on the horizon. In the U.S., the Department of Energy has stated a goal in its “Strategic Vision” for advanced nuclear reactors to “demonstrate operation of a nuclear-renewable hybrid energy system” by 2027. Innovative companies are making great strides to meet and beat that deadline.

Micro reactors address the primary challenge for integration with renewables: providing reliability and matching demand with supply at all times. Energy generated by renewables varies significantly with the weather, position of the sun, and other various environmental factors. In 2019, the most most-widely used renewable energy sources in the U.S. – hydroelectric, wind, and solar – only operated 31.3% of the time, up from 29.9% in 2018. The more renewable-dependent a grid, the higher the potential that supply will fail to meet demand.
The answer to the question of which power-generation technology will best meet our zero-carbon goals is not singular. The answer lies in a new approach that marries together complementary systems. Micro reactor technology is a viable complement to renewable installations, enabling utilities to meet fluctuations in customer power demand regardless of weather conditions or time of day.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 15, 2021

Is there any concern about whether the 'pie' is enough for both? Do the economies of scale need to be large enough for either direction that leaning into both rather than one or the other undercuts the economics of it all? 

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Oct 19, 2021

A number of new nuclear concepts and approaches, including micro reactors, have been developed in recent years.

It must be kept in mind that these reactors have not yet been developed. They are under development. So far, we know little about their cost, reliability or safety.  We are not likely to know for at least another 7 years at a minimum, and far more with respect to developing economies.  We assume that they "have been developed" at our great peril.

In the meantime, renewables and storage solutions are being deployed today at lower and lower cost.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 19, 2021

The perils of over reliance on green energy are becoming more apparent. Storage approaches have practical limitations as well.

A balanced energy resource portfolio is the best approach, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.

Should advanced reactors under development be part of a balanced future energy portfolio? Maybe. Cost, safety, licensing, and reliability considerations are still in a state of flux. Some designs are better than others.

Not so sure the marketplace will ultimately accept the advanced reactors as long as the net financial risks remain so uncertain.

In my view, the greatest financial threat to advanced reactors lies with the regulatory driven costs to obtain a license and construct a plant. The current trajectory is clearly pointing at a cost in excess of 1/2 billion dollars just to obtain a license. Procurement/construction costs ($/megaWatt) are likely well beyond 3 or 4 times that of conventional power plants as a result, in large part, of massive regulatory overreach. These types of costs are likely fatal in a competitive marketplace.

As most of the advanced reactors are passively fail-safe, logic would expect regulatory driven costs would be reduced. I am quite certain the folks developing the essentially passively fail-safe NUSCALE design were expecting more reasonable regulatory costs. That was not the case, as just the cost to obtain a license exceeded 1/2 billion dollars.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Oct 19, 2021

According to the World Nuclear Association (a peak industry body), global nuclear generation in 2020 (TWh) was slightly below the 2010 figure. Nuclear has gone nowhere in a decade. In contrast, solar & wind has increased by an order of magnitude, and now constitutes 3/4 of global net capacity additions.

Both nuclear and solar/wind require balancing. Nuclear does not follow the load up and down.

Balancing is straightforward, using pumped hydro, batteries, interstate transmission, demand management and legacy coal/gas.

Francesco Venneri's picture
Thank Francesco for the Post!
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