Feeling the Energy: Can Nuclear and Solar Energy Partner Together in the 2020s?

Solar and nuclear energy have long been viewed as the “energy sources of tomorrow”. When it comes to widespread adoption, nuclear has enjoyed the advantage of a headstart in terms of mass uptake. The Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant southwest of Moscow in the former USSR is credited with being the world’s first nuclear power plant, coming online 66 years ago on the 26th June 1954. But for a variety of reasons, since then nuclear’s progress has often stalled and stagnated in many nations.

The gap between nuclear’s potential use and its practical implementation remains stark. Solar by contrast has been slower to achieve recognition and sustained growth, once again for a number of reasons. Yet the past decade has indeed seen solar achieve explosive growth globally. By all accounts, solar’s momentum is set to continue.

So are solar and nuclear energy set to travel a shared path in the decade ahead? And in what ways does solar’s massive boom in popularity globally impact on nuclear’s future?

Nuclear and Solar Energy Generation Landscape

The Story of Nuclear Energy

In order to understand the future of nuclear a brief recap of its past is ideal. The development of nuclear power can be traced all the way back to 1895, but the greatest advancements were made between 1939-1945. As any keen student of history will recognize, those 6 years coincided with the outbreak of World War 2, and its ending in 1945—with its conclusion in the Asian theatre of battle arriving after the United States dropped 2 nuclear bombs in August of that year, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

Although these acts were done with the justification that it would drive Japan to surrender and thus avoid the need for a ground invasion by Allied forces that could’ve resulted in an even greater loss of life, it did cement in the public consciousness around the globe an enduring anxiety surrounding the power for nuclear energy to cause immense carnage to communities.

While there is a substantial difference between the use of nuclear energy as a power source versus a weapon of war, the following decades would show this anxiety did not diminish but ultimately increased even as nations around the world utilized nuclear’s technology power for peaceful pursuits. This owing to high-profile incidents at Three Mile Island (1979) Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) among others.

Countless words have been written elsewhere about these incidents, but suffice to say they’ve had a chilling effect on the nuclear industry globally. Nations who would’ve once entertained the idea of beginning nuclear energy programs ceased in response to these incidents. Furthermore, even nations that already had a nuclear energy program—such as Germany which since Fukushima has shut down ten of its seventeen nuclear reactors and indicates all will be gone by 2022—have permanently paused plans to have one, or scaled back their existing operations.

At the Core of the Atom

Nuclear energy has not had the success its early pioneers would have envisioned, nor what its advocates today aspire it to be. But just as numerous nations have scaled back or ceased any interest in nuclear energy, many others have retained nuclear as a key component of their energy grids—and have plans to expand.

The United States has 95 nuclear reactors in operation today, France has 57, and China, 47. These nations lead the world in the use of nuclear energy, with Russia’s 38 and Japan’s 33 rounding out the top 5. China is expected to rapidly grow its use of nuclear energy across the 2020s, and this is consistent with a rapidly growing economy. But notably, the expectation China could be the world’s top energy nuclear producer by 2030 is based upon the recognition the Chinese government is keen to progress nuclear energy—whereas leadership in the USA, Japan, and elsewhere have been reticent.

Cooling Towers of a Nuclear Power Plant in Germany

This can be regarded as the key aspect of the story surrounding the future of solar and nuclear. There is the technological capability for modern nuclear reactors and solar to work together, just as solar integrates with the environment around it very effectively. We’re also seeing numerous nations across the world begin a decisive shift away from fossil fuels, and look to bring online new energy sources to power their grid. And yes, nuclear offers advantages in this area.

Debate persists surrounding whether nuclear energy is totally clean and green—and if it can be, at what (far greater) cost—but there’s little controversy surrounding the fact nuclear is far cleaner and cleaner than traditional fossil fuels. For nations now seeking a "bridge" between ending fossil fuel use and transitioning to 100% renewable energy in their grid, nuclear energy is often seen as a solid option. But with solar growing in leaps and bounds, nuclear advocates have a higher bar to clear today than they did in decades prior when it comes to making their case.

Seeking a New Conversation on Nuclear

John Harries of the Australian Nuclear Association is buoyant on the possibilities on nuclear energy. His association describes itself as an “independent incorporated scientific institution which promotes the knowledge and practice of the peaceful, safe and effective use of nuclear science and technology to benefit people, science and the environment.” It is a leading voice in Australia and the wider world when it comes to advocacy of nuclear energy.

Mr. Harries contends changing perceptions of nuclear is a key part of its future potential.

It’s a misconception that nuclear power is dangerous. Nuclear power is the most scrutinised and tightly regulated energy source in the world. Over fifty years of power reactor operations have resulted in the least fatalities per unit of electricity generated compared with other generators. Radiation emitted from a nuclear power plant is minuscule to the point of being indiscernible from background radiation and is much less than that emitted by a coal power plant in the form of particulate pollutants.

—Mr. Harries told Solar Magazine

Mr. Harries also holds the fact modern reactors can interoperate with solar tech and that such technology is already in use serves as proof positive of a bright future for the combination.

“There are numerous pathways for nuclear and solar to work together. Modern reactors are designed to load follow to complement solar and wind, or to allow the power diverted for desalination or hydrogen production. An example is the NuScale small-modular-reactor (SMR) which has a 60 MW output that is designed to load follow a wind farm of similar capacity.”

NuScale Power Plant to Be Deployed With Partnership With Sargent & Lundy
Photo: NuScale

The example Mr. Harries refers to is technology being pioneered out of Portland, Oregon. A key advantage of this SMR tech is it takes up just 1% of the size a conventional reactor would. They are also built with fewer parts. Meaning there’s an even lower risk of meltdown when using this tech compared to a conventional reactor. The fact there are fewer parts also drive down costs.

There’re features why advocates hope tech like NuScale’s could be a game-changer for nuclear energy in the years ahead. In a world where solar entices many private and public customers alike due to its (comparatively) low setup costs, low maintenance costs, and long lifespan, then nuclear energy that is better, safer, and cheaper could redefine this dynamic.

At the same time, even though sets of solar panels on business and residential rooftops are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous feature of cities, suburbs, and other communities across the world, there’s zero prospect of a nuclear plant—even if a compact one with greater efficiency, safety, and more affordable than ever before—becoming a common site in your neighborhood.

True anyone with an interest in renewable energy should be cautious to "never say never"—after all futurologists who’ve long fantasized about installations of solar panels on Antarctica and even the moon have seen increasing evidence their dream may one day soon be possible—yet the reality is the potential for nuclear energy to be used outside of a highly-secure setting is currently nill.

It’s no joke but a simple observation of fact to recognize no nation’s national security adviser has even been kept awake at night wondering what dangers could be posed to the country if a solar panel fell into the wrong hands, but plenty have lost sleep worrying about the potential for nuclear power to be misused. It’s here that solar power has a fundamental advantage to growing its use in the future given the support it can enjoy from government and the commercial sector, owing to the peace of mind that even if the panels are not currently in use on a rooftop, they do not pose a potential major risk to public health and safety otherwise if they fall into the wrong hands.

The Energy to Change

Solar Magazine: Solar Industry News and Insights

All cultures across the world have their own idiosyncrasies. Cultural quirks that when assessed don’t stand up to a competing argument built upon logical reasoning. Many of these cultural superstitions—like the old adage "knock on wood" which to any reader unfamiliar expresses a wish for the good luck one is having to continue—can be widely recognized as ultimately harmless (and even charming) superstitions.

The same cannot be said for the idiosyncrasies that hold up societal progress. To the minds of pro-nuclear enthusiasts, the enduring reticence of many nations over previous decades to pursue nuclear power is a key example of this. Such advocacy can acknowledge the harrowing incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima further damaged the public perception of nuclear energy that was first formed in the final chapter of World War 2. But do so while contending these incidents are an anomaly, and are not reflective of the true story of nuclear power.

Aerial View of a Solar Power Station

The reality is the popular perception of nuclear power is unlikely to shift dramatically soon in nations that are resistant to it. Not the least of which because alongside the blockbuster 2019 TV mini-series Chernobyl—a TV series so popular it became the highest-rated series ever on IMDB—reviving the horrific memories of what a nuclear meltdown looks like, the reality is we’re in an era where the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc among public health systems across the world, and even once the health crisis passes nations will face a long road through many years before economic recovery.

In such a climate, few politicians requiring reelection would be so bold as to advocate for a power source the public sees as immensely risky, especially when alternatives are available. There’s no question this dynamic is not entirely fair, and there could be the potential for this perception to change in the time ahead if pro-nuclear advocates convince the general public the immense benefits nuclear offers far outweigh the risks—truly horrible, but truly small—that exist.

As a result, it is unlikely we shall ever see nuclear sustain a sudden renewal of popularity. Especially as alternative energy sources like solar and wind continue to see their installation costs decrease, and their market share go up. But a number of nations have still found a place for nuclear in the mix of their energy strategy.

As a result, even if nuclear isn’t destined to thrive in markets where until now it’s never been able to, it shall still continue to feature—and with potential for growth—in the markets where it already holds a strong presence. In the meantime, the ongoing rise of solar can be expected to occur in all nuclear and non-nuclear markets alike. comment↓


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