The end of nuclear power? A zoom on reliable alternatives

Do we have the means of our ambitions?  Under that question lies the future of energy production in the world. And the options are just not all that many. The procurement is imperious: whatever the means, we will always need to produce energy. We thought we had found the perfect way to produce energy with nuclear fission. It suited developed countries’ needs for a few decades, but the inherent problems started raising public awareness, as the process aged and problems started occurring.

Nuclear power has many advantages, clearly. It’s cleaner than other production methods, it is globally safe, despite two major accidents since the first plant was commissioned in 1954 – Tchernobyl and Fukushima – and a string of serious ones –Three Miles Island, and Kyschtym, for instance. And it produces very large quantities of power, with the current reactors producing almost 2 gigawatts of electricity, and 4 of thermal power. It also does pose a problem, which is the core of the problem, with its refuse: once the nuclear fuel has been used, it remains radioactive for many years, and needs to be processed. It can be buried, and was dumped into deep oceans, after being isolated within a special coffin to contain the radiation, before the 1993 London convention banned the practice. Neither of these solutions are ideal. Finally, if an accident does occur, it entails dire consequences and makes entire areas unsuitable for any human activity for years, as it did in Chernobyl in 1986 and again in Fukushima in 2011.

Beyond those considerations, nuclear power as we know it simply moved the problem a little further: plutonium and uranium are found in the earth in limited quantities (and rather difficult to extract), just as coal and oil are. So what are the future options? Given that reverting to thermal plants is not on the table, with their feeble production ratios and their environmental impact, that leaves nuclear fusion, solar and hydroelectric power, and biomass plants. But how mature are these technologies?

Solar panels are one of the most promising sources, but the technology is still very young. Just a few decades ago, only very low-consumption devices could be powered with light. However, a lot of progress has been made, especially in Europe where tax rebates encouraged the development of sun farms and in China which heavily subsidized the industry. Hence more and more firms are applying, hoping to be picked for building solar plants. In North Somerset, UK, latest scheme planned to creation of a 73 hectares solar farm. Three companies have answered the call for bids. Simultaneously, Wessex Solar Energy also submitted a plan to build an 18 hectares 8MW solar farm in the area of Iwood Lane.

The energy market is also drifting towards wind currents. All of the large engineering companies have stepped up their research & technology departments in these fields. Even companies outside of the technological sector are betting big on wind energy now. For instance, Ikea recently bought a 98 megawatt wind farm in Hoopeston, Illinois, roughly a hundred miles from Chicago. “We don’t look at it as a short-term investment”, chief financial officier for Ikea in the U.S. Rob Olson said, “the potential with wind energy is huge. We want to make sure we are doing our part to take care of the environment and be energy independent. But it also makes economic sense”. Despite the clean and reliable source these turbines represent, not always meet with such enthusiasm. Falling to the NIMBY principle (not-in-my-back-yard) wind farm projects raise support on large scales but often crash wherever they try to land.

Finally, one of the most promising alternatives to nuclear power is biomass. Because they simultaneously deplete the amount of refuse that cities need to manage (at great expense) and yield power and heat in return, they are of interest to municipalities who are confronted to such problems.  Now, these plants provide far less power than a nuclear plant will, of course. But they are designed to be nested close to city centres, unlike atomic plants. The Ridham Dock plant, in England, will nonetheless provide up to 200 million kilowatts per hour every year, to the nearby city.

The model we have can still take a few more years, which is exactly what we need to strengthen the alternate technologies which will be used in the future. The risks linked to the use of plutonium and uranium are too high to be withstood forever, not to mention that these resources are scarce. By resorting to importation, nuclear-powered countries place themselves at the mercy of supplying countries, which could threaten to withhold supplies, in the case of international conflicts. However, sunlight, wind currents, ocean streams and deuterium and tritium (which are used to fuel thermonuclear plants and fuel fusion processes) are all plenty and relatively easy to access. It is likely that these technologies will come to maturity, at a relatively slow place, because the ones we use today do provide a good-enough, albeit short-lived, solution. Unless new disasters strike (the Japanese tsunami of 2011 did cause Germany to pull out of nuclear power, and several other countries to consider it), these alternatives are off in the mid-term future.

Because engineering countries know that these power production methods will eventually push through, they want to be ready when the market is ripe.  They seem off to a good start already.