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The Role of Nuclear in the Green Energy Mix

May 26, 16:47 UTC+3
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Nuclear energy is turning increasingly green. With continuous improvements in safety standards and closed nuclear cycle a reality now, the atom is becoming a renewable source of energy. Russia is one of the powers working to develop the said technologies.

In the 21st century the environmental issues and depletion of traditional energy resources are forcing an increasing number of countries to turn to the so-called "green energy", which harnesses the renewable sources of energy, including sunlight, wind, tides, hydropower, geothermal heat, etc.

  • According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2015, some 23.4% of the global energy consumption already came from the renewable sources. IEA analysts expect this figure to go up to 28% by 2021 surpassing the volume of energy currently generated jointly by the US and the EU.

The problem is that the prices for green power remain fairly high.

  • In 2016, the US Institute for Energy Research (IER) calculated that the energy generated by solar and wind power systems costs 2.5–5 times as much as the electricity produced harnessing traditional sources, and, on average, 3.5 times as much as energy delivered by nuclear power stations.

Russia has always had a dubious attitude towards green power, as this nation wields vast reserves of coal, gas and oil.

  • "In the near future, despite the development of alternative energy, when you look at the economics and environmental standards, then there is no other source of primary energy in the world than natural gas. Well, perhaps there is nuclear energy, but there are also a lot of issues there and there are opponents of nuclear energy," said Russian President Vladimir Putin in his interview to Bloomberg in September 2016.

Indeed, up to now, the nuclear industry has been regarded as one of the dirtiest and most dangerous sources of power. The nuclear accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima had a role to play in this. For example, after the Fukushima-1 disaster in Japan a lot of countries started talking about scrapping the nuclear industry altogether, with Germany pledging to shut down all of its nuclear stations by 2022.

  • According to Fraunhofer ISE, in April 2017, the share of renewable sources in Germany's power generation increased to 63.2% from 57.3% in March, whereas the share of nuclear energy went down from 11.8% to 10.9%.
  • The Japanese authorities decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2040. Yet, as early as in 2016, the share of nuclear power in the nation's energy mix decreased from 31% (as at the turn of the century) to mere 2.15%.

On the flip side, the Fukushima-1 accident gave rise to new approaches towards the design of nuclear power stations. The engineers and developers from all over the world analysed the consequences of the Japanese nuclear disaster and came up with new design solutions to make this sort of catastrophe all but possible going forward.

A process to transform the current nuclear technologies into the green ones is underway: the nuclear industry has learned the lessons of past disasters and developed cutting-edge techniques to finally win recognition as environmentally safe. There were two major factors that enabled the nuclear industry to get a clean bill of health:

  • First, the advancement of traditional green energy sources has somewhat slowed down, as the governments in different countries have started to scale down state support and green power prices remain relatively high.
  • Second, there was a major breakthrough in both the enforcement of safety standards at nuclear plants and the disposal and recycling of nuclear fuel and waste (as a result, the nuclear fuel/waste is gradually becoming viewed as a renewable energy source). For example, in May 2016, the State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM attended the Atomexpo International Forum to present its new multiple nuclear fuel reprocessing technology, under which the fuel is alternately used for VVER-1200 and BN-1200 reactors. This will help reduce the natural uranium consumption by at least an order of magnitude over the next 20–30 years.

The world is also rising up to the challenge of dealing with used fuel.

  • The Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant launched a plant for plasma treatment of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. The pilot tests were successfully completed, with industrial operation starting at the end of 2016. The plant helps cut waste volumes by five times, exponentially reducing the amount of buried material.

"Our target for nuclear energy is to provide 25% of electricity in 2050," said Agneta Rising, General Director of the World Nuclear Association, at Atomexpo 2016.

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