Keywords: nuclear power, nuclear energy, electricity supply, nuclear reactors, greenhouse gases, GHG emissions, GHG reduction, nuclear fission technologies
The future of nuclear power worldwide
Energy production from fossil fuels, mainly natural gas and coal, contributes significantly to global warming through large-scale greenhouse gas emissions, mainly of hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. At least for the next few decades, one of the realistic options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from energy production could be the increasing use of nuclear power. Today, nuclear power supplies 16% of world electricity consumption. Experts project that worldwide electricity consumption will increase substantially in the coming decades, especially in the developing world, accompanying economic growth and social progress. However, official forecasts call for a mere 5% increase in nuclear electricity generating capacity worldwide by 2020, while electricity use could grow by as much as 75%. These projections entail little new nuclear plant construction and reflect both economic considerations and growing antinuclear sentiment in key countries. The limited prospects for nuclear power today are attributable, ultimately, to four unresolved problems: costs, safety, waste and proliferation. The nuclear power industry has been developing and improving reactor technology since 1950, and is preparing for the next generations of reactors to fill orders in the next two decades. Several generations of reactors are commonly distinguished. Generation I reactors were developed from 1950 to the 1960s and outside the UK none is still running today. Generation II reactors are typified by the present US fleet and most that are in operation elsewhere. Generation III (and 3+) are the advanced reactors that will be discussed in this paper. The first is in operation in Japan and others are under construction or ready to be ordered. Generation IV designs are at the concept stage and will not be operational before 2020. In this paper, consideration will be given to what would be required to retain nuclear power as a significant option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the growing needs for electricity supply; then, the paper discusses how some of the innovative nuclear-fission technologies being developed today attempt to address the challenges facing nuclear energy. It suggests some areas for collaborative research and development that could reduce the time and cost required to develop new technologies.