Atomic Future

Reports of the demise of atomic energy seem to have been greatly exaggerated. It’s true that the glorious nuclear future — as envisioned in mid-century forecasts of the world to come — hasn’t quite materialized as promised. The rise of environmental consciousness and the fears of nuclear fallout have done much to militate against widespread enthusiasm for nuclear energy.

Of course, the high-profile 1986 Chernobyl accident — the poster child for catastrophic nuclear meltdown — together with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (a consequence of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami) have done little to increase public confidence in nuclear power. However, each year the particle pollution caused by coal power plants claims about 7,500 lives in the United States. Compare that to the 4,000 people the World Health Organization estimates were victimized by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (and that number includes those born with genetic mutations following the meltdown), and nuclear seems like much less of a health risk.

Meanwhile, our civilization’s greedy thirst for power has shown little sign of abatement. In fact, quite the opposite — we’re consuming energy at ever-increasing rates as our technology becomes more sophisticated and our civilization becomes increasingly more dependent on this technology. The World Economic Council, for instance, predicts that world energy consumption will increase from 546 exajoules (EJ—1018 joules) (2010 levels) to anywhere from 700 to 900 EJ by 2050, depending on the level of world economic cooperation and concerted action in the future.

Sustainable and renewable sources — wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal, etc. — will certainly have their parts to play, each contributing in their own way to supplying our energy thirsty world. But whether we like it or not, fission nuclear energy will remain an integral part of the global energy budget — there’s just nothing else capable of supplying the kind of power our civilization needs (at least, among proven and implemented technologies). The energy density of uranium is simply too immense — something like 80 million megajoules per kilogram.

Go Small, Go Big

So if the goal is to offset the injection of fossilized carbon into Earth’s atmosphere, as well as democratize access to cheap, reliable, and clean energy, we’ll have no choice but to rely on nuclear power as the core energy of the 21st century. Nuclear power will be like the sun at the center of the "energy solar system," orbited by satellite technologies like wind and solar — which will support and complement it — but overwhelming every alternative by dint of its sheer gravitational (or energetic, as the case may be) influence.

The key is to create safer, cheaper, and smaller nuclear modules for widespread power supply. Currently, we rely on giant concrete facilities that are anything but inexpensive and easy to establish. Moreover, as we've witnessed to our cost, the large nuclear power plants are all too liable to damage caused by extrinsic (and uncontrollable) factors.

Enter the “small modular reactors” (SMRs). An SMR is defined as having an output of about 300 MW (a typical reactor’s output is 1,000 MW), but with smaller output comes a smaller and cheaper design. It’s an exciting alternative to the concept of the giant, bespoke “concrete domes and chimneys” model of nuclear power. SMRs work on a cellular, battery-like method in which a number of small, self-contained power plants can be yoked together to create the equivalent of a large nuclear reactor.

How the NuScale SMR works. Credit: NuScale Power

A number of companies, such as NuScale and Generation mPower, are busily devising these modular reactors, which can be mass-produced in factories and shipped on flatbed trucks to their installation sites. All that's needed then is to plug the reactors into the energy grid and turn on the lights. NuScale’s concept reactors would use a safer, self-contained design with fewer moving parts than standard nuclear plants — for instance, it uses natural convection for reactor cooling, obviating the kind of coolant pump damage that doomed Fukushima. The number of SMRs to be installed would depend on the power needs of the community or facility. Multiple SMRs can be hooked up like batteries to equal or surpass the power output of large, conventional nuclear reactors.

Over the Horizon

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to develop even more sophisticated methods of unlocking the power of the atom. We’ve spoken elsewhere on Futurism of the race to develop fusion power — harnessing the energy liberated by converting matter into energy in the fusion of atomic nuclei. The international ITER project is constructing an experimental tokamak in a bid to harness fusion energy. In the US, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is another experimental effort, marshaling the energy of focused lasers to achieve ignition and fusion "breakeven."

Other efforts are smaller and less national in scale. These are the projects of the smaller startups and laboratories, such as Sandia National Laboratories, General Fusion, and Tri Alpha Energy. Between the large projects, national and international agencies, and smaller companies, there’s a plethora of research into this newest frontier of power technology — it's an early-21st century “fusion race” that, we hope, will finally realize this longstanding dream.

So there’s enormous excitement and concerted action on nuclear energy — whether it’s modifying and refining the technology for extant fission reactors by increasing their safety and reliability while lowering their costs or the many worldwide efforts toward achieving nuclear fusion. Fusion, of course, is the ultimate dream: virtually unlimited, radiation-free clean energy powered by the most abundant element in the universe and with no carbon emissions.

But even fission power — an already proven technology — offers the same promise, if only the (admittedly thorny) issues of safety and radioactive waste can be resolved. But many bright minds are busy trying to tackle those problems. We can’t presume to hope that a future free of fossil fuels will be an easy thing to achieve. It will require hard work and a willingness to tackle every alternative, even those that come with unwanted baggage of their own — such as nuclear power.

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