To fuel the transition to clean energy, we need nuclear
Across the world, countries are tweaking their energy systems in response to rising demand, with some regions making more progress on their environmental goals than others.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that in 2019, coal was the dominant fuel for power generation, producing 37% of global electricity compared to almost 27% from renewable energy sources. While the IEA reports that oil use has slowly declined since the 1970s, it remained the most important fuel in 2019, supplying roughly 30% of the world’s total energy supply.
A few years later, in 2022, Ember reported that despite global increases in electricity demand, renewables – including wind, solar, and hydropower – scaled to meet those needs. Global demand for electricity rose by 3% in the first half of 2022: in response, wind and solar met 77% of demand, with hydropower covering the remainder. In the midst of a global climate crisis, these statistics are promising, and evidence that renewable energy sources, which emit far less carbon than fossil fuels, have the capacity to meet global demand.
Still, renewables alone are not enough to prevent the rise of fossil fuel generation, and they don’t operate 24/7. Regardless of where energy users call home, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind can’t always blow, and water is not readily accessible to every community. While many countries possess the tools to shift to cleaner energy sources, many still depend on fossil fuels to supplement the fast-rising demand for power, bypassing the weather constraints posed by renewables.
As we make strides toward a future of clean energy, renewables can keep us “running in place” – but to run ahead, we need to tap into nuclear.
Nuclear power is the only zero-carbon energy source capable of securing our energy needs, and one of the essential foundations for the transition to clean energy.
Together, nuclear and hydropower generate three-quarters of global low-carbon electricity today. Yet in a 2022 report published by the IEA, climate advocates describe a future energy sector dominated by renewables. Where’s the nuclear?
Within the net zero pathway, the report predicts an 8% reduction in global energy demand by 2050. But based on their estimates, that energy demand represents an economy more than twice as big, and a global population with 2 billion more people. Electricity will account for almost 50% of total energy consumption, the IEA predicts, with almost 90% of electricity sourced from renewables (primarily wind and solar), and the remainder from nuclear.
Though ambitious, this outlook doesn’t fully capture the potential contributions of nuclear energy. Historically, the costs and delivery challenges of nuclear plants have been under-estimated, and the IEA mentions there are “constraints” on how much nuclear plants can be expanded. But old constraints shouldn’t limit the potential of nuclear: if anything, they’re reason to approach the issue with a fresh, innovative lens – and the same proven technology.
With the “off-the-shelf” approach championed by Last Energy, the expansion of nuclear energy can become transparent, simpler, and commercially affordable. Guided by this philosophy, can entire communities – and at some point, the global energy system – afford to replace existing energy sources with nuclear power?
At Last Energy, we believe the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” In a world with clean and abundant energy, both heavy industry and daily activities would be energized by small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).
Our PWR-20 design is a small, fully-modular nuclear fission reactor, and it pulls from the technology used in hundreds of power plants around the world. The components of our design are proven and cost-effective; and once on site, they can be connected and commissioned in less than 24 months.
To make the transition to nuclear energy, we don’t need to improve this existing technology: instead, we need to pick up the pace of distribution. Ultimately, this means we need to change the way nuclear is packaged and distributed to conscious consumers: ones who are motivated to make the transition to clean, carbon-free energy – and more of it.
When viewed as a standalone entity, nuclear energy is cheap, flexible, and highly productive. Last Energy simply innovates the distribution of already-proven nuclear reactor designs, so that we can unleash the power of nuclear energy itself. It’s a remarkably simple idea, but is it enough to push us toward our climate goals?
Take a look at the science and history of nuclear, and the answer is clear: nuclear isn’t just a possibility or fickle choice. Given these three key characteristics, it’s a necessary part of the global energy solution.
Renewable energy sources are notoriously intermittent. Due to variable weather conditions, they cannot consistently produce energy at all hours of the day. In comparison, nuclear reactors can generate enormous amounts of reliable, carbon-free electricity day and night, 365 days per year.
Nuclear also generates far more power with less land: 31 times less than solar facilities and 173 times less than wind farms, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. In terms of both land use and carbon emissions, nuclear leaves a tight footprint and boosts the accessibility of reliable energy.
The applications of nuclear are incredibly flexible. In addition to electricity, heat from nuclear can also warm households, fuel heavy industry, and purify water.
In the context of energy, flexibility also describes the ability of an energy source to supply consistent power under a variety of conditions. As a baseload energy source, nuclear is the epitome of flexibility, as it operates continuously with minimal variation in output.
As the share of intermittent renewables (primarily solar and wind) increases in power grids, energy users will need more flexible power generation – which means they’ll need more nuclear. When renewables go down under specific weather conditions, nuclear power plants can adjust their production as the demand for electricity fluctuates.
According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power is cost-competitive relative to other forms of electricity generation.
Compared to other primary sources of energy – including geothermal, natural gas, hydropower, coal, and wind – nuclear has the highest capacity factor of 92.5%, meaning that plants produce maximum power more than 92% of the year at an affordable price. Once they’re up and running, plants are relatively cheap to operate.
The key is getting plants up and running in a timely manner: one of the core goals of Last Energy. Traditionally, nuclear plants are large, complex, and can take decades to build, often exceeding their original budgets and schedules. Nuclear can fuel the transition to clean energy, but only if we streamline the design and delivery of nuclear power plants.
In a world with affordable, abundant, and streamlined energy, must we rely solely on nuclear – or any “clean” energy source, for that matter?
Perhaps not. The goal is not necessarily to replace 100% of all “dirty” energy, but instead generate vastly more energy than we are currently using and make it zero carbon. Journalist Matthew Yglesias makes a particularly compelling case for this vision: in a world fueled primarily by nuclear, we’d have plenty of baseline power to energize our daily needs as well as more ambitious goals, like direct air capture (DAC).
DAC is another a way to achieve net-zero – the stated goal of the IEA – without forgoing our barbeques, bonfires, and use of fossil fuels. Yet in its current form, it’s exorbitantly expensive – and for most energy users, the price of power is paramount.
But when we ignore the current costs and run the carbon math, nuclear energy is the only energy source capable of powering atmospheric carbon dioxide removal. As of today, the technology for DAC is energy intensive, but this may change as more governments invest in DAC research and development.
Nuclear can power a sustainable energy mix: one that aligns with global climate goals, rising standards for human life, and developing technologies like DAC. And at a conceptual level, nuclear replaces hardheaded dependence with a more flexible mindset. As a primary power source, nuclear can pair with renewables and even permit the burning of fossil fuels when needed.
While the global transition to nuclear is beset by regulatory hurdles and investment challenges, nuclear can make significant contributions to global net-zero goals and directly replace fossil fuel plants – if we find the motivation to mobilize it.
The price of nuclear is not just monetary: inevitably, it’s augmented by human motivations. Yes, tapping into the power of nuclear requires some number-crunching; but in many countries, it’s also requires adjustments to regulations and low natural gas prices, which incentivize familiarity – i.e., burning of fossil fuels – over the hard economics and environmental realities of nuclear plants. Yet in the lifetime of a nuclear plant, energy users receive more reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy.– i.e., very low greenhouse gas emissions – to fuel the productions of daily life.
By working backward and using existing fission technology, Last Energy is pushing nuclear forward – and without the cost overruns of large nuclear projects. The ability to scale nuclear depends on our motivation to implement concepts like these; to stake a claim in energy security; and to imagine a future fueled by clean and abundant energy, made possible by the nuclear technology we’ve already developed.
Nuclear energy can provide clean, reliable heat for industrial processes.
To expand global access to clean water, we need clean nuclear energy.