Nuclear's Second Wind:
Innovative "fast" nuclear power plants may be a strategic imperative

by Evgeny Adamov

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Nuclear power needed 50 years to gain the same position in global energy production as the one achieved by hydropower over hundreds of years. All those years, proposals for new reactor concepts would come up every now and then alongside mainstream reactor technologies. In the nuclear-friendly 1960s and 1970s, some of those "innovative" concepts even led to demonstration or pilot projects.

Yet for all the diversity of new ideas, nuclear power entered the new century still moving in a rut of older mainstream technologies. Most were devised at the dawn of nuclear engineering, when reactors for production of weapon-grade isotopes and reactors for nuclear submarines propelled development.

Unless we understand the reasons why innovative technologies failed to make any appreciable progress way back then, it is impossible to answer the question of whether there is a need for them now or in the foreseeable future.

Few people, perhaps, may remember that nuclear power was not brought into existence by energy deficiency. Its advent was caused by the Second World War and the associated pressing necessity for increasing the power of weapons. Once the war ended, nuclear plans were fuelled by the intentions of both weapons designers (e.g., Russia's I. Kurchatov who initiated construction of the world's first nuclear power plant in Obninsk and US politicians led by President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" Initiative in 1953) to counterbalance the military effort by encouraging peaceful nuclear applications.

The Changing Context

Today, energy demands still are largely met by fossil fuels, as they were at the outset of nuclear development. In recent decades, zealous supporters of nuclear power have repeatedly referred to the imminent shortages of fossil fuels, though this gloomy prospect will not threaten humanity for another 100 years. That means potential shortages are not the only - or predominant - factor to encourage active search for alternative sources of energy.

Other factors have come more in play. One is the changing environmental context. At the end of the last century, acute environmental awareness demanded a closer look at "green" energy solutions. Nuclear power was assessed and shown to have advantages in terms of environmental protection over the majority of other energy technologies. However, the political enthusiasm of the Kyoto Protocol proponents has recently dropped so low that, with even more convincing evidence of the greenhouse effect hazard, reasons may still be found for taking the problem of greenhouse gas emissions off the priority list. Given the current 6 % share of nuclear in the total energy balance, it is quite reasonable to expect that the overall contribution of the so-called alternative sources (wind, solar, tidal, biomass, geothermal and other forms of energy) may well lead to expulsion of nuclear without noticeable losses to global energy supply.

Projected Nuclear Capacity Growth

Another factor is the evolving political framework. In the early period of nuclear power, it was assumed that the commercial industry would develop in the context of bipolar possession of nuclear weapons (NATO with the USA at the head versus the Warsaw Treaty led by the USSR). As it turned out later, weapons-related technologies would not be confined to the circle of five States declared to belong to the nuclear club. Instead, the problem of non-proliferation acquired a more acute significance compared to developments influencing energy technologies. This was especially so in the context of the energy-saving drive and newly found oil and gas fields - including offshore deposits - which brought down the price of fossil fuels to record-breaking levels.

There is still much room for analysing why nuclear power not only fell far short of reaching generation levels projected in the 1970s, but also why it is very likely to keep losing its share on the energy market during the next 10 to 15 years. Such an analysis has been done in Russia and other countries. With such an approach, the requirements imposed on nuclear power are not subject to normal considerations of the market alone, and nuclear power itself should not be treated as a conventional sphere of commercial activities (as was persistently suggested in the previous decade).

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