The shale revolution has been a boon to the United States in many ways, but it is important that we also continue to develop other forms of energy. In Solar is surviving shale, mwise cited several large-scale investments aimed to further advance our solar efforts. One area of energy in which we have failed to allow our imagination run wild, though, is nuclear energy. And it is a shame, too, because much of the rest of the world is spending resources to develop safer forms of nuclear power while the United States focuses strictly on natural gas, oil, and renewable energy resources such as wind and solar.
Just recently, South Africa signed an agreement with Russia whereby Russia would build enough nuclear reactors in South Africa to handle a capacity of 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy. And not to dwell on Russia too much, but Finland just approved a “conditional permit” for a Russian organization to build a new nuclear power plant in northwest Finland. Finland did this even after its government almost disassembled over the matter through the efforts of those within the government upset with Russian activity in Ukraine.
Russia, Finland, and South Africa are not the only examples of countries that are taking advantage of nuclear energy. In Slovakia, nuclear energy accounted for 55% of the total electricity generated in the country in 2013; Hungary was at 50% and Slovenia was at 40% during the same time period. The United States’ nuclear power plants, by contrast, only accounted for 19% of the country’s total electrical output in 2012.
But with natural gas so abundant and memories of the Fukushima disaster in the thoughts of so many Americans, it is no wonder we have not persisted with nuclear energy in recent years. We will not, however, create a safer and more viable form of nuclear energy by sitting on the sidelines and watching the rest of the world do it. And there is already a safer form of nuclear power plants that has been in existence for quite some time, but may merely need some further technological development: Molten Salt Nuclear Reactors (“MSR”).
ONE AREA OF ENERGY IN WHICH WE HAVE FAILED TO ALLOW OUR IMAGINATION RUN WILD, THOUGH, IS NUCLEAR ENERGY
The simplest explanation of how an MSR differs from the heavily-used water-cooled reactors is an MSR uses a molten salt mixture to cool the reactor while water-cooled reactors use water. For a more detailed description of MSR technology, I suggest reading Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s recent piece here. While the technology is not fully developed yet, indicators seem to point to MSRs being a safer form of nuclear energy in part because the reactor is “already operating in a liquid form with molten salts, [so] by definition it cannot have a meltdown.” In addition, MSRs operate at a much lower pressure than typical nuclear reactors and thus possess a limited chance of a pressurized release of radioactive materials in the event of a systems failure. Further, any escape of nuclear materials would crystalize not long after release due to the molten salt mixture rather than spreading and contaminating the surrounding areas. Lastly, MSRs may be more cost effective. Evans-Pritchard, in the same article above, quoted one British scientist who believes that with MSR technology, the price of nuclear energy can potentially be cut by more than half to be on par with the cheap prices of coal.
As Peter Kelly-Detwiler explains in an article for Forbes, other parts of the world are exploring MSRs while the United States is content without them. This content is indicated by acts such as the failure of the Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz to include nuclear power in his department’s strategic plan.
By all accounts, the United States does not seem interested in nuclear energy, but in reality we should be investing more money into its development. If not only for the tremendous energy potential it has, which has been confirmed over the years, but also because of its limited effect on the environment.
THE UNITED STATES DOES NOT SEEM INTERESTED IN NUCLEAR ENERGY, BUT IN REALITY WE SHOULD BE INVESTING MORE MONEY INTO ITS DEVELOPMENT
Even Japan is restarting its nuclear program just a few years after Fukushima, but with heightened attention toward the ability of nuclear reactors to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and even volcanic eruptions. Japan’s need for a viable and inexpensive energy source is evident as the shutdown of all the country’s nuclear reactors in the wake of Fukushima has come with a major increase in liquid natural gas imports. If Japan restarts its nuclear program, it will be less dependent on foreign energy sources. Although this creates potential problems for our own energy-export economy, we could use Japan’s reinvigorated interest in nuclear power as an example worth imitating.
The safety fears are real, but research and development expenditures may overcome them. And much like other industries started out with difficult safety problems that were subsequently mostly conquered, so too can research and development increase the overall safety of nuclear reactors, which are already extremely safe. MSR development is one area where the safety standards are evident, and now we need to ensure we can operate MSRs at a viable rate.