Home / Opinion / Columns /  The case for nuclear energy is supported by safety advances
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As energy security becomes a growing source of angst, it’s clear that large-scale reliable use of renewable resources remain a distant reality in many countries. That has given a controversial but almost perfect alternative a comeback chance: nuclear. Trouble is, nobody wants a reactor in their backyard and memories of past accidents remain a serious concern.

But with costs rising and few solutions at hand, both governments and companies are turning to nuclear power as a cleaner and cheaper source to help achieve ambitious climate goals. Even if a few years away, the development of nuclear energy sources and storage methods could enable industrial operations dependent on pre-heating processes for raw materials and high temperatures to function as the world navigates an energy crisis. With all the supply chain snarls, a power shortage is the last thing consumers and businesses need.

In Japan, the median levellized cost of energy is far lower than utility scale solar and offshore wind. A recent survey showed that more than 80% of Japanese companies are in favour of restarting nuclear reactors to meet power needs. Electric utility Kansai Electric Power Company is resuming work at one its idled reactors earlier than planned to manage energy demand. Bringing the Mihama No. 3 reactor online will lower need for liquefied natural gas, and the firm’s nuclear generation could grow 76% by 2023 as it brings back more reactors.

It’s proving competitive in India and China too, where dirty options like coal are now costlier. South Korea is focused on reviving nuclear power, which contributes to about 27% of the nation’s energy mix.

Earlier this year, America’s Joe Biden administration issued a notice of intent for the implementation of a $6 billion nuclear credit programme supporting the operation of reactors—“the nation’s largest source of clean power"—across the country. Last week, the US Department of Energy awarded over $60 million for 74 nuclear projects. British jet engine maker Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd, backed by the UK government and other investors, said late last year it was going to begin building smaller and cheaper reactors. Some of its compact modular reactors are expected to come online by 2029 and the regulatory processes are already underway.

A return to nuclear makes sense: The cost of extending the lifetime of power plants and building reactors in countries that have stuck by this form of energy is attractively low. Those that haven’t are now struggling with ageing reactors and lack of options.

The biggest stumbling block, though, are deep-seated anxieties over safety and waste disposal. Memories of nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 still loom large in both public and corporate memory. Yet, what’s often forgotten is that on a deaths-per-unit of electricity basis, nuclear remains at the bottom of the list, while coal is on top.

The progress that’s been made on alleviating issues around nuclear power is underappreciated. For instance, safety in reactors is typically based on an assessment of core meltdown risks. To address these concerns, 14 countries have come up with lower-risk designs and developed a new generation of reactors. These systems will use different coolants, like molten salts or liquid metal, and methods that ultimately make nuclear power production cleaner, secure and more efficient. Reactors that use such materials seek to reduce or cut the production of dangerous gases that explode under pressure.

A host of startups are working on making nuclear power more acceptable. NuScale Power is building small modular reactors that could eventually power 60,000 homes per unit. The firm, which has received more than $450 million of support from Washington, is working with the US and Romanian governments to build a plant in the east European country.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s Seaborg Technologies has teamed up with Samsung Heavy Industries to build a compact molten salt reactor that could change energy use in logistics. Bill Gates-backed TerraPower—also focused on small reactors —has partnered with South Korea’s industrial conglomerate SK Group to build these plants.

Nuclear power could well be the solution, or at least fill major energy gaps, in the coming years. In addition to the existing nuclear fission used in commercial reactors, startups are now pushing towards nuclear fusion technologies and have raised billions of dollars from the likes of Tiger Global and Bill Gates. Rejecting this power source out of fear isn’t going to get us too far, and nor will scare-mongering. Companies and countries shouldn’t be shying away from openly discussing nuclear energy and raising awareness. Public acceptance is key. Without it, we’ll be breathing dirty air and living through outages.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia.

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