What is the future of nuclear fission?
The innovations we’re keeping an eye on
Hey! This week we’ve got Lindsey - our head of Research & Insights - sharing some thoughts on the future of nuclear energy. As a predominantly software-focused fund, we’re not actively looking at nuclear companies, but we’re excited to explore where the industry is going - and following some developments in EU regulation around nuclear, here’s what we are keeping an eye on.
Photo by Lukáš Lehotský on Unsplash
Changes in perception
A total of $755 billion was invested in the global energy transition last year, but even so our demand for electricity is outpacing the growth of renewable energy. If we are going to reduce our reliance on coal-based power and decarbonise our electricity generation, we need to take advantage of all of the options available to us and one of those is nuclear power. But nuclear power has an image problem.
While nuclear disasters are very rare, they are also very extreme, and that has damaged public perception of nuclear as a safe alternative energy source. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, many countries have taken a step back from nuclear power. Germany has even gone as far to decommission all of its nuclear power plants, and by the end of this year it will be complete. And it’s not just the general public that has an issue with nuclear, it’s the insurance industry as well. Nuclear power plants are notoriously difficult and expensive to insure because of the potential consequences, and so governments have had to step up and take on a portion of the risk.
The reality of our situation is that we are unlikely to decarbonise without nuclear energy. Yes, it’s getting cheaper and easier to install wind and solar, but the intermittency of power generated by these sources is a problem—at least until we sort out cheap long-term energy storage. Nuclear is currently the best option to provide a base-load of power, even when the winds die down and the sun sets.
Fortunately, advancements in nuclear technology are promising smaller reactors that are safer, cheaper, and easier to maintain. The investment landscape is changing too. Just ten years ago there were very few VCs familiar with advanced nuclear technology, but now we are seeing a shift towards more and bigger investments. So what are the developments that we should be keeping an eye on?
Improvements in safety and efficiency
Every major nuclear disaster in history has been related to cooling failures in water-based thermal reactors, so many of the next-generation reactors are moving away from these designs and using liquid metals or molten salts as coolants. These have the potential to be more efficient because while they allow operation at higher temperatures, they also operate at lower pressure, creating less risk of an explosion.
There are new fuel types too. In particular, some of the molten salt reactors are being designed to use other sources of fuel than the standard uranium used in traditional reactors. These new fuels, thorium and repurposed spent fuel, have the potential to reduce or even eliminate the issues of nuclear waste disposal and storage that we struggle with today.
So why didn’t we use liquid metal and salt coolants before today? The answer lies in chemistry. These liquids can be very corrosive to reactor structures, so new methods and materials have needed time to develop. Now that these new coolant systems are getting closer to commercialisation, we will no longer need to build nuclear reactors alongside water resources, which broadens the reach of nuclear power.
More flexibility and lower costs
Constructing a traditional nuclear reactor costs billions of dollars and can take more than a decade to complete, resulting in a significant delay before seeing any return on investment. Current designs of small modular reactors (SMRs) will max out at 300 megawatts (MW), versus the 600 MW to 1.5 GW of traditional reactors. Operating at the average capacity of a nuclear reactor (around 90%) that’s about 6,480 MWh per day for the larger SMRs or enough to power about 680,000 households (well 200,000 in North America, but that’s another story). With smaller sizes comes lower costs as SMR’s will be constructed in a factory and installed on-site, rather than needing to build on location, opening up the possibility of mass production.
Taking the module idea a step further are microreactors that clock in between 1–20 MW of power generation. Microreactors are designed for industrial use and to replace expensive diesel generators—bringing reliable, green, and cheap electricity to remote communities.
Opportunities for innovation beyond reactor development
We’re closer than ever to providing clean energy for all and even fusion is no longer an impossible technology. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship in this space beyond reactors.
Closed fuel cycles: One of the reasons it isn’t common to repurpose spent nuclear fuel is that the costs associated with a closed fuel cycle are much higher than using fresh uranium. The used material must be reprocessed by first separating it into its individual elements and then, once usable uranium has been extracted, it needs to be remixed. This process is currently very expensive, emits radioactive gas, and introduces new forms of waste that must be dealt with.
The advanced nuclear ecosystem: One of the greatest opportunities in nuclear at the moment likely lies in developing the ecosystem that will support nuclear development. At the moment, many nuclear companies and startups are keeping everything in-house, but as the modular idea grows there will likely be a need for new materials (like radiation and heat resistant cement and steel) and technologies (semi-autonomous operation, anyone?) to support the growing space.
There is still a way to go in terms of winning over the hearts and minds of people and by no means is nuclear going to enable a green energy transition all on its own, but it is undoubtedly going to play a major role as countries transition over to net and negative zero emissions. So beyond the technological advancements, we may need to change the dialogue around nuclear—recognising it may be something to look forward to, rather than fear.
/ Lindsey Higgins, Head of Research and Insights, Pale Blue Dot
💡 A special thank you to Leslie Dewan, CEO and Co-Founder of RadiantNano, for providing invaluable insights into the world of advanced nuclear.
To learn more about nuclear power, check out our public Notion.