Africa’s Push for Nuclear Energy

by Charles Kusi Minkah-Premo

In the past decade, African countries have taken huge strides to include renewable energy sources such as wind, biomass and, solar in their energy mix which is largely dominated by hydroelectric power. However, in recent years, more and more African countries are considering nuclear energy as a means of boosting their economies and closing their power supply gaps. Scott Firsing’s informative piece in The Wire examines Africa’s recent forays into nuclear energy and it was a pleasant surprise for me to learn that nuclear energy in Africa was not a novel prospect. As far back as the 1950s, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) built the continent’s first nuclear reactor and currently there are twelve nuclear research reactors situated in eight African countries. These reactors serve primarily as neutron sources for research purposes and are not used for power generation. Continue reading

Geologic Nuclear Waste Storage

by Zoe Dilles

Nuclear energy has enormous potential to alleviate the energy demands of the future, but poses a challenge in its production of nuclear waste. More than 10% of the world’s electricity is generated in nuclear power reactors creating some 10,000 metric tons of radioactive heavy metal waste annually. A sought-after, safe approach to storage is within deep geological repositories but the evolution of these systems over time mechanically, thermally, and hydraulically must be carefully considered. These myriad factors make it quite the engineering feat to accommodate high-level nuclear waste. Not only must the waste be placed in a body of relatively inert rock at depth, particular consideration must be made towards the process of excavation itself. The bore-holes that function as the access points to deep strata with reservoir potential subject the surrounding rock to increased stress which can result in mechanical failure in the form of microcracks, called the excavation damage zone (EDZ). This fracturing can be pinpointed using acoustic emissions that are transmitted through the adjacent intact rock. Continue reading

Switzerland’s Transition to Sustainable Energy

by Aurora Silva

Switzerland has a long tradition of using nuclear energy. With no reserves of coal, oil, or natural gas of its own, the country had to turn to other sources to meet its energy needs. As a result, a nation of only 8 million people— a bit larger in population than the state of Massachusetts— has five nuclear power plants, making Switzerland one of the top seven nuclear-powered nations on the planet on a per capita basis. Another telling statistic is that nearly 40 percent of Swiss electrical generation comes from nuclear power. To give a sense of what that proportion means, only 19 percent of US electricity is generated from nuclear power. The burning of coal has been of almost no consequence in Switzerland’s total energy mix for the past 50 years—in sharp contrast to the United States, where 44 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal. The country’s famed train and trolley systems are all electric, with the energy to power them coming nearly entirely from a combination of hydro and nuclear power. Continue reading

Department of Energy Invests in Advanced Nuclear Power Reactors

by Judy Li

On January 15, 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy granted awards to two projects, X-energy and Southern Company, to further nuclear energy technology. Each company can get up to $40 million over many years, with initial investments of $6 million each to support their research and development of next generation nuclear reactors. Secretary Moniz emphasized that investments are important for developing nuclear power as a source of carbon free energy in the future. The Obama Administration wants to expand nuclear power as part of its plan to reduce emissions and fight climate change.

X-energy is working on a pebble bed reactor where the uranium fuel is encased in ceramic and graphite balls. According to their website, the pebbles help to prevent the release of radioactivity, maintain the individual integrity of particles and moderate reactions. The fuel cannot melt down in an accident and the reactor is smaller than traditional reactors, making the system safer and practical for more communities. Continue reading

Australia’s Nuclear Power Dilemma

by Caroline Chmiel

Environmentalists in Australia strongly see nuclear energy as a crucial alternative to burning fossil fuels, especially because of its low-carbon emissions. A study conducted in in 2010, and then again in 2011 reveals the Australian public’s changing views on nuclear power in relation to climate change. Post-Fukushima, the majority of respondents (40%) said they would not accept nuclear power as an option to help tackle climate change, though most Australians still believed nuclear power to be a cleaner, more efficient option than coal which dominates their energy production. Previously, the survey in 2010 showed a majority (42%) responding with a sentiment of willingness to accept nuclear power if it would help address climate change. Continue reading

Changing Mindsets on CCS Technologies

by Caroline Chmiel

As “decarbonisation” as a world-wide initiative continues to spread, scientists and governments have an increased interest in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies. CCS technology involves capturing CO2 emissions at the industrial combustion sources, compressing it for transportation and transporting it (via pipelines) to an appropriate geological site into which it is injected for long-term storage. Focus groups in London reveal the psychology behind differing opinions on energy. Nuclear power strongly shapes the critical argument in these studies. The general consensus of these findings argues there is little public anxiety concerning this technology, but in private, opinions are overall negative. To start, research shows awareness of CCS amongst non-specialist groups is small. Once briefly introduced to the concept, perceptions immediately took a negative attitude revolving around the risks being higher than benefits. In addition, this paper defines the concept of a ‘moral hazard’ in regards to CCS as risks associated with technology or continued reliance on fossil fuels when investment needs to completely shift to renewable technologies. The UK national planning policy says that “CO2 emissions are not reasons to prohibit the consenting of projects which use these technologies” therefore endorsing the potential for technology beyond the demonstration stage. Returning to public opinion, when CCS is perceived in this manner of bridging technology that will not reduce investments in renewable technology, acceptance is at its highest. When people believe the government doesn’t have an interest in the outcome and public involvement is valued on the topic of climate change and CCS, people are also more open. Continue reading