In 2022, Europe finds herself in an all-too-predictable pinch. After years of coming to rely on cheap gas exports from Russia, the regime in that country seems hell-bent on turning itself into an international pariah through the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. As a result, Europe is doing everything she can to disconnect from Russian gas pipelines as quickly as possible.
But, with immense energy needs, this enormous continent can’t simply wave away her requirement for fuel (and lots of it). Rapid innovation is called for.
Complicating this problem is the ever-present spectre of climate change. Coal and gas continue to make up very large portions of the world’s – and, by extension, Europe’s – energy output.
Both as a result of its international commitments and the punitive and expensive impacts of a changing climate, Europe is facing an extreme amount of pressure to green its energy profile, increasing the share of energy inputs that don’t contribute to global warming.
It’s into this gap that nuclear technology is stepping. Fueled by new developments in small modular reactors and other innovations, as well as regulatory victories for the nuclear industry, nuctech is poised to make significant gains in Europe just when the continent, arguably, needs it the most.
Fascinating new startups and emerging companies are being formed in this new environment, offering innovative solutions to age-old problems that ensure nuclear tech will remain a part of our futures for years to come.
Nuclear Tech: A growing industry
Interest in next-generation nuclear technology is garnering increasing amounts of investor interest. In 2021 alone, nuclear energy startups attracted almost $3.5 billion in venture capital.
Much of the renewed interest in nuclear energy is due to the recent push to make nuc-tech safer, more regulator-friendly, and less capital-intensive than the mega-reactors of yesteryear. There’s also a great deal of excitement around new technologies in the area, everything from fusion to lead-cooled reactors.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better
Remember when nuclear reactors were…well…huge? The term “nuclear reactor” itself probably conjures an image in your mind of giant cooling towers sitting alongside almost equally enormous reactors on vast plots of land. But that mental picture may be becoming antiquated.
New companies, including Rolls-Royce, GE Hitachi, NuScale, and TerraPower are on the hunt to develop small nuclear reactors, both in Europe and in the United States. Now, we’re using the word “small” in a relative way here. These are still sizeable installations, costing upwards of 2 billion USD to build. But when you compare that to the over $20 billion price tags of full-size reactors, they might seem downright puny.
These small reactors are expected to generate up to one-seventh the amount of electricity as full-size nuclear reactors. So, despite their small size, they still pack a hefty punch and could put a sizable dent in Europe’s energy needs. Further, the companies trying to manufacture these power plants are aiming to do so with cookie-cutter components that could be swapped and replaced with ease, greatly simplifying the process of building reactors where (obviously) precision and safety are paramount considerations.
Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima
Speaking of safety, it’s hard to have a conversation about nuclear power without discussing the elephant in the room: nuclear accidents.
History has been witness to a few of these unmitigated disasters and they were never pretty. In fact, we don’t have to go back that far in time (only to 2011) to remember the last major nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in Japan.
The uncontrolled release of nuclear radiation into the ground, local water supplies, and the air endangers the lives of everyone on the planet. It’s also an extraordinarily expensive mess to clean, so much so that very few, if any, private insurers are willing to underwrite the risk. The burden tends to fall on local governments instead.
There is, however, hope that the smaller size of small modular reactors could limit the impact of an unanticipated nuclear accident. It is also suggested that the standardized nature of the construction of these units would render such an accident even less likely than it is today. Whether claims like this hold up to scrutiny are anybody’s guess at this point.
In for a penny
One of the perennial issues involved with producing energy by way of nuclear reaction is the high cost of doing so. Nuclear power is consistently one of the most expensive varieties of energy, beating out natural gas, coal, and even renewables like wind and solar.
The same is true for nuclear energy produced in small modular reactors. While it’s true that, as the technology’s proponents continually claim, that the energy produced in SMRs is theoretically cheaper than that produced in full-scale nuclear reactors, the costs remain higher than in alternative forms of energy.
And in a world of superheated inflation and high base energy costs, it’s uncertain if consumers and governments would be willing to pay the additional expenses involved with procuring nuclear power.
Because of the significant – and immediately apparent – downside risks of nuclear power, the regulatory burden involved in getting a new reactor – even a small modular reactor – online is substantial. It’s estimated that the earliest a new small reactor could begin generating power in the UK or continental Europe is over eight years from now, in 2031. Such a timeline is prohibitively lengthy, especially given the high stakes we face in the fight against climate change and immediacy of the economic and military threat posed by a rogue Russian regime.
There is, however, one regulatory beacon of hope on the horizon for nuclear power’s proponents. A new initiative in the European Union would see nuclear power classified as a “sustainable” technology, rendering it eligible for massive amounts of state aid and investment from large, national pension funds.
The move is controversial, though, and several nuclear-opposed member states (including heavy-hitting Germany) have vowed to do everything in their power to block the move.
A perfect (energy) storm
Europe’s struggles in coming to grips with the true costs of reliance on Russian-owned natural gas are being complicated by both predictable (climate change) and unpredictable (supply chain shocks and rapid inflation) shocks to her economy. Getting a handle on the significant challenges posed by all these issues at once is going to be an arduous task for officials and businesspeople in the EU and each of its member states.
It does appear, however, that nuclear technology will form at least a small part of any slate of solutions attempted by the European continent. Here’s hoping that our friends in Europe are able to secure a bright and prosperous energy future for everyone involved.
Top Nuclear Energy Producing Countries & Companies to Watch
Over 80% of all nuclear power is produced by just 10 countries.