Nuclear may be one of the more controversial forms of low carbon energy, but it’s reliability to generate electricity 24/7 means it has been powering the world for almost 70 years.
It’s contribution to the world’s energy mix has been growing for decades, and a new wave of investment and innovation is set to shape its role further as decarbonisation plans continue.
So, how is the sector evolving and what innovations are driving this growth?
Nuclear Power could be the answer to the climate crisis
The nuclear movement received a shot in the arm this year when Extinction Rebellion UK spokesperson Zion Lights claimed nuclear power is the “only thing that can truly rescue us from our burgeoning energy and climate crisis.”
To provide some further context to that statement, it is estimated that Britain’s new nuclear power plants, Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C in Suffolk, could provide 7% of the UK’s electricity each and save an estimated nine million tonnes of carbon emissions for every year of operation.
As such nuclear is a reliable low-carbon energy source that we can invest in now and that we can depend upon to keep the lights on.
Nuclear Power will generate thousands of jobs
To continue to develop nuclear, there are a number of issues that are considered as part of the nuclear ecosystem, including the safety of nuclear reactors, cost, the disposal of any radioactive waste, and a potential for nuclear to be used to create weapons.
Nuclear reactors degrade over time, so nuclear power plants need to be decommissioned after a certain period, which itself generates significant employment opportunities, with Sellafield in Cumbria providing more than 10,000 jobs alone.
Many countries such as the US, China, France, Japan, and the UK are known to have a highly-skilled workforce who are specialists in the nuclear sector.
While the UK has 15 reactors generating about 21, France generates more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear.
Asia is leading the way in Nuclear Power growth
While some countries have stepped away from the use of nuclear entirely, other countries are pushing forward with nuclear as part of a more diversified way of meeting low carbon energy needs. Worldwide spending on nuclear power is expected to reach £930bn over the next 20 years.
No continent is investing as much in nuclear energy generation as Asia, as its fast-growing economies drive electricity demand. The second main driver in the renewal of support for nuclear power is the concerted shift away from fossil fuels such as coal as the world embraces low-carbon energy sources.
China is leading the way in the growth of nuclear power, as its electricity demand is growing by more than 8% per year. There are currently around 50 nuclear reactors under construction across the world of which China has 12, India has six and South Korea has four.
Nuclear Power is evolving
One school of thinking is that the future of nuclear could be most effective when it is used in conjunction with other more intermittent forms of energy, such as wind energy, where nuclear can be brought online to meet demand at times when electricity demand is high but wind production is low, replacing coal or gas stations which currently fill that role.
Excess wind or solar power which isn’t taken up by the grid can also be used to power nuclear plants, creating a storage battery of sorts.
More innovative designs for nuclear reactors are also being investigated. With water usage appoint of major concern alongside the world’s climate crisis, new nuclear developments need to cut down on the reactors’ extensive use of water in their cooling systems.
The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is planning a $1.4bn nuclear project in the dry area of Idaho, which was also the world’s first location for post-war nuclear power, using technology from NuScale which cools the plant with electrical fans.
Meanwhile, research is ongoing into using another form of nuclear power – nuclear fusion, not just fission. Fusion is the joining of atoms together, whereas fission is the splitting apart. Existing nuclear power is generated by the latter, splitting heavier atoms into lighter atoms. However, scientists have been working for several years towards combining nuclei to form one heavier atom, releasing energy in the process, four times as much energy as fission.
While there is yet to be a fusion reaction where more energy is created than is used in the process, many believe fusion plants get more stable with scale, and the largest fusion project involving the EU, USA, India, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia is currently under construction in the south of France. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is an €18bn project scheduled to make its first plasma in 2025 with maximum output at 2035.
What’s in store for the future of Nuclear Power?
The widespread use of nuclear fusion power may be a long way off, but the decades of research and international collaboration in this area, as well as a growing worldwide commitment to decarbonisation, shows that nuclear in some form is set to play a significant part in meeting the world’s energy requirements for years to come.
For recruitment in the nuclear sector, timing can be particularly important for industry roles such as plant operations and high-spec technical roles like welding (which can require at least ten years of training).
Due to this, we encourage our partners to create long- term talent pool plans so they can acquire the expertise they need over time and then turn towards contractors to fill short-term gaps to minimise spending on recruitment.
As the world enters a new golden age of investment in nuclear, businesses need to plan, design, and build up their talent pools just as skilfully as their workers build the next generation of nuclear plants.
NES Fircroft and Renewable Energy
The growing demand for clean, safe, and efficient energy has created a surge for new development of nuclear facilities and an increased demand for nuclear talent. Our dedicated nuclear power team has an in-depth understanding of the challenges facing the highly regulated nuclear industry.
If you’re looking for skilled personnel, our discipline-specific consultants can support all stages of your renewable project life cycle, from the funding, design and installation phases’ right through to project management and installation.
We work on some of the most exciting energy projects globally, meaning we have plenty of renewable job opportunities for engineers looking to enhance their energy careers.