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Vai dal Barbieri: atomic myopia

Energy & Utilities Manufacturing Commodities
a photograph of a young male market analyst is encircled at the centre. Text says: Vai Dal Barbieri, the editorial by Alessandro Barbieri, in the background it is depicted the structure of the atom.

In recent weeks, EU environment ministers have been debating climate targets for 2040, a crucial interim milestone on the road to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. This has brought out quite a few disagreements among those involved and provided me with the impetus to address such a divisive issue as nuclear power.

2050: the decarbonization challenge

Currently, of the 137k TWh of primary energy consumed, more than 95,000 Twh is still generated through the use of gas, coal and oil: essentially, 85% of our energy supply comes from fossil fuels. To achieve the 2050 decarbonization goals and break our dependence on fossil fuels in our daily lives, it will be necessary to generate more than 9,000 GW of clean electric capacity, an enormous amount to say the least. Certainly, achieving the goals will be gradual and will come, first and foremost, through the process of electrification. The first major step of so-called "electrification" is the replacement of combustion engine cars with electric cars, and it has already demonstrated all its limitations. Electric mobility management, together with ever-increasing digitization, are already pushing electricity consumption and the capacity of our power grids to the limit, not to mention the enormous demand for minerals they are generating and will generate in the future. In the context of a rapidly changing global economy, the importance of a stable, low-cost energy source cannot and should not be underestimated. Our future prosperity depends on the availability of a stable energy supply that can support growing demand and facilitate the gradual shift away from coal and oil, without demanding extreme sacrifices. Historically, the abundance of cheap energy has catalyzed economic prosperity and innovation: there are no energy-poor rich countries, plotting to believe. In this context, security in energy supply becomes a key pillar to ensure that our living standards are maintained and improved in the future.

What about renewable sources? I haven't forgotten about them. Certainly, solar and wind have their own role in the transition. Yet despite huge investments, after 25 years, they cover only 3 percent of energy needs. They are neither a quick nor efficient solution because of their huge costs, but more importantly because of the intermittent nature of energy generation they possess.

A promising alternative: nuclear power

One alternative that has come to the fore over the years, partly due to radical changes in the documentation of energy sustainability in Europe, the need to make up for energy shortages and pollution generated by coal plants globally, is nuclear power.

To date, although its share in primary energy generation stands at 4 percent and contributes 10 percent of global electricity generation, nuclear power-thanks to its energy density and stable generation capacity-emerges as an almost must-have solution for the state of the art technology in high energy sources. More importantly, it appears as one of the few useful and ready-to-use alternatives to clean and stable baseload power generation.

Data in hand, despite skepticism, it also stands out as one of the safest ways to generate power. As shown by "world in data," measuring deaths per terawatt produced, even taking into account the Černobyl and Fukushima accidents, it is still ranked as one of the safest energy sources in the world. With 0.3 deaths per terawatt-hour, it ranks below hydropower, next to solar and wind.

It also has significantly lower operating costs than alternatives once the plant is built. Although plant construction, is a crucial issue and requires significant time and investment (with an average duration of 5-7+ years for a conventional reactor), subsequent operating costs are greatly reduced and power generation manages to cover both stable demand and fluctuations, thanks to its adaptive capacity, always with near-zero impact on the environment, except for process-generated waste. Given the urgency in recent years stemming from the energy transition and supply shortages experienced around the world, many nations have reoriented their energy policies by accepting nuclear power, recognizing its crucial importance in addressing energy crises and ensuring a sustainable future.

Asia vs Europe

This trend seems to be manifesting itself especially on the Asian continent, where China and India are taking the lead. Data in hand, China has inaugurated more than 37 reactors in the past decade and by 2040 has planned to build another 150 plants. By 2025, it will surpass the United States in terms of investments made in the sector. For its part, India by 2030 plans to quadruple its nuclear power. In short: as of today, three-quarters of the world's reactors under construction are in Asia.

In Europe, despite the inclusion of nuclear power in the green taxonomy, its promotion is hampered by reluctance to tackle costly and long-term projects, combined with a lack of financial support from major financiers and a, let me say, widespread political myopia. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine were apparently not enough as lessons on the centrality of energy supply. It is ideology rather than data-driven choices of actual economic benefit that have dominated. Two examples? The shutdown in Germany of 3 fully functioning reactors and the decision first and foremost to rely only on Russian pipelines and renewable sources to meet the targets set for 2030: all good intentions that crumbled at the first moment of crisis when Putin decided to seal the pipeline taps. The response was not long in coming and was not very green, with the reactivation of old coal-fired plants to support the power grid. A second example would be the sanctions imposed on Russia post-invasion, which essentially testify a lack of understanding of the dynamics of these markets. Sanctioning volumes in commodity markets by creating scarcity increases prices, so at half the volumes Russia essentially made the same amount of money. This gave a strong hand to the Kremlin to continue the war.

For economies like China, on the other hand, factors such as massive government support and a well-defined pipeline make these solutions less expensive than developing coal or gas plants. For example, building a Chinese reactor costs one-third as much as building the same plant in France. Not only government support, the presence of a long-term plan with a defined pipeline also generates additional benefits. For example, manufacturers of equipment and components, faced with demand that promises to be constant over the years, can standardize the production of their specialized goods. In addition, repeat projects encourage the formation of more experienced construction teams, which can avoid costly delays under such conditions (same reasons for distrust cited by EIB and EU Bank of Restoration). Plan replicability is crucial for facilities that require such a large effort and so extended in time. This is where the planning economies are more forward-looking than Europe and America, where investment in these sectors comes more from private capital. Even a country like Japan, although scarred by the Fukushima disaster, exhibited a marked change of course by reactivating, in December 2022, Unit 3 of the Ikata nuclear power plant, which by the way was the fifth in a series of approvals by the Japanese government, testifying to a real reversal of policy regarding this issue.

The state of the art and the innovations in the field

To date, most global energy-producing nuclear power plants are pressurized water reactors. They use thermal energy from nuclear fission to produce steam, powering electric turbines that then produce electricity. The temperature of the reactor is regulated with pressurized water and dissipation pumps. Although these reactors have operational challenges related to pressurization, they have undergone improvements in recent times to ensure safety, especially after the Fukushima accident. Despite this, the use of uranium as fuel poses headaches on the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation globally. The problem lies not in who holds the material itself, but in who owns the centrifuges to enrich it: for civilian facilities, uranium only needs to be enriched to 5 percent, while to create atomic bombs it is necessary to reach 85 percent, yet the technology to reach this level is the same.

A very promising technology that has not yet been commercialized is found in molten salt reactors, re-proposed by former NASA aerospace engineer Kirk Sorensen and based on nuclear physicist Alvin Martin Weinberg's discovery in the 1960s in the Oak Ridge laboratory. These reactors use salts for cooling, allowing much higher temperatures to be reached than pressurized water reactors, consequently producing more energy. Moreover, on a safety level, the absence of fuel rods and the exploitation of safety systems that use impervious forces such as gravity make the risk of meltdown zero. In addition, the molten salt reactor is primarily based on the use of thorium as fuel. Thorium is abundant in nature, about 4x the amount of uranium, and can be converted into fissile material, making it an attractive resource for nuclear power generation. An additional advantage of using this fuel is that thorium cannot be turned into plutonium and produces U-233 instead of U-235, a much less stable isotope than U-235, which is why it was discarded as a material by the Manhattan Project because it was unsuitable for wartime purposes. Finally, molten salt reactor technology generates less waste than other types of reactors and allows reuse of some of the fuel through "self-fertilizing" reactors. China leads the research in this field.

To address the issue of nuclear plant construction costs, modular solutions (Small Modular Reactors) are being developed. This approach offers fast construction times, economies of scale and flexibility of use in various contexts. One application, which could lend a strong hand to emissions, would be to use them in industrial steam production, a widespread activity with a high environmental impact. Key technologies under development include light water reactors, fast neutron reactors, graphite-moderated high-temperature reactors, and various types of molten salt reactors, with the common goal of developing reactors that are small and easy to operate. In addition, turbines are also evolving into more efficient versions: one futuristic technology is that of supercritical CO2 turbines, which fit perfectly with modular reactors because of their compactness, but also because of the significant gains in efficiency, about 20 percent in generation, and cost (the SST-9000, a turbine of standard use in conventional nuclear plants, costs more than a billion).

In conclusion, when analyzing the options that can be used for low-cost and stable power generation along with the constraint of the targets set for 2050, nuclear power - due to the qualities described and the technological variety refined over the years - offers a concrete and reliable development path to meet the growing energy needs and transition to clean power generation. Part of the world seems to have realized the urgency of adopting this type of energy and has already taken action: let us hope that the same awareness will occur in Europe and America.

Our future prosperity depends on the availability of a stable energy supply that can support growing demand and facilitate the gradual shift away from coal and oil.

Alessandro Barbieri

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