“The real reason why nuclear stagnated comes down to cost driven by complexity,” says Bret Kugelmass.
“Unnecessary, self-imposed complexity,” was how Bret Kugelmass of Last Energy described the key reason for the downfall of nuclear power.
Kugelmass, in a presentation at Enlit Europe in Frankfurt, hailed uranium as the most energy-dense fuel source by far, responsible for one of the fastest scale-ups of decarbonised electricity ever.
“However, nuclear power is fundamentally flawed,” he said.
And if we are to take our energy security and decarbonisation goals seriously, we must urgently overcome these flaws and tackle the barriers to commercial nuclear power.
Nuclear power – the fundamental flaw
We have come a long way since German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered Uranium in 1789.
Kugelmass pointed out that it has been over 60 years since we began generating electricity from the splitting of the atom. Since then, the nuclear sector enjoyed a time of prosperity.
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Large-scale development of nuclear in the 1960s saw the sector flourish. Plants were built quickly and efficiently, plants that even decades later run consistently.
“So what caused the industry to stagnate, what caused such as essential source to flounder after decades of success,” asked Kugelmass.
He explained that the underlying technology is simple, the electricity is clean and reliable, however, the flaw lies with the delivery model. How nuclear power is financed and how it is physically built is fundamentally broken.
Fix the flaw but keep it simple
Over the last 15 years, explained Kugelmass, nuclear reactors have been built smaller and more modular, causing a buzz around SMR technology in particular.
“SMRs are neither small nor modular and do not address the cost and complexity that led to nuclear stagnation”.
“We treat nuclear as if it needs to be complex and that in order to move forward it needs innovation around the fuel, chemistry, metallurgy or reactors.”
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But is the industry trading the boring problems for the fun, overly technical ones? Kugelmass believes this is the case and that we won’t move the needle on underlying economics by concentrating on innovation that will yield applications only decades from now.
Kugelmass cited the exciting advances made with molten salt and fusion, emphasising that although these are promising, they blatantly ignore the challenges to the nuclear industry today.
Nuclear plants as a product and not a project
In order for nuclear to benefit us with baseload power, it must be implementable, and scalable, now, said Kugelmass.
He suggested that in order to break through the barriers to commercialisation, nuclear plants must be treated as a product and not a project.
He suggests that in order to scale nuclear, we need to build dozens of plants at the same time.
The build requires a simple design that can be easily manufactured. Also, maximising standardisation, leveraging current technology and established supply chains, while minimising specialised labour will be critical.
“It needs to be affordable and financeable,” said Kugelmass, leveraging private funding with minimal government involvement.
Kugelmass recommends producing nuclear power plants in the same way the automotive industry produces cars, a sequence of ongoing builds that roll off the assembly line, with the only waiting period being for installation.
Mass production allows the planning and permitting to begin with product development, reducing the time required to deliver the product.
Nuclear’s decentralised power
Last Energy’s focus on building micro modular nuclear power plants has received a lot of interest, with the company securing deals for 24 power plants across three European markets within the last six months.
Poland, UK and Romania are the hotspots as industrial partners and grid-scale utilities seek distributed, on-site baseload nuclear power, stated Kugelmass.
“We have seen a shift to renewed interest in nuclear as our energy systems struggle to meet energy security and decarbonisation goals.
“There is no question that this trend will continue – the question is how will society rise to meet such demand?”
Kugelmass stressed that there is no need to wait for research and development or the sometimes elusive political will to mobilise billions in government funds.
The core technology is available now, it has been for decades. However, the mindset needs to change in order to realise nuclear’s power and potential.
“Nuclear power is the easiest pathway to decarbonise entire countries in under a decade and guarantee energy security for generations to come.”