Wednesday, May 25, 2022

“Visions for Technology, Energy, and Security in Europe”: A Symposium on Nuclear Energy and Its Environmental, Policy, and Security Implications

Recent developments in nuclear fusion technology have led to heightened interest in the future of nuclear energy and its implications for the environment, energy security, and public policy. Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine has further underscored the importance of cheap renewable energy for the European Union, which is heavily dependent on Russia for its coal, natural gas, and oil supplies. 

To address these issues, this past Earth Day (April 22), the EU Center organized a symposium on the future of technology, energy, and security in Europe, featuring prominent scholars and policy makers from France, Germany, and the U.S. The symposium, titled “Visions for Technology, Energy, and Security in Europe,” was the inaugural event of the EU Center’s new Jean Monnet Center of Excellence grant-funded project, Sustainable Methods for Adapting and Adopting Regional Technologies (SMAART). Details on the SMAART project can be found here. 

The first of the three panels, “Nuclear Energy, Economy, and Democracy: The European Policy Debates,” featured Cécile Maisonneuve (Senior Advisor, French Institute of International Relations’ Center for Energy & Climate) and Dr. Miranda Schreurs (Professor and Chair of Environmental and Climate Policy, Technical University of Munich). 


A vocal supporter of nuclear energy as a way to diminish Europe’s dependency on Russia, Maisonneuve began her presentation by arguing that the EU needs to overhaul its energy policy, which has not been sustainable, affordable, or secure. She noted that nuclear energy tends to be left out of European policy debates, yet data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that nuclear generation must increase by as much as 106% by 2030 and 501% by 2050 in order to reach the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C. 


With the goal in mind of avoiding EU fragmentation and boosting energy sovereignty, Maisonneuve proposed that EU member states sign a political neutrality agreement, which would prevent states from interfering with other states’ plans to pursue nuclear power. Maisonneuve also argued for the necessity of establishing a new framework for financing nuclear power plants and bringing nuclear vendors back to Europe.


In contrast, Schreurs, who was appointed by Angela Merkel as a member of the German Ethics Commission for a secure energy future, contended that France’s dependency on nuclear energy (about 70 percent of France’s electricity is generated from nuclear) can be considered a security threat in light of the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan, where nuclear had provided nearly one third of the country’s electricity. Japan had temporarily taken all of its nuclear power plants offline following the accident, leading to electricity shortages.


The question of safety loomed large for Schreurs. “The assumption is that nuclear power plants will be built in countries where we have political stability, but what we’ve seen in Ukraine should make us question some of those assumptions,” she said, citing the Russian occupation of Chernobyl and the missile that landed near the Zaporizhzhia power plant in March. In the current geopolitical context, the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel in Germany and other countries without permanent nuclear waste repositories becomes a security risk, Schreurs argued.


Concluding her presentation, Schreurs gave an overview of the work of the German Ethics Commission, which proposed a phased shutdown of nuclear power plants. The plan is for Germany to build up its renewable energy sources as these nuclear power plants cease operation.


The second panel featured two American nuclear scientists who discussed the perspective of the U.S. on the future of nuclear energy. Dr. J’Tia Hart (Chief Science Officer, National & Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate, Idaho National Laboratory) argued for the importance of nuclear energy in establishing a carbon-free future but also noted that a new way of communicating about nuclear is needed to combat its reputation problem. 


Dr. Jon Carmack (Senior Advisor, Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy) similarly argued that nuclear energy is critical to achieving the current U.S. administration’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as nuclear energy generation avoids 476 million metric tons of carbon emissions, more so than wind, hydropower, solar, and geothermal combined. Advancements in nuclear power technology have produced smaller, transportable reactors that are more economic to build and operate and are able to function independently of an electrical grid.


This newer generation of microreactors was the focus of the next presentation by Dr. Caleb Brooks, Associate Professor of Nuclear, Plasma & Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who kicked off the third and final panel. “Nuclear microreactors are a new class of nuclear fission technology capable of producing up to roughly 20 MWth depending on design,” Brooks summarized. “Beyond their size, the primary distinguishing features over other fission systems is that microreactors are designed to be factory built, tested, and delivered to site by truck, rail, or ship; plug-and-play with minimal onsite construction or preparation; capable of long operational periods between refueling (10-20 years); and minimal decommissioning required to return the site to greenfield status.”


But it was the recent developments in nuclear fusion research that originally prompted the organization of this symposium. If a sustained nuclear fusion reaction could be achieved on Earth, it would theoretically provide a safer, cleaner source of energy than current nuclear power plants, which use fission. In the next panel presentation, Dr. Clifford Singer, Professor Emeritus of Nuclear, Plasma & Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, gave an overview of the possible ways — some only hypothetical — of achieving fusion, before zeroing in on the two models that scientists are currently exploring: tokamaks and stellarators. “Tokamaks are the least unlikely approach to a sustained fusion reaction on Earth if only for limited amounts of time if the large cost were no impediment,” Singer explained. “Whether a stellarator could achieve a sustained fusion burn is less clear.”


Both devices face considerable barriers to commercial competitiveness, and Singer noted that current work on nuclear fusion is unlikely to yield a practical source of clean energy in the fight against climate change. The costs associated with fusion reactor development are simply too high in comparison with solar or fission electric power. However, added Singer, “research work originally motivated by the quest for fusion energy continues to produce insights into the physics of high temperature plasmas and many practical results from work on plasma-material interactions.”


The symposium closed out with a presentation by Dr. Paul Debevec, Professor Emeritus of Physics at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, on the promises and limitations of renewable energy. Both solar and wind power are variable and intermittent, he explained, and the high costs of storage make over-generation an unfeasible solution. And the alternative solution of building a transmission network — whereby, in the case of the U.S., solar power could come from the Southwest and wind power could be generated in the Great Plains — has proven to be deeply unpopular with American voters.  


Debevec suggested that dispatchable energy, whether from nuclear or renewable resources, will be needed to fill in the gaps: “Combining wind and solar at the 80-percent or even 90-percent level, with sufficient transmission, some storage, and dispatchable generation leads me to say that renewables can almost do it all.”


This symposium was part of the European Union Center’s 12th Illinois EU Studies Conference and was supported by a 2022-25 Jean Monnet Center of Excellence grant. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is preparing to be an early site for microreactor technology as an advanced research and test reactor. The campus deployment focuses on the research, education, and training necessary to see advanced reactor technology become widely deployable, marketable, economic, and ultimately a safe and reliable option for a clean energy future.

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