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“Liquid sodium will be heated to more than 500 degrees Celsius right where we are now standing,” Boles explains. “We believe this type of plant can generate climate-neutral electricity more reliably and safely than any other power plant in the world.”
Bill Gates is the company’s founder and chairman and the billionaire has reportedly invested 500 million dollars in the company since its founding 13 years ago.
At least 40 companies and research institutes are currently working on small, modular reactors or visionary nuclear power plants that they say will be what conventional power plants never could be: clean, economical and safe.
The new reactors will use fissile materials such as thorium or uranium salt and will be cooled with molten salt or liquid sodium. Rather than producing new waste, some even promise to be able to operate using spent nuclear fuel rods from traditional plants.
So far, the wind and the sun have provided less than 2 percent of total global energy supplies.
Indeed, despite its decision to go “all-in for renewables” and to abandon nuclear power, Germany “has seen little reduction in carbon emissions,” prominent Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Swedish engineer Staffan Qvist and political scientist Joshua Goldstein wrote in an April op-ed contribution for the New York Times.
Currently, a kilowatt hour of nuclear power costs more than 10 cents to produce in Germany, whereas electricity from onshore wind turbines and gas- or coal-fired plants costs only four to eight cents.
Some 449 reactors are currently in operation around the world, with 53 under construction. In 2018, the average construction time for a plant was eight and a half years.
The problems associated with nuclear power are reflected in the fact that nuclear power now supplies only 10.2 percent of the global energy mix, down from 17 percent in 1997.
Moving forward, the majority of electricity will be supplied by a mix of solar, biomass, wind and hydro power. The Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende has forecasted that, in Europe, that mix will be responsible for 57 percent electricity production in just 10 years.
However, Qvist believes the lower costs are the primary advantage offered by the smaller nuclear power plants. “A small, modular reactor is much cheaper than a conventional nuclear reactor,” he says, adding that it’s a lot easier to finance and that industrial mass production should be considered to lower costs.
Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor at the Department of Nuclear Science & Engineering at MIT, wrote in a September 2018 study that global electricity consumption is on track to grow 45 percent by 2040.
By 2025, Germany will have spent more than 500 billion euros on the nuclear phaseout. The result has been climbing prices for electricity, which have jumped almost a third in the last decade. Furthermore, CO2 emissions have hardly dropped at all and Germany’s energy mix remains climate unfriendly.
An estimated 800,000 people die each year as a result of exposure to coal smoke and its pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and arsenic.
Furthermore, the energy yield of fast breeder reactors is roughly 50 times that of traditional reactors. They are able to extract fully 95 percent of the energy stored in the fissile material, versus just a 5-percent yield for facilities currently in operation.