Reliable energy forms a fundamental building block of industrial and modern society. When a country examines its energy profile and determines its energy policy, it considers three main pillars: energy equity, energy security, and energy sustainability.
Energy equity encompasses the degree of access to energy of a country’s population and industry at a reasonable cost. The major objective is to provide universal access to reliable energy at the smallest fraction of people’s income.
Energy security addresses the reliability and resiliency of a country’s energy supply. Energy independence tends to be achieved either by resource rich countries or those with diversified energy sources, as their supply is not beholden to a single or limited source or supplier and can respond to supply disruptions more effectively.
Energy sustainability reflects the use of energy in such a manner that the current generation’s needs are met while not compromising future generations’ needs. The objectives of energy equity and security need to be accomplished in a sustainable manner with limited impact to the environment, whether in terms of resource use, local and global pollution, and effect on the ecosystem.
Balancing Energy Equity, Security, and Sustainability
Ideally, maximizing all three of these pillars is the ultimate goal. In practice, however, these categories tend to be in tension with each other. For example, abundant domestic coal resources increase energy equity and security, but at a significant cost to sustainability. Replacing coal with natural gas improves sustainability because it is less polluting, but risks reducing energy security, as it might have to be imported from abroad. Replacing both coal and natural gas with renewable energy sources potentially improves sustainability but reduces energy equity significantly because the cost of intermittency of resources such as wind and solar is very high. This is due to the significant need for backup generation and storage during time when the sun is down or the wind is not blowing. Cost will also be significantly impacted by the transmission infrastructure to transmit the power from remote areas to consumers and the significant overbuild to meet peak capacities.
When studying the energy trilemma of equity, security, and sustainability from this lens, nuclear power co-optimizes all three factors simultaneously. It is important to mention upfront that it is not, however, an appropriate or necessary source in all cases. For example, Norway, Paraguay, and Brazil are resource-rich countries that get most of their electric power sustainably from hydropower. For countries that are not sustainably resource-rich, however, nuclear power can be an attractive proposition and alternative.
Why Nuclear Power Can Be a Good Option
In terms of equity, nuclear power has proven to be a reliable and scalable source at a reasonable cost. Countries or regions that have adopted it at scale, such as France, Sweden, or Ontario, have some of the cheapest and cleanest electricity. The upfront investment and adoption times can indeed be significant and cannot always be absorbed by interested countries without a major concentrated effort. However, the always-on nature and low generating costs of nuclear power result in an attractive lifecycle economic profile. At the same time, nuclear power provides high-quality employment and significant ancillary local and countrywide economic benefits if supply localization is prioritized.
Nuclear power also improves energy security due to its low fuel use. A gram of uranium, the dominant fuel for nuclear reactors, can produce as much energy as a ton of coal or oil. Uranium is also cheaply and abundantly available. Nuclear power also has long fuel cycles, which are not susceptible to immediate or medium-term supply disruptions, such as gas pipeline ruptures, geopolitical instability, extreme temperature swings, or cloud cover.
Nuclear power is also a sustainable source of power as it emits no pollutants during operation, has low land use, has low resource use due to its high energy density, and accounts for all its waste streams. Although nuclear waste is considered a serious argument against the adoption of nuclear power, due to its radiotoxicity and longevity, technical solutions such as recycling and reprocessing, deep geological disposal, or borehole disposal are available.
When examining a country’s energy policy through the prism of the energy trilemma, nuclear power can be considered a viable part of the solution set. Although it does present questions in terms of local acceptance, safety, and non-proliferation, on balance it offers significant benefits. Nuclear technology importing countries can also form serious diplomatic, geopolitical, economic, and scientific ties with their provider countries. This is due to the fact that a nuclear program is a century-long endeavor, from initial surveying, program socialization, human resource and institutional development, construction, operation, to decommissioning. It therefore needs to be part of a mature, well-informed, and transparent debate among all stakeholders.
—Harry Andreades, PhD is an advanced nuclear energy consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, examining technical, commercialization, and business development aspects of all parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. This article was prepared by the author in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinion, or position of his employer.