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Nuclear Energy: What’s New?


Recent market trends have showed that investment in climate technology is down. Unfortunately, forecasts predict this to continue this financial year, but there is an unexpected area where growth and activity are forecasted, Nuclear energy. Strategic Allies Ltd (SAL) recently attended the Greenhouse Demo Day, where this interesting trend was highlighted by Sightline Climate. But what is nuclear energy and where is innovation occurring? 

Nuclear energy is sometimes considered an unattractive energy solution, with high profile disasters showcasing its dangers and radioactive waste requiring careful handling and processing, but, it is considered by many (including 20 countries at COP28) as a major route to net zero. It produces huge amounts of energy without generating greenhouse gases. There are two processes to nuclear energy, one has been established since the 1940s, nuclear fission (see Oppenheimer for a quick history lesson) and the other is responsible for everything around us, nuclear fusion (look out of the window on a sunny day to see it in action).  


What is nuclear fission? 


Nuclear Fission is a high yielding energy solution, where heavy nuclei (usually uranium-235) are bombarded with neutrons, forcing the heavy nuclei to split apart to lighter nuclei. When they split, huge amounts of energy are released along with more neutrons, these neutrons can then react with more heavy nuclei, causing more splitting, making more energy and so on.  This is the mechanism taking place within all nuclear power stations, harnessing gigawatts of energy. The energy generated is used to produce steam which powers a turbine generating electrical energy. Reactors operating in this manner are known as generation III reactors, and are the most widely adopted. Nuclear as a viable energy source has been demonstrated since the 1950s, and the process is largely unchanged, using the same heavy atoms and process, so what is new within nuclear fission energy? 

Innovation in nuclear fission 

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – are an alternative design from big, expensive, traditional nuclear power stations. SMRs produce less energy but have a projected lower CAPEX than conventional reactors. Although, the AP300 SMR from Westinghouse will still set you back $1 B, it is significantly lower than the reported near $7 B for their conventional reactors. SMRs are modular, with the various components produced in factories and shipped to a designated location, allowing them to theoretically be built anywhere. As they are produced on one site and shipped elsewhere it allows for potentially large volumes to be manufactured. Further, SMRs have shorter construction and installation times. These systems are considered generation III reactors, where water is used as a coolant. Small reactors are not new, powering nuclear submarines for the past 50 years, but their use in commercial energy markets is a recent trend. Examples in Russia and China have come online in recent years, but in the US the progress has been slower, impacted by delays and increasing costs. NuScale are an American company producing SMRs, and have gained regulatory approval for their reactors. Their SMR technology was recently selected by Standard Power to generate energy for data centres in the USA, with expected completion in 2029, 3 years later than originally planned. They are advertising their systems as important solutions to fix the ever-growing energy demands of data centres, which have risen due to the wide implementation of AI. 


Thorium – SAL recently shared an article from chemistry world on LinkedIn, covering thorium reactors. They provide an attractive alternative to well established uranium reactors, but they are still in the development stage. The fission process is the same, only the feedstock differs, using abundant thorium instead of standard uranium. The thorium used must be pre-treated so it can actually act as a fuel, with thorium-232 converted to uranium-233 after several steps. It is this uranium-233 which is the actual energy source in thorium reactors, with conventional fission taking place. This can be undertaken within the reactor, using a neutron source. Although, this may seem more complicated compared to using uranium fuel, it has several key benefits which has prompted recent investigations and investment. Firstly, by using thorium fuel it does not produce toxic and problematic transuranium elements, which uranium reactors often generate as a by-product. These transuranium by-products have to be processed, and are extremely dangerous and difficult to handle. Secondly, thorium reactors can use plutonium as a neutron source to start the reaction. Plutonium is a by-product of uranium reactors and difficult to store and handle, so thorium reactors can actually reduce nuclear waste. Finally, thorium is actually four times as abundant as uranium, ensuring any potential future supply chain problems and geopolitical issues can be mitigated. However, despite its promise hurdles do exist, including the cost of extraction (currently higher than uranium) and cost of testing, with additional research required.  


Pink Hydrogen – is an alternative colour on the hydrogen colour spectrum, and is hydrogen produced using nuclear energy. Here, electricity produced by nuclear energy powers the electrolysis of water generating hydrogen and oxygen. Actually producing hydrogen using renewable energy (green hydrogen) has been slow despite considerable research and investment due to the high energy requirements of water electrolysis, which the renewable grid struggles to cope with. Pink hydrogen provides a potential method to meet our ever growing demands for low carbon hydrogen production. Generated hydrogen can be stored and used as an energy or fuel source later, while it is also essential for the production of sustainable aviation fuel (another avenue to net zero). Hydrogen is also essential for highly polluting processes like steel and ammonia production, with pink hydrogen an avenue to reduce their carbon footprint as they currently use fossil derived hydrogen (grey and black hydrogen). Pink hydrogen is being increasingly spoken about as a key route to decarbonisation, with companies beginning to announce its development and even some commercial agreements in place.  


High temperature gas cooled reactors (HTGR) – this is an alternative class of nuclear reactor to the previous water-based systems, one of the Generation IV reactor types. Here, gas is used as the heat transfer agent, with helium selected as the gas, producing temperatures around 1,000 °C, higher than conventional nuclear reactors. Like other interesting Generation IV reactors, it has advertised improved safety and higher efficiency owing to the higher operating temperatures. HTGR allows the high temperature outputs from the process to be used in other applications beyond electrical generation, and has been promoted as a potential avenue to produce red hydrogen, another colour for the ever expanding hydrogen palette. Red hydrogen is produced through high temperature water splitting, which requires  temperatures in excess of 500 °C to occur. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced that they were investigating this approach as an avenue to hydrogen production. The UK government announced in 2021 it was their preferred approach for use in SMRs, allowing hydrogen generation and also using the heat for other heavy industries. However, progress of this technology in the UK’s SMRs is unclear, with the UK government backed U-Battery project ending last year.   


What is nuclear fusion? 



Nuclear Fusion has long been the holy grail for energy producers, with the potential to an “inexhaustible” source of energy. It is the process which is occurring all day, everyday within the sun, where light nuclei are smashed together, generating a new heavier nuclei and releasing energy. This can be considered the reverse of fission. In order for this to take place high temperatures and high gravitational forces are required, to overcome repulsive forces between the nuclei and force them together. Fusion has been probed theoretically and experimentally on earth since the 1930s, however, we obviously have different conditions here compared to the sun. Our main limitation is gravity, as we cannot match the sun. In order to compensate for this, to achieve fusion on earth, we need temperatures even hotter than the sun. Fusion is still a developing technology, with huge amounts of investment still being pumped into projects. Most fusion projects are targeting deuterium and tritium as the light nuclei being fused together. Deuterium and tritium are isotopes of hydrogen, with their fusion process projected to produce over four times as much energy as fission using uranium. As the process is so high yielding, experts claim less fuel is required, and fusion only produces minimal radioactive waste, a major drawback of fission reactors.  


Achieving nuclear fusion 

 Fusion has been demonstrated in lab settings, but the big hurdle to commercial adoption is producing more energy from the fusion process than is required to force the nuclei together. Achieving energetic parity is known as “breakeven” and must be surpassed to be an effective energy source. Companies and researchers are approaching the problem in different ways, essentially developing new process and systems which can achieve the desired conditions for fusion. The two leading approaches are magnetic confinement and inertial confinement. 


Magnetic confinement – confines deuterium and tritium nuclei into a plasma using a magnetic field. At elevated temperatures (over 100 million °C) the repulsive forces between deuterium and tritium are overcome, allowing fusion to take place, releasing energy in the process. Formation and maintaining the plasma is key. Most magnetic confinement reactors in development are known as tokamaks, a unique device to confine plasma. Earlier this year, the Joint European Torus (JET) facility announced the production of nearly 70 megajoules of heat from 0.21 milligrams of fuel. In order to achieve this same output, 2,000,000 milligrams of coal would be required, demonstrating the clear promise of this technology. Despite this being the highest reported total energy production to date, it did not “breakeven”, requiring more energy to produce the plasma than was generated. Research is still ongoing, with the next phase of JET, a $22 B project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor which is expected to generate plasma in 2025 at their site in France. It has been in development for nearly 20 years in the hope of investigating large scale fusion. Several private companies are also using this technology, with Tokomak Energy based in the UK achieving plasma temperatures of 100 million °C in 2022, a major step to commercial fusion.  


Inertial confinement – is an alternative approach using different compression approaches, where compression of deuterium and tritium fuels can generate the high pressure required for fusion. Different methods to invoke this high pressure have been used with the National Ignition Facility in California using lasers. The high energy lasers (all 192 of them) heat the surface of a pellet of fuel, causing an implosion of deuterium and tritium within the pellet, creating high pressures and temperatures allowing fusion to occur. This is the only example where breakeven has been surpassed, with 2 megajoules of inputted energy producing 3 megajoules of output energy, announced in late 2022. Despite the success, commercialisation is still “decades” away according to the researchers. A UK start-up, First Light, have an alternative inertial fusion method which they call impact fusion. Using a high velocity projectile containing fuel, they fire it at a target, where the fuel implodes on impact generating fusion. Their method is sold as a simpler, lower energy and safer inertial fusion method, with the company recently achieving a new distance milestone, essential for energy production. 


So that’s where the money is going… 

Fusion is an expensive area, with Stanford predicting in 2021 that the US government had already invested $35 B in various fusion projects historically. Start-ups have also successfully raised huge amounts of funding, with the top 20 fusion start-ups raising an estimated $5.5 B cumulatively. The UK government have set an optimistic 2040 target to have an operational nuclear fusion plant, however, plenty of R&D is still required to get us there. Despite considerable investment and promising targets being met, nuclear fusion is still years away from powering our homes. However, the promise of such an abundant source of energy will likely fuel further investment and research. Although many of the innovative approaches being undertaken with fission are advertised as cheap alternatives to existing technologies, they still require huge funds. Estimates for SMRs are in the billions of dollars still, while new technologies still require heavy investment to finalise the R&D before we even think about commercial products. 



It is clear nuclear energy is here to stay, with continued investment and projects coming online. Fission is the best approach to assisting net zero, having already been demonstrated as an effective energy source for years, while fusion may assist future generation’s energy demands. We are looking forward to seeing the progress both academically and commercially from nuclear energy, along with all other innovative energy projects helping address climate change. Strategic Allies Ltd (SAL) have worked with energy companies and energy users in their quest for net zero, finding innovative technologies they can adopt or partners they can work with. If you would like to find out how we can help with your net zero strategy or other energy challenges please contact John Allies at john@strategicallies.co.uk