EnergyDays is organized every quarter of the year and is open for anyone interested in the latest developments in societal energy issues. EnergyDays focusses on a specific aspect of the present energy and climate discussion. Different keynote speakers from academia and industry will present their views, solutions and outlooks on the topic. The motto of EnergyDays is to stimulate the audience to broaden their vision on energy and climate.
Next session: 10 March 2022
4 November 2021 | Nuclear Fission
Let’s consider nuclear fission
During this session of EnergyDays, Heleen de Coninck (TU/e) and Jan Leen Kloosterman (TU Delft) delved into the possible role nuclear fission could play in achieving the goal of having a CO2 neutral energy system by 2050.
‘Nuclear energy has been banned in the Netherlands for several years. In the media, fission is not perceived as a serious solution to mitigate climate change. Today we are discussing what we should do with regard to this topic in our country.’ With these words, EIRES’ scientific director Richard van de Sanden set the stage for a new edition of the EIRES EnergyDays on November 4th, 2021. Over 220 participants joined the online event, not only to hear what both researchers had to say about the topic, but also to have lively discussions with each other in the chat, exchanging views and factual information about the pros and cons of this technology.
Fission in IPCC report
Heleen de Coninck sketched the background for the discussion by explaining what the 2018 IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 0C has to say about nuclear fission as an option to reduce CO2 emissions. After explaining how IPCC reports are written, reviewed and approved, she dived into the 2018 report’s contents. ‘The main conclusions are that we are already at 1.1 degrees of global warming and that we will reach the set limit of 1.5 degrees between now and 2040; that there are clear benefits to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees; and that it is still possible to stay below that limit. However, unprecedented changes are needed all over the world, roughly at the same time, with a speed never seen before at the level of systems or sectors.’
The report proposed several possible pathways to half the CO2 emissions by 2030, reduce them to net zero in 2050, and even go to net carbon dioxide removal in the second half of this century. ‘The IPCC does not claim that nuclear energy is needed to do this though. There are also pathways possible without the use of fission technology. But the fact is that when you are developing models that include nuclear energy, the solutions end up to be less costly than alternatives without.’ However, besides the obvious challenge of dealing with nuclear waste and reactor security, also initial investment costs have to go down for nuclear to become a truly interesting option, De Coninck thinks. ‘Small modular reactors may fare better in the long term, simply because the risk for investors to build large scale nuclear reactors now is too big.’
Thorium reactors as alternative
This statement nicely linked to the presentation of the second speaker of the day, Jan Leen Kloosterman. At TU Delft, he is working on nuclear reactors and fuel cycles that excel on safety and sustainability. Kloosterman started his lecture with a short introduction in the physics of fission, explaining the concept behind Pressurized Water Reactors, which are current day’s mainstream reactors. ‘Until recently, the main driving force in nuclear fission reactors has been economy of scale: we were building ever larger reactors to reduce the cost of nuclear power. However, because of the large investments needed upfront, the current trend is toward economy of numbers: we are working on small modular reactors, which are much cheaper to install and can be scaled by simply adding additional reactors.’
In essence, fission is a rather simple and very efficient way of generating power: one gram of a fissile element contains as much energy as 2.500 liters of gasoline. And it is completely CO2 emission free. However, nuclear waste is a serious issue. Conventional nuclear power plants produce a myriad of radio-active elements, some of which will remain radio-active for hundreds of thousands of years. An elegant solution lies in the development of molten salt reactors fueled by thorium, instead of the now mostly used uranium.
Kloosterman: ‘A thorium reactor produces a thousand times less plutonium than conventional reactors and thus drastically reduce the waste problem. Furthermore, the molten salt reactor concept contains an additional security valve, and it can also be used to destroy nuclear waste produced in the past. In short: in the long term, thorium molten salt reactors are safe and sustainable alternatives for current nuclear power plants.’
At the end of the discussion with the audience that followed, both speakers were asked what we should do now. De Coninck: ‘For nuclear energy to have an impact in 2050, we need to start now. So, in my view, either you decide to go for it, or you don’t. Decide and stick to that decision, no matter what it is. Decide and stop the debate.’ Kloosterman: ‘The way I see it, is that we are not in a position to exclude options. It is extremely difficult to achieve the 2050 goals. We need to get CO2 free as soon as possible, and we need the nuclear option to achieve that. So I would say: build those nuclear plants, keep working on alternatives on the side, and if you have reached your goals, you can try to fade out nuclear later on.’
11 March 2021
The energy transition in a national context: the need to change direction
Optimistic and fair scenarios for the future
The energy transition is not merely a technical, but perhaps even more a cultural and social challenge. That was the main takeaway of the March 2021 edition of the EnergyDays. In two presentations, by Floris Alkemade and Geert Verbong, the challenges of the energy transition in a national context were discussed.
After a short introduction by host Barry Fitzgerald, Chief Government Architect Floris Alkemade took the virtual stage to share his views on the future of The Netherlands, which he recently voiced in an essay under the same title. The central question in Alkemade’s exploration of possible future scenarios is how we can we arrange our lives without leaving a trace of destruction behind. With a striking map depicting ‘the nation formerly known as The Netherlands,’ he emphasized the need to act now. ‘It is known that 1,5 degrees of global warming would already lead to irreversible devastating effects. The majority of the population growth is concentrated in coastal areas. This is not a good combination with regard to the potential see level rising we are facing.’
Imagine the future
Even though we are a small country, The Netherlands is well positioned to take responsibility in leading the change, he argued. ‘We are extremely wealthy, well-organized, well-educated, and we have ample experience with water related challenges. It is up to science to create a collective longing for change by showing optimistic future perspectives.’ Alkemade himself cooperated on a study to explore what The Netherlands would look like if we would have 100% sustainable energy. ‘What people tend to forget is that the energy transition is not an isolated challenge. Sustainable energy supply touches all other policy agendas, ranging from agriculture to spatial planning. We need a coherent plan to go forward. And that plan should be born out of imagination of what is possible, not out of fear of what might happen if we do not act now. Sometimes the real revolution is not a tech revolution, but a cultural revolution. Take the way COVID made us look differently at transportation. Instead of developing self-driving vehicles, aiming for less transportation all together has suddenly become a viable alternative.’
Smart grid management
The second speaker was Geert Verbong, emeritus professor in transition studies at the School of Innovation Studies of Eindhoven University of Technology. In his presentation, he emphasized the importance of empowering users in the implementation of sustainable energy solutions. He started by presenting the results of a study performed by former MSc and now PhD student Naud Loomans about possible renewable energy scenarios the Province of Noord-Brabant could explore to meet the climate goals they have set for themselves. ‘He concluded that a balanced mix of solar panels and offshore wind parks would provide the optimal solution in terms of costs and benefits. At the same time, network operator Enexis stated that for the coming 5 to 7 years, there will be no extra capacity available to connect additional solar and wind parks. The solution is therefore to develop smart grids, to solve network problems locally and prevent large scale congestions. New organizational models are needed to implement that idea.’
Empowerment of users
As far as Verbong is concerned, acceptance and participation are key in achieving the energy transition. ‘Take the example of the recently opened Wieringermeer wind park. The people living in the vicinity were disappointed, because most of the electricity generated by the windmills is meant for the Microsoft data center nearby, and not for powering their houses. Empowerment of users should be a key element of smart grid policy. The opposition against wind parks is legitimate. We need a fair transition, with a fair and inclusive allocation of costs and benefits. The profits made should contribute to improving sustainability and livability for the local community.’ Currently, researchers are developing new governance and participation models with a central role for provincial and local authorities and 25% ownership for local communities. ‘These are examples of how we can do things differently and work toward a fair energy transition.’