As a result of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in the Soviet Union of 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, public opinion remains reluctant to endorse nuclear technology in both the civilian and military sectors. Nevertheless, such energy remains the most ecological and realistic method of production to curb global warming, which explains the commitment of environmental parties, such as the Swedish Miljöpartiet de gröna, to nuclear power until renewable energies have more potential for electricity generation.
The debated civilian nuclear power supplied 2,586 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2021, equivalent to about 10 per cent of global production, and represented only the second-largest low-carbon power source after hydroelectricity. With over 442 civilian fission reactors in the world (392 gigawatt), combined to 53 nuclear power reactors under construction (60 GW) and 98 reactors planned (103 GW), nuclear energy remains of interest, especially in the emerging economies.
While some argue nuclear production is a dangerous path, the main challenge, however, remains the sustainability of countries for maintaining and upgrading reactors.
At the time of the collapse of the USSR, many post-Soviet countries had to reduce or even shut down their nuclear capabilities due to a lack of economic resources and technical skills to maintain the production facilities. Financial issues also help explain the wish to transfer nuclear weapons to (post-Soviet) Russia, with Moscow having sufficient logistical means to ensure the maintenance.
In the end, the main concern when building a nuclear power plant or developing a nuclear arsenal is less about its completion than about its long-run sustainability. Indeed, nothing suggests that a country will remain politically and economically stable in the upcoming years, decades or even centuries.
Let us take the example of France and the United Kingdom, two countries which at the time of the development of their nuclear arsenals (1952 and 1960 respectively) and their civilian power plants were global powers able to counterweight Washington and Moscow (e.g. France withdrawal from NATO command structures in 1966).
Nowadays, these two countries—France and the United Kingdom—do not have the same maritime or land surface, and their international presence and financial weight have been greatly reduced, which for the time being has not led to problems related to the maintenance of nuclear power plants, but could one day occur in case of an unexpected crisis. In the same manner, a country could—due to political change, resurgence of radicalism or institutional crisis—turn into a hostile force while keeping its nuclear military capabilities, leading to greater instability on the international scene.
Leaving the military aspects aside, nuclear power is fundamental to the efforts to tackle global warming, at least for the time being, and this energy appears to be the gateway to space colonization. While there is still a lot of research to be done in this area, it will undoubtedly enable the travel to the Moon, Mars and exoplanets as well as the production of the much-needed electricity for colonization (e.g. 3D printing systems to build large-scale facilities).
Nuclear-powered robots are commonplace when it comes to space conquest, and a number of spacecraft—Cassini-Huygens, Curiosity (rover), Galileo, Kosmos 954, Lincoln Experimental Satellite, New Horizons, Viking 1 and 2, Voyager 1 and 2—already rely on this type of energy to operate.
Nuclear energy thus represents an opportunity as well as a responsibility, as shown by the Finnish case with the Onkalo deep geological repository, based on the KBS-3 technology for disposal of high-level radioactive waste developed by the Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB (SKB).
Considering the emergency related to global warming and the increasing tensions in international relations (e.g. growing U.S.-China competition in the Pacific and in space), we will have to learn to cope with civil and military nuclear power: as a matter of pragmatism until we have a better option, if one exists.
Therefore, this article explores solutions for the future by addressing the example of French management in this area, a country with a production of 379.5 TWh (70.6% of the national electricity), the highest percentage in the world.
The Russian floating nuclear power station may also provide an adequate answer for countries that do not have the financial and technological resources to build their own nuclear power stations, providing a solution without forcing governments in least developed countries into significant commitments. The Rosatom project deserves to be mentioned because it might inspire other states, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, France and China, to develop their own floating nuclear power stations, which might lead to the possibility of seeing nuclear-powered container ships appearing, avoiding over-consumption of fossil fuel energy in the supply chain.
In general, nuclear power also seems necessary as the banking sector transitions from traditional banking to blockchain and will consume more energy in the future, which will require an increase in the low environmental impact energy production.
Finally, nuclear power is necessary to ensure the success of the colonization of space, thus preventing humanity from relying on a single solar system, as the chances of survival on two planets are considerably greater than on one.
French nuclear paradise: France’s successful management of its nuclear assets
As mentioned above, France has a nuclear power output of 537.7 TWh providing 70.6% of the total electricity, the highest percentage in the world. This is due to several historical factors and motives, the main one being De Gaulle's policy in the 1960s to ensure that France would remain a great power capable of competing with the United States and the Soviet Union.
Although it may seem difficult to imagine nowadays, in the 1950-1960s France was an Empire covering several continents (e.g. Indochina and Algeria) and as such was by demography, territorial holdings and GDP capable of representing an alternative to the two superpowers. After the collapse of the French Empire in the second half of the 20th century, France became a "middle" power even if it remains the largest maritime territory in the world and possesses land in Africa, Latin America (French Guiana), and in distant territories such as French Polynesia.
De Gaulle's desire to develop nuclear research, albeit for military purposes, led to the parallel development of French civil nuclear energy, which was necessary to produce large quantities of radioactive components for the future nuclear arsenal. While France has not been able to match the United States and remains behind Russia and China today, the civilian aspects have succeeded in making the country a nuclear paradise with clean and affordable energy.
Largely owned by the French government (85% of the company’s shares), Électricité de France (EDF) is the country’s main electricity generation and distribution company in charge of its nuclear power plants. While looking at the French management, EDF remains heavily indebted. Its profitability has suffered from the recession that started in 2008 and made a profit of €3.9 billion in 2009, which fell to €1.02 billion in 2010, with provisions amounting to €2.9 billion. Overall, the main problem in France remains the government, and as long as the state is in charge of nuclear production (EDF), the company does not need to strongly increase its efficiency to survive.
As such, an interesting option for the future of French nuclear production would be privatization, as large companies would increase nuclear capacity and optimize production costs while reducing the number of people in the administration. Public opinion and the French government are opposed to this idea, as it would give the private sector more flexibility and could lead to safety concerns, while the reality is probably the opposite, as government management is the main problem and the reason why the services are less efficient than the private sector, as can be seen in almost every aspect in which public administration is involved (e.g. NASA as opposed to SpaceX).
The French administration could privatize nuclear power generation, while setting laws and ensuring compliance by the private sector, which would mean that the French government would guarantee the safety of production standards, while nuclear power providers would optimize production efficiency, as has already been done with airlines and telecommunications.
Although France has successfully managed civil nuclear power at the national level, the lack of privatization has led to missed business opportunities in the nuclear field. We might have expected France to create more nuclear facilities in French Guyana to sell electricity to the neighboring Latin American nations, thereby increasing profits in a continent that demands more. The same is true in Europe, as with German nuclear facilities closed, France could have increased domestic production to become the nuclear powerhouse of Europe, a fruitful business given French expertise in this area and the high demand for electricity in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland, to name a few.
In this sense, Russia has been able to innovate more quickly and is now offering the floating nuclear power plant, which has enormous potential in the developing countries, with a prospect to emerge as a world leader in this growing sector.
The bright future of Russian floating nuclear power plants
Floating nuclear power plants are vessels designed by Rosatom—the Russian state-owned nuclear energy company—and are self-contained, low-capacity floating nuclear power plants able to move around the world. Rosatom plans to mass-produce these plants in shipbuilding facilities to tow them to ports near places where electricity is in great demand, which can increase access to nuclear energy in some parts of the world.
The concept dates back to the MH-1A in the United States, which was built in the 1960s in the hull of a World War II Liberty Ship; however, the Rosatom project is the first floating nuclear power plant for mass production.
When it comes to the technology itself, a large part remains classified, though we know that floating plants must be refueled every three years, nevertheless saving up to 200,000 tons of coal and 100,000 tons of oil per year. The reactors are expected to have a 40-year life span and are designed around the reactor itself, successive physical protection and containment systems, active and passive self-activating safety systems, automatic self-diagnosis systems, reliable diagnostics of the condition of equipment and systems, and planned accident control methods. In addition, the on-board safety systems operate independently of the plant’s power supply.
According to Rosatom, 15 countries, including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Sudan, Namibia, Cape Verde and Argentina, have expressed interest in leasing such a device. It is estimated that 75% of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a port city, the fact turning Rosatom’s device into a typical example of Blue Ocean strategy in the nuclear energy sector.
The Russian floating nuclear power plant is an attractive alternative for developing countries, as it offers the technical expertise of Russian engineers, while it does not require a state to provide the uranium and can only be used when needed.
African and Latin American countries will need more electricity in the near future, especially when it comes to transitioning from central banks and gasoline-powered vehicles to blockchain-based digital currencies and electric cars. As such, the Russian project is one of the first of its kind that should provide a temporary solution in emerging countries. Market liberalization in this area is to be expected, with competition from China, the United States, and perhaps countries such as France, depending on how Rosatom manages to sell this business model versus its competitors.
Space conquest and safety of humanity can almost only be achieved through nuclear power
While it can be perceived as a threat on Earth, nuclear energy is essential in space, and nuclear decay processes are used in niche applications such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators in space probes like Voyager 2.
Moreover, the production of electricity from fusion energy remains the focus of international research. Because nuclear power systems can have a lower mass than solar cells of equivalent power, this allows for more compact spacecraft that are easier to steer and direct in space. In the case of manned spaceflight, nuclear power concepts that can power both life support and propulsion systems can reduce both the cost and duration of flights.
NASA in the United-States
In 2001, the safe affordable fission engine was under development, with a tested 30kW nuclear heat source to lead to the development of a 400kW thermal reactor with Brayton cycle gas turbines to generate electrical power. Waste heat rejection was to be provided by low mass heat pipe technology. Safety was to be ensured by a robust design.
A concert example is the project Prometheus, a NASA study of nuclear-powered spacecraft from the early 2000s, while Kilopower—preliminary concepts and technologies that could be used for an affordable fission nuclear power system to enable long-duration stays on planetary surfaces—is NASA’s latest reactor development programme.
American interests in space technology are also connected with classified project regarding the 6th generation fighter jet, and it is possible the Northrop TR-3 Black Manta (temporary name) will require more energy to sustain the consumption of energy for non-gravitational field on the edges and the middle of the triangle.
In Russia, TEM (nuclear propulsion)
The TEM project started in 2009 with the aim of powering a Mars engine, with Russia declaring to have completed the first tests of the water droplet radiator system in March 2016.
On 19 March 2021, the M.V. Lomonosov Research Centre in Keldysh plans to conduct flight tests of ion engines in 2025-2030. According to the press service, the Keldysh Centre has already created products with a capacity of 200W to 35 kW. At the moment, the characteristics of their resources are confirmed and the creation of a 100kW engine is in the preliminary stages.
While details of declassified nuclear space applications are sometimes available in the United States and Russia, China has been more secretive about the current state of knowledge in this area. In addition to space conquest, nuclear research can be applied to hypersonic missiles, as nuclear technology applied to space remains the only solution for space exploration until another propulsion source of equivalent power is developed.
Overall, a nuclear renaissance would be much appreciated, not only to secure the future of our planet by protecting the environment but also to ensure humanity will survive around our universe, with the conquest of the Moon, Mars and exoplanets relying on nuclear-powered spacecraft.
While nuclear power has suffered from Chernobyl and Fukushima, even in some countries where it has shown positive results, such as France, ambitious projects like the Russian floating nuclear power plant have proved to be a valuable solution for advanced countries to provide clean and affordable energy to the rest of the world.
Future disasters are a possibility that cannot be ruled out, and while they are a tragedy, we must weigh the invisible costs of other means of electricity generation on the environment (e.g. coal), bearing in mind that civil nuclear power plants have improved and will hopefully continue to do so with nuclear fusion.
In the long term, this does not mean that renewables should not be improved, but nuclear will nevertheless remain complementary, until and if renewables are able to take over on Earth, with the nuclear mainly used for space purposes thereafter.