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Energy Shift

The Advantages of Nuclear Energy in the Clean Energy Shift

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The following content is sponsored by Standard Uranium.

advantages of nuclear energy

Nuclear in the Energy Shift

The world’s population is projected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050 and as the population grows, so will our energy needs.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), global energy consumption will rise 40% by 2050, and electricity consumption will more than double. Meeting the rising demand for energy while protecting the environment will require clean energy sources that are powerful and reliable—and nuclear fits the bill.

The above infographic from Standard Uranium highlights the advantages of nuclear energy and its role in the clean energy transition.

The Advantages of Nuclear Energy

From cleanliness and reliability to safety and efficiency, seven factors make nuclear power essential to a clean future.

1. Carbon-free Energy

Nuclear power plants generate energy through fission, without any fossil fuel combustion.

As a result, nuclear power has one of the lowest lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions among other energy technologies. In fact, the use of nuclear power has reduced over 60 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1970.

2. Low Land Footprint

Due to the high energy density of uranium, nuclear power plants can produce large amounts of electricity without taking up much space.

A 1,000 megawatt nuclear facility requires just 1.3 square miles of land. For context, solar and wind farms with equal generating capacity can occupy up to 75 times and 360 times more space, respectively.

3. Reliability

Of all the advantages of nuclear energy, reliability is one of the most important.

Nuclear facilities can generate electricity round the clock, contrary to solar and wind farms that depend on the weather. In 2020, U.S. nuclear power plants were running at maximum capacity 92.5% of the time, surpassing all other energy sources.

4. Resource Efficiency

All sources of energy use raw materials that help build them or support them, besides the fuels.

These can range from metals such as copper and rare earths to materials like concrete and glass. Nuclear power plants have the lowest structural material requirements of all low-carbon energy sources. They’re not only powerful but also efficient in their material consumption.

5. Long-term Affordability

The high capital costs of nuclear facilities are often cited as a potential issue. However, this can change over time.

In fact, nuclear reactors with 20-year lifetime extensions are the cheapest sources of electricity in the United States. Furthermore, the average U.S. nuclear reactor is 39 years old, and 88 of the 96 reactors in the country are approved for 20-year extensions.

6. Safety

Although conventional beliefs might suggest otherwise, nuclear is actually one of the safest sources of energy.

Energy sourceDeaths per 10 TWhType
Coal246Fossil fuel
Oil184Fossil fuel
Biomass46Renewable
Natural Gas28Fossil fuel
Nuclear0.7Non-renewable
Wind0.4Renewable
Hydro0.2Renewable
Solar0.2Renewable

Even including disasters and accidents, nuclear energy accounts for one of the lowest number of deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity.

7. Economic Contribution

Apart from the above advantages of nuclear energy, the U.S. nuclear industry also plays a significant role in the economy.

  • The nuclear industry directly employs 100,000 people, and creates thousands of indirect jobs.
  • A typical nuclear power plant generates $40 million in annual labor income.
  • The nuclear industry adds $60 billion to U.S. GDP annually.

Nuclear is not only clean, safe, and reliable but it also has positive ramifications on the economy.

Nuclear Power for the Future

Transitioning to a cleaner future while increasing energy production may be difficult without new nuclear sources—largely because other renewable energy sources aren’t as powerful, reliable, or efficient.

As the energy shift ramps up, nuclear power will be an essential part of our clean energy mix.

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Energy Shift

The Raw Material Needs of Energy Technologies

Energy technologies are often mineral-intensive. This chart shows how the energy shift is creating massive demand for minerals.

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The Raw Materials in Energy Technologies

Behind every energy technology are the raw materials that power it, support it, or help build it.

From the lithium in batteries to the copper cabling in offshore wind farms, every energy technology harnesses the properties of one or the other mineral. And the world is shifting towards clean energy technologies, which are more mineral-intensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts.

The above infographic uses data from the World Bank’s Climate Action report and charts the 2050 demand for 15 minerals from energy technologies, as a percentage of 2020 production.

Material Demand from Energy Technologies

Energy sources make use of various minerals that offer different properties and functionalities.

For instance, geothermal power plants use steel alloys with large quantities of titanium to withstand high heat and pressure. Similarly, solar panels use silver for its high conductivity, and hydropower plants use steel alloys with chromium, which hardens steel and makes it corrosion-resistant.

The demand for these energy technologies and minerals will grow alongside our energy needs. Here are some of the minerals that are expected to see increasing demand from energy technologies through 2050, relative to current production levels:

Mineral2020 Production (thousand tonnes)2050 Annual Projected Demand (thousand tonnes)2050 Demand as a % of 2020 Production
Lithium82415506%
Cobalt140644460%
Graphite1,1004,590417%
Indium0.91.73192%
Vanadium86138161%
Nickel2,5002,26891%
Silver251560%
Lead4,40078118%
Molybdenum3003311%
Copper20,0001,3787%
Aluminum65,2005,5839%
Manganese18,5006944%
Chromium40,0003660.92%
Iron1,500,0007,5840.51%
Titanium8,2003.440.04%

Lithium, cobalt, and graphite—the key ingredients of EV batteries—will see the largest increases in demand, each requiring more than a 400% increase relative to 2020 production. These figures can look even more substantial once we bear in mind that this demand is only from energy technologies, and these minerals have other uses too.

Indium and vanadium may be among the lesser-known minerals in this list, however, they are important. Indium demand is expected to rise to 1,730 tonnes by 2050—largely because of demand from solar energy. Similarly, vanadium may also see a large spike in demand due to the growing need for energy storage technologies.

On the other end of the spectrum, iron and aluminum have the largest demand figures in absolute terms. However, miners already produce large quantities of these minerals, and their demand in 2050 represents less than 10% of current production levels.

The Supply and Demand Equation

Although some metals are available in abundance within the Earth’s crust, their demand and supply don’t always match up.

For example, falling copper ore grades in Chile are raising concerns over copper’s long-term supply and Citigroup projects a 521,000-tonne copper shortage for 2021. In addition, a large portion of lithium, cobalt, and graphite production occurs in a few regions, putting the battery supply chain at risk of disruptions.

While supply may be in uncertain territory, it’s extremely likely that demand will rise. As the world transitions to clean energy, a sustainable supply of these minerals could be key to meeting the raw material needs of energy technologies.

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Energy Shift

Trading Places: Electricity from Renewables vs. Coal in G20 Nations

Electricity generated by wind and solar helped to force a record fall in global coal power in 2020. Renewables rose by 15% while coal use dropped 4%.

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What Powers the World in 2020? Coal vs. Renewables

Electricity from Renewables vs. Coal in G20 Nations

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to work and shop from home, cancel gatherings, and reduce the use of transportation, it has also paused the world’s rising demand for electricity.

The pandemic has opened a window of opportunity to reduce the share of power generated by fossil fuels. When demand for electricity drops, coal plants are usually switched off first since the process of burning fuels constantly runs up costs. In contrast, renewables such as wind and solar plants, once built, have significantly lower running costs.

This infographic based on Ember’s Global Electricity Review shows how wind and solar generation rose robustly in 2020 by 15% (+314 TWh), compared to 2019. That helped coal use to fall a record 4% (-346 TWh).

Accelerating the Use of Renewables

Wind and solar produced 9.4% of the world’s electricity last year, doubling from 4.6% in 2015.

Wind and solar as % share of electricity production for G20 countries

Country201020152020
Germany8.02%18.57%32.7%
United Kingdom2.73%14.26%28.52%
EU-275.52%12.65%19.57%
Australia2.28%6.92%17.09%
Italy3.7%13.45%16.54%
Turkey1.44%4.73%11.99%
United States2.32%5.61%11.58%
Brazil0.43%3.81%10.61%
Japan0.68%4.05%10.1%
France1.87%5.08%9.92%
Mexico0.49%2.95%9.78%
China1.17%3.92%9.54%
World1.81%4.65%9.42%
India2.4%3.45%8.88%
Argentina0.02%0.44%7.96%
Canada1.52%4.62%6.05%
South Africa0.02%2%5.53%
South Korea0.34%1.01%3.84%
Russia0%0.05%0.29%
Indonesia0%0%0.21%

As you can see in the table above, many G20 countries now get around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar, including India (9%), China (9.5%), Japan (10%), Brazil (11%), the U.S. (12%), and Turkey (12%).

Europe led wind and solar generation around the world, with Germany producing 33% and the United Kingdom at 29%. Overall, electricity demand fell 3.5% in the European Union.

Is This the End of Coal?

Coal generation collapsed almost everywhere in 2020 compared to 2019, with large falls in the U.S. (-20%), EU (-20%), and India (-5%).

China was the only G20 nation to show a large increase in coal generation (+1.7%). Overall, the country saw a 4% increase in electricity demand in 2020, as it was the first to restart production after the first months of the COVID-19 crisis.

China is now responsible for 53% of the world’s coal-fired electricity, up from 44% in 2015.

Change in coal generation, for G20 countries

Country2019-2020
China+1.7%
India-5%
Turkey -6%
Russia -9%
World-4%
South Africa-5%
South Korea-13%
Australia-5%
Japan-1%
Brazil-12%
Canada-8%
Argentina0%
United States-20%
EU-27-20%
Germany -22%
Mexico-48%
France -3%
Italy -24%
United Kingdom -23%
Saudi Arabia 0%

The pandemic has put political leaders in a unique position: along with additional policies such as eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels and increasing investments in wind and solar power, it is now easier than ever before to accelerate the end of high-carbon electricity.

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