New Renaissance and its Challenges
Nuclear power is back on the agenda, at least in some countries.
However, whether the projected deployments actually take place remains far from clear, as concerns over cost, safety, security and proliferation remain.
One could say that we are approaching the possible second “nuclear renaissance”.
The first “nuclear renaissance” declared in the early 2000’s never materialised, in part due to the high costs of the conventional technologies available at the time. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 was a final blow. Yet, just ten years later, there are rumblings of a new “nuclear renaissance”.
This has been triggered by the perception in some quarters that nuclear power is needed in order to support the global low-carbon energy transition – an opinion aired at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 and reiterated by the European Commission.
In this context, the core argument in favour of nuclear power is that it can provide reliable, baseload electricity supply with low greenhouse gas emissions. The bulk of the emissions come from the fabrication and construction of a plant, not its operation. Nuclear power can also provide clean energy for desalination, hydrogen production and industrial heat provision, all services facing increasing demand these days. However, the global landscape for nuclear power is changing and the potential nuclear renaissance faces several challenges
The changing global nuclear power landscape
The global landscape for civil nuclear power is changing in two main ways: reactor technology and the international market for reactors.
Most of the civil nuclear power reactors constructed over the past 60 years have a large capacity, commonly 500-1,200 megawatts (MWe) and use water as a coolant. Most common is the pressurised water reactor (PWR). Over this period, many features have been improved including safety and fuel efficiency. The latest designs have so-called “passive” safety features which means that little or no external power is needed to keep the reactor safe in case of an accident. These are so-called Generation III+ reactors. Only a few have been built to date, mainly in Europe and China. The ones in Europe have suffered from massive cost overruns and construction delays.
A key to the future lies in the modularisation of reactor construction. Instead of building the reactor on-site, the small number of major components are fabricated in one or more factories and then finally assembled on the final site. In principle, this allows for the large-scale production of uniform reactors which should substantially reduce capital expenditure. In addition, most planned designs are much smaller than the conventional reactors, generally less than 300 MWe and as small as 10 MWe or 20 MWe. These are termed small modular reactors (SMRs).
SMRs fall into two main categories. The first type is based on conventional water-cooled designs, but delivered in smaller modular form. These will be the first SMRs to be delivered commercially because the technology is proven. Russia has already deployed one such reactor to its Arctic region in the form of a barge-mounted SMR.
The second type are the advanced modular reactors (AMRs). These rely on quite different technologies and cooling systems. Examples include molten salt, high temperature liquid fluoride thorium, travelling wave and fast neutronreactors. Most of these designs are said to be much safer as water is not the coolant and they operate at lower pressures. They are also more efficient and so need less fuel and produce less waste. Most of these designs remain in the stage of development and only a small number are in commercial operation. China connected its first high temperature gas cooled reactor to the grid in 2021.
The final technology is the long-promised nuclear fusion which operates like the sun. This has the potential to deliver large quantities of energy with little environment impact, greater safety and radioactive waste with shorter half-life.
The international market
Established nuclear power countries such as Russia, the US, France and India, continue to enlarge their fleets of nuclear power reactors with reactor designs that are largely indigenous. Having relied on imported technology in the past, China is increasingly deploying designs that are indigenous. Most other countries that are building new reactors or aspire to do so, rely on foreign vendors
During the first decades of civil nuclear power, the main international vendors of reactors were companies from those countries with substantial domestic nuclear power programmes. Notable were the United States (US), Russia,France and Canada. Today, the civil nuclear power industries in the US and France face serious financial challenges at home and have little capacity to undertake major exports of conventional reactors. In contrast, Russia’s Rosatom is actively constructing or planning to construct conventional reactors in a growing number of countries, with strong support from the Russian government. Likewise, China’s vendors have started to seek opportunities overseas, again with home government support. South Korea’s KEPCO secured its first export deal in the United Arab Emirates in 2009, but none since due to challenges back in Korea.
Russia, China and Korea are also developing water-cooled SMRs, but so are companies from other countries like the US, Canada, France, Japan and the United Kingdom (UK). Likewise, there are many companies, mainly from the same countries, working on the various AMR technologies.
Several countries are enlarging their existing fleets of reactors using foreign vendors. These include Slovakia and Iran relying on Russia, Finland and the UK employing France’s EDF, and Pakistan being supported by China. In addition, there are about 40 countries that are known as “newcomers”. They currently have no civil nuclear power reactors but are at various stages of assessing their options or actually planning or building their first reactors. Of these, Belarus, Bangladesh and Turkey are the only countries where construction is in progress, all with the assistance of Russia’s Rosatom. Of the rest, Egypt and Poland are the furthest advanced with their plans, Egypt with Rosatom and Poland currently assessing various vendors from the US, Japan and Korea. The state of play in the remaining countries varies from being in a more or less strong position to make a firm decision to embark on a nuclear power programme to assessing nuclear power as an option. The latter group contains a number of lower-middle and low-income countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Challenges facing the expansion of nuclear power
Whatever technology is chosen and whether the country has an established fleet or is a newcomer, the construction of a nuclear power plant or a fleet of plants faces several key challenges. Today, the most daunting is cost. Greater technological sophistication and higher safety standards have driven up costs massively, especially in western countries where project management has been lax. Russian and Chinese companies appear to manage this problem more effectively, but the initial capital cost for a large reactor is still in the multiple billions of US dollars. The problem of high cost is exacerbated in countries where the electricity market is competitive. In such cases, securing finance for a project is extremely difficult without assurances from the host government concerning the price of electricity or support from the vendor’s government.
All governments seeking to build a new nuclear power plant have to face public opinion to a greater or lesser degree. Public concerns over the safety of the plant and of the resultant waste are foremost concerns, but the cost of the produced electricity may also be a contentious issue, as it was in the UK. Public perceptions of nuclear power vary greatly between nations and even between different social groups within a country. Further, opinion can change very rapidly, especially after a major nuclear accident. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 brought a halt to the construction of new nuclear power plants across much of western Europe.
With so many newcomer countries planning or considering nuclear power, a further consideration in some cases concerns the capacity of the state to effectively govern the safety and security of the programme. Embarking on a nuclear power programme is a 100-year or more commitment involving planning and preparation, the operation of the plants, the long-term management of the waste and the decommissioning of the plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has produced a large number of guidance documents, runstraining courses and sends missions to inspect and support newcomer countries. In many cases, for example Russia, the vendor company and its government provide technical and regulatory training and capacity building for the host government and its companies. Nevertheless, some governments will struggle to sustain a high standard of safety and security governance over many decades. This is illustrated by the conflicts of interest that were contributing factors to the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan and the contemporaneous corruption and mismanagement scandals in South Korea’s nuclear power industry.
The new SMRs and AMRs are promised to address some of these challenges. We are told they will be safer, more efficient, have many uses, be more flexible in location and produce less waste. But this has yet to be demonstrated. No plant has been in commercial operation for long enough to tell and no vendors have scaled up production to test the extent of cost reduction. Indeed, most designs remain in the phase of pilot testing. If the time arrives when multiple vendors are selling reactors of different designs to multiple countries, there will be a new challenge – that of regulatory approval of reactor design and building regulatory systems in the host country.
The conventional approach to reactor design approval is that the government of the vendor country is the first to provide approval. This can take several years. After that, each host country would undertake its own assessment, which again might take years and possibly require design modifications. Such a process would undermine the objectives of modularised production and rapid deployment to address climate change. The ideal situation would be if the host government accepted the design approval of the vendor government, possibly underpinned by bilateral or multilateral arrangements, whereby the regulators of vendor countries provide ongoing support to host country regulators. Preparation to commission a first nuclear power plant can also be a long process. The IAEA have developed a “Milestones Approach” underpinned by a detailed description of steps that a newcomer country needs to take before a new plant is commissioned. This can take a decade or more as laws and regulations are issued, the capacity of government agencies enhanced and procedures put in place. Even the United Arab Emirates, held up as an example of efficiency and effectiveness, took 13 years from the decision to embark on a nuclear power programme to the first plant entering into commercial operation. Again, this legacy process undermines the need for rapid deployment. However, any attempt to take short cuts is likely to weaken the domestic and even international credibility of the programme. One approach is to develop an internationally recognised set of regulations and procedures that can be adopted by newcomer countries seeking to deploy SMRs or AMRs. However, even this does not remove the need for capacity building in state organisations and the need to address public concerns.
Conclusion: The future of nuclear power remains uncertain
Nuclear power, in both conventional and new forms, holds great promise to provide large quantities of relatively low-carbon energy to many countries, whether they be advanced, industrialising or developing. However, many challenges remain. These include cost, public perception, the need for effective governance of safety and security, and potentially long lead times. In addition, the supposed advantages of new reactor designs have yet to be properly demonstrated.
One topic this article has not addressed is that nuclear power is in competition with other forms of clean energy, notably renewable energy, especially if this is accompanied by large-scale energy storage.
Postscript: The consequences of the conflict in Ukraine
One major consequence of the conflict in Ukraine is that Russia’s reputation and credibility have been seriously damaged. This will undoubtedly affect the willingness of governments to have Rosatom as a reactor vendor and undo years’ of work to develop the company’s reputation. In addition, the availability of Russian funds to complete existing projects and embark on new ones will be severely reduced. This will provide opportunities for other vendors, notably the US and China.
Dr Philip Andrews Speed
Senior Principal Research Fellow and Head, Energy Security Division, Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore