By Dave Elliott
Nuclear power generation technologies are now cost competitive in some contexts and innovation is gathering pace across the sector, British consultancy Lloyd’s Register says in a report Technology Radar – a Nuclear Perspective. A parallel, wider Technology Radar – Low Carbon report, reviews renewables, energy storage and infrastructure, as well as nuclear. That is quite positive about solar power and storage, but it also presents nuclear as a possible winner. These reports are said to reflect ‘insights and opinions of leaders across the sector’, as well as the views of 583 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers, 154 of whom were from the nuclear sector, which Lloyd’s said was ‘united in its belief that it will play a key role in the low carbon landscape’. No surprise there! The overall views on nuclear of the other respondents are not reported, but, with 323 of them working in the renewables sector, they are unlikely to be so positive. Unsurprisingly, that group was however very positive about renewables: ‘70% of renewables respondents say that renewables are reaching cost parity with fossil fuels’.
And Lloyd’s was also quite positive about the future for renewables, solar especially, wind on- and offshore less so. It says that, while the value of stocks of notable renewable energy companies Vestas and SolarCity fell in the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s election, ‘growing global confidence in low-carbon generation could balance that out in the medium-to-long-term’.
On nuclear, Lloyd’s claims that ‘when costs are levelised across the lifecycle, nuclear is one of the most cost-effective methods of power generation. Indeed, OECD research shows that nuclear is the lowest levelised cost option for power generation for all OECD countries under certain capital cost projections. Regional differences in the cost of capital for nuclear projects mean that while cost can be a challenge for greenfield nuclear projects in Europe and North America, it is seen as less of an issue in Asia, where economies of scale, lower labour costs & more recent experience in building reactors all have an impact. In economies where financing traditional greenfield projects is seen as challenging, SMRs are often cited as the future because their size & the fact that they are ready to install keep investment costs low’.
However, not all its correspondents agreed on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), with some saying that they had a ‘low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive’. Security and safety issues were mentioned. So Lloyd’s concluded that the potential contribution of SMRs was ‘unclear at this stage’, and that they were likely to impact most on smaller grids and isolated markets. By contrast they noted that 71% of respondents agreed there had been an increase in the scale of deployment of renewable energy sources in the past two years.
While there were blocks to the future deployment of both renewables and new nuclear, they were fairly optimistic on both, with new technology offering help. On renewables, they say that software advances will soon improve the efficiency of existing battery storage. One key software innovation, blockchain, is a ‘distributed ledger’ technology. Lloyd’s says it has the potential to tap into the sharing ‘peer to peer’ economy and unlock a vast, decentralised energy market.
On nuclear, they felt that developments in materials science could help: ‘Both reactors and reactor cores could look drastically different in the future thanks to new materials such as metallic fuel or silicon carbide, which will boost their strength, working life and resilience’. In addition, many of the latest reactor designs can achieve ‘deep burn’ (high fuel burn up), which the report says lead to less and much shorter-lived waste. That seems a little odd – it would be more active since more of the uranium would be converted to fission products and also more long-lived plutonium, making it harder to store. But, they insist, it would be easier to handle, so that industry experts now advocated dry cask surface storage of nuclear waste. Some wires crossed there. Though you can see what they are after: easier access in future, since the experts they asked say that ‘what is currently unusable and designated as waste may one day be usable as fuel – much better then, they argue, to store it in a location that is easier to access than traditional geological disposal solutions’.
Lloyd’s Register concluded ‘Although in the low-carbon context nuclear is sometimes discussed as a stop-gap solution until renewables’ intermittency issues can be solved, in fact, its potential as a low-carbon power source is much greater than this. Given developments in efficiency and lifecycle and the fact that in many parts of the world, nuclear is now the cheapest power generation option, it should form a critical and permanent component of the low-carbon agenda.’
Overall then, although also backing renewables, a pretty pro-nuclear view, with most of the problems seen as being fixable. That is a little odd given the current economic mess the nuclear industry is in. But Lloyd’s seems to be a cheerleader. In parallel, there is a perhaps even more surprising report, on public exposure to radiation resulting from the generation of electricity by nuclear plants, from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). It says they are a fraction of that from coal-powered plants.
Coal contains very small amounts of radioactive material, but UNSCEAR says, coal plant combustion nevertheless contributes over half of the total radiation dose to the global population from power generation. The nuclear fuel cycle contributed under 20% – mostly, it seems, from its small allowed releases and unplanned leaks. The collective dose for coal is put at 670-1400 man Sieverts, depending on the plant’s age, while that of nuclear is 130 man Sv. In terms of radiation exposure per unit of electricity generated, it says that coal and nuclear were about the same in the short term: 0.7-1.4 man Sv per GWe for coal and 0.43 man Sv/GWe for nuclear, but given the preponderance of long lived isotopes, there was ‘a larger collective doses from the nuclear fuel cycle’ long term. However, the total long term collective dose (to both the public and workers) per unit of electricity generated by coal was larger than for nuclear.
That may be true, but UNSCEAR admits that the collective dose to the global population from major nuclear accidents was ‘many orders of magnitude higher’ than the collective doses from one year’s normal operation of either technologies, and, ‘more significantly, the distribution of doses after an accident is more localised geographically’.
Whatever the cause or source of these radiation releases, surely this analysis just offers yet more reasons for not using either coal or nuclear and to move to renewables which have none of these problems!
*My new IoPP book, ‘Nuclear Power: past, present and future’, out next week, is certainly not as optimistic as Lloyd’s! It should be available soon at http://iopscience.iop.org/book/978-1-6817-4505-3 More on that in my next post.