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Nuclear power – game over?

By Dave Elliott

Foratom, the European nuclear trade body, commenting on the European Commission’s ‘Clean Energy for All Europeans’ plan, says the EU’s aim to decarbonise the economy by over 80% by 2050 cannot be achieved without nuclear power. ‘Nuclear energy accounts for half of the low-CO2 base-load electricity currently generated in the EU. It provides reliable low-CO2 base-load electricity and can provide the flexibility of dispatch required to balance the increasing share of intermittent energy sources, hence continuing to contribute to security of supply.’ It wants an end to preferential treatment and ‘priority dispatch’ rules for renewables.

Foratom is not alone in pressing the case for nuclear. The World Nuclear Association is looking to an extra 1000 GW of nuclear capacity globally by 2050, while a Global Nexus Initiative report says it will be extremely hard, if not impossible, to meet the Paris COP21 climate goals ‘without a significant contribution from nuclear power’ – globally 4000 GW will be needed by 2100.

Given the somewhat constrained situation facing the nuclear industry at present, stuck at around a 11% global contribution while renewables roar ahead to 24% and beyond, with prices continually falling, is there any reality in these nuclear ambitions?

The European Commission predicts a decline in EU nuclear generation capacity up to 2025, since some Member States are phasing it out or reducing its share. But the EC says that, subsequently, new reactors are predicted to be connected to the grid and the lifetime of others extended, so that by 2030 capacity would increase slightly and remain stable at between 95 and 105 GW by 2050. However, since electricity demand is expected to increase over the same period, the share of nuclear electricity in the EU would fall from its current level of 27% to around 20%.

20% might actually be rather optimistic. Switzerland has just confirmed its slow phase out plan, after an appeal and then a referendum – with 58.2% voting for it. No new nuclear plants can be built, but existing ones can remain in use for the duration, while renewables and efficiency are ramped up. All of Germany’s plants will have closed by 2022, with renewables taking the strain, and all of Belgium’s plants will go by 2025, if not earlier – more cracks were found recently.  Although its partial phase out has been delayed by 5 years, France is to cut back by at least 20% to a 50% nuclear contribution and boost renewables. That leaves the UK as the main nuclear hope, possibly along with Finland (still trying to complete its much delayed EPR) and some eastern EU countries, who want to build new plants, but with some facing financing problems.

Outside the EU it is a bit better, but not that much. China is often cited as the main hope, and longer term it should see more plants starting up, but its versions of the EPR and AP1000 have met with construction problems and delays, while renewables are accelerating ahead in China, supplying 10 times more power than it gets from nuclear. Wind has already outpaced it.  

Russia remains a major player in the nuclear sector, seeking to export its nuclear technology worldwide, but given economic constraints, it’s not moving very fast, and there have been delays in India’s nuclear programme, while its renewables are moving ahead – their output has overtaken that from nuclear. Vietnam has decided not to go ahead with its plans to build a nuclear plant, while Taiwan is to close its two plants and go for renewables. And all but 5 of Japan’s 37 remaining plants remain offline, with no new ones planned. South Korea was once seen as a bastion of nuclear power (and, like Russia and Japan, of nuclear technology export) but, following the recent election, it is now looking to close its existing plants and to abandon most of its expansion plans (though work on two new ones will continue) while boosting renewables.

Overall, China maybe apart, the future does not look very promising for nuclear. While in some cases it has been a matter of environmental policy and post-Fukushima fears and uncertainties, the main reason for this situation is the poor economics of nuclear. The USA has provided plenty of examples of that of late. Unable to compete with cheaper rivals, including renewables, many plants have been closed well before their planned end of life dates, while the new plant construction programme is just limping ahead, suffering cost offshoots and delays. For nuclear enthusiasts it’s a grim tale.

One new TVA plant has started up, but the most recent twist was the halt of work on the 40% built twin VC Summers AP1000 project in South Carolina – after $9bn had been spent on this flagship project. That just leaves one new reactor construction project still going ahead in the USA and that is also facing issues.

However, true to form, Trump has announced a bold new move: ‘We will begin to revive and expand our nuclear energy sector, which I’m so happy about, which produces clean, renewable and emissions-free energy. A complete review of US nuclear energy policy will help us find new ways to revitalize this crucial energy resource.’

This may include subsidies to keep old plants open; some have already been agreed. But US Energy Secretary Rick Perry says he wants ‘to make nuclear energy cool again’ by ‘focusing on the development of technology, for instance, advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors’:

Nuclear hasn’t been ‘cool’ in the USA, arguably, since Three Mile Island in 1979, when unit 2 had a meltdown, so he will have his work cut out. Many others actually think the game is up, in the US and globally.

Nevertheless, there are still those that look to a nuclear revival and, for good or ill, the current UK government is certainly backing nuclear, despite the ever worsening case for its flagship EPR at Hinkley. The National Audit Office recently described it as ‘a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits’. The news that the much delayed EPR at Flamanville in France, which is now claimed will be completed sometime in late 2018, may need a safety refit in 2024, does not inspire too much confidence.

However, some say there may be other nuclear routes forward longer-term, and a new report ‘Making Sense of Nuclear’ tries to freshen up the debate by looking at ‘what’s new’. Although it claims not to be about ‘promoting nuclear as the route to a low-carbon energy system’, it clearly seeks to makes a case for a positive view of nuclear prospects. Given that my own IOP ebook ‘Nuclear Power, Past, Present & Future’ takes a very different view, it’s good to see that the IOP has also backed this report too – it all helps improve the debate. However, sadly this new report does not seem likely to move the debate on much. It’s a fairly standard recital of pro-nuclear views with, arguably, not actually much new to say. There is the familiar claim that nuclear power has not been as bad as is sometimes portrayed (just a few deaths from Chernobyl, none from Fukushima) and anyway clever new nuclear technology will be cheaper and safer. It’s assertions like this that need looking at, as I tried to do.  But take a look and make up you own mind!

Most agree that there is a problem. Some say effort should be refocused on improving the current type of Generation III reactors, rather than trying to develop new Generation IV technologies.

But that does not look a very promising option, given the current state of play, with major companies like Westinghouse, Toshiba and EDF in trouble. Some still look to new nuclear technology like scaled-down Small Modular Reactors, with collateral benefits and links being seen in relation to the use/development of mini-reactors for nuclear submarines. But in their civil application, they are still years away and uncertain economically, unless perhaps they can be accepted in or near cities so that they can supply heat and well as power. That seems a long shot. See my next post. With a range of renewables accelerating ahead globally, and their costs falling fast, perhaps it’s time to move on. Here’s a detailed round up of the state of nuclear power.

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