New nuclear countries: how can they do it?

22 August 2008

Recent months have seen an upsurge in the number of countries, currently without nuclear power reactors, expressing apparent strong interest in developing this technology. This has come from all continents of the world – in particular, the interest expressed in previously sceptical Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand has prompted attention, as has news from South America, notably in Chile and Venezuela. Yet it is undoubtedly the announcements from interested Middle Eastern and African states that have raised a lot of eyebrows. Can these countries support nuclear power programmes, which everyone knows are complex beasts and require a lot of planning and foresight?

The increased interest in nuclear by ‘new’ countries has been caused by similar factors to those important in countries already with reactors. The improved operating and safety performance of the current reactors has transformed both perceptions about the economic performance of nuclear power and its level of popular public acceptance. The impact of the debate on greenhouse gas abatement and also the heightened concerns about energy security of supply has also been important. For many Middle Eastern and African nations, lack of available indigenous energy resources, the desire to reduce dependence on imported energy and the need to increase the diversity of energy resources are particularly pressing needs. A developed nuclear programme can undoubtedly help in all of these objectives. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have to be cynical to suggest some ulterior motives. The stir created by Iran’s clandestine nuclear fuel supply activities and its Russian-designed reactor at Bushehr have undoubtedly led to an ‘emulation effect’ in some nearby countries. Some of these may have undeclared intentions to engage in similar ‘nuclear mischief’ in the hope of, at the very least, earning concessions from the concerned developed world. More generously, others may merely be seeking to have similar access to an advanced technology which leading nuclear supply companies are very willing to promote to them – note, in particular, French president Sarkozy’s impressive nuclear salesmanship.

Although it is easy for a country to announce that it is seriously considering a nuclear power programme, getting from A to B is rather easier said than done. Such a programme involves issues associated with nuclear material, radiation and related challenges, and is a major undertaking requiring careful planning, preparation and investment in the necessary infrastructure. Experience shows that the time between initial policy decisions in favour of nuclear power up to start of operation of a first nuclear power plant will be at least 10-15 years. Governments need to create the right environment for investment in nuclear power, including a professional regulatory regime and policies on nuclear waste management and decommissioning. This may prove challenging to many developing countries. There is also an obligation to satisfy international non-proliferation and insurance arrangements for nuclear power plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) describes the process of developing a sustainable programme in terms of three phases. It is clear that many developing countries announcing nuclear programmes completely fail to go through the first of these, which leads one to believe that their concept is more of a ‘knee jerk’ reaction to whatever is happening elsewhere and has little practical chance of being achieved. This initial stage is to place the nuclear programme within a comprehensive national strategy to assess energy needs and to understand the potential role, appropriateness, viability and commitments associated with nuclear in their development process. We know, for example, that electricity grids are very weak in many countries and the average size of the reactor offerings of the major nuclear vendors are increasing rapidly in size.

But, more importantly, it is vitally important that such countries recognise the obligations and commitments associated with a nuclear programme, nationally and internationally. These include: the need to develop a comprehensive legal framework covering safety, security, safeguards and liability; establishing and maintaining an effective regulatory regime; and developing the necessary human and financial resources. Many of the supposed ‘new nuclear countries’ have undoubtedly failed to even think through the scale of these initial challenges and how they may address them. Without this, one has to be deeply sceptical about whether their plans are just another bag of ‘hot air’, something which the nuclear sector has seen too much of in recent years.

Moving on from the initial stage of assessing energy needs, plans and requirements for a nuclear programme, leading to a soundly-based policy decision, there has to be significant amount of preparatory work before construction of a reactor can begin. This second phase is essentially ‘putting meat on the bones’ of the key considerations raised above, so that confidence can be established both nationally and internationally (including to the technology suppliers, who have suffered badly in the past from indecision here) that the country concerned is fully ready to proceed to project implementation.

Establishing the necessary legal framework mentioned above, backed by a competent regulatory body to develop a licensing system and to monitor and supervise compliance with safety and security guidelines is obviously essential. There is now a lot of international experience to draw on with regard to appropriate legal backing for nuclear programmes, as safety and security have become such pressing concerns in recent years. The IAEA will be a willing helper with the safeguards regime, while nuclear liability concerns must be addressed, not least because of the possible implications for nearby states. Indeed, countries cannot view any nuclear programme in isolation from the opinions of neighbouring countries – the experience in Europe demonstrates this. The establishment of regulatory bodies should take into account the country’s existing situation with regard to regulatory control, as most already have some arrangements in place exercising oversight of nuclear facilities, materials and activities. In this case, the need for additional staff and their precise competencies must be determined. In many countries, the wide requirements of nuclear regulation cut across several competent authorities, in radiation protection, nuclear safety, environmental protection and conventional health and safety. In this case, effective arrangements need to be made to ensure that necessary regulatory functions and responsibilities related to the nuclear programme are properly identified, discharged and coordinated. Authorisation for siting, design, commissioning, operation and for any environmental discharges needs to be defined, together with the development of capabilities to plan and implement the safety review and assessment activities of the facility through its life.

Developing the necessary human resources for the public institutions and operating organisations required to effectively supervise and implement the nuclear programme is undoubtedly a major challenge to many developing countries. Assistance in creating the people necessary to staff a competent regulatory authority may well come from the similar body in the country supplying the technology or from the IAEA and other international organisations. Each nuclear reactor needs a staff of perhaps 500 people in its operating organisation, who collectively have a variety of scientific, engineering and other technical backgrounds in fields needed to safely and effectively operate the plant. In addition to sound education, they require some years of specialised training and experience before the initial fuel loading at a nuclear plant. Much of this will probably be provided in conjunction with the plant vendor, but establishing the correct culture and discipline within the operating organisation is obviously essential. Given the prolonged time period it takes to construct nuclear reactors, staff education and training should not necessarily act as a constraint, but needs careful addressing. The development of a national academic programme for the necessary staff is appropriate, rather than relying on education in other countries or ‘poaching’ scarce staff from programmes elsewhere.

Ensuring adequate financial resources for the construction, safe operation and eventual decommissioning of nuclear plants, as well as for radioactive waste management, is also vital. After quite small initial investment is made in the early stages of developing the programme, the capital cost of nuclear plants looks prohibitive to many developing countries, which additionally may require substantial electricity grid enhancements. The government, private utilities or a public private partnership may provide the funding, which must also cover the costs of developing the regulatory and human resources mentioned above.

There are a number of other preparatory activities that must be completed before construction commences. Selection of the technology to be adopted is an obvious preliminary move, while nuclear fuel supply issues have to be resolved. The moves towards international fuel cycle centres may be helpful here, although reactor vendors often take on the provision of fuel, for the initial operating years at least. Used fuel and waste management policy should be explicit before construction commences, as well as a plan for eventual reactor decommissioning. Finally, it is important that some heed is taken of national public opinion in developing the programme, with the rationale explained to those concerned. Although many possible new nuclear countries are less than perfect democracies, experience from the developed world suggests that an informed population is much better than general ignorance.

Once all the preparatory work has been completed, phase three, the actual implementation of the reactor construction programme and eventual commissioning, is perhaps relatively more straightforward. Considerations of project management are just as pressing as in new nuclear plants in the existing nuclear countries, to ensure timely commissioning. The local owner/operator must achieve the competence to operate, maintain and take full responsibility after handover, but there is time to ensure that this is achievable.

There are therefore a number of important hurdles to be overcome before new countries can be said to be in a position to implement a nuclear programme. These are certainly not insurmountable, but nuclear projects are easier said than done. It is now essential that all the talk of a nuclear renaissance achieves some substance, in the form of a large number of reactor orders. Most of these will be in the existing nuclear countries and the number of new countries to achieve their first reactor by 2020 can probably be numbered on the fingers of one hand. But after then, the possibilities open up, so long as countries get going on their plans over the next few years. Many will undoubtedly drop by the wayside, but it is conceivable that by 2030, the number of countries with nuclear reactors could have doubled to 60 or 70.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Director of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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