Where and when will new nuclear be built?

19 December 2007

With the vastly increased attention being paid to nuclear power today, it is not surprising that a large number of new countries have been mentioned as possibilities for building and operating reactors. At present, there are 435 reactors operating in 30 countries around the world and Iran will add to the list once the Bushehr plant is completed. It is certain that nearly all the new reactors coming into operation in the period to 2020 will be located in these same countries, with only a few likely in new countries.

Indeed, it is almost a precondition for extending nuclear power to additional countries, that nuclear power is already thriving in those countries where it is already well-established. Nuclear programmes take time to get going and in the usual timescales with this technology, 2020 is not so far away. The period beyond 2020, however, opens up rather wider possibilities, and it is in the following period that we may realistically expect the number of nations operating nuclear plants to expand substantially.

The increased interest in nuclear in ‘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 heightened concerns about energy security of supply have also been important.

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. 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.

Looking at those countries that are serious candidates for achieving their first reactors, Europe and East Asia are the most likely. Italy is today now the only G8 country without its own nuclear power, and is the world’s largest net importer of electricity. Due to the high reliance on oil and gas, as well as imports, electricity prices are around 45% above the European Union average in that country. Italy was, however, a pioneer of civil nuclear power and built several reactors which operated from 1963-90.

Following a referendum in November 1987, provoked by the Chernobyl accident 18 months earlier, work on the nuclear programme was largely stopped. In 1988 the government resolved to halt all nuclear construction, shut the remaining reactors and decommission them from 1990. Italy was then largely inactive in nuclear energy for 15 years. In 2004, a new energy law opened up the possibility of joint ventures with foreign companies in nuclear power plants and also importing electricity from them. This resulted from a clear change in public opinion, especially among younger people favouring nuclear power for Italy.

In 2005 Electricité de France (EdF) and the Italian utility Enel signed a cooperation agreement which gives Enel some 200MWe from the new Flamanville 3 EPR (1700MWe) in France, and potentially another 1000MWe from the next five such units built there. In addition, Enel will also be involved in design, construction and operation of the plants. This will both enhance Italy’s power security and economics, but also help in rebuilding Italy’s nuclear skills and competence. Enel also has a 66% shareholding in the Slovak utility Slovenské elektrárne, which operates six nuclear power reactors in that country. These investments can be seen as an important precursor to Italy eventually building nuclear plants within its own territory.

Poland had four 440MWe VVER units under construction in the 1980s, but these were cancelled in 1990 and the components sold off. Some 97% of Poland’s electricity is from burning coal and the government decided early in 2005 that for energy diversification reasons, and to reduce carbon dioxide and sulfur emissions, the country should move immediately to introduce nuclear power. It is hoped that the first plant will be operating soon after 2020. A 2006 feasibility study suggested that 11.5GWe of nuclear capacity would be the optimum for Poland but possibly unaffordable in the medium term, so a figure of 4.5GWe by 2030 has been targeted.

Poland is also involved with Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in planning a new large reactor in Lithuania, to replace the Ignalina units being shut down at EU insistence. Polish participation would justify a larger and more economical unit such as an EPR. A 2006 feasibility study, undertaken on behalf of the three Baltic states, showed that a new plant costing €2.5-4 billion would be economically attractive and could be online in 2015.

Amongst the countries of the former Soviet Union, Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan have been mentioned as possibilities for nuclear reactors. Both Belarus and Georgia have poor power generation infrastructure and seek to reduce dependence on Russia. In Kazakhstan, the BN-350 fast reactor at Aktau on the shore of the Caspian Sea successfully produced up to 135MWe of electricity and 80,000m3/day of potable water over some 27 years, until it was closed down in mid 1999. There are proposals for a new nuclear power plant near Lake Balkhash in the south of the country near Almaty.

Turkey has a long history of considering nuclear power but, as yet, no reactors have been built. In August 2006 the government said it planned to have three nuclear power plants with a total of 4500MWe operating by 2012-15. This looks hopelessly over-optimistic but discussions are apparently underway with foreign vendors.

Turning to Asia, the most likely prospects are in Indonesia and Vietnam. Indonesia has been seriously considering nuclear build since the late 1980s and with a huge population of 242 million, is served by power generation capacity of only 21.4GWe. The economy is growing strongly and a low reserve margin with poor power plant availability results in frequent blackouts. It is hoped that the first reactor will come online in the period 2016-18, while it is believed that Korean PWR technology is the favourite to be adopted.

Vietnam has also been looking at the nuclear option for many years and in February 2006, the government announced that a 2000MWe nuclear power plant would be online by 2020. A feasibility study for this is due to be completed in 2008 and formal approval will then be required to open a bidding process with a view to starting construction in 2011 and commissioning in 2017.

Elsewhere in Asia, Malaysia and Thailand are two countries with the level of economic institutional development to suggest that nuclear should be a viable generation option. Both have, in the past, shown little interest in nuclear plants, but a mixture of rapid economic growth and fears about over-dependence on natural gas in the generation mix is encouraging a new look. Energy plans are being revamped and nuclear may well become part of future strategies.

In South America, Chile is probably the most likely country to join Argentina and Brazil in building nuclear reactors. Economic performance has been the best in the region over the recent past but Chile is heavily dependent on energy imports. In February 2007, the energy ministry announced that it was beginning technical studies into the development of nuclear power.

There are a large number of countries in Africa and the Middle East now showing interest in nuclear power, but it is wise to be cautious in evaluating their plans. In some cases such as Egypt and Morocco, the desalination of seawater is an important objective as well as power generation.

The size and stability of local electricity grids is a major issue in many developing countries, especially as reactor designs are getting progressively bigger, to 1500MWe and beyond. The PBMR being developed in South Africa would be very suitable for much smaller grids, as it is planned at 170MWe, but is unlikely to be generally available before 2015.

Another issue is the ability of such countries to regulate nuclear power in an appropriate manner and to put in place sound waste management and decommissioning policies.

Finally, there are concerns that some countries may be considering nuclear power to assist in a clandestine weapons plan, which Iran is being accused of.

Ultimately it seems rather unlikely many of these countries will obtain power reactors before the longer-term future of nuclear is decided in the more developed nations. Unless the USA and some European nations, such as the UK, start building new reactors again, to prevent the nuclear share in electricity supply falling sharply, it is hard to see many developing countries doing so. So if the ‘nuclear renaissance’ is to demonstrate real substance and not evaporate in a cloud of hot air, it is essential that new reactor orders be achieved very soon in the leading nuclear nations.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head 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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