THE ROLE OF NUCLEAR ENERGY in combating climate change was inevitably a core topic of conversation at the World Nuclear Symposium. Agneta Rising, director general of the World Nuclear Association, opened the Symposium by setting out the importance of energy as “the essential agent for promoting human development”, and that “securing access to modern and affordable energy is essential for lifting people out of poverty, and for promoting energy independence and economic growth”.

She pointed out the need to remind policymakers around the world that nuclear reactors “are the low- carbon backbone of electricity systems, operating in the background, day in and day out, often out of sight and out of mind”, dubbing them “the silent giants” – a nod to the WNA’s latest white paper, ‘The Silent Giant: the need for nuclear in a clean energy system’ launched at the World Energy Congress shortly after the Symposium.

This notion was backed by Magnus Hall, the CEO of Vattenfall, who was unequivocal on the role of nuclear in climate change mitigation. He said “we must include nuclear. If we take nuclear away there is no solution”. However, he also stressed the issues around cost and said, “we currently have a situation where the cost of constructing a new reactor ends up being two or three times as much as the initial calculation. That cannot go on”.

Sama Bilbao y Leon, from the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), picked up on some of these themes, and concluded that “if we are serious about achieving decarbonisation goals, we need to optimise all low-carbon technologies and we need a level playing field”. This ties in with the WNA’s Harmony Programme, which calls for a level playing field in electricity markets to reflect the societal values generated by nuclear energy.

As part of its Harmony Programme WNA has set a target to build an additional 1000GWe of reactors across the world by 2050 at the latest, bringing the global share of electricity production of nuclear to at least 25%.

Improving innovation

Beyond climate change, the perennial topic of innovation was once more a key topic of discussion during the symposium. A number of different sessions were either dedicated to this important issue, or featured it heavily, with topics ranging from updates on specific projects (eg NuScale’s light-water SMR) to policies and approaches generally required to stimulate innovation. In the final panel session of the Symposium, everything from Rosatom’s floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov to a range of different innovative reactor designs were discussed.

Bernard Salha, chief technical officer at EDF and one of the speakers, stated that the nuclear industry, “needs to become much more innovative than it is. The global energy mix is changing”, a sentiment supported by Chris Levesque, the president and CEO of Terrapower, who concluded that “nuclear has all this technology which hasn’t been employed yet. We need to demonstrate it now.”

At the Symposium, the World Nuclear Association’s director general Agneta Rising and the director-general of the OCED Nuclear Energy Agency William Magwood IV signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a new partnership between the two organisations, aimed at sharing best practices and co-operating in supporting the wider understanding of nuclear energy and its development. After the signing, Magwood said:

“Industry is often the major implementer of national energy policies and has the most relevant and comprehensive information about many vital aspects of those policies. This MoU will help the NEA gain important insights from industry”.

Positive outlook for uranium, but potential storm clouds ahead

The new edition of the World Nuclear Association’s biennial report on nuclear fuel was launched at the Symposium, attracting significant interest from across the world of uranium mining, nuclear energy and beyond.

At the launch, James Nevling, senior manager of Exelon Generation’s Nuclear Fuels department, put the principal reasons for this renewed optimism down to extended operating lifetimes, particularly in the USA, where the prospect of 80 years of operation is looking more likely, in addition to longer operating lifetimes assumed in France and some other European countries. He also highlighted the projections for fast neutron reactors in Russia, China and India; increased confidence in plans for newcomer countries; and the stronger the programme in India, which appears to be “more realistic and less theoretical than it did some years ago,” according to Nevling.

There is vastly more uranium in the ground than is needed to satisfy even the most optimistic of scenarios for nuclear growth. Uranium resources are therefore “unlikely to be a limiting factor for the expansion of nuclear programmes,” the 2019 edition of the Fuel Report states. Nevertheless, given the recent production cuts in uranium mining — most notably when Cameco last year suspended production at its McArthur River mine in Canada and Kazatomprom’s reduction in planned production — there is greater concern over whether supply will be able to pick up once demand increases. Speaking at the launch, Riaz Rizvi, Kazatomprom chief strategy and marketing officer, said that the recent spending cutbacks in the mining sector would have “a fundamental impact on our ability as an industry to ramp back up.” He added: “I’m not worried about whether there will or won’t be uranium in the long run, but I think there could be some turbulent years in the not too distant future.”

The 2019 Fuel Report – key findings

For the first time in eight years, projections for nuclear generating capacity growth in all three scenarios (Lower, Reference and Upper) of The Nuclear Fuel Report: Global Scenarios for Demand and Supply Availability 2019-2040 show an increase over the forecast period. Although the Lower Scenario’s figure of 402GWe of nuclear capacity is only a few gigawatts above the mid-2019 level of 398GWe, this scenario has seen the most significant increase in long-term capacity projections compared with the previous (2017) edition of the report. For the Reference and Upper Scenarios, global nuclear capacities are expected to rise to 569GWe and 776GWe, respectively, by 2040.

The report expects uranium production volumes to remain fairly stable until the late 2020s, and then decrease by 30% in the last five years of the forecasting period (2035-2040) as production comes to an end at many mines, as seen below:

2030 – Reference case = 66,400 tU; Higher case = 71,500 tU; Lower case = 51,700 tU

2040 – Reference case = 48,100 tU; Higher case = 49,400 tU; Lower case = 29,700 tU

Currently, production from mines is significantly below reactor requirements. More than 67,200t of uranium (tU) was needed to fuel the 369GWe of global nuclear capacity in 2018, whereas just under 53,500t was produced in that year – a drop in production of over 8700t since 2016. The shortfall between primary production and reactor requirements is covered by secondary supply, particularly commercial fuel inventories. Over the coming years, the Fuel Report expects secondary supply to gradually diminish to around 5000-7000t/ year from the beginning of the 2030s.

By 2040 uranium requirements are projected to be 70,500t, 100,000t and 137,600t in the Lower, Reference and Upper Scenarios, respectively. The industry would in that case have to at least double its infrastructure of current, idled, under development, planned and prospective projects by 2040. However, the Fuel Report states that: “The issue remains that, due to current oversupply and associated low market prices, very few participants are able or willing to begin investing to convert these resources into reserves and ultimately into mines to keep the market in balance. Some state-owned strategic developments are proceeding, but there continues to be a lack of long-term fixed-price contracts, which are needed to underpin new projects controlled by market-based companies.”

Main Image: The World Nuclear Association’s 2019 Fuel Report was discussed by a panel

All photos: World Nuclear Association