Nuclear delivers a stronger tomorrow

24 September 2020

Agneta Rising and John Lindberg give an overview of the World Nuclear Association’s latest reports on nuclear power

TO SAY THAT THE SPRING and summer of 2020 has been unlike many others seems hardly a revolutionary statement. The global coronavirus pandemic has had profound impacts on societies around the world, both socially and economically. It has also offered an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we value the most. Over the past few months, many communities around the world have been enjoying the benefits of significantly cleaner air, with some cities seeing blue skies for the first time in decades.

In many countries it has prompted reviews by governments of how best to build stronger, cleaner and more resilient societies. Whilst the pandemic has done great damage, with appropriate policy responses it may provide a unique opportunity to build a genuinely sustainable world.

We need electricity that is clean, reliable and affordable, as no one should have to choose between essentials like heating or eating. We need a power source that can not only help us mitigate the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, but that can also help bring the enormous socio-economic benefits of a reliable electricity supply to the corners of the world that do not have access to it. Nuclear power has a proven track record of delivering such a transformation and is the best option to continue this journey towards true sustainability.

Ensuring the operation beyond the original licence period or expected period of operation of reactors – ‘long-term operation’ – allows reactors to generate reliable, low-cost and clean electricity for many years longer than originally planned, and maximising the value they provide to society.

In June, the World Nuclear Association’s Long-term Operation Task Force released its report — The Enduring Value of Nuclear Energy Assets.

This report calls on governments to:

  • Invest in basic education and higher-level academic institutions and training programmes to ensure that there is a skilled pool of workers.
  • Develop an industrial strategy so that the supply chain is in place.
  • Reform markets so that they value the non-power benefits of nuclear alongside other clean energy technologies.
  • Ensure that, in those countries where public participation for long-term operation (LTO) is a requirement, the process is transparent and that stakeholders are provided with fact-based information not only on safety and environment risks but also on socio-economic benefits.

There is a growing international consensus that long-term operation for existing nuclear reactors is amongst the cheapest — if not the cheapest — way to generate electricity. It is expected that this will remain the case for decades to come, highlighting that long-term operation of nuclear plants reduces energy costs and helps to protect the environment as part of a clean and resilient energy strategy.

Most of the world’s fleet is technically capable of LTO. Where nuclear plants have had to close in recent years, this has normally been to do with political factors, or else market failure, but not because of technical limitations of the reactor. With climate change now an urgent global issue, countries cannot afford to retire reliable, low-carbon energy generators that support the entire electricity system.

The reports concluded that it is not enough for policymakers to simply legally allow LTO; they need to remain actively supportive of their country’s nuclear sectors and ensure policy continuity. They should invest in the necessary infrastructure — providing resources for education and training, implementing an industrial strategy and redesigning energy markets to recognise the benefits nuclear energy brings. With the help of governments, existing nuclear plants will play a larger role in helping to reduce emissions, lower energy bills and keep the lights on than previously envisioned.

In early July, the World Nuclear Association also published Building a Stronger Tomorrow: Nuclear power
in the post-pandemic world. This white paper outlines the important role played by nuclear energy today and calls upon policymakers to:

  • Consider nuclear and its socio-economic, environmental and public health benefits in any energy transition plan, and enact policies to ensure the realisation of the many benefits of nuclear energy.
  • Speed up construction of the 108 reactors which are already planned by governments, and ensure the long- time operation of the 290 reactors which have been operational for 30+ years.
  • Unlock finance by providing frameworks that will drive investment and provide better value for consumers.

Since its very inception, nuclear energy has been a pillar of stability to not only its local communities, but also to the countries it serves, providing clean electricity round the clock, irrespective of weather and seasons. Nuclear energy remains the only low-carbon and clean energy source which can provide uninterrupted and affordable electricity, which should make it a cornerstone in any energy security plan.

The report also highlights that nuclear power provides the essential services required to keep a stable transmission system and it will play a critical role in maintaining electricity grid stability and resilience as part of a low carbon system. This sentiment was echoed by the International Energy Agency in its report on sustainable recovery, which concluded that extending the operation of existing nuclear reactors “would improve electricity security by lowering the risk of outages, boosting flexibility, reducing losses and helping integrate larger shares of variable renewables such as wind and solar PV.” The value of nuclear resilience was also highlighted in Sweden earlier this summer, where the grid operator contracted Ringhals 1 to restart early, in response to a prevailing grid instability caused primarily by the lack of dispatchable electricity and transmission bottlenecks.

The report also highlights that there should be considerable focus on delivering the best value for money regarding public spending in the wake of the pandemic. It is crucial that this also applies to our energy system, and that investments made today are genuinely sustainable and represent good value in both the short- and long-term. A higher share of nuclear energy means lower generation costs and system costs and decreases the price of electricity for the consumer — ensuring a socially and environmentally just transition to a cleaner future.

Investment in nuclear stimulates the economy beyond the nuclear industry and delivers widespread economic growth.

Every euro spent in the European nuclear industry generates an additional 4 euros in the European economy and creates benefits for every European household. In the USA, each dollar spent by an average nuclear power plant during one year of operation is estimated to generate an additional $4 in the country’s economy. Investing in nuclear energy is also a very good way to create a large number of jobs. For instance, every direct job created in the nuclear industry creates an additional 3.2 jobs in the European economy, as shown in a recent Deloitte/Foratom study. Equally, nuclear new build projects uniquely provide a significant number of jobs to local and regional economies, as well as creating or strengthening national construction and technology capabilities.

In order to be able to build a more sustainable and equitable future for everyone around the world, we need greater ambition. We must go beyond the announced national plans and commitments. We, the nuclear industry, must stand ready to continue to serve its local communities — like we have for decades — showing that nuclear reactors are truly the clean energy backbone we all can rely on, come what may.

Equally important, we must seize this opportunity. As Albert Einstein once said, “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”. The pandemic recovery has presented a window of opportunity for governments not only to boost economic growth and create many highly valued and largely local jobs, but also to fulfil climate change commitments and build a clean and resilient system. With timely investments in existing and new nuclear reactors, we can deliver a cleaner, fairer, more ambitious and truly sustainable tomorrow.

Author information: Agneta Rising, Director General, World Nuclear Association; John Lindberg, Public Affairs Manager, World Nuclear Association

Understanding the causes of premature reactor closures can help secure long-term operation of existing nuclear plants (Source: WNA)

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