Top nuclear power stories of 2019

6 January 2020

Summary of the top nuclear power stories of 2019, from the startup of the world's first floating nuclear power plant to decommissioning progress at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Global net nuclear-generating capacity stood at 392.4GWe at the end of 2019, down slightly on 2018, according to data from the World Nuclear Association. In all nine reactors were retired, six started operation and construction begun on three new units.

The past 12 months have also seen new recognition of the role nuclear power can play in mitigating climate change as well as an increased focus on the development of small modular reactors.

The decade-long project to build a new shelter over the destroyed Chernobyl reactor 4 has been completed and handed over to Ukraine. Japan has revised its plans for decommissioning the damaged reactors at Fukushima.

Nuclear power: stops and starts of 2019

South Korea's WolsongNine reactors were permanently closed in 2019: Bilibino 1 (Russia), Chinshan 2 (Taiwan), Genkai 2 (Japan), Mühleberg  (Switzerland), Philippsburg 2 (Germany), Pilgrim (USA), Ringhals 2 (Sweden), Three Mile Island 1 (USA), and Wolsong 1 (South Korea).

Meanwhile, six reactors were connected to the grid, including the world's first floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov, which started producing electricity on 19 December.

Construction began on three new reactors: Russia's Kursk II-2 (VVER-TOI); China's Zhangzhou 1 (HPR1000); and Iran's Bushehr 2 (VVER-1000).

Recognition of nuclear's role in mitigating climate change

2019 saw widespread recognition of the role that nuclear power can play in the mitigation of climate change.

In May, a flagship International Energy Agency (IEA) report, warned that a decline in nuclear energy capacity would threaten climate goals and supply security unless advanced economies find a way to extend the operating lives of their reactors.

The International Atomic Energy Agency also hosted its first Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power, which drew 550 participants from 79 countries, and 18 international organisations.

In November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on COP25 recognising the role nuclear energy can play in meeting climate objectives.  

The new IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi told COP25 in Madrid that greater use of low-carbon nuclear power is needed to ensure the global transition to clean energy, including to back up variable renewables such as solar and wind.  Grossi from Argentina was elected as IAEA director general in October following the death of Yukiya Amano in July.

New roadmap for Fukushima decommissioning

Japan in December revised the road map for decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Although decommissioning is complicated by high radiation and other risks, the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) still aim for completion within 30-40 years.

According to the new roadmap, removal of the used fuel assemblies from the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 will begin sometime in 2027-2028 and at unit 2 in 2024-2026. The process of removing the fuel had previously been due to start in fiscal 2023. Work is already underway at unit 3.  

The most difficult task, removal of some 880t of molten fuel from the three reactors, is scheduled to begin in 2021.

Tepco also faces ongoing problems in managing 1.2 million tons of treated water, which still contains radioactive tritium, stored in more than 950 tanks at the plant. Contaminated water generated by cooling the melted reactor cores is still is increasing by 170 cubic metres daily.


Further delays for European EPRs

Olkiluoto 3 nuclear plant (credit: TVO)Commissioning of the Olkiluoto 3 EPR in Finland has been pushed back to March 2021 by suppliers France’s Areva and Germany’s Siemens, plant operator TVO said in December. Regular electricity production was previously scheduled to start in September 2020.

Construction of Olkiluoto 3 began in 2005, with completion initially scheduled for 2009.


The EPR at unit 3 of France’s Flamanville nuclear plant was also further delayed. EDF said in July FL3 would not be ready before the end of 2022, pushing back the date by three years because of ongoing problems with weldings.

Construction of the Flamanville 3 EPR began in 2007 and was initially due for completion in 2012.

Race continues to develop accident-tolerant fuel (ATF)

Accident-tolerant fuel designs are in development in Europe, Japan, the USA, Russia and China.  Framatome, Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF) and Westinghouse are working with the US Department of Energy (DOE) to commercialise ATF concepts by 2025.

The first Framatome ATF assemblies containing both modified cladding and pellets were loaded into Vogtle 2 in April. Westinghouse and Exelon Generation Company began testing ATF EnCore Fuel at Byron 2 in September. Global Nuclear Fuels (GNF) installed lead test assemblies of accident-tolerant fuel at the Hatch nuclear plant back in 2018.

In December, the first fuel assemblies for VVER-1000 reactors containing experimental ATF rods manufactured at Russia’s Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant passed acceptance tests. Russian fuel company Tvel plans to load the fuel assemblies into one of the reactors at the Rostov in the first quarter of 2020.

China General Nuclear (CGN) started irradiation testing of a prototype ATF rod in the China Mianyang Research Reactor at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Sichuan Province in January.

ATF generally involves either a chromium-plated zirconium alloy or a chrome-nickel alloy cladding and fuel pellets with higher density.  

Institutional support grows for SMRs

Oklo's Small modular reactorInstitutional support for small modular reactors (SMRs) increased in 2019, especially in Canada, the USA and the UK.

In Canada, Saskatchewan’s Growth Plan: the Next Decade of Growth 2020-2030, released in November, included the development of small modular reactor technology. The province expects to have its first operational SMR by the middle of the 2030s.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) in July announced the launch of the Canadian Nuclear Research Initiative (CNRI), to enable research and development to accelerate the deployment of SMRs in Canada. CNL aims to site an SMR at one of its locations by 2026 and has received expressions of interest from 19 technology developers. These include the U-Battery consortium, led by enrichment company Urenco, StarCore Nuclear, Global First Power (GFP) and US-based Terrestrial Energy.

GFP's design has entered the third phase, which includes preliminary discussions on land arrangements. GFP and its partners have submitted an application to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) in April to prepare a site, the first SMR licence application ever received by CNSC.

In the USA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced in December that it had approved an Early Site Permit for the Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In December, the US Department of Energy Department granted compact fast reactor developer Oklo a permit to build an SMR with integrated solar panels at the Idaho National Laboratory.

In the UK, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales in November published new Generic Design Assessment (GDA) guidance which takes into account the potential for SMR designs to enter GDA in the future. Also in November, UK Research and Innovation confirmed it had provided initial match funding to a consortium led by Rolls-Royce, which is designing an SMR for the UK.

Chernobyl New Safe Confinement completed

The Chernobyl New Safe Confinement (NSC), a multinational project to construct a new radiation cover over the destroyed reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, was completed in April.

A conceptual design for the NSC was finalised in 2001, and construction began in 2011. The vast arch structure was erected away from the sarcophagus to reduce radiation exposure to workers and was moved into place in November 2016.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said the NSC would “protect the environment from further releases of radioactive materials and enable the long-term safe and secure deconstruction of the old shelter and the destroyed reactor, as well as the removal of the radioactive inventory”.  The NSC has a 100-year design life.

The NSC project was supported by over 45 donor nations as well as funds from the EBRD. It cost in excess of €2.1 billion, representing the most significant international collaboration ever in the field of nuclear safety.


Terrestrial Energy’s integral molten salt reactor Terrestrial Energy’s integral molten salt reactor
The Chernobyl New Safe Confinement was completed in 2019 The Chernobyl New Safe Confinement was completed in 2019
IAEA director general Rafael Grossi addressed COP25 in December (Photo: IAEA)
Accident tolerant fuel was loaded at Vogtle 2 in 2019 (Credit: Southern Nuclear)
Akademik Lomonosov was connected to the grid in December (Photo credit: Nikita Gradin / Baltic Plant)

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