End of an era

9 June 2022

Caroline Peachey reflects on the change in the nuclear industry during her time as editor of NEI.

In some ways, the nuclear industry is in the same position as it was when I started in mid-2008. In others it has changed massively.

On my first day, I attended a nuclear new-build conference in London and was spurred on by talk of a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in Europe. Shortly afterwards the British government launched a consultation on the process to select sites for new nuclear build in England and Wales by the end of 2025. The mood, or so I was told, had shifted significantly since the turn of the millennium and nuclear energy was — once again — back on the agenda. Across the Atlantic, combined operating licence applications were being reviewed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for about a dozen reactors at eight sites and Westinghouse and The Shaw Group had inked EPC contracts for new AP1000 units at Vogtle and VC Summer. Industry was talking about ‘fleet’ construction again – something that had been off the table since the 1980s, following accidents at TMI and Chernobyl.

Unfortunately, none of these projects have yet come to fruition. Hinkley Point C is still several years away, and Vogtle 3&4 won’t come online until the end of next year at the earliest.

The accident at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan in March 2011 certainly had an impact. It prompted Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power and other countries to pause and reassess their new-build programmes. It also led to additional safety reviews at operating plants around the world and revisions to Generation III reactor designs planned or under construction. 

But, regardless of the reasons, the licensing, permitting and construction of large reactors is simply taking far too long in Western countries. Large reactors can and must be built more quickly - as China, Russia and South Korea have all demonstrated both at home and overseas. The industry needs to take on board the lessons from past projects, whatever technologies it pursues in future.

At an event I attended towards the end of last year, there was a similar buzz in the room. I was told by delegates there that the mood is “different” this time. Yes, the drive for low-carbon technologies and for energy security are fairly high on the agenda in most counties. But while the industry is now looking to small modular reactors and advanced technologies — which require less capital investment per unit, are easier to site, and have potential to offer products beyond electricity – some fundamental issues remain the same. In essence, outside of China and Russia, the industry has not demonstrated that it can build nuclear plants in the numbers that are needed to secure a future for nuclear power. Whether small reactors or large plants, the sector needs to prove that it can deliver. I hope that there is a promising future, but for me it’s not signed and sealed until it’s delivered.

It’s worth briefly reflecting on change in other areas over the past decade, or so. Decommissioning now seems more of a priority. This is vital to secure public buy-in for nuclear power. The sector has started embracing robotics, digital twins, AI and other modern tools and this is enabling site clean-up much faster. New contracting models are incentivising companies to do this as well. And there have been some excellent examples of cross-sector collaboration and innovation.

In fusion, too, there has been significant investment and some progress. Fusion power is likely still decades away, but there is promise from new designs that simply didn’t seem possible several years ago. Fusion, it seems, has more potential on a smaller scale. I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Dr Bernard Bigot, director general of the ITER Organization who led and shaped the project over the past seven years. A hugely challenging scientific experiment involving half of the world’s population, I’ve been fortunate to visit the ITER site a couple of times and have seen some real progress – albeit in construction.

Unfortunately, despite 14 years reporting on this sector I’ve not had the opportunity to see many projects moving from construction to operation. The projects that did were all located in China, India, Russia or South Korea, or were reactors exported by one of these countries. 

In fact, according to the IAEA’s PRIS database, just three reactors started operating outside of this category. Two - Atucha 2 in Argentina in 2014 and Watts Bar 2 in the USA in 2016 - were projects that had been paused following the Chernobyl accident and were subsequently revived. The third was the Olkiluoto 3 EPR project in Finland, which started construction in August 2005 and was connected to the grid in March 2022. Yes, it was a FOAK design, one of the first nuclear construction projects in decades and faced unprecedented challenges. But 17 years ago it was seen as the first of many. Several large new reactors have been built, but the sector hasn’t benefited from standardisation and fleet mode construction that was promised. Whatever the technology choice or size of reactor going forward it is imperative that these lessons are learned.

Image: Caroline Peachey was editor of Nuclear Engineering International magazine until mid-May 2022

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