New year, new nuclear industry

27 January 2022

The Unit: Illustration copyright Alexy KovynevJeremy Gordon looks ahead to some of the industry milestones expected in 2022. Will it be a year remembered for more than just Germany’s nuclear phaseout?

When you mention 2022, the first thing on a lot of people’s minds would be the infuriating and senseless closure of Germany’s last reactors — the Greens’ final ‘winning’ move in the phase out that started in 2000 and accelerated in 2011. But that
is by no means the whole story. As that door closes, other doors are opening for a new nuclear energy sector in 2022.

The German closures at the end of this year will be a painful waste of resources and an insult to science. They will result in deadly clouds of pollution that the activist and author Rauli Partanen estimated to amount to some 1 billion tonnes of excess carbon dioxide. But after the last nuclear plants in Germany are closed, there will be nothing much more to lose there. The Greens will have ‘won’ and the industry will have ‘lost’ — that is, if the industry ever really fought at all.

Anti-nuclear advocates will probably focus on forcing Urenco to pack up its enrichment site at Gronau and move the jobs elsewhere. Pro-nuclear advocates will focus on fighting for nuclear in other places where the industry is passively awaiting its own destruction — like Belgium and California.

Nuclear power in South Korea: what does 2022 hold?

Meanwhile, in South Korea we can look forward to the opposite. A presidential election in April will most likely see incumbent Moon Jae-in and his anti-nuclear policies defeated at the ballot box. National newspapers have long been running editorials that point out the very obvious folly of his policy to get rid of Korea’s main source of electricity and his election rivals all are clear about nuclear’s role as a strategic national industry for Korea.

The global nuclear industry is small and can ill afford to lose competent and independent players like South Korea. I eagerly await takeover by a new president who will turn the ship of policy to double down on nuclear — potentially before the end of the year.

After all, there is a more than one good reason that Korea made the effort to build nuclear and master it. Not just to reduce energy imports, which previously ran at over 90%, but also to drive skills and manufacturing and to create resource-efficient, high-value exports. These are still valid goals for any government. 

Korea’s story is almost exactly the same as that of France, which is about six months ahead on its journey of energy self-rediscovery. During 2022 it is likely that President Emmanuel Macron will win re-election in April on the platform he has already set out — to reindustrialise France and base that economy on its nuclear sector. He wants to get back into new build with a batch order of new units and turn some of France’s nuclear capacity towards hydrogen production, potentially making it an energy leader in that area too. 

These are going to add momentum to the global push for nuclear, as France and Korea rejoin the UK and the USA, which are already getting into their stride. The UK will see work get underway on its second new nuclear plant, Sizewell C, and the USA should see the AP1000 at Vogtle 3 finally start up, alongside its small, advanced and space nuclear projects (including a demonstration of Westinghouse’s e-Vinci heat-pipe mobile microreactor).

Yes, we are still missing Japan, but in 2022 the nuclear sector will have a decent group of committed nations providing technology and sponsorship for the first time in more than a decade. They will compete and drive one another forward to provide better products and services, bringing more nations and energy users into our technology community.

As I wrote after the event, COP26 and the European gas crisis created a turning point for the industry. I am not the only one that feels it. 

The data are in: nuclear energy is low-carbon, it is sustainable and it has an important role to play. This is the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Economic Council for Europe, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. The experience is in: renewables are a great way to use less fossil fuels, but they cannot eliminate them completely. People are aware of the urgency of climate issues, they do not want to burn fossil fuels any more, and they are hungry for decisive action. For all its complications, nuclear power fits the bill.

Looking ahead to nuclear new-build in Europe and beyond

In 2022 we will see a lot of progress towards new-build in Europe, besides what I have already mentioned in the UK and France. CEZ of the Czech Republic should select a reactor vendor for Dukovany II and there should be construction licences for Fennovoima’s Hanhikivi project in Finland and Paks II in Hungary. Energoatom of Ukraine is keen to start building AP1000s at Khmelnitsky; Romania’s project to complete two CANDUs at Cernavoda will become tangible; and in Slovakia Mochovce 3&4 should finally start up. Significantly, the most delayed project of them all, Olkiluoto 3, is slated to generate electricity.

In South America, 2022 should see the start of a new-build partnership between Argentina and China, perhaps with a rapid start to a project to construct Atucha 3. In Brazil, work will restart on the stalled completion of Angra 2. Even in Mexico, proposed reform of the electricity market should enable CFE to build up some funds and begin to invest in new capacity, although it has not talked about nuclear yet.

China of course has so many nuclear projects on the go, it is impossible to list them here, but a quick scan of my records shows we can expect construction to start at Tianwan, Bailong, Xudabao, and Zhangshou in 2022, as well as Changjiang 2 which is to be a small ACP100 unit. The country will start up new units at Honyanhe, Fangchenggang, Fuqing and Tianwan as well as at Karachi 3 in Pakistan. 

Russia should start up Kursk-II 1, its first VVER-TOI unit, and will continue its vast range of innovation and export, from the Arctic to Bangladesh to Belarus, where Ostravets 2 is due to start in 2022. In India we await the completion of new reactors at Rajasthan, Kalpakkam, and Kakrapar.

Even in fusion major steps will take place during 2022, as General Fusion begins construction on a demonstration plant at Culham in the UK, while a national programme should select a site for the world first actual fusion power plant: the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production.

Time to present a new face for the nuclear industry?

In the face of this we will surely see contortions from some groups as the big ‘win’ of the German phaseout is overshadowed by nuclear expansion and investment elsewhere. The majority of nations have not followed Germany, because it has not demonstrated a cost-effective path for decarbonisation. 

I expect apoplexy from groups that are unable to understand that being anti-nuclear has actually become a minority position. They would be best ignored as far as possible. The big question is what will the group of silent non-supporters do? Those who would not say they oppose nuclear, but at the same time never do or say a single thing to help or support it. It’s in my nature to meet these on common ground and try to keep them on-side based on nuclear benefits and the data regarding its sustainability. 

We will have to see what new arguments emerge, but I suspect most will rest on two issues: the moral question of whether it is acceptable to pass on radioactive waste to future generations and the exaggerated fear of radiation which underlies that. Make no mistake: these are real questions and real concerns that have to be respected and taken seriously. The hazards posed by radiation may be a matter of science, while moral questions are for society’s collective decision making. But as I noted, a majority of people accept — although they are probably not exactly comfortable with — the risk profile nuclear power presents. These are matters to be discussed in civil society and decided at the ballot box. Elections in France and South Korea ought to give an indication how society feels.

In this emerging new context for nuclear I think it is time to present a new face for the industry — one that is positive, serious, confident and competent — while we log and celebrate every bit of technical progress we are making. Given that only moral arguments remain, let us meet them on equal terms by representing ourselves through the human stories and experiences of the workers, scientists, experts and communities of nuclear energy. 

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 15 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

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