Nuclear today – how much better than a decade ago?

9 March 2010

As we enter a new decade, it is interesting to review the progress that nuclear power has made over the first ten years of the new millennium. Talk of a nuclear renaissance has become increasingly common in popular discussion, but opponents of the industry argue that this is mainly hype lacking in real substance. So what has changed since the year 2000?

It can be argued that all the fireworks going off at midnight on 31st December 1999 were marking the nadir of nuclear’s fortunes. But they also marked the entry, at last, into a happier period of renewed growth. Things were definitely bad in the industry at that time, as participants then will easily recall. There was a mood of pessimism surrounding all industry meetings due to the overwhelming feeling that nuclear was suffering a prolonged, lingering and unpleasant death. Electricity market liberalisation was widely seen as a final nail in its coffin, with the general expectation that half of over 100 US operating nuclear reactors would soon shut down and that this trend would subsequently spread to other countries. There were also very few new reactors actively under construction at this time, while most of these had been delayed extensively owing to political interference or other awkward issues.

A decade ago, the nuclear fuel sector had suffered from low uranium prices for many years, with only the lowest-cost mines able to survive, while supply infrastructure in the whole of the fuel cycle was looking clapped out and in urgent need of replacement. Despite occasional voices to the contrary, nuclear was generally regarded as an uneconomic option for generating large quantities of electricity. It also suffered from difficult issues over safety, waste management and possible weapons proliferation. Although concerns over greenhouse gas emissions were already rising, nuclear was seldom mentioned in the same breath as a conceivable mitigation technology. The perception was that it was also deeply unpopular with the general public, who would veto the plans of any politician foolish enough to propose it.

It is clear that a lot has changed and in a relatively short period of time. The most obvious sign of this is the increased mentions of nuclear power in the mass media and often with a generally positive slant. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) monitors this very closely and setting up World Nuclear News (WNN) as a service free of charge to all was an important initiative, satisfying the need from media outlets around the world for sound information and informed comment. WNA also closely monitors the internet traffic to its website information papers [] and can measure the increased interest in all aspects of nuclear, extending well beyond power applications to the wider and often less well-known ones in medicine, agriculture and industry.

A very important element has been public statements from respected third party advocates for nuclear, many of whom were previously either strongly opposed or seen as agnostic. Some of these come from the environmental movement, notably Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace. But the support of James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a self-regulating organism, has been particularly important. He is regarded as a hero by many of the younger generation of scientists who one might otherwise have expected to follow the anti-nuclear bandwagon prevalent in the 1980s and 90s.

To the extent that public opinion can be measured, it is clear that there has been a turnaround in favour of nuclear in key countries. Public consent is now unlikely to be withheld from new reactor plans in many countries. Although public opposition to nuclear remains an important issue in some places, notably in Germany and other European countries, the new government there and reversal of nuclear phase-out policies in Sweden and Belgium indicate that things are improving. The industry has recognised that it has to bring the general public along with its plans via an in-depth dialogue. It accepts that concerns over safety, waste and non-proliferation will continue to impose a strict regulatory regime on the industry and that this is necessary, despite it costing a great deal of valuable time and money.

So far as the anti-nuclear movement is concerned, it is looking increasingly marginalised. It varies in strength from country to country but is now coordinated by only a few university departments and NGOs, now more commonly directing their fire at coal and the other fossil fuels rather than nuclear. Its arguments against the industry, which formerly achieved a good deal of traction, are increasingly becoming seen as rather threadbare. Those cases are sourced from groups opposed to wider developments in the global economy and society as a whole, rather to nuclear power in isolation.

To put the opposite point of view, is all of this argument no more than a lot of hype, led by the entrenched, self-interested elements within the nuclear industry? It can, after all, be pointed out that very few new reactors have started up so far in the new millennium, no more than a few per year around the world, and that these have been balanced, numerically if not in generating capacity, by similar numbers closing down. And also that this position is not going to change very quickly over the next period, as there are relatively few new reactors under construction and nearing commissioning. Indeed, many of the 436 reactors in operation are now relatively old, with their peak construction period in the late 1970s and 1980s, and could conceivably close over the next decades. These arguments were examined and refuted [NEI November 2009 pp12-13], but have a superficial attraction for the ill-informed. It can also be pointed out that some issues, clearly negative for the industry, have arguably increased in significance over the past decade. For example, the possible links between the civil and military sides of nuclear, with the need to ensure a strict world non-proliferation regime, have been reinforced by North Korean and the Iranian cases, to which endless column inches and analyses have been devoted.

“Arguments about whether nuclear is sustainable, renewable or
whatever are increasingly arcane. The time for intellectual
debates over definitions needs to end and action needs to be taken. The time lags involved in nuclear construction are an argument for proceeding as quickly as possible”

It is therefore important to see what has really changed in the industry’s favour. The foundations are essentially threefold – the industry’s own performance, greenhouse gas emissions and energy security of supply.

The economics of nuclear power are still a question of great debate, particularly with regard to new reactors. Industry opponents never tire of pointing out that the capital investment costs per kW installed of new nuclear reactors have increased sharply over time, in contrast to what one might reasonably expect with a very mature technology. Solving this issue may prove to be the industry’s greatest challenge over the next decade, notably by using modular construction techniques to build a high volume of standardised reactors. What is unchallengeable, however, is that the current stock of reactors generates electricity very cheaply and earns significant profits for their owners, irrespective of the power market, liberalised or regulated.

The foundation of better economics has been a much improved reactor operating performance indicated by improved capacity factors, together with the higher costs of generating power from fossil fuels. The industry readily accepts that previous reactor performance was poor, but capacity factors of 90% and above are now the norm. This has not, however, been at the expense of safety. The last decade has thankfully been free of any major incidents involving loss of life. That this contrasts markedly with the performance of the fossil fuel sector, notably in coal mining, is increasingly pointed out. The attention paid to safety and the underlying plant operating performance through establishing WANO and other initiatives has paid off handsomely, and nuclear plant safety is today arguably of much lower concern to the general public. It is now over 20 years since the Chernobyl accident and 30 years since Three Mile Island, so a whole new generation of young voters has grown up with no direct memory of major nuclear incidents.

It is also unarguable that concerns over climate change and the perceived need to moderate greenhouse gas emissions has worked strongly in the industry’s favour. At the very least, it has opened an opportunity for nuclear as a viable mitigation technology. It certainly underlies the conversion of prominent but previously nuclear-agnostic politicians like the UK’s Tony Blair to nuclear. The Copenhagen Summit may have been disappointing for those seeking concrete measures to curtail greenhouse gas emissions but a cold winter in Western Europe is not going suddenly to prompt attention away from this issue. The pressure for the world to bring in emissions trading regimes, to impose carbon taxes or to find other means of encouraging the adoption of clean energy technologies is not going to go away. Ending the use of fossil fuels for energy production by 2050 is now often expressed as an important but achievable objective. It is difficult to see this being achieved without recourse to a large-scale low carbon technology such as nuclear, which is also technically well-proven. Arguments about whether nuclear is sustainable, renewable or whatever are increasingly arcane. The time for intellectual debates over definitions needs to end and action needs to be taken. The time lags involved in building lots of nuclear reactors are not in any way a negative, but an argument for proceeding as quickly as possible with new plans and speeding up, wherever reasonable, regulatory and public approvals.

The argument for more nuclear power as a means of securing additional energy security of supply has also become important, particularly in those countries who perceive themselves as becoming increasingly reliant on supplies from geopolitically unstable or otherwise unattractive countries. It is important to recall that this was the main argument that prompted both France and Japan, now numbers two and three in world nuclear generation, to go down this path in the 1970s in the aftermath of two oil shocks. There is also clearly an economic dimension to supply security, given the widespread fear of rapidly-escalating fossil fuel prices. By contrast, costs of nuclear generation – despite the recent rise in world uranium prices – have always been relatively stable. There is now a realisation that countries today should try to ensure some balance in their energy strategies and that reliance on one particular solution is inadvisable. So the decision to build only gas-powered generation in many countries over the final years of the 20th century was flawed, not only environmentally, but also economically. Energy balance also at least partly explains why countries in the Middle East with strong oil and gas reserves are looking seriously at nuclear power (and in the case of the United Arab Emirates, already ordering reactors).

The final proof of whether the nuclear renaissance is hype or reality will come over the next decade. If it doesn’t happen in substance by 2020, it is unlikely ever to occur and we may quickly return to the 2000 situation

with all the ‘doom and gloom’ psychology. The signs of success are, however, looking increasingly positive. China now has over 20 reactors under construction out of a world total of over 50. India seems set to follow and these two huge developing countries, with their seemingly infinite demand for clean electricity, should be the concrete foundations of the new era. What the industry needs now is more and more plant orders in many other countries, precipitating lower unit capital costs and the development of a worldwide supply chain.

The ‘nuclear winter’ may eventually be seen to have lasted for the twenty years from the late 1980s, when the long-term development of an important industry suffered a long and potentially fatal pause. But the bright light has surely eventually returned.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is director of strategy & research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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