Riding the wave

22 February 2023

The nuclear sector needs to strike now and make the most of the window of opportunity that has been presented to it.

We all think that when a problem gets bad enough, ‘someone will do something’ but in reality that time rarely, if ever, comes.

The nuclear industry has fallen into this complacency trap again and again. For a long time it expected media coverage of climate change rising with global CO2 levels to trigger politicians to realise they needed nuclear.

The industry has also spent too much time waiting for politicians to give renewables a try first, feeling sure that relying on the variable sources would backfire badly enough that nuclear would eventually seem the obvious choice for the world’s political leaders.

Neither of those strategies worked, even though some grids and markets have been strained to breaking point by reliance on variable renewables and ambitious Net Zero pledges have been put in place with no visible means of being achieved.

A third reason policymakers did not turn back to nuclear is that the wind and solar industries grabbed their opportunity and ran with it very successfully. Innovation upon innovation has driven down their costs and they have not allowed themselves to be impeded by even their own shortcomings.

At the end of the day, it is not renewables’ problem to find back up for the days they don’t produce, or for the future time when gas must finally be phased out of the system. They trust that another option will be available by that time. It seems their strategy is to get as far ahead as they can while the political wind is in their favour and let someone else do something to complete the system when the time comes.

Last year, however, one situation did get bad enough for someone to do something. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put energy security, and especially the costs of not having it, on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

With daily media discussion of energy and the skyrocketing costs of gas literally hitting home, nuclear saw its popularity boosted by a few percentage points in polls all around the world. This doesn’t mean that the public and politicians have come to know and understand the role of nuclear power and its unique benefits to society. It just means they have perhaps realised that relying on large volumes of imported fuel is not a good idea, no matter how cheap and convenient it might have been previously. People want politicians to do something and nuclear seems a good bet compared with the status quo of imported gas. Most countries even acted to prevent the marginal costs of electricity – forced sky high by spiking gas costs – from setting consumer electricity rates.

A surge of policy action swept through already pro- nuclear countries such as the USA and the UK, with its energy security strategy and boosted targets. The new government in Sweden has brought a de-facto end to its ambivalence on nuclear and begun turning the country round to enthusiastic new build. The United States is genuinely moving back to the leadership position it always talks about. The UK has doubled down on its long-running new build programme, it’s sector strong again, but making only piecemeal progress.

And to really prove that we did reach the point of action, Germany and Belgium completed arduous political manoeuvres to postpone their nuclear phase out policies. The nuclear advocates who fought for this will now try to wedge their foot in the door to keep the plants for the longer term.

However, the list of things that hasn’t changed for nuclear is rather longer. The phase-out policies remain on the books. It still takes far too long to regulate our technology. There still aren’t enough big investors. The track record for construction of large units is still poor outside of Russia and China, with the notable exception of South Korea and its UAE exports. And there are still no Western small reactors under construction, while Russia and China forge ahead.

Germany’s political effort to keep its last three reactors a few months longer is dwarfed by its efforts on LNG. Early on, Germany declared it would always have enough gas because it would simply outbid everybody else. In the last year Germany has built six floating LNG import terminals and by 2026 it will have installed enough LNG import capacity to replace the pipelines it previously to use to buy the fuel from Russia. Five years to replace more than 50% of supply, from start to finish.

What will European nuclear have actually done by 2026? Perhaps an application to build in Sweden will be in progress. The UK should have reached final investment decisions for Sizewell C plus two other (as yet unknown) projects. Olkiluoto 3 and Mochovce 3 and 4 will be running, as will Flamanville 3 and hopefully the first unit at Hinkley Point C will be operational by then too. New build in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and potentially Slovenia should all be getting underway.

At face value this all adds up to a lot of capacity, but there is nothing in that list that wasn’t actually in progress before Russia’s invasion. If the impetus adds anything to nuclear’s prospects it will manifest on an even later timeframe.

Meanwhile, the price of gas has already stabilised significantly. And when a crisis is over, some people always say, “Look! We got through that problem without any real damage. Perhaps it was never that serious in the first place.” Relaxing again is inevitable simply because it is easier and cheaper.

But even if the gas issue doesn’t go away, other events can overturn our apple cart.

Take the UK, for example. The current push for new build began in 2006 and the government quickly succeeded in getting a range of players interested. But as energy secretary of the time, Lord John Hutton, recalled in a recent FT article, “We missed an opportunity.”

“When we gave the green light to nuclear in 2008 there was a list as long as your arm of major energy companies saying: ‘We have the money, we don’t need government help, we have got strong balance sheets,’” Hutton told the newspaper. Then the financial crisis arrived and swept it all away.

And even after the financial crisis, when the world went through a prolonged period of low interest rates that ended only recently, these were not used to invest in infrastructure, let alone our products.

Nuclear is a very small industry and simply doesn’t have enough friends and allies. When it comes to global events, by sheer probability alone any given event is much less likely to help nuclear than it is to help rivals (or even its enemies).

While we feel good now that nuclear energy is riding a much-deserved wave of public and political support, we have to remember that the opportunity is all too fleeting. This current momentum will have been for naught unless money is allocated, and projects accelerated to the investment stage. The time for action is deceptively short and our gains will only help us if they are banked before times change again. Nuclear must hurry to make its political gains concrete – literally.

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 18 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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