If nuclear is to build on its current momentum multiple levers must be pulled by the state, regulators, and the industry. Key to that promise is delivering capacity on time and on budget. Can nuclear achieve the ultimate goal?
In the wake of COP28, the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) further emphasised the importance of nuclear energy in the future energy mix. The Forum outlined multiple compelling reasons for nuclear energy to be included.
Noting the 20,000 reactor years of experience across the world, the Forum stated that nuclear energy has the lowest carbon footprint and needs fewer materials and less land than any other electricity source. Helpfully, they also agree that nuclear is one of the safest forms of generation – they indicate nuclear is about as safe as solar and much safer than coal, gas and oil and almost every other energy source currently available. The organisation also points to the abundance of uranium in the earth’s crust and oceans, the fact that it doesn’t rely on the weather, and the relatively small amount of nuclear waste that is produced. WEF suggests that all spent nuclear fuel ever produced would, in theory, fit into just 42 Olympic-sized swimming pools, for example.
Given nuclear is the cleanest, least environmentally burdensome and ultimately lowest cost form of generation, considering the lifetime of a nuclear plant, then why aren’t they being built every week? Certainly, high profile accidents like Chornobyl and Fukushima Daiichi remain a painful reminder of when things go badly wrong but perhaps more pertinent is the industry still struggling to shed its image. It’s an image that is apparently indelibly associated with cost and delivery overruns. The recent EDF announcement regarding the likelihood of further cost overruns and slipping schedules are a case in point. Despite this, WEF is adamant that three main levers can be pulled in order to triple current investment levels and build the nuclear capacity needed to meet net zero targets. Perhaps most fundamentally, WEF argues that nuclear must be acknowledged for what it does deliver as a reliable, scalable, safe and affordable low-carbon source of energy. Doing so will allow the technology to be treated fairly with respect to investment incentives, they say. Nuclear certainly needs to attract private investment but given the high capital cost risk during the construction phases, there are evidently too much of a challenge for the private sector alone. WEF is calling for governments to help shoulder that burden. Similarly, they recommend providing guaranteed revenues and changing the policies preventing nuclear energy investment by many international financial institutions and development banks. The WEF also turns to regulators, calling for the relevant authorities to build internal capacity able to license new reactor designs more quickly. At the same time, industry has to play its part by stepping up and delivering projects on time and on budget.
Putting these necessary actions in context, AtkinsRe´alis recently published new forecasts of the required annual build rate of new generation to meet UK net zero targets. They conclude that 187 GW of new generating capacity is required for the country to replace ageing power plants and meet the increasing demand associated with greater electrification of transport and industry. Their new analysis predicts that the UK must connect 15.5 GW of new zero- carbon generating capacity each year to 2035 to meet these system goals. In contrast, just 4.5 GW was connected to the UK national grid in 2022. What stands out from this report is that annual new build targets jump every year as every moment of delay loads the rear end, a development that will ultimately make the end goal all but impossible to reach. It’s clear then that for nuclear to play its part will take stupendous effort across multiple areas of both state and the private enterprise sectors. Can nuclear rise to the challenge? The World Economic Forum seems to think so, but part of that task is to ensure that the truth of what nuclear does do well gets out. At the same time, for nuclear to be taken seriously as a key component of the clean energy toolbox, the industry has to make sure that it does everything else better.
By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International