Re-energising a nuclear supply chain that’s fit for the future

7 September 2023

Decades of stagnation in the nuclear development pipeline have led to a weakened global supply chain. This must be addressed with far greater urgency if we are to meet our climate, security and cost requirements.

Climate change and energy security are two of the key drivers that are energising renewed interest in nuclear power. Governments, industrial interests, and even private investors are all looking at nuclear in ways that have not been in evidence for many, many years, if ever. And this focus isn’t just on the more traditional gigawatt-scale endeavours but also a new generation of smaller advanced reactors that are opening up novel applications and opportunities for nuclear deployment.

However, this growing interest, while clearly positive, must also be tempered with the challenge of developing a supply chain that can meet market demands now and in the future. The commercial operation of Vogtle 3 is a welcome break in a development drought for the United States that has lasted some 30 years. In Canada Darlington 4 was the last reactor to be connected to the grid, in 1993. Over the Atlantic in Europe things are hardly any better. In the UK, for example, Hinkley Point C will be the first new reactor to be built since Sizewell B began construction in 1987. Certainly, other nations and regions, notably Asia and the Middle East, have had more sustained successes of late. But it’s clear that, for the West at least, much
work needs to be done to build the necessary skills, manufacturing capacity and related services if a new generation of nuclear power is to emerge. Or at least emerge in any timely way across all the various facets of the nuclear lifecycle and both at the scale needed to meet our energy ambitions and at an economically sustainable cost for consumers.

In its newly released 5th edition of the World Nuclear Supply Chain, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) highlights these issues with a market view of the opportunities and challenges. Focusing on structures, systems, components and services, their analysis puts forward a series of recommendations that they believe can support optimisation of the global supply chain to develop the required resilience, competitiveness and efficiency.

It’s perhaps no surprise that among the trade body’s recommendations is the suggestion that governments and the nuclear industry work together to prioritise supply chain sustainability and agility with measures that include long-term policy support for nuclear infrastructure and which can provide incentives for investment.

They also predictably call for more streamlined processes when it comes to licensing nuclear power plants. This is particularly important when considering the development of fleets of more standardised reactors that are to be installed across multiple jurisdictions, they say, noting that technical requirements should be harmonised through better collaboration that ensures licensing and supply chain oversight is streamlined.

More significantly, and in the short term more likely, they call for simplified procurement models that give suppliers better view of tenders that can help them participate. Standardised procurement frameworks and more cooperative contracting models are key here and the WNA also argues that recent nuclear power plant projects could be used as a baseline for developing a stronger supply chain by developing appropriate codes of conduct and establishing best practice. Collaboration between government and the private sector and between different parts of the supply chain are also necessary to ramp up sufficient capacity.

Research and innovation programmes that support newer technologies like robotics, AI, and advanced manufacturing will likely have a big impact on the development of a fit for purpose global supply chain too.

There’s really no doubt that rapid nuclear expansion is needed if we are to meet our global goals for a net-zero energy system, together with long-term energy security, and affordability. That requires sustained and coordinated investment in the nuclear supply chain and recognising that is the most important step.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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