The entire history of nuclear power from the 1950s to today has been dominated by a paradigm of fear. In the first of a two-part series Steve Kidd looks at the need for nuclear in the 21st century and the challenges it is facing.

Nuclear power always seems to be at a crossroads. Despite the mooted "nuclear renaissance" in the early years of this century, its share of global power generation has fallen sharply since then. During the 1990s and the early years of this century it was stable at 16-17% of world electricity, but it has fallen back during the last three years to only 10-11%. Only part of this was due to the Fukushima accident in March 2011, as the share had already fallen sharply before then.

[The unit by Alexey Kovynev: "Stop work! Our plant manager says that we need a paradigm shift!"]

The simple reason is that electricity demand has been growing steadily, but nuclear has been "marking time", with the number of reactors in operation remaining almost constant. Units that have closed, have been replaced by new reactors (notably in China) but no more than that.

Looking forward, despite the many forecasts that point to sustained growth of nuclear, we know that there will be a substantial number of reactor closures. This is mainly because the average age of the reactors already in operation is now approaching 30 years. Licence extensions beyond 40 years are already a reality in some countries but this ageing cannot be ignored. Although limitations on the operating lives of reactors may often be politically imposed rather than safety-driven, they are a reality today (for example in Belgium and Switzerland).

We have learned one thing for certain: it is a lot easier to shut a reactor down than to build a new one. Germany made a sudden political decision to terminate operation of the oldest eight units following Fukushima, and Japan faced the shutdown of all of its reactors. Yet the lights have not gone out in either country. There are alternatives to nuclear for power generation and the competition is getting stiffer. Hence well-researched and articulate critiques against the concept of a nuclear revival (and notably nuclear playing a substantial role in mitigating climate change) such as the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Reports, are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. I critiqued the 2014 edition (September 2014, ‘The world nuclear industry – is it in terminal decline?‘) but the combination of ageing operating reactors and delayed construction, combined with the escalating cost of new units and competition from renewable power technologies, is becoming an increasingly compelling story to any lay reader.

The time is ripe for a sober assessment. The first question is: "Should nuclear power play a more substantial role in the world’s energy mix in the 21st century?" The answer to this is still "yes," so the second part asks, "Is this likely to happen?" The answer, unfortunately, turns out to be a resounding "no", essentially because the industry exists under a paradigm of fear. Finally, the question is posed, "How can this be overcome to shift to a new paradigm, allowing nuclear to play a bigger (and fully justified) role?"

One huge limitation of nuclear as an energy solution is that its sole application is in supplying electricity. There are possible applications in seawater desalination and in process heat, but it is fundamentally as a means of generating large quantities of electricity that nuclear will continue to offer an energy solution, as far as we can reasonably see ahead. This brings with it both good and bad news.

The main good news is that world power demand is set to carry on growing rapidly, as outlined in successive editions of the International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook. So at least nuclear is positioned in a growth market, where energy is increasingly delivered to the customer via electricity. Other good news is that an increasing proportion of the world’s population is living in major urban areas, and this is set to continue. This suggests that there will be a significant and increasing requirement for large scale power generation. This is one reason why coal-fired generation retains a significant role in the IEA’s scenarios to 2040 and beyond, despite the competition from renewable power sources. Their diffuse (and often intermittent) nature makes it difficult to satisfy huge continuous requirements for baseload power in one place. It is not impossible for renewable power to take up 75% or even 100% of power generation in major urban areas, but the costs of doing so are likely to prove prohibitive. So looking ahead for at least the next 30 or so years, there will be a big need for large-scale concentrated power generation.

Another important factor in the future of world electricity is the switch in the balance of demand growth in favour of the developing world. This is neither good nor bad for nuclear. That demand growth will now be slow (or even negative) in many countries where nuclear power is well-established is obviously not so favourable. So in Western Europe and North America, nuclear power’s prospects are definitely constrained by lower electricity demand prospects, as it seeks to take a greater share. Elsewhere in the world, rapid electricity demand growth offers many opportunities. China and India both have huge, urbanising populations and their developing nuclear programmes are currently only satisfying very small shares of overall power demand. In other developing countries, however, it will be challenging to establish nuclear programmes, because of the nature of demand, the available alternatives and the challenges of establishing sound regulatory regimes. The 50 or so African economies, collectively growing more rapidly than before, cannot be regarded as a serious market for nuclear power given the current state of the industry.

The bad news starts with the observation that most of the people working in the nuclear industry forget that the only marketable product is kilowatt hours of power and that there are plenty of competitors in generating it. Nuclear is a business – something that can be forgotten, partly because of the heavy hand of government ownership and control. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed in many different activities from uranium exploration to waste management and plant decommissioning, but all this has to be paid for by billions of units of power, costing maybe 10 cents each. Depending on a single product is not a favourable position for any industrial sector.

Electricity is also very easy to produce. School children manage it in their science lessons, so as well as offering only one product, nuclear is in a very competitive market. Scaling up different types of electricity production into something that can compete with nuclear in a developed country may be very challenging, but necessity is the mother of invention. The substantial investments in energy technology today, including storage and saving, suggest that the nuclear sector must watch its back.

More bad news comes from the substantial changes that are now taking place in electricity systems. I’ve explored these in more detail elsewhere (May 2015, ‘Changes in power systems – are they bad for nuclear?‘, August 2014, ‘UK energy policy – where did liberalisation go?‘ and July 2014, ‘Russia and Germany – new opportunities today?) but the main argument is quite simple. Power market liberalisation combined with the trend to distributed rather than centralised generation make things much more difficult for nuclear power. As power markets are liberalised (and sometimes privatised) it becomes increasingly difficult to invest in any technology which has high upfront capital costs but stable annual returns over the longer term. The arrival of large quantities of intermittent renewable power on the grid, either wind or solar, also poses significant problems for traditional large-scale generation. Wholesale power prices become more volatile and once the renewables share rises above 20% or so there are likely to be periods in which even nuclear stations are required to load follow. This is far from ideal in an economic sense for nuclear – indeed, in Germany, the experience is that even combined cycle gas turbines cannot cope.

It is clear that the overall market for more nuclear plants is very challenging. It is, however, my belief that the case for large-scale centralised power generation will eventually be reconsidered. It may take 20-30 years, but the economic disadvantages of renewables will lead to the rejection of the idea that it can sweep all before it and dominate power markets. My view is that wind and solar will retain an important position in power generation, maybe the most important in many developing countries, but that the importance of back-up from gas to meet peak demands and from nuclear as a stable base load provider will be reasserted.

Nuclear’s unique selling proposition (USP) has always been that it can provide huge quantities of power from a very small initial fuel input, securely and with little environmental impact. In recent times, its low-carbon characteristic has been foolishly overstated by many advocates. There are plenty of strategies for avoiding carbon emissions but nuclear will only succeed where large quantities of concentrated power are required. Promoting a technology mainly on what it doesn’t do is frankly absurd.

In fact, urbanisation is absolutely crucial to the future. If coal is ruled out for environmental reasons, gas not cheaply available and hydro unavailable for geographical reasons, the future still points to nuclear. More major demand nodes suggest that there will still be a significant place for it within the power systems of the future. Its low carbon characteristic is an additional recommendation but not the driving force.

The traditional arguments posed against nuclear look increasingly hollow. Indeed, many former environmentalists have renounced their previous views. The environmental impact of large nuclear stations is essentially trivial, as demonstrated by studies such as the European Commission’s ExternE project. Proliferation (February 2013, ‘Nuclear proliferation – what should we do now?‘) and security of materials (January 2013, ‘Nuclear security – is it a big issue’?) are also issues that can be managed.

It is the economic challenge to new plant construction that is currently the focus of much anti-nuclear ire. To some extent, this is justified, but it is possible to see beyond the current malaise. Certainly, the perception that the customer must pay a much higher electricity bill because more nuclear power is needed to avert global warming is a further looming PR disaster for the industry. This is unfortunately where the Hinkley Point C project in the UK seems to be heading.

On the other hand, China and South Korea have demonstrated that it is possible to build a series of standardised nuclear stations at low capital cost. Despite recent evidence to the contrary from Europe and the USA, there is no reason why this cannot be achieved with the latest designs too.

There is therefore still a space for nuclear power within energy systems of this century. There is, nevertheless, a significant risk that it will eventually become a technology mainly of the previous one. To avoid this, we need a paradigm shift. Next month’s article will explain the pervasive influence of the paradigm of fear that has blighted nuclear power since the 1950s. Overcoming this is the vital challenge facing nuclear power today but it can, with difficulty, be achieved.

Read Part 2

About the author

Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.