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Which way for nuclear?

Some suggest that nuclear is an inflexible generation source being left behind in an energy world demanding flexibility, yet Kelvin Ross finds that there are calls for it to play a part as a long-term companion to renewables.

The nuclear industry is at a crossroads. As Ann MacLachlan, former European Bureau Chief of Platts Nuclear Publications, said at the World Nuclear Symposium in London recently, it is “flourishing in China, finished in Germany and floundering elsewhere”.

In Europe, the future of nuclear hangs in the balance. Germany is taking it out of its energy mix and the two newbuild projects that are underway – Flamanville and Olkiluoto – are dogged by delays and cost over-runs, and as such are a far cry from being an industry showcase.

And yet in October EDF agreed a deal that will see China General Nuclear China take a 33.5 per cent stake in Hinkley Point C plant in the UK. With a final investment decision from EDF now almost a formality, Britain is poised to build its first nuclear power plant in a generation, which will give a shot in the arm to the industry globally.

There is certainly an appetitite for nuclear among European power trade groups. The UK-based Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) last month published a report called ‘The role for nuclear within a low carbon energy system’.

In it the ETI states that new nuclear plants “can form a major part of an affordable low carbon transition”, and in particular highlights the potential of small modular reactors (SMRs).

It says the emergence of multiple developing SMR designs with an electrical generation capacity in units of 300 MW or less “opens up the potential to deploy a wider range of nuclear technologies within an integrated energy system”.

Mike Middleton, strategy manager for nuclear at the ETI and the report’s author, says “new nuclear power, along with conventional power stations with carbon capture and storage and renewables, are likely to be the key technologies delivering low carbon electricity in the future in the UK”.

“Our latest analysis has created new understanding of the potentially different contributions from large baseload reactors and SMRs in a future UK energy system.

“These two nuclear technologies can offer potentially complementary roles in baseload and flexible combined heat and power generation, and also in terms of the location of development sites.”

However, Middleton is keen to stress that “future nuclear technologies will only be deployed if there is a market need, and these technologies need to provide the most cost-effective solution”.

He said that “the next 10 years will be critical in developing the deployment-readiness of key technology options for the UK’s low carbon transition to 2050. New nuclear plants can form a major part of an affordable transition, with both large nuclear and SMRs potentially playing a significant role.”

Hot on the heels of the ETI report came a survey from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which found that 56 per cent of the UK public support Britain’s continuing to use nuclear power – 19 per cent did not back nuclear and 25 per cent were unsure. Of the people who support nuclear power, 82 per cent said that this is because it will “help keep the lights on”, 56 per cent because it would provide jobs and 54 per cent because it would boost the economy.

The main concerns for people who opposed nuclear were that it is “too dangerous” (77 per cent) or too damaging for the environment (76 per cent), while just 27 per cent said that it was because it was too expensive.

In the UK there are currently 16 civil nuclear reactors providing 18 per cent of Britain’s electricity needs and supporting local communities through employment, supply chain and economic development.

Dr Jenifer Baxter, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, says that the results of the survey “show that most of the public realize the vital role nuclear has to play in keeping the lights on in the UK. But there is a lack of knowledge about nuclear technology and the way nuclear waste is managed.”

She added that there is a “critical need for industry and government to raise awareness about the economic and employment benefits of nuclear power. There is also a need to highlight the comprehensive range of safety procedures in place to mitigate risk and environmental damage, with both nuclear power generation and the management of nuclear waste.”

European electricity trade group Eurelectric has also called for nuclear to play a key role in the future energy mix. In a recent report, it stated that nuclear energy “contributes to the three major energy policy objectives of the European Union: security of supply, decarbonization of the electricity sector and competitive power prices in Europe”.

However, it stresses that with new nuclear plants currently under construction in France, Finland and Slovakia and at the planning stage in the UK, Hungary and Romania, the sector faces a number of challenges.

The first of these is to improve the economic operation of existing nuclear power plants. “In several European countries distortive national policy measures place economic burdens on nuclear units which are leading to the early shutdown of technically well-functioning nuclear reactors,” says Eurelectric’s report Nuclear Power Plants – Tackling the Investment Dilemma.

Callum Thomas: “The industry is dependent on men between the age of 40 and 60.”

Credit: World Nuclear Association

Another challenge is to “enable new market-based investment, which is not viable under the existing energy policy and market framework. To facilitate investment in nuclear and other low-carbon technologies, an improved regulatory framework is needed and, in particular, ways must be found of reducing investment risk.”

Eurelectric also wants to nuclear regulators promote “greater harmonization and standardization of components, which will further improve cost-competitiveness”.

The trade group argues that with the European power sector undergoing radical change, decentralized and centralized large-scale systems will depend on each other and nuclear power “can play an important role in solving the challenges of this new, more diverse energy system, providing the reliable baseload supply necessary to ensure generation adequacy”.

Asia perspective

The nuclear picture in Asia could not be more different from Europe. Despite being stalled in Japan post-Fukushima, China is leading the global market and Vietnam is on the way to having its first nuclear power plant.

And a new study from research company GlobalData predicts that India’s nuclear capacity is expected to increase more than six-fold, from 5.8 GW in 2014 to 35.2 GW by 2025, in a bid to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.

GlobalData’s senior power analyst Chiradeep Chatterjee says: “India’s nuclear energy development strategy has been divided into three stages due to its limited reserves of uranium, which are already being used in existing reactors. The potential for generating power from uranium mined in India has been estimated at 10 GW.

“However, the country has large reserves of thorium, with the result that the transition to breeder reactors that use thorium has been proposed, through this three-stage strategy.”

The Ninh Thuan plant in Vietnam is being built by Rosatom and I caught up with the company’s regional vice-president for Southeast Asia, Egor Simonov, at POWER-GEN Asia in Bangkok.

He says that for the development of nuclear in Southeast Asia, “it is all about political decision-making. For Vietnam, that decision is there – they are going to have a nuclear power plant. For other countries in this region it is either a power development plan or statements of policy that say they are considering nuclear power.”

I asked him what the effect – in Asia and globally – would be if Japan brings its fleet of reactors back online. After stating that he personally believes “it is going to come back online pretty much in its entirety”, he adds: “If Japan’s reactors all came back online, that would be a signal to the politicians. Industry experts understand what has happened, why it has happened and how severe it actually was. It would be a sign to the politicians that nuclear power is safe.”

He says the same effect will be had if Hinkley Point C goes ahead in the UK: “The more countries that are building nuclear power plants, then the better the public understanding of nuclear power will be. Having a reliable, cheap baseload that has a zero-CO2 footprint is more beneficial than having concerns that are not based on any scientific or technical evidence.”

Mark Rauckhorst at Vogtle nuclear plant in the US

Credit: Southern Company

Simonov says that for the nuclear industry, “the biggest challenge is public acceptance and political will – and political will strongly depends on public acceptance. Politicians tend to follow that.”

And he adds that “what politicians should be thinking is that when you build a nuclear power plant you don’t just create a battery that powers your homes – you create an industry. You give a boost to social-economic development. You create workplaces for the people of a country.

“When we talk about selling a nuclear power plant, we stress that what you are buying is a kilowatt-hour of electricity at a very low cost for 60 years, with very little influence on the commodity price.”

Simonov later spoke at a conference session at POWER-GEN Asia and told delegates: “Such countries as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam are among the world’s leaders in industrial production growth, and consequently in power consumption. Nuclear power will allow these countries to not only get the basic source of clean energy, but also will allow them to reach a new level of development in general.”

He reiterated his belief that if Japan restarted its reactors it would be “a signal to other Asian countries – first of all for ASEAN countries – where, according to our estimates, there can be built about 20 GW of nuclear power capacity”.

“But that may happen only if these countries will show an unambiguous political commitment to the development of national nuclear power programmes.”

Malcolm Grimston, senior research fellow at Britain’s Imperial College, believes that a new energy narrative is needed to overcome the mixed messages from the nuclear industry that have stymied public support.

Speaking at the recent World Nuclear Symposium in London, he said that the public can be left “deeply suspicious” when, on the one hand, the industry says how safe nuclear power is, yet on the other appears over-cautious when dealing with radiation protection. He added: “Although big accidents occur, nuclear power has proved to be one of the safest, if not the safest, large-scale ways of generating electricity.”

He also criticized governments bent on phasing out nuclear power, saying that “logic and politics don’t necessarily go hand in hand”, and added that science should be pulled back into the debate.

“We entirely miss that most of the problems come from a dysfunction between political, public and scientific establishments which had a more harmonious relationship 30 years ago in the developed world, but might not last in the countries where it still exists.”

To illustrate the point he referred to a recent chemical explosion in China which left 200 people dead: “The Germans didn’t then go out and close down their chemical industry.”

Grimston called for governments to “restore the outcome of properly referred science to its proper place in decision-making”, while society should have a sensible debate about how to manage scientific uncertainty.

“We have no concept of what power outages are like – we are left with anodyne, cuddly phrases such as ‘the lights go out’, when the reality of a blackout is literally unimaginably awful.”

Skills gap

The WNA Symposium also heard from Callum Thomas, chief executive of Thomas Thor Associates, a global nuclear consulting and recruitment firm. He said that the number of nuclear experts in Europe in 2011 was around 80,000 and added that by 2020 that figure will have dropped to 63,000.

He said that “the industry right now is dependent on men between the age of 40 and 60” and added that the sector now had a “once in a generation opportunity” to address its skills set.

Mark Rauckhorst, construction vice-president at Southern Company, has clear ideas about the skill sets – and mind sets – that are needed to get a nuclear power plant built.

Rauckhorst spoke about the Vogtle 3 and 4 units, which are currently under construction. Once operational, they will make the plant the first four-unit nuclear power station in the US.

“You cannot attempt a nuclear power project by committee – you must have a single leader.” In the case of Vogtle, he said this leader was Buzz Miller, president of nuclear development at Southern: “He has lived it since the project was signed and he’s there today.”

He added that it was vital to believe in – and love – the potential of nuclear energy: “If you don’t have a passion for nuclear, then I don’t know how you will weather all the storms that you will face.”

Rauckhorst said that it was essential that the nuclear industry kept evolving its skills set: “The skill sets that are needed today will be different from the skill sets of tomorrow.”

And he added that the perfect workforce was a mix of “grey beards and young guns”.