DR JONATHAN COBB ANALYSES THE ROLE THAT NUCLEAR POWER COULD PLAY IN THE DECARBONIZATION OF ELECTRICITY GENERATION

Nuclear energy is part of the generation mix in more than 30 countries that in total are home to more than two-thirds of the people of the world. In 2019, 440 nuclear reactors generated 2660 TWh of electricity. That is 10.5 per cent of the world’s electricity supply, second only to hydro in terms of low-carbon sources.

This year, as economies have contracted due to Covid-19 lockdowns, electricity demand has fallen. While nuclear generation has not been affected as significantly as generation from fossil fuels, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that nuclear generation may fall by 2.5 per cent this year compared to 2019 due to lower demand, as well as extended refueling and maintenance outages, and delays in the commissioning of new plant due to the additional requirements of Covid-19 safe working.

The focus now is turning to how economies will recover once the pandemic has passed. As economies bounce back, boosted by government stimulus packages, electricity demand is expected to recover as well. While the world’s focus has understandably been on addressing the global pandemic, the urgent need for greenhouse gas emission reductions still remains. It is therefore vital that stimulus packages not only avoid a short-term spike in greenhouse gas emissions, but that they also set the foundation for a longer-term strategy aimed at deep decarbonization.

Electricity security
There is a growing recognition that electricity generation will have to lead efforts to deeply decarbonize. In part this is because deep decarbonization of electricity generation has already been proven to be practical and cost-effective, with nuclear and renewables combining in countries such as France, Switzerland and Sweden, and the Canadian province of Ontario, to deliver generation mixes with very low contributions from fossil fuels. Low-carbon electricity is also expected to aid decarbonization in other sectors, for example with the growth of electric vehicles helping to reduce transport emissions.

The IEA has recently released a Sustainable Recovery Plan setting out measures for 2021-2023 that would help ensure that government stimulus packages not only generate jobs and economic growth in the short-term, but also help contribute to the still-essential longer-term objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring secure and sustainable electricity supplies to all.

The report says that extending the lifetimes of nuclear power plants would improve electricity security by lowering the risk of outages, boosting flexibility, reducing losses and helping integrate larger shares of variable renewables such as wind and solar PV. Additionally, extending the operation of existing nuclear plants would reduce fossil fuel imports, improve electricity security by adding to power system flexibility, and improve the affordability of electricity to consumers.

Low-carbon future
The IEA report does not just focus on extending operations at existing reactors. The report identifies small modular reactors (SMRs) as offering the possibility of providing low-carbon nuclear power with lower initial capital investment and better scalability with the potential to provide a large number of jobs in design, manufacturing, supply and construction activities.

SMRs are an exciting new application of nuclear technology, with designs ranging in size from a few tens of megawatts up to around 300 MWe. This new class of reactors could be used in applications not suited to the larger reactors of around 1000-1750 MWe currently being constructed. They may be used in regions with lower electricity demand and offer district heating and desalination to local communities.

The report recommends that governments provide investment support, foster cost-sharing agreements and support regulatory authorities in the validation of innovative safety features and factory assembly to help in the development of SMRs.

As well as extending the operation of existing reactors, and fostering innovation in SMRs, it is essential that for a sustained transition to a clean energy future, new nuclear plants play a substantial role.

To meet the growing demand for sustainable energy, the global nuclear industry has set a Harmony goal to supply 25 per cent of the world’s electricity before 2050 as part of a clean and reliable low-carbon mix. This will require the construction of around 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2050. This is a challenging but practical target, requiring an average of 33 GWe of new nuclear capacity each year, similar to the nuclear capacity additions achieved in the 1980s.

To achieve 1000 GWe of new nuclear build by 2050 will require a co-operative effort from the whole nuclear community – industry, research, governments, and regulators – to focus on removing the real barriers to growth.

Firstly, we need to create a level playing field in energy markets which drives investment in future clean energy. Currently electricity markets are failing to recognize the full costs and benefits of different forms of electricity generation. Even where carbon pricing is implemented, it does not represent the true long-term costs of climate change. There is no credit given for the reliable, long-term, 24/7 generation supplied by nuclear energy.

Secondly, we must create harmonized regulatory processes to provide a more internationally consistent, efficient and predictable nuclear licensing regime. Multiple regulatory barriers from diverse national licensing processes currently limit global civil nuclear trade and investment. A lack of international standardization places unnecessary regulatory burdens on nuclear activities, and delays in the licensing of new designs hinders innovation.

Finally, we need an effective safety paradigm, focusing on genuine public wellbeing. The current energy system fails to consider safety from a holistic societal perspective. The health and environmental benefits of nuclear energy are not valued on an equitable basis with alternative energy sources. The debate fails to take into consideration important factors such as economics, industrial development, societal needs, the environment and public health.

The nuclear industry’s Harmony programme provides the framework for action for nuclear energy to deliver its potential, by identifying the measures that need to be put in place to secure the support from key stakeholders that is needed to deliver a low-carbon future to which nuclear fully contributes.

WORLD NUCLEAR ASSOCIATION
Dr Jonathan Cobb is Senior Communication Manager at the World Nuclear Association. The Association’s mission is to promote a wider understanding of nuclear energy among key international influencers by producing authoritative information, developing common industry positions, and contributing to the energy debate.
For further information please visit: www.world-nuclear.org