Jonathan Cobb, Senior Communication Director,
World Nuclear Association
“There is an urgent need to decarbonize our electricity generation to protect people and the planet from the dangers of air pollution and climate change.”
What are the main initiatives of the World Nuclear Association? We are the international trade organization that represents the global nuclear industry. We promote a wider understanding of nuclear energy amongst key decision makers, and provide authoritative information to academia and the general public. We have around 180 member companies across the whole fuel cycle, from uranium mining, conversion, enrichment and fabrication, to utilities, as well as engineering, construction, waste management and transportation companies, plus members from academia and the financial sector.
We hold working group meetings on a range of topics, including long-term operations, codes and standards, reactor licensing, safety and economics. We also hold conferences and seminars, and organize the World Nuclear University, in partnership with the IAEA, WANO and the OECD-NEA. Finally, we have the Harmony program, which is endorsed and shared by the global nuclear industry. Its goal is to have nuclear generation supplying 25% of the world’s electricity before 2050, as part of a mix of low-carbon technologies. What does this mean in terms of required investments, as well as regulatory change? Looking at our current reference scenario, which assumes that the countries will implement their current plans, global nuclear capacity would reach 570 GW by 2040. The Harmony goal would require the construction of 1,000 gigawatt (GW) of new installed capacity by 2050, in addition to keeping many of today’s reactors in operation . Achieving the Harmony goal would mean adding an average of 33 new GW annually between now and 2050. It is feasible, because this build rate was already achieved by a much smaller industry in the 1980s. But certainly the rate of construction has to accelerate: at present, the industry is bringing online new capacity at less than 10 GW per annum, so we would have to triple that. As a source of baseload power, can nuclear also provide more flexibility to the energy matrix? Nuclear has been providing the baseload of energy for 60 years, and it can do it very well. Capacity factors have been increasing steadily, and the global average now is 80%. This reliability is nuclear energy’s key advantage compared to other low-carbon options. Moving forward, nuclear can also provide more flexibility to varying demand. France and Germany are already increasing or decreasing nuclear generation to meet demand variations, and this will be increasingly common in the future.
Beyond this, there is also a lot of interest in small nuclear reactors, which have capacities of less than 300 MW versus a traditional 1,000-1,750-MW reactor. Some of these SMR designs would have even greater ability to load-follow, as well as having the potential to be used for a wider range of applications. In Pevek, north-eastern Russia, the first of these modular units has recently entered operations. This is actually a floating nuclear plant which can provide desalination as well as electricity in remote areas. The nuclear segment has gone through a tough decade post-Fukushima. Where does it stand today? After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, reactors in Japan shut down at the end of their fuel cycle within 18-24 months, and many still are seeking regulatory approval to restart. Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy quite quickly, over 10 years. These developments had an immediate impact on uranium producers because the demand predictions had to be readjusted, and that put pressure on the uranium price. Looking at the bigger picture, since 2012 nuclear generation has been on the rise and, with the preliminary data we have, 2019 is probably going to have been a record year for nuclear energy.
2020 has presented a new challenge due to the pandemic. While nuclear generators have continued to operate, on the mining side of the nuclear cycle operations have been affected. Those mines that have managed to continue operations should benefit from the changed market dynamics as supply has decreased. How is the industry addressing nuclear waste management? The volumes of waste that need to be stored are very small when compared to other power generation alternatives, most notably coal, oil and gas. The entire fuel requirements of a nuclear reactor can be stored in a fuel pool on site for the lifetime of that reactor, which could be 40 years, 60 years or more, or it can be moved to dry cask storage. It is possible to reprocess nuclear fuel and recycle it as mixed oxide fuel (MOX). For fuel destined for disposal, deep geological repositories are seen as the right solution. The first geological repositories are now under construction and they should enter operation in the 2020s.
Nuclear power is capital intensive. How is the industry improving its cost position? Countries that planned for the construction of series-built reactors, with multiple units based on the same or similar designs, have seen capex reductions. Learning from the construction of the first units helps improve the construction process for subsequent units. Also, because the time required to build reactors is reduced, this significantly lowers the interests due on money borrowed.
Series build can also help in the regulatory process if the designs of subsequent reactors are sufficiently close to the first. This approach is being used in the UK, where the country’s first EPR units are being built at Hinkley Point. There are proposals to build almost a carbon-copy of that plant at Sizewell, and that duplication will help reduce costs. Could you provide a final message about the Harmony goals and the role of nuclear moving forward? There is a really important role for nuclear energy – there is an urgent need to decarbonize our electricity generation to protect people and the planet from the dangers of air pollution and climate change. Nuclear energy is proven, available today and can be expanded quickly, making it an important part of the solution.