Nuclear's response to 'future energy crisis'

03 August 2016

Imagining a future energy policy in the event of "blackouts that occurred across Europe in 2018", Jonathan Hart and Brett Longstaffe propose a pan-European nuclear fuel cycle that emerged "out of the necessity for secure, low carbon electricity supplies". In their Spark! Contest winning essay*, the two young engineers write that this new system "stood on three pillars" - a coordinated European strategy , technological developments and a new nuclear message.

A coordinated European strategy

The solution was to extend the scope of the Euratom Treaty in several areas, with the aim of fulfilling the lofty ambitions set out in the original 1957 treaty. This aimed to strengthen the European nuclear market by reducing barriers to entry, and increasing strategic cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.

Nuclear research and development was targeted in three ways - funding nuclear innovation aimed at cost reductions; developing revolutionary technologies, including molten salt reactors; and creating national centres of excellence for research, with areas of expertise identified and prioritised in each nuclear nation, and research budgets 'pooled' across European states.

To address the issue of financing nuclear new build, in 2019 the European Commission instructed the European Investment Bank to commence direct investment in nuclear power plant construction projects. This effectively removed the limit on Euratom loans which could be provided, enabling developers to access finance more readily and affordably than possible on the private market. Developers bid to be permitted by government to construct Gen III+ plants, giving nations control over the technologies that were built within their borders. Once construction was completed, the state effectively bought the plant from the developer, refinancing the project prior to offering shorter term 'contracts for difference' for the plant's operation. This generated competition between operators and effectively separated the benefit of guaranteed price from construction risk.

Alongside this, a significant change was made to the European regulatory environment. A new pan-European regulatory body was established to provide a first point of contact for European pre-licensing support to developers, and to provide a mechanism by which harmonisation of the regulatory environment could be progressed. This aimed to: provide pre-licensing support to national regulators and developers of new designs, through a central regulatory body; increase collaboration of regulators across Europe; and develop regulatory expertise in new nuclear nations through the provision of training as part of Europe’s export offering.

A third development was to coordinate exports. Following the successful rollout of Gen III+ reactors in the UK in the 2020s, and the French new build program of the 2030s, European leaders were determined to take advantage of the nuclear construction and manufacturing expertise that had been developed and to not lose these skills again, as had happened in the 1990s and 2000s.

In order to provide a significant value proposition to aspiring nuclear nations of the rapidly developing world, Europe offered its services in an integrated fuel cycle package consisting of: fuel security via access to the Euratom Supply Agency; enrichment provided by Urenco in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK; fuel manufacture, including accident tolerant fuels, developed in the UK; large reactors designed and delivered by France; Small Modular Reactor plants designed and delivered by the UK, along with advanced manufacturing capabilities developed at the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre; construction and project management experience offered by a consortium of Franco-British organisations; regulator training provided by the European pre-licensing body; and export credit issued by the European Investment Bank.

In order to allow the European offering to compete with established nuclear exporters (Russia, China and the United States), a coordinated effort was undertaken within Europe to reduce the challenges of export control. This allowed more open sharing of nuclear information and resources with Europe, allowing it to present itself as a larger unified exporter.

Technological developments

Along with reforms in research, finance and regulation, developments in technology were key in allowing nuclear power to flourish in the decades following the signing of the expanded Euratom treaty: emergence of SMRs and their application in 'load following'; integration of SMRs with increased renewable energy penetration; and progress toward establishment of a European 'super grid'.

International concerns about the commercial viability of large nuclear power plants encouraged the rapid development of SMR plants across Europe in the 2020s, due to their more affordable capital requirements. As these financial concerns dissipated, and large nuclear new build programs got back on track, SMR developers adapted to fill a complementary role to large nuclear power.

France was able to share its vast experience of load following operations for plants operating between 30% and 100% of rated capacity. This helped to underpin proposals to use extensive load following elsewhere across Europe.

Having led the world in the development of renewable energy technologies, European nations continued to take the lead in a selection of innovative projects which brought together renewable energy and nuclear power in a direct, complementary manner. Large energy utilities came to the fore in this field, bringing their renewable and nuclear energy sectors together to cooperate on single projects. Europe was thus able to position itself as an exporter of associated services and expertise to the rest of the world.

Europe's large-scale expansion of nuclear power had to be supported by a concurrent expansion and reinforcement of electrical distribution networks. This was vital in order to allow the energy sharing that formed an important part of the agreements that underpinned the pan-European fuel cycle.

A new nuclear message

Three strategies were employed here: enhanced cooperation with renewables; moving focus away from safety; and coordination of communications messages.

Successful cooperation with the renewable energy industry, which traditionally had strong public support, helped to bring the public to view nuclear power in the same light. By demonstrating that nuclear power is working toward the same goal - clean, plentiful, secure, low carbon energy - the public started to realise that the solution to climate and energy security problems lay in a combination of renewable energy AND nuclear power, not renewable energy OR nuclear power.

A significant change in nuclear communications was controversial at first, but proved invaluable. The European Commission requested that the European nuclear energy community cease leading with safety as the key message in public communications. Instead, the industry was sold on its benefits - plentiful and secure low carbon electricity which would prevent a repeat of energy shortages in future. That is not to say that safety became any less of a priority, merely that it was not the focus of external communications, as had become the norm around the turn of the century. Just as a restaurant would not highlight on its menu the absence of rats in its kitchen, the nuclear industry would not lead with a message of safety, keeping that argument in reserve in case the question is asked.

Finally, public communications were coordinated across Europe. Following the lead of the UK's Nuclear Industry Council's workstream, a set of messages to be emphasised when communicating with the public was agreed upon. This brought the benefit of consistency in fact-based messages.

Jonathan Hart and Brett Longstaffe

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*The Spark! Contest is an international essay competition open to young professionals and students. In its inaugural year, the competitors were invited to prepare a ten-page essay entitled "The nuclear fuel cycle in 2040: The challenges and solutions to achieve sustainable nuclear generation in Europe".

This year's award was presented to Jonathan Hart and Brett Longstaffe, two young engineers from Rolls-Royce, for their paper discussing the benefits of a proposed pan-European nuclear fuel cycle. This is an abridged version of that paper.

One of the Spark! Contest's executive directors is Jean-Jacques Gautrot, World Nuclear Association vice-chairman.