Despite mixed signals the overall trend for nuclear is up as the number of new reactors under construction continues to rise according to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The biennial report, The International Status and Prospect of Nuclear Power, provides a snapshot of global nuclear deployment and summarises developments in the issues it faces. It referred to a 'paradoxical' two years with some indicators suggesting a lack of progress while others suggesting genuine momentum.
While 2008 was the first year since 1955 that no new reactors were connected to the grid, it was also a year in which ten projects began construction - the most since 1987. Even though the global economic crisis delayed plans for new reactors in some Western countries, this was offset by construction in China and other Asian nations which proceeded more or less uninterrupted.
Across the globe the total number of reactors under construction rose from 33 at the end of 2007 to 60 in August of this year. While this order book continues to be dominated by countries with an existing nuclear fleet, the number of 'nuclear newcomer' countries expressing an interest in the technology, is on the rise and reached 65 in 2009.
This revived interest from the world's governments was triggered by many factors but the two emphasised by the IAEA were the volatility of the price of fossil fuels and global concerns over rising greenhouse gas levels and the effects of climate change. These two factors have also contributed to an apparent increase in public support for nuclear, with some national polls indicating that people are becoming more comfortable with plants following many thousands of reactor-years of safe operation. However the report also stressed that public acceptance levels vary strongly depending on region.
On finance, the cost effectiveness of nuclear power at lower discount rates was emphasised. Projections from the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency suggest that at a 10% discount rate, nuclear is cheaper than coal in eight of eleven countries, while at a 5% discount rate the predicted range of generating costs for nuclear ($30-85/MWh) was lower than gas ($35-120/MWh).
Commenting on other issues the nuclear industry faces, the report went in to some detail on human resources. It was noted that about three quarters of nuclear power plants are over 20 years old, a quarter are in over 30 years old and that the generation of workers who built and first operated these plants were due for imminent retirement.
The principal concerns of this skills gap were different for different countries. For those expanding nuclear capability, the concern is to have enough trained staff to meet operational requirements and maintain the regulatory regime. For those looking at exporting nuclear technology, there must be enough skilled individuals for domestic needs and to facilitate the transfer of knowledge to buyers.
The industry-wide issue has been partially addressed by a surge in the number of commercial companies offering training and management. At The International Conference on Human Resource Development for Introducing and Expanding Nuclear Power Programs in Abu Dhabi, the IAEA announced that it would undertake a global survey of human resource related issues for plants, contractors, suppliers and regulators in order to gain a better understanding of the global workforce demographics.
Other issues the report touched upon were waste, nuclear fuel and related technologies, reactor design next generation research. The overwhelming message was positive: While progress continues to be needed in every field, no impediment exists to building the global nuclear renaissance.
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News