USA must take action on nuclear policy, says IEA's Birol

01 March 2019

The USA risks losing a substantial portion of its nuclear power capacity unless it takes policy action, International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol told the US Senate yesterday.

Birol and Perry in Washington DC (Image: IEA)

Addressing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on prospects for global energy markets, Birol said the USA had been a leader in nuclear power technology for 60 years alongside France, Japan and Russia, but was set to be overtaken by China unless US policies change. Birol has testified in front of the committee for the last three years.

"China has rapidly developed nuclear power over the past two decades, increasing from just three operating reactors in 2000 to 46 at the end of last year," Birol said. "Nuclear capacity in China is set to overtake that of the United States within ten years."

Birol praised US progress on capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), but noted that nuclear still generates twice as much low-carbon electricity in the USA as wind and solar combined. The baseload capacity of nuclear power plants also plays a major role in maintaining electricity security, he said, especially in northern regions of the country which experience spikes in electricity and gas demand during extreme cold spells. Nuclear plants also provide frequency control and other system services, he added.

"That all said, nuclear in the US is facing major challenges," he said. "Without effective policy action the United States will be on track to lose a substantial proportion of its capacity. From my vantage point, this would be detrimental to both energy security and clean energy objectives."

Safeguard existing fleet

A first priority should be to safeguard the existing fleet by extending nuclear plant lifetimes "as long as safety considerations allow", he said, acknowledging that this presents a challenge in those parts of the USA with wholesale markets that do not value the energy security and clean energy contribution of nuclear.

To safeguard the long-term contribution of nuclear, the country must also continue to accelerate innovation in new nuclear technologies, including small modular reactors, Birol said. There is "significant international appetite" for such innovative technologies, which he said could be an opportunity for US innovation to play a "leading role".

Birol repeated these remarks during a joint press conference with US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, when he noted that an "ageing" fleet and "hesitation" on lifetime extensions would see US nuclear capacity decline from about 20% today to 7% by 2040, in the absence of policy changes. This, he said, would have "major implications for security of supply and the carbon footprint of the US power system".

During the press conference, Perry announced new plans for USD24 million of funding for projects to advance transformational CCUS technologies, which he said would allow the use of coal and natural gas with "near zero" emissions. He added however that nuclear would still play an essential role.

"We believe that you can't have a serious conversation about reducing emissions without including nuclear energy and carbon capture technologies," he said.

Perry also announced the launch of the Department of Energy's Versatile Fast Neutron Source, one of the foundational projects specified in the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017. The facility, which is also known as the Versatile Test Reactor, will enable the USA to perform the accelerated irradiation testing needed by non-light water advanced reactor concepts.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News