Conference: Advancing the rebirth of nuclear power

16 November 2019

Innovation has always been at the heart of the nuclear power industry and its future depends on this commitment to technological advancement in both large and small reactor designs. This was the message of the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC) General Ministerial Conference held in Washington DC last week.

Agneta Rising speaking at the IFNEC meeting (Image: World Nuclear Association)

Titled 'Bringing the world SMRs and advanced nuclear', the event included a session at the White House, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry reminded delegates of the former US president's 'Atoms for Peace' address to the United Nations in 1953, which had called for the expansion of nuclear power to enable world-wide prosperity. Sadly, that ambition still has relevance today, Perry said.

"If we look at a satellite image of the globe, we see vast tracts of land that are shrouded in darkness. Those images reveal a stark reality: More than a billion people are completely without electricity; they are trapped in energy poverty." To pursue a 'renewables-only' approach to climate change and sustainable development would "lock them into that state maybe for ever", he said. "What the world needs is 24/7 energy, energy that is on-site, energy that can be stockpiled, energy that powers the grid of nations regardless of the weather."

The nuclear industry is improving the performance of reactors with new technologies such as accident-tolerant fuels, he said, but public-private partnerships are crucial to support innovation. He gave the US example of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, which provides access to the technical, regulatory, and financial support necessary to move nuclear reactor designs towards commercialisation, while ensuring the continued safe, reliable and economic operation of the existing nuclear fleet.

"The excitement for me is to be able to talk about American technology, in this case small modular reactors. They're smaller, more flexible, require less investment than today's reactors, and they can be placed in remote locations around the world. And that's why last year President Trump signed two key bills into law to speed the development and licensing for these advanced reactors," he said.

Nearer to home, remote locations in Alaska will benefit from micro-reactors, said the state's senior representative in the US Senate, Lisa Murkowski. As much as 80% of Alaska is inaccessible by road and many of its communities rely on "expensive and dirty" diesel for their power generation, she said. The fuel is "barged or flown in maybe once or twice a year" and costs about USD7-10 per barrel, whereas fuel for micro-reactors "might only need to be brought in once a decade".


Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said advanced nuclear technologies are "drawing interest not just from the Administration but also from a very large and, fortunately, very bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers". Proof of this, she said, is the recent passage into law of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act and the Nuclear Innovation Capabilities Act, which will help streamline the licensing approval process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which also has bipartisan support, will focus the Department of Energy (DOE) on demonstrating advanced reactor concepts, including a deadline for the first two of 2025, she said. On top of this, Murkowski unveiled in July the Strategic Energy for America Act and last month co-signed a letter with five other senators asking the newly established Development Finance Corporation to support civil nuclear energy projects overseas.

"The bottom line is we talk a lot about MoUs, we have workshops in some exotic locales, but in fairness that's no substitute for the real deals, for the real projects and the real money if we want an effective global energy strategy," she said.

Chuck Fleischmann, who serves on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Appropriations, drew a distinction between 'authorisers' and 'appropriators' and urged advanced nuclear reactor developers to talk to both sides. "If you've got a company, if you have an avocation in this area, get on Capitol Hill, talk to the House, talk to the Senate, talk to authorisers but also come see appropriators," he said.

As a House Representative for Tennessee, he praised that state’s national nuclear laboratory. "In antiquity, all roads led to Rome, but at DOE all roads lead to Oak Ridge," he said. "At Oak Ridge, at Idaho, at our great national labs, we are seeing that nuclear renaissance come into fruition," he said, adding that American manufacturing is also gaining a new lease of life. "Tell the world that we are open for business," he said.

Window of opportunity

William Magwood, director general of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA), warned however that reactor developers need to prepare for what could be a limited window of opportunity. Magwood moved to the Paris-based agency from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2014. Quoting the first words of A Tale of Two Cities, the 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens, he said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and I feel that way about where we are today."

Nuclear power plants in the USA and elsewhere are being shut down for economic reasons, while some new-build projects in Western countries have faced budget and schedule overruns, he said, but "as an American in Paris, as someone who is working in an international venue, I’m amazed to see that in many countries just talking about nuclear energy in terms of a sustainable future is controversial".

"Despite the very strong rhetoric regarding climate change and the need to protect the environment, despite the vast amounts of money that have been invested in renewable energy around the world, despite all of that we still see today that the level of the use of fossil fuels is exactly what it was 20 years ago. Emissions are actually higher now than they have ever been in the history of the world," he said.

As more governments come to realise that nuclear power is essential to reduce global emissions, and become increasingly interested in SMRs and advanced reactors with very high performance in terms of safety, with lower costs and lower investment, there will be a "window of opportunity" for the nuclear sector in 2025-2035 and it "had better be ready for it", he said. If that window is allowed to close, it might never open again "because we will lose so much infrastructure, we will lose so much expertise that rebuilding nuclear in the future from the ground up is going to be very difficult".

If that happens, then the world will become characterised "more by its sacrifices than by its benefits", he said. "It means a world that doesn't give people the option of when to drive, when to fly, what to eat. It becomes a different future where we're constrained by the lack of resources because we're trying to protect the environment. Nuclear energy, in my view, is the clearest way to have our cake and eat it too - to protect the environment while at the same time providing for prosperity in developed countries and for development in countries that are emerging. That is the challenge and if we fail to make that come to reality, people will look back on this time and shake their heads and say we missed the opportunity. Let's not make that happen."

Climate challenge

Mikhail Chudakov, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of the Vienna-based agency's department of nuclear energy, agreed there is the risk future generations will ask why governments today "put horses" (renewables) "ahead of machines" (nuclear).

"We need to replace 70-90% of carbon resources of energy by 2050 in order to avoid overheating the Earth," he said, adding that two-thirds of the world's population still relies on biomass. An alarming projection, he said, is that by 2050 African nations will be consuming as much energy per capita as they do now, but their population will have doubled to 1.4 billion. "This will have dramatic implications for healthcare, employment and migration in the future," he said. "Only nuclear power can stop this migration by helping to develop the region."

Chudakov, formerly director of the Moscow Centre of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, added the "little known fact" that a nuclear power plant provides more energy than it consumes. "If you take the whole lifecycle, nuclear is the most impressive in giving back 75%, but if you use centrifuge enrichment, high density fuel, closed fuel cycles, and other innovations, nuclear can give back 100%," he said. "Solar PV gives back 4% and, if you use battery storage, it's even less than 2%."

The carbon footprint of countries with nuclear power is, on average, 20% below the global average, he said. For example, coal-fired power producer Germany generates nearly 400 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, while nuclear power producer France generates just 40 g/kWh.

He noted that nuclear power generation increases, on average, by around 2.5 times by 2050 in the 89 mitigation scenarios considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its special report, published in October 2018, on the impacts of climate change and what would need to be done to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C.

The IAEA, an agency of the United Nations, last month held its first conference on climate change and the role of nuclear power, which received a record 40 million "impressions" on Twitter, he said. Once unwilling to talk about nuclear power, he said, the UN has since acknowledged the conclusions of the IPCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the OCED/NEA, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Energy Council (WEC) that nuclear power is needed to cut global emissions.

There are 449 power reactors in operation, with a combined installed capacity of 400 GWe, he said, and another 52 under construction. This accounts for 5% of all installed capacity and 10-11% of generation. To meet emission reduction targets, the share of nuclear power in the global electricity mix must increase to at least 25% by 2050, he added.

Agneta Rising, director general of World Nuclear Association, noted that "the poorer half of the world's population consumes just 5% of the energy enjoyed by its richer half", and when that figure rises to 15%, global energy consumption will increase by the equivalent of "an additional United States' worth of demand".

"The key question facing us, therefore, is how best to supply all of that energy, at an affordable cost to communities? At present about 85% of electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which is more or less unchanged since 1990. But climate change, environmental degradation, and the premature death of up to seven million people each year from air pollution mean this cannot continue long term. Nuclear energy remains the only proven, scalable and reliable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, she said, which means large reactors will continue to be the backbone of low-carbon electricity systems worldwide. And alongside new technologies, including the more than 50 SMR designs that are in the works, the role of nuclear will grow, she said, and it will be deployed in more places and for more purposes than ever before based on local needs and infrastructures."

She added: "I have been heartened to see many signs that nuclear is moving up the agenda in important forums in recent months and years. The leadership of the United States, alongside Canada and Japan, in launching the NICE Future initiative in 2018 ensures that nuclear is now properly represented in the Clean Energy Ministerial," she said. "And recent reports from the IPCC, IEA, and WEC have all highlighted nuclear's central and absolutely needed role in the energy transition. But, in spite of the clear support for nuclear from the IPCC, the United Nations has still not officially adopted a position of support for nuclear."

Reliable fleet

Rising highlighted the success of large-scale nuclear power plants. The global fleet achieved an average capacity factor of 80% in 2018 that "continues to show no age-related performance trend", she said, and by the end of this year, five reactors - in Switzerland, the USA and India - will have achieved 50 years of continuous operation. At the end of 2018, some 55 reactors were under construction worldwide - the highest level of new-build activity in 25 years.

It is true, she said, that some first-of-a-kind new-build projects in developed countries are experiencing delays and cost overruns, but more than 75% of the 90 units built since 2000 were completed within five years. And as the technology develops, and SMRs come to fruition, the locations and market opportunities will continue to grow. Nuclear energy will be used in off-grid applications, to decarbonise heat, and to desalinate water - "providing the fast-track to a high-powered, sustainable and clean energy system", she said.

Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that over the last decades there had been "unmatched excellence" in the US nuclear energy industry, which produces more than half of the country's emissions-free energy. Reactor units are now 92% efficient, up from 63% a generation ago, she said.

"High standards, rigorous training, new technologies, power uprates, usage of longer lasting fuels. We're driving down costs and increasing efficiency and the numbers prove it. Today it takes only 96 rectors to produce what just a few decades ago would have taken us 130."

As the US nuclear industry looks to the future, its next steps will be defined by innovations "big and small", she said. "Led by a  new generations of entrepreneurs stewarding digital technology, by 3-D printers, by Big Data analytics, by artificial intelligence, we can now take plants built 40 years ago and upgrade them with today's technology, making them efficient and long lasting, operating with precision and the highest of standards," she said.

US nuclear plants were initially licensed for 40 years, but have been maintained so well they have received regulatory approval to run for an additional 20 years, she said. Next year the first-ever second licence renewal application could be approved for another 20 years, expanding a plant's operation to 80 years, she added. So far, eight reactors have filed for their second licence renewals and more companies have announced their intention to file applications in the coming years.

SMRs are not an idea for the "distant future", she said, and the USA will start building them in the next few years.

"In the US there are a number of examples of how this future is now. The design certification for NuScale's SMR is expected next year and they've partnered with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to build the first of their design. And then there's the Tennessee Valley Authority which is well along in the site approval process for a potential SMR. In fact, many of our utilities in the US are looking to SMRs to meet the future needs of their customers in an affordable and reliable way.

"GE Hitachi, Holtec, Kairos, Oklo, TerraPower, Terrestrial Energy, Westinghouse, X-energy and many more are all making significant progress toward the next generation of nuclear technology, and at the same time a new range of voices is drawing attention to the vital role that nuclear plays. Companies like Google are driving industry-wide decisions about carbon pledges and utility generation. In fact, last year Google highlighted the valuable role that nuclear plays today and can play in the future as we decarbonise. These conversations and commitments will expand the diversity of our grid and ensure its resilience."

Nerio Peitiado, chief of staff in Argentina's Energy Secretariat highlighted the extension of operations at the country's Embalse nuclear power plant as a "significant achievement". The Candu reactor returned to service in January for another 30 years of operation following completion of a three-year upgrade programme. Embalse is the third Candu 6 reactor to undergo a full refurbishment, after Wolsong 1 in South Korea and Point Lepreau in Canada.

At the same time, the National Atomic Energy Commission is developing SMR technology, he said, for lower-power nuclear reactors of 32 MWe for use in remote areas of the country.

The biggest challenge, he said, is the imperative that Argentina achieves “long-lasting macro-economic stability" that will help to lower the cost of projects. The government has invested in renewable energy projects, but these are for a total capacity of just 200 MWe, he said, and it will be challenging for the nuclear industry to attract investment for large plants when it is in competition with the renewable and oil & gas sectors.

"We believe SMRs could be a great opportunity to reduce nuclear production costs," he said, adding that Argentina will "continue to support the nuclear sector as a way to contribute clean energy".


Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), said Jordan's energy strategy aims for a sustainable, environmentally friendly, secure energy system through the diversification and optimal utilisation of indigenous energy resources.

"We have taken several important steps along a transparent roadmap that have sought to implement the national energy strategy to formulate a reliable, secure, economic and sustainable energy mix, and nuclear energy is one of its main constituents," he said.

JAEC is in the final stage of the selection of an SMR design to be ready for operation by 2030 for electricity and/or water desalination, he said. It has been conducting joint feasibility studies with several SMR vendors, namely with NuScale, X-energy, Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, China National Nuclear Corporation and Rosatom, he added.

Collins Juma, CEO of Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board, said the innovative nature of SMRs will play a significant role in the "nuclear electricity dream", not only in Kenya, but in the African continent at large. SMRs will be "a game-changer to many embarking countries thanks to their flexibility and ability to fit into small electrical grid systems", he added.

Nuclear technology is "human capital intensive", he said, which is why human resource development is one of the 19 infrastructure issues under the IAEA Milestones Approach that a nuclear newcomer country needs to take into account, he said.

"In a bid to deploy the first nuclear power plant in Kenya, the country, in collaboration with other stakeholders, has undertaken various capacity building programmes aimed at preparing the country for the introduction of the NPP," he said. As part of this, one of the country's universities has commenced training of students using the IAEA's Internet Reactor Laboratory Programme.


Diane Cameron, director of the nuclear energy division at Natural Resources Canada, stressed the importance of "bringing the message to non-nuclear and non-technical audiences" through its 'Team Canada' approach, without which SMR projects "will not succeed".

"We've done the policy work and we anticipate multiple SMRs across multiple sites and multiple jurisdictions to start within the next five years. Commercialisation is imminent," she said. The technical risks are "largely manageable" and so the focus is more on enabling successful deployment through public and community support.

"In Canada we have public support to enable a vibrant nuclear sector and we've had it for over 60 years because of the significant economic, social and geopolitical benefits," she said. "In terms of the landscape for public confidence, the closer you live to a nuclear power facility, the more favourable you are to nuclear energy, and that's true for Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick."

Canada's indigenous communities have specific constitutional rights, she said, and communication is "more about people and trust and less about national consensus".

She highlighted the observation by the IAEA's Integrated Regulatory Review Service mission team in September that there is "trust in the regulator", meaning the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is respected not only for its technical competence but also for its approach to public hearings.

Similarly with waste management, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization in 2010 launched a siting process for a deep geological repository in "a very thoughtful exercise based on consent-based siting", she said. Soon afterwards, as many as 22 communities volunteered to offer sites for the repository. That number has been whittled down to five and the final site will be selected by 2023.

"Many of those sites would have been fine from the technical competence and geological characteristics perspectives, but the process of engagement and partnership and trust takes time to build," she said.

Public acceptance

Cosmin Ghita, general director of Romania's Nuclearelectrica, which operates the Cernavoda nuclear power plant, agreed that public acceptance is essential. After its listing on the Bucharest Stock Exchange in 2013, the company reviewed its communication strategy.

Through its corporate social responsibility campaign - titled 'We grow with you!' - Nuclearelectrica worked on messaging with different audiences, he said. Today, 62% of Romanians are in favour of increasing capacity, which is up from 27% of those polled in 2014.

The key to public acceptance was not to focus heavily on nuclear safety, Ghita said, but to emphasise Nuclearelectrica's role as a low-carbon power producer, an investor and an employer.

"The nuclear industry's approach, to focus on a single message about being super-safe, has done nothing but diminish appetite," he said. "Would you buy a product from a salesman just because he says he's a reliable guy? No. You have to look at the product to see if that works for you."

He added: "In 2017 we had only two Romanians signed up in the engineering university for the nuclear Master's programme. Today we have 14. We don't need to convince anyone anymore. I think we just have to offer to act on an equal footing with all corporate actors and take our rightful place as an industry."

While there are approaches to gaining and then keeping public trust in nuclear power, Japan has faced the challenge of regaining it, following the Fukushima-Daiichi accident in 2011.

Toshio Sano, commissioner at Japan Atomic Energy Commission, said the government's strategic energy plan aims for a reduction in nuclear power generation from the 'pre-Fukushima' level of about 30% to about 20% by 2030. This will require the restart of certain nuclear power plants, he added.

Japan's Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2030, compared with the 2013 level.

"To achieve this goal, Japan is going to pursue every possible way and we believe nuclear energy should play a significant role, and that is why Japan continues to pursue nuclear innovation even with no new nuclear projects at the moment," Sano said.

He highlighted the importance of the Nuclear Energy X Innovative Promotion initiative, which the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry launched this year to support the private sector in developing nuclear technologies that enhance the "safety, economy and manoeuvrability" of nuclear power plants. International collaboration is also important, he said, such as in import-export regulation, HR development, and "other challenges beyond borders", with IFNEC playing a key role.

A video recording of the session is available on YouTube.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News