Speech: The resilience of nuclear power

10 July 2020

Sama Bilbao y Leon of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency describes how resilience - the capacity to withstand and bounce back from major disruptions - takes many forms at nuclear power plants. The following is an abridged version of the presentation she gave during the webinar the Paris-based organisation held today to discuss its newly published Policy Brief, Building low-carbon resilient electricity infrastructures with nuclear energy in the post-COVID-19 era.

Sama Bilbao y Leon (Image: World Nuclear Association)

"I'm going to start by defining what resilience is because it's a word we've been using quite often lately, but I'm not sure that all of us truly know what resilience means. The definition provided by the OECD is that resilience is the capacity to withstand and bounce back from major disruptions. Resilient systems are planned to prevent, avoid, withstand and absorb any and all threats, and to recover and adapt in the aftermath of disruption. (1)

It’s important to highlight all the different elements that are included in resilience. It's clear that resilience and electricity security require long-term planning at the national and regional levels.

There are three main dimensions that we encounter with resilient electricity systems: the physical availability of generating capacity; the smooth operation of the electricity system as a whole, regardless of any sudden shifts in demand or any changes in weather; and the contribution of this generation capacity to the stable economic conditions of the system to make sure that electricity prices are not volatile and that we can predict to some extent what is going to be the cost and the price of electricity.

Nuclear energy provides resilience on four main levels.

The technology design level covers defence in depth, redundancy and the multiple layers principle. The resilience of nuclear power plants is the result of a combination of high levels of safety, operational flexibility and the continuous level on which the industry prides itself in terms of science but also beyond the science. They always follow the principles of defence in depth - prevention, protection and mitigation - and we take into account the use of redundant, independent and diversified systems that allow these facilities to withstand any external mishaps.

The organisational level includes emergency preparedness, safety culture, continuous learning and international cooperation. Beyond the technical design, there is also an organisational perspective that makes nuclear power plants resilient. This means we are incorporating from the very beginning principles such as emergency preparedness and all kinds of contingency plans to rapidly identify any critical activities that are needed, and to maintain normal operations even with limited personnel, as we have been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Current nuclear systems and the operations themselves have been refined over many years and we have been taking into account the evolving regulatory environments. We have also been taking advantage of the most up-to-date technical information in order to continuously adapt the system and the operational procedures.

The system level has the following features: dispatchable and flexible; grid stability (inertia, reactive capacity, frequency control); on-site strategic fuel stockpiles; and simplicity of centralised systems. Nuclear power plants are also resilient at the bigger system level. In order to ensure a system that is resilient we need to have a balanced and diversified power mix, which we think will really need to have dispatchable and flexible electricity, which nuclear power plants produce. That is a perfect complement to the variable electricity that is provided by renewables. But in addition to the actual energy, nuclear power plants are huge contributors to grid stability. They provide inertia, electrical capacity frequency control etc. that are indispensble to make sure the grid remains stable.

The fourth level is socio-economic, whereby there are competitive electricity prices; stable long-term investment; local high-paying jobs; and economic spill-over. The fact that nuclear power plants provide competitive electricity prices to customers clearly helps the overall economy and social growth, but they also provide stable, local high-paying jobs and, not only that, they make major economic spill-overs not only in the local area, but in the region and the nation as a whole.

Nuclear energy supports the development of a low-carbon resilient electricity infrastructure in short and longer terms. We see that long-term operation provides shovel-ready opportunity to strengthen electricity infrastructures. We have currently around the world more than 100 reactors that are operating beyond 40 years. This means that this gives us the perfect opportunity to extend the life of these facilities that are providing electricity in a cost-effective and reliable manner. And we can continue to use them for longer.

In addition to that we have the opportunity for nuclear new build. In many western countries we are reaching a higher level in the learning for first-of-a-kind and we think that the conditions are now perfect to use these proven technologies to expand and grow a reliable, resilient and clean electricity system. This is going to result in investment efficiency. We are going to be able to use technologies that allow us to spend less money on building this reliable and resilient infrastructure, while at the same time achieving low-carbon goals.

In conclusion, there are three ways to turn the coronavirus crisis into an opportunity to build modern resilient low-carbon infrastructures.

Firstly, achieving resilience is a long-term endeavour that necessitates technology neutral policy actions beyond well-designed stimulus packages to properly guide investment decisions over time and correct potential market flaws.

Secondly, public-private partnerships for large-scale infrastructure projects have proven to be a formidable tool to reignite the economy and achieve social cohesion during previous crises.

Finally, nuclear energy, both new nuclear projects and the long-term operation of existing reactors, can play a key role in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery efforts by boosting economic growth in the short term, while supporting, in a cost-effective manner, the development of a low-carbon resilient electricity infrastructure in the long term."

Sama Bilbao y Leon is the head of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency’s Division of Nuclear Technology Development and Economics.

Building low-carbon resilient electricity infrastructures with nuclear energy in the post-COVID-19 era is here.

(1) Resilience strategies and approaches to contain systemic threats, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2019.