The real challenges to nuclear are external, says panel

14 January 2021

The challenges the nuclear industry faces are largely external and must be overcome if it is to help tackle the existential threat of climate change, panellists in the Nuclear Energy and its Future session of the Reuters Next conference on 11 January said. These challenges include: the notion nuclear is an out-dated technology; the cost of finance; market design; political changes; perceived competition with renewable energy; and the public's misconceptions about radioactive waste.

(Image: Reuters Next)

"Whether you look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their famous 1.5 degree report, or you look at the International Energy Agency and their scenarios, if you want to have a prayer to get anywhere close to the Paris climate targets of constraining the temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade over pre-industrial levels, then you need probably to at least double the contribution of nuclear," said Dan Poneman, president and CEO of Centrus Energy Corp.

"And if you think, as in the IPCC report, that 2 degrees is not enough, and if you want to get to 1.5 degrees, then the case [for nuclear] is that much stronger. And, to be clear, that assumes absolutely maximum deployment of solar and wind and battery storage. You just don’t close the gap without a lot of new nuclear."

Generations of progress

The idea that nuclear energy is on the way out is erroneous, said Sama Bilbao y León, director general of World Nuclear Association.

Nuclear power is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity in the world and the first among OECD countries. At the end of 2020, there were 441 operable reactors in 31 nations, more than 50 new reactors under construction (including seven new construction starts), and five new units came online in Belarus, China, Russia and the UAE. Notably, Belarus, Turkey and the UAE are newcomers to nuclear energy. About 600 MWe of nuclear capacity will be added this year and, in the US alone, almost 200 MWe of nuclear capacity has been added to the grid because of uprates, meaning improvements to the way existing nuclear plants operate. The 15 new reactors that are coming online this year include new technologies - a fast neutron reactor and a small modular reactor, both in China.

"There are a few countries, including Germany, Belgium and Spain, that are contemplating the permanent shutdown of their existing fleet but on the other hand we have a very large number of countries, not only in Europe but all over the world, that are actually trying to expand [nuclear], for example, eastern European countries, and some of them for the first time, such as Poland. Also, the UK, France, Finland and the Netherlands are putting a strong focus on continuing nuclear," Bilbao y León said.

Jay Wileman, president and CEO of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, said the future of nuclear really depends on "building on today's nuclear", the operating fleets that are generating 11% of the world's electricity, and nearly 20% of all the electricity and almost 60% of the clean energy in the USA.

"By keeping them operating and working with our customers is really critical. We learned a lot last year from COVID. My business was thinking about how our factory workers do the PPE [personal protective equipment] checks, as other businesses are doing, but also about enabling our engineers to collaborate whilst working from their offices, their dining rooms, wherever, and keeping them safe. The third area I think about is supporting our customers with outages; how do we work with them to have their protocols in place and be safe for our teams as they're engaging in a 2-3 week outage. It's a new way of working that we're getting used to and we just have to figure out how to keep supporting our customers so they can keep that 24/7 reliable carbon-free nuclear plant running."

GE Hitachi is also part of the new wave of small modular reactors, with its BWRX-300 design. Asked whether such technologies are going to replace large-scale nuclear plants, Wileman said: "If you're going to be net zero, nuclear is going to have a place, but you're not guaranteed a seat at the table unless you can be cost competitive with other forms of generation. It's great to be small and modular, but you still have to compete with those others as well, so I think about it with my team as a series of 'What ifs?'

"These are: What if you could have an SMR that is cost competitive with combined cycle gas, solar and wind? What if the total cost of that plant isn't double-digit billions like some of the large builds are, but is actually a billion or under? What if you can simplify a reactor to get the cost down? What if you can use the existing supply chain? What if you can have SMRs address other things, like process heat, hydrogen generation, district heating, that really increase the value of that asset? What if you can get that out to the grid by 2028?"

Poneman said there are Generation III and Generation III+ units under construction, including the Vogtle plant in the USA, but noted the attention SMRs are attracting.

"There are both conventional lightwater reactors of the small variety, like GE's design, and there are also fourth generation reactors that don’t use water coolants; they use gas, liquid metal or sodium, etc. All of these have a tremendous amount of excitement and in the United States the government is investing heavily and is now watching what's called the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, in which they have already funded two of these advanced designs for a 50-50 cost share to be deployed and have given a number of additional grants to other reactors to be developed," he said.

"We need to do two things - get the costs down and have regulatory reform. But we have to get smarter, better, faster, cheaper manufacturing methods, artificial intelligence designs etc. The other thing is we have to restore public confidence in places like Germany, Belgium and Japan where you still have aftershocks, politically speaking, with respect to Fukushima. I think the way to regain public confidence is to show that we have faster, better, cheaper designs that can bring tremendous amounts of clean energy, and without which we are going to face continued rising sea levels and lost polar ice caps and devastated coral reefs etc.

"It would be remiss if I did not say one thing more, which is all of these great designs won’t do very much if we don’t have fuel for them and so we in our company are focused very much on developing this new form of highly concentrated fuel from high-assay, low-enriched uranium. A problem that the vast number of developers in the United States have said keeps them awake at night is access to this new type of fuel. So if we can get all of these things working, then it's very promising for all of us and for the planet."

Level playing field

Bilbao y León said that approaches to regulation need to be harmonised and markets need to reflect the true value of nuclear energy as low-carbon baseload power.

"There is a need for a level playing field in all aspects, including at the policy and the market levels. We need a new paradigm that really focuses on genuine public wellbeing, our health, the environmental impacts and the socio-economic impacts of all energy sources, and truly looks at them in the same context to make a fair comparison. When that is done, it will be much easier to see how nuclear can positively contribute to the economy and the decarbonistion of electricity systems," she said.

"Current energy markets fail to recognise the full cost and the full benefits of all the sources of electricity generation. Even if we have carbon pricing, it doesn't really include all climate change costs or pollution costs. No system [currently] takes into account the value of system costs, or the value of the reliability or 24/7 operation, such as are provided by nuclear energy. Another thing that will have a huge impact when developing new nuclear is having access to financing that is also equitable with other low-carbon electricity sources.

"Another necessary aspect is the harmonisation of regulatory processes. There is a need for more international consistency, efficiency and predictability in the way that new reactors are licensed."

Cost of finance

George Borovas, head of nuclear at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, said the approaches to financing clean energy projects are growing.

"Over the past few years we've seen solutions coming up around the world. A lot of countries are looking at new nuclear, finding financial solutions and employing different models, from using export credit agencies as well as sovereign finance models, so there is a better understanding of the risks that go along with the construction of new nuclear," he said.

"We have different technologies now. The Gen III reactors that were designed and built over the past 20 years are now operating. And something the nuclear industry has shown is that, once you have a nuclear reactor, the costs go down, the standardisation increases, and so you can replicate what you've done before and with success. Now we also have small modular reactors that are slowly being developed and which are promising to be cheaper, safer, better, and that's going to provide more discreet financial solutions for [units] that are going to be built in series.

"In general over the past few years, I've seen tremendous excitement return to the nuclear industry, and it reminds me of the technological revolution that we saw in the 1980s in other technologies. Nuclear is going to play a vital role in the development of safe and reliable power for the future of the world."

The renewables comparison

The falling cost of solar and wind power is often interpreted as a threat to nuclear, which is a false connection, the panellists said.

"This is not an either/or. We have a huge challenge ahead of us and if we want to achieve decarbonisation and at the same time the Sustainable Development Goals, we are going to need everything. There is also the typical understanding that nuclear has always been expensive, or the economics of nuclear are not as good as they need to be," Bilbao y León said.

She noted that a joint report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Energy Agency, published in December, states that the lowest cost energy sources of all types is the lifetime extension of nuclear plants. "The cheapest way, hands-down, to ensure low-carbon generation for the next 20 years is lifetime extension of the current nuclear power plants," she said.

Another conclusion of the report was that new nuclear projects for the next five years are actually competitive with all other forms of electricity generation, including wind and solar.

"What we are seeing is that the nuclear industry has actually achieved a lot of learning from recent projects that have not been as on budget and schedule as we would have liked them to be, but the expectation is that future projects are going to become much more competitive," Bilbao y León said.

She stressed that 70% of the levelised cost of nuclear is the cost of finance. "This means that if nuclear can have access to competitive financial resources comparable with those that other energy sources do, then the cost will come down even more. That's why it's important to have a level playing field that looks at all energy sources in the same way, and that establishes criteria that are technology neutral and that are based on the actual accomplishments of the technology," she said. "I truly think that new nuclear projects are going to become much more competitive than they are. Small modular reactors are going to make nuclear much more affordable and that means nuclear will expand to markets which perhaps haven't considered having nuclear before."

Poneman said renewables need to be understood not only in terms of their benefits but also their limitations.

"On the connection between renewables and nuclear, we need all of it, but if you want to max out intermittent sources, then you need to back it up. The battery technology is not cheap enough or widespread enough at grid-scale to be able to do that job. So, if you want to maximise solar, you need dispatchable power that's either coal, gas or nuclear, and obviously nuclear is the carbon-free version of that," he said.

Referencing the book Taming the Sun, Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet, by Varun Sivaram, Poneman said, "It's faster, better, cheaper to do that if you have the backup of dispatchable power, of which nuclear is a good case in point."

He noted the Natrium concept launched by GE Hitachi and Bill Gates' TerraPower, which features a sodium fast reactor combined with a molten salt energy storage system that will allow over five hours of energy storage.

"They use the heat all the time generated by the nuclear reaction to heat molten salt, so that molten salt can serve the same way as a battery to backstop the additional use of solar power. So, the either/or proposition between nuclear and solar and wind is a false dichotomy and it's destructive to our overall energy and climate goals," Poneman said.

Borovas said nuclear is the natural clean energy partner for renewables.

"Nuclear and renewables complement each other because nuclear is the baseload energy that helps you run your industry and makes sure that the lights are on at all times, and then, with renewables, you can have a combination of low-carbon sources. What we've seen happen in some countries is that renewables have been displacing nuclear, which doesn’t make sense," he said.

"Having renewables backed up with gas-fired plants or sometimes even coal-fired plants doesn’t make sense if climate change is your number one priority, and I think there is universal consensus that that is our number one priority. Having nuclear and renewables together working at full capacity is the only solution that we have for climate change today."

Bilbao y León also addressed the false claim that nuclear units are inflexible.

"Although it is true that nuclear reactors don’t like to be turned on and off, they are much more flexible than is commonly known. We have many countries, including France, Germany and the US, where nuclear reactors actually do follow the load," she said.

"Moving forward towards Generation IV reactors, their flexibility and ability to load follow are going to be even more possible. And don’t forget that nuclear energy is the only low-carbon energy source that can produce electricity and heat at the same time, which will be very important to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors, such as transportation and industry."

Political changes

Asked how political changes, such as the new US administration, are affecting the nuclear industry, Borovas said: "In the United States over the past few years we've seen an increased competitiveness in attention to the US nuclear industry and its exports. What we've seen from the new Biden administration is there's going to be a continuation of that policy."

There is consensus among lawmakers in the USA that nuclear energy is a geopolitical matter and that there is competition from Russia and China. This means there is an understanding that the US nuclear industry and its exports are going to be vital for that country's national security and commercial interests, he said.

"You can't be an exporter of technology without first taking care of your domestic industry, so the United States needs to keep its existing fleet, start building new nuclear power plants and then the world market will listen and say it's going to buy its product. If you say, 'We're not going to be building it back home because we have cheap gas, but buy my product because it's a great one', then that's not going to be very convincing. Slowly the United States is beginning to understand that," he said.

Wileman said he had felt "very encouraged" over the last few years by the bipartisan and bicameral support in the USA for the nuclear industry.

"You see the number of bills that have come out, including the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, because of which the Natrium project was able to move forward. That's a great way to accelerate technology coming to market," he said. "I think we do have the incoming administration's support; it's in their platform, and obviously climate is key. In the US, we're going to continue to seek momentum. It will be all about getting online, getting traction and getting those reactors under way."

Poneman picked up on Borovas' comment that a nuclear industry "needs to be strong at home to be strong internationally".

He said: "Let's not forget non-proliferation because the United States was at the cornerstone with President Eisenhower and ever since in setting up a whole global network of non-proliferation controls and restrictions that have made nuclear power safe, not only in terms of physical safety, but in terms of national security safety. So, the United States has to get out there. Obviously China and Russia have been very aggressive in promoting nuclear exports, and if the United States wants to continue to be a global leader, in terms of both safety standards and non-proliferation standards, then this commitment is present in the new administration. It was in the climate plan published by then candidate and vice-president, and now president-elect, Biden, who has advocated for advanced nuclear."

This represents a great opportunity for the USA "to get our groove back", he said. "The fact that we have strong bicameral support - both the House and the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Congress and the White House - is a very auspicious circumstance for the future."

The waste argument

The long-term management of used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste is an issue often raised by sceptics of nuclear energy but, the fact is, the nuclear industry "has done a fabulous job throughout its entire history", to the point that it is well know where this material is, and how it is being managed, isolated and separated from the environment and from humans, Bilbao y León said. Notably there has been work on deep geological disposal and on recycling fuel in reactors.

"Obviously the choice of policies for managing used fuel and nuclear waste rests with individual countries but the technologies for this do exist," she said. "In Finland, a deep geological repository is under construction and will start operations in a couple of years, and so we will have a functioning example of how this can be done. The long-term management of used fuel and nuclear waste is one of those issues that is important for the energy community to look at the entire picture, and in fact we will see how nuclear waste is really not a big problem and is being well-managed by the industry."

Wileman added: "Always, when I'm on a panel, I hear the term nuclear 'waste' and I'm glad Sama corrected it; she said 'used' nuclear fuel. I would go a little further and call it 'slightly used' nuclear fuel because, of the typical fuel that we have today, we've only extracted a few percent of its potential energy. So, I have always been a proponent of closing the fuel cycle and really getting all the energy out of there. The Gen IV fast reactors are well-suited for that, so as we move through the different generations of design, I think we'll have the opportunity to elegantly address that topic."

Poneman said the management of nuclear waste is "a much bigger political problem than it is a physical problem".

"All of the nuclear waste generated in the United States of America since the beginning of the nuclear era would fill one football field seven yards deep. Closing the fuel cycle is one way, but we know for a fact the scientifically geologic storage formations that work. What we need is to have the same as they have in Finland, which is a consent-based process, so that the public will have confidence in the solution that is found. With the options we've described - both geologic long-term disposal and recycling - the solutions are well in-hand," he said.

Entrenched opposition

Asked what they would say to those who oppose nuclear energy, regardless of the facts, Wileman said: "If you care about the environment and if you have questions, learn, go and be inquisitive, find the truth rather than what's in a headline. Look at what nuclear energy has been doing and what it can do in the future. Educating, which the World Nuclear Association works on, and the Nuclear Energy Institute in the US, is a key part that we have to keep in mind as we go forward and bring people on board supporting nuclear."

Poneman added: "By 2050, if we don't max out on getting to net zero, we will lose 99% of the world's coral reefs, all of the polar ice caps, and God knows what's going to happen to the coastal areas of most of the world, and you will have devastation of a catastrophic planetary dimension. Nuclear power is safe. In terms of deaths per watt generated, it is among the safest in the world. If you care about saving the planet, let's get nuclear right; let's not throw it out the window."

Bilbao y León repeated that the choice to use nuclear energy must remain a decision for every individual country, but it would be "irresponsible" to deprive future generations of that choice. "We can't close the door to this technology just because we have the opinions we have right now."

Borovas said: "The key to sustainable development is energy and electricity. As we try to get people all over the world out of poverty and into the middle class, then having abundant and clean electricity that does not affect the environment is key. Nuclear has to be part of that."

The panel was moderated by Nina Chestney, head of EMEA Power, Gas, Coal and Carbon, at Reuters.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News