Tracking Power

Not on track
Charles Devaux Ibtnswmmthe Unsplash

Nuclear power

More efforts needed

Global nuclear capacity by scenario, 2000-2040

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Overview

In 2018, 11.2 GW of additional nuclear capacity were connected to the grid, the largest increase since 1989. New projects were launched representing over 6 GW, and refurbishment projects are under way in many countries to ensure long-term operation of the existing fleet. Nevertheless, more efforts in terms of policies, financing and cost reductions are needed to maintain existing capacity and bring new reactors online. Under current trends, nuclear capacity in 2030 would amount to 497 GW, compared with 542 GW under the SDS. At least a doubling of the annual rate of capacity additions is therefore required. This section was authored by the Nuclear Energy Agency, Division of Nuclear Technology Development and Economics (NTE)
Tracking progress

In 2018, a total of 11.2 GW of new nuclear capacity was brought online, the highest capacity addition since 1989. China alone accounted for 9 GW, connecting several Gen III/III+ reactors to the grid, including four AP1000s, one EPR and one VVER.

While there are over 60 GW of capacity under construction, the rate at which new projects are launched remains half the build rate required to meet the levels set out in the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS).

Nuclear power construction starts and first grid connections, 2007-2018

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In 2018, 6.7 GW of construction began, evenly distributed among Asia (Bangladesh: 1.2 GW of VVER; Korea: 1.4 GW of APR1000), Russia (1.2 GW of VVER) and OECD countries (UK: 1.7 GW of EPR at Hinkley Point C; Turkey: 1.2 GW of VVER at Akkuyu). The last construction in the United Kingdom was completed in 1995, and Turkey is embarking in a nuclear programme for the first time.

Construction in the United Arab Emirates is progressing well, with the first of four APR1400 units completed in March 2018 – though start-up was postponed due to delays in operator training. The four units represent 5.6 GW of capacity.

Other new-build projects are in preparation in Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Hungary, India, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Typically, these are projects for 1‑GW reactors or more. Judging from current policies and ongoing projects, this could mean new additions in the order of 35 GW.

Even though China did not start any new build in 2018, it is expected to launch several new projects in the coming years, including inland reactors, to reach total capacity of up to 110 GW by 2030.

In addition to new build projects, refurbishments are ongoing in several countries to extend the operating lifetimes of their nuclear fleets.

Canada’s Darlington and Bruce nuclear units in Ontario are undergoing a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar refurbishment that will allow the plants to operate well beyond mid-century.

In France, the utility EDF is continuing its refurbishment programme to extend the lifetime of the French nuclear fleet beyond 40 years and expects generic regulatory approval in 2020.

Argentina completed the long-term operation (LTO) refurbishment of the Embalse Nuclear Power Plant, allowing an additional 30 years of operation and increasing its capacity by 6%. Another unit, Atucha I, was granted a licence extension to operate until it reaches 50 years.

In the United States, 90 of the 98 operating units have a licence to operate for 60 years in total, and applications for further 20-year extensions are being reviewed for 6 units.

Other countries with LTO projects include Armenia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, the Russian Federation, Mexico and Brazil.

Nuclear energy policy remains uncertain in many countries as governments try to reconcile political pledges, public opinion, climate objectives and energy supply security.

The French government confirmed its objective to reduce the country’s share of nuclear power from 75% to 50% but has pushed this target to 2035 instead of 2025 to avoid increasing emissions. Moreover, given the challenges associated with achieving carbon neutrality in 2050, the French government has announced a work programme with the nuclear industry to draw up a clear plan by mid-2021 for a decision on the possibility of a nuclear new build programme.

Japan has confirmed its objective to raise the share of nuclear power to 20-22% by 2030, but the process to restart reactors shut down after the Fukushima Daiichi accident remains slow. Of 39 operational reactors, only 9 were running at the end of 2018, but 16 have applied to restart.

Belgium confirmed it will phase out nuclear generation (50% share) by 2025, replacing it with gas.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) continue to attract interest in both established nuclear countries, such as Canada and the United States, and in newcomers such as Poland and countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. RD&D and investment in SMRs and other advanced reactors are being encouraged through public-private partnerships.

In the United States, congress passed a bill on nuclear innovation that encourages public-private partnerships to test and demonstrate advanced reactor concepts, and to enhance public research laboratories’ simulation and experimental capabilities. The bill also encourages the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to share expertise to facilitate licensing of advanced reactors.

The NRC completed the first phase of NuScale SMR design certification, which is expected to be finished in 2020. Plans to construct the first modules of a new plant in Idaho progressed with the manufacturers having been chosen and further support confirmed by the US DOE.

In a separate development, in April 2019 the TVA company received an early site permit from the NRC for its Clinch River Valley site for the possible installation of one or two SMRs; these could be NuScale SMRs.

The Canadian government released its SMR roadmap in December 2018 and encouraged SMR vendors to take advantage of the opportunities offered to build and demonstrate their technologies. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC; the federal regulator) is currently reviewing ten SMR designs and has received an application to build a Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) in 2019.

Russia is commissioning its floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov, and several countries such as Argentina, China, France and Korea are also developing SMR technologies.

Newcomer countries such as Poland, Indonesia and Jordan continue to develop feasibility studies for the development of high temperature reactors, the latter two in co‑operation with China. Saudi Arabia is carrying out studies on nuclear desalination with SMRs.

The Generation IV International Forum, an international R&D initiative that gathers the most advanced nuclear countries, welcomed the United Kingdom as a new member, while strengthening its engagement with various private sector companies.

Overall, global investment in nuclear capacity remains insufficient, as testified by the low number of new projects being launched. According to the World Energy Outlook, USD 1.5 trillion in investment would be required between 2018 and 2040 to get on track with the SDS.

In 2017, investments in nuclear decreased to USD 17 billion. However, investments for LTO refurbishments were almost the same as for new capacity (USD 9 billion for new builds vs. USD 8 billion for LTOs). This demonstrates the attractiveness of LTO investments in spite of policy and market uncertainties. Similar trends were observed in 2018.

Nuclear policy uncertainty in a number of countries prevents industry from making investment decisions.

A more forthright recognition by governments and international organisations of the value of nuclear energy’s attributes and contributions to decarbonising the world’s energy systems would encourage policy makers to explicitly include nuclear in their long-term energy plans and Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.

While some countries argue that they can meet decarbonisation objectives while phasing out nuclear (Germany, Belgium, Switzerland) or reducing its share (France), others are clearly stating the need to increase it to meet those objectives: China, Russia, India, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan.

Electricity market uncertainty makes it difficult for investors to predict the revenue that a nuclear power plant can generate over several decades.

Regulators could reduce this uncertainty by improving electricity market designs so that they appropriately value the clean and dispatchable source of energy that nuclear power plants represent.

There are still technological uncertainties concerning nuclear new-build cost reductions for Gen III/III+ reactors as designs move from first-of-a-kind to series reactors. The cost-effectiveness of more innovative designs for SMRs and other advanced reactors is also uncertain.

More robust oversight of the nuclear supply chain, design simplification, standardization and innovation are all needed to reduce the overnight costs of nuclear power. Improved project and risk management by experienced staff is also necessary.

These actions will require concerted efforts by governments and industry, as illustrated by the United Kingdom government’s 2018 Nuclear Sector Deal that set a path for reducing the cost of new builds by 30% by 2030.

No regional or global licensing framework exists for nuclear power technologies, which means vendors have to repeat certification processes and adapt to national codes and standards, leading to longer project duration.

More efforts to harmonise regulatory requirements and promote design standardisation are needed. This could be achieved through information and experience sharing among regulators, including for the more novel designs, and more effective global industry initiatives to harmonise engineering standards. It is critical that governments enable these efforts.

Innovation gaps

While industry is confident that the overnight costs of today’s Gen III/III+ Light Water Reactors can be reduced significantly as series are being developed, there is some uncertainty as to whether these large reactors can compete in a cost-effective manner in future low carbon energy markets, with increasing shares of variable and distributed generation.

More disruptive innovations may be required for nuclear to secure its role as a flexible, reliable and dispatchable source of energy.

Three types of innovations are being pursued. The development of smaller reactors, which could have higher operational flexibility. The development of innovative fuels that could ensure higher performance at lower cost. And finally, the development of non-electric applications, such as process heat, hydrogen production and desalination, which could displace fossil-based processes.

While there are several alternatives to decarbonise the power sector (renewables, CCS, nuclear), there are fewer to decarbonise applications for which fuel switching (electrification) is not possible or limited.

While nuclear energy is recognised as a proven technology to provide low-carbon electricity as well as grid services, its potential as a source of low-carbon heat is often neglected, even though there is proven industrial experience (nuclear district heating in Switzerland for over three decades; process heat in CANDU plants in Canada; nuclear desalination in Kazakhstan in the 1980s). Hence, demonstrating the coupling of advanced reactors with non-electric applications can provide policy makers with alternatives to decarbonise transport (carbon-free production of hydrogen using nuclear heat and electricity), process heat applications and other energy-intensive industries such as desalination plants.

Coupling nuclear reactors with non-electric applications can also provide energy system storage – i.e. storing energy in the form of heat or as an energy vector such as hydrogen. This is the basic concept of hybrid energy systems.

Furthermore, demonstrating the possibility of multiple revenue streams (sales of electricity as well as heat or hydrogen) can improve the case for investing in nuclear technology, which will remain a capital-intensive technology.

Fuel design improvements can offer additional benefits such as enhanced performance and increased safety margins.

Innovative fuels may incorporate new materials and designs for cladding and fuel pellets. Testing in experimental reactors and validation in power reactors are needed before such fuels can be licensed.

While nuclear development has focused on constructing larger reactors in recent decades (typically light-water reactors [LWRs] of 1 400 megawatts electrical [MWe] to 1 750 MWe) to meet growing power demand within large-scale electricity grids, it has been recognised that future energy systems will also require different technologies. Smaller – perhaps more flexible – reactors will be needed for niche markets (small grids, isolated communities, or grids with large shares of variable renewables), to replace fossil fuel-based power plants in the 300 MWe to 600 MWe range, or to provide (in addition to electricity) low-carbon heat that can substitute for fossil fuel uses (desalination, process steam for industry, hydrogen production) or to burn nuclear waste. Advancing the design, certification and demonstration of SMRs and other advanced reactors such as Gen IVs for electric and non-electric applications will offer clean, low-carbon energy generation technologies to complement renewables and CCS.

In addition, countries with long-term policies to close the nuclear fuel cycle loop by multi-recycling nuclear materials are also maintaining efforts to develop Gen-IV fast-reactor designs (particularly sodium fast reactors) and the associated nuclear fuel cycle facilities.

Finally, countries with long term policies to close the nuclear fuel cycle with the multi-recycling of nuclear materials are also maintaining efforts for the development of Gen-IV fast reactor designs (in particular Sodium Fast Reactors) and associated nuclear fuel cycle facilities.

Additional resources
Acknowledgements

Michel Berthelemy, French Atomic and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA), Saied Dardour, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)