The Future of Nuclear Power:
Reading the Tea Leaves
Reading the Tea Leaves
I recently came across an interesting article in Nuclear Engineering International that led me to a report entitled “The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009,” commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and prepared by independent consultants, Mycle Schneider, Steve Thomas, Antony Froggatt and Doug Koplow. The report purports to explain why the anticipated “nuclear renaissance” is not going to happen.
Some of the points they make are valid and have been recognized by others in recent years. The demand for energy is increasing rapidly worldwide, and many projections show that, even with very aggressive nuclear construction programs, it will be difficult to maintain the nuclear proportion of the total energy supply. The article mentions concerns about supply chain constraints, workforce issues, and the international financial crisis. These are all real issues. Some, such as supply chain and workforce, are being addressed. Others, such as the financial crisis, will surely have an impact on nuclear construction—as they will on other large industrial projects.
However, some of the statements in the article are problematical and undercut their own arguments. For example, it notes that the difficulty of maintaining, or even increasing, the number of nuclear power plants is substantially reduced if operating lifetimes could be significantly increased beyond 40 years, on average, but concludes that there is currently no basis for such an assumption.
That’s funny. The NRC has licensed more than half of the operating nuclear plants in the US for an additional 20 years beyond the 40-year period of the initial license, and continues to receive and process applications for most of the remaining US nuclear power plants. Furthermore, they are beginning to discuss the possibility of a second license extension. While this concept is still in its early stages, it makes it clear that the negativism about operating lifetimes is exaggerated.
The article also mentions some of the difficulties of implementing nuclear power in countries that do not yet have it. Again, anyone would acknowledge that there are substantial hurdles for such countries to overcome. However, the article does not acknowledge all the options that may be available. For example, it cites grid capacity as a potential issue for some countries. That is very true for a large plant (of any type), but there are some promising technologies for smaller reactors currently being developed. The article also mentions issues specific to individual countries. In most cases, these are not insurmountable obstacles.
In addition, the article does not mention a number of positive trends, such as the aggressive nuclear construction programs in India and China (although the report covers construction projects).
As that famous philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said, “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” I know I quote him all too often, but it is true, and it is difficult to say it better. The nuclear renaissance may be slowed by the recession and nuclear power may not be achieved in every country now thinking about it. However, the fact that the road ahead is difficult doesn’t mean it is impassable.
The report should be viewed as a warning of some of the challenges ahead, not as a prophecy.