Thursday, January 16, 2020

Whither Nuclear Power:

Status and Prospects

The New Year is always a time for reflection on the past and the future.  And a new decade (if you count 2020 as the start of a decade) doubles the incentive to try to look at where things are headed for nuclear power. 

As always the picture for nuclear power is very mixed, and depending on which report you read which day, you can conclude either that nuclear power is on its way out, or that nuclear power is poised for great things ahead.  I try to stay away from making predictions--there always seem to be too many moving parts--but I thought it might be interesting to summarize a few facts--things that are happening now in the nuclear power industry around the world--and to try to put them in perspective.

For inspiration, I turned first to 2 recent articles on the World Nuclear Association (WNA) website, Plans for New Reactors Worldwide, and Reactor Shutdowns Outweigh Start-ups in 2019.  Taken together, these might appear to be confusing--2019 saw a decrease in the number of reactors, but on the other hand, nuclear power capacity worldwide is anticipated to increase in the coming years. 

When you peel back the layers, you begin to see that there are a number of elements involved in what is happening.  While there were more shutdowns than startups in 2019, it is important to note that there were still a number of startups.  Furthermore, most of the shutdowns had been planned for some time and were based on the ages of the plants, government subsidies for competing sources and wholesale market economics (at least in the U.S.), or on national plans to reduce the use of nuclear power in some countries.  Most of the startups in the past year were not surprises either.  They were largely in Russia and China, both of which have aggressive nuclear power programs. 

Likewise, many of the plants listed as being under construction are in Russia and China, as well as elsewhere in Asia.  The WNA article on future plans identifies about 50 reactors under construction.  It also notes that, in the past, nuclear power plant shutdowns have roughly been balanced by new units starting operation:  in the last 20 years, from 1998-2018, they indicate that 89 reactors were shut down and 98 new reactors started operation; and looking ahead, one prediction is that 154 existing reactors will close in the next 20 years (by 2040), while 289 may come online by 2040.  The WNA article on plans for new reactors also cites the extensions of reactor operating lifetimes in the U.S. and other countries as a positive development in sustaining the nuclear contribution to electricity supply, and both articles mention power uprates in several countries.  I would also particularly highlight the recent approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of the first applications for license extensions from 60 to 80 years.

Of course, predictions are always subject to a lot of change--changes in governments and national (and sometimes, local) policies, changes in public opinion, a major nuclear accident, shutdowns of fossil fuel plants, decreasing costs of renewable energy options, technological developments in nuclear technology, and much more, can all alter these projections.  And the changes can be positive or negative.  Recently, concerns about climate change are causing some countries to revisit past anti-nuclear policies.  But historically, a number of active construction projects have failed to be completed, especially in the United States, but also elsewhere; and sometimes, plants have been shut down even after license renewals were granted.  Therefore, it is too soon to tell whether the current trends will be sustained over a 20-year period.

Other factors that neither of these articles cite is the potential role of some of the advanced nuclear technology under development.  Current R&D is focusing a lot on small modular reactors (SMRs) and even micro-reactors, and there are also a number of projects focused on alternatives to the current light water reactor technology.  In the U.S., some specific causes for optimism include the recent Congressional budget appropriation for fiscal year 2020 that provides a 12.5% increase in funding for nuclear projects and an early site permit for SMRs at TVA's Clinch River site issued by the NRC. 

This work is focused mostly on the longer term, and some of it, especially the micro-reactors, is focused on applications other than power to the electricity grid.  Therefore, this work quite rightly has not been incorporated into the 20-year prediction offered by WNA.  However, in the longer term, some of this work could result in a new generation of reactors that would be appropriate for providing power to the grid, and that might address some of the concerns, such as the high cost of constructing a large reactor, and the impact of an accident, that have hampered nuclear power deployment in recent years.  In fact, SMRs might also be attractive for areas that are not suitable for large reactors, and thus, have the potential to lead to an expansion of the use of nuclear power.

To summarize, in recent years, nuclear power seems to have regained some of the momentum that was lost after the Fukushima accident in Japan.  In fact, some countries, such as Poland, that had previously had an anti-nuclear stance, are now looking seriously at incorporating nuclear power in the future.  Thus, there is some reason to believe that the WNA projections are realistic.  Nevertheless, experience has shown that unanticipated developments have sometimes drastically altered the short-term trends.  Looking further ahead, there is considerable potential for the new technologies under development to have a significant impact in the longer term, but further effort is needed to confirm that these newer designs meet expectations about cost and safety. 

I know that some will be disappointed that my projections are not more definitive.  Alas, I lack a crystal ball!  But I remain cautiously optimistic that the WNA projections will be realized, and that current R&D will pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power in the future.