Nuclear energy – a favourable climate
As countries commit to decarbonise electricity supply, nuclear energy is reclaiming a space at the top of the agenda. Recent developments are encouraging and signal a positive outlook for a technology that over the last four years has been beset by heightened public concerns and challenging economic conditions. It is clear that over the longer term nuclear is growing as it remains essential for meeting the world’s increasing need for affordable, reliable and clean energy.
The USA has stepped up its response to climate change with new proposals put forward by government that seek to curb greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. At a time when a combination of factors have coincided to put significant pressure on the country’s reactor fleet, leading to some early plant closures, the new rules may finally reflect the intrinsic value of nuclear’s clean-air and grid reliability qualities.
The use of nuclear energy in the USA prevents the emission of 590 million tonnes of CO2 annually – roughly the same amount as is put out by 113 million cars.
This year’s polar vortex induced severe winter strongly emphasises the need for reliable and diverse power supplies. No power source does reliability quite like nuclear.
Figure 1: Plant Capacity factors in the USA. Source: Nuclear Energy Institute
In Europe, several countries have expressed their unified and adamant belief that nuclear energy must be part of the climate solution and that market changes are needed to encourage the necessary investment in capitally-intensive low-carbon energy projects. To date nuclear has been largely excluded from European climate goals and support programs which have exclusively favoured renewable energy sources and efficiency measures. Consensus is building however that on their own these cannot substitute for base-load electricity sources. Nuclear energy is uniquely suited to this task.
: security of supply, sustainability and competitiveness. Moreover the Euratom Treaty provides for obligations of the European institutions to support the development of nuclear power. In our view, nuclear energy, for its physical and economic characteristics, is entitled to be treated as an indigenous source of energy with respect to energy security, having an important social and economic dimension.” Part of a common view expressed by the governments of Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. Sent to the Commission in July 2014
“We are convinced that nuclear energy should keep its proper place in European energy policy in accordance with the Treaties. Nuclear energy perfectly fits the three pillars of energy policy as reflected in the TFEU
Part of a common view expressed by the governments of Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. Sent to the Commission in July 2014
Hinkley Point C is the first in a queue of UK projects which seeks to take advantage of national market reforms designed to encourage a range of low-carbon technologies in a deregulated electricity market. These reforms are currently awaiting approval from the European Commission. A favourable decision could open the flood gates on a program of nuclear new build across the continent – creating many jobs and associated economic benefits.
G-20 governments are re-focussing on ensuring the availability and stability of energy resources (particularly gas and oil) in light of recent geo-political events. It should be noted that nuclear is particularly beneficial from an energy security standpoint. Uranium is abundant, supplied by many countries and nuclear fuel can be easily stored in large quantities. Moreover the cost of nuclear energy is relatively insensitive to fuel price movements.
Figure 2: Where EU member states’ uranium comes from. Source: FORATOM
Nowhere are energy issues felt more keenly than where demand is growing fastest. In the world’s rapidly industrialising economies this is truest of all. China leads the charge on new nuclear development and plans to boost its installed capacity from 19.8 GW at the end of 2013 to about 130 GW by 2030 as it sets out to maintain its industrial growth and to minimize the environmental impacts caused by its current coal reliance. Other countries with committed plans include Russia, South Korea and India, while newcomer countries continue to move ahead with their programs – UAE, Belarus, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Poland and Vietnam.
Japan’s 48 operable reactors have stood mostly idle since utilities gradually took them offline following the Fukushima accident; a situation which has adversely affected global generation figures. However the recent draft safety approval issued by the new nuclear regulator paves the way for the restart of the idled fleet and is a clear and welcome sign that the country is ready to move forward in its recovery. The extra money spent on fossil fuel imports to cover the nuclear shutdown amounts to ¥ 3 – 4 trillion per year ($30 – 40 billion) according to government estimates.
Where demand is flat or grids are modest nuclear energy has long been discounted as an option. However a new technology under development offers the potential to overcome these limitation. Small Modular Reactors (SMRS) introduce a greater degree of flexibility to nuclear energy systems. Transportable by rail or even mounted on a ship, and with the ability to slot into small networks, SMRs are well-suited for certain niche applications such as remote industrial centres or replacement of smaller fossil units. With companies across the world collaborating on these designs we should see the first units deployed within the next decade – adding a whole new dimension to nuclear energy.
Figure 3 Graphic representation of Russia’s floating nuclear power plant which is currently under construction. Source: OKBM