COP26 Smiles on Nuclear Power
The prospects for a resurgent nuclear power industry across the globe are arguably the best they have been for some years. This comes in the wake of a noticeable increase in support for nuclear power at the two-week UN climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland that ended November 13, 2021.
Commenting on the new mood, compared with COP25 in Madrid two years earlier, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN-affiliated body responsible for promoting nuclear generation and safety, said, "This COP is perhaps the first where nuclear energy had a chair at the table.” He commended the fact that nuclear energy is now able to be considered and that perspectives could be exchanged, “without the ideological burden that existed before.”
At the event, US President Biden’s administration provided a major boost to the global industry with announcements made to support Poland, Kenya, Ukraine, Brazil, Indonesia, and a number of other countries in the building up of their nuclear power capacities. The Oregon-based NuScale also signed an agreement with Romania’s Nuclearelectrica to help deploy the first small modular reactor (SMR) in Europe.
France Embraces Nuclear Future
France’s 56 nuclear reactors produce over 70% of the country’s electricity, making it one of the world’s most nuclear-dependent countries. However, many of these reactors are nearing the end of their lives. This has sparked a lively debate between the pro-nuclear camp looking to replace them with the next generation of small nuclear reactors and ecologists pressing for renewable energy.
At COP26, French President Emmanuel Macron emphatically put an end to all speculation as to France’s future energy direction by announcing his intention to build up to six new SMRs by 2030. These reactors will each generate less than 300 megawatts (MW) of energy, far less than the 950 and 1300 MW produced by the current generation of European Pressurized Water Reactors (EPR) that are in service domestically. The announcement took many in the energy industry by surprise.
The government had previously said it would not launch any new reactor projects until the state-owned nuclear energy company, EDF, completed its much delayed “third generation” EPR nuclear power plant in Flamanville in north-western France. However, the French media believes that Macron’s hand may well have been forced in October by Europe's gas crisis and the knock-on effect on household spending power.
At COP26, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to build up to six new small modular nuclear reactors by 2030. France believes small nuclear reactors can be useful for water desalination and hydrogen production, in addition to producing energy directly.
France is also aware that its nuclear power technology is under threat from Chinese competition. Therefore, switching to SMRs could be the strategic pivot that enables France to deal with competition from countries like China. Recently, Beijing has unveiled increasingly sophisticated nuclear power ambitions. France, on the other hand, believes it has identified a niche export opportunity in the use of small nuclear reactors for purposes other than energy generation. Nicolas Mazzucchi, an energy specialist at France’s Foundation for Strategic Research pointed out, “These reactors can be used for water desalination—a highly important task in places like the Middle East and even India—as well as to produce hydrogen to heat homes in colder parts of the world.”
UK Awards Rolls-Royce Consortium Contract to Build SMRs
For decades, nuclear energy has been an integral part of the United Kingdom’s electricity system. Currently, nuclear energy provides around 20% of its electricity. However, most of the UK’s Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) built in the 1970s and 1980s are due to be decommissioned in the coming decade. In light of this—and given the construction delays at the UK’s proposed $27 billion flagship Sizewell C nuclear plant project in Suffolk, eastern England—some opponents of the UK’s nuclear power generating industry suggested nuclear power should be de-prioritized.
However, by late September 2021, it was clear that the UK government was looking to give the sector a new lease on life. First, the government revealed plans to remove the Chinese state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group from the Sizewell C project. The Chinese company currently has a 20% stake in Sizewell C, and the UK government is in negotiations to hold the stake until it can be sold to institutional investors, as reported by the Financial Times.
In November 2021, the Rolls-Royce consortium announced plans to develop and deploy a fleet of small modular reactors throughout the UK. Each power station would be able to generate low-carbon electricity for about 1 million homes.
Then, in November, an industry consortium led by Rolls-Royce announced it is to pump £405 million into the development of a fleet of SMRs over the coming years. Rolls-Royce has secured funding from US energy company Exelon Generation and privately held BNF Resources. The Rolls-Royce consortium will use the initial funding to put its SMR design through the UK’s rigorous nuclear regulatory regime. According to the Financial Times, this process is expected to take up to four years “but would keep the consortium on track to complete its first 470MW plant by the early 2030s. Each mini-power station would be capable of generating enough low-carbon electricity for about 1 million homes.”
Rolls-Royce estimates at least 16 SMRs could be installed at operational and mothballed nuclear sites in Britain. The company expects the first five SMR reactors to cost £2.2 billion each, falling to £1.8 billion for subsequent units. It estimates that the program could create as many as 40,000 jobs in the UK regions by 2050. The new venture will continue to seek further backers and has said it is in talks with a potential fourth investor, which would raise the consortium’s commitment from £195 million to £250 million. Jacobs in the US and the UK’s Laing O’Rourke are expected to become supply chain partners, Rolls-Royce said.
Nuclear Industry Seeks Waste Breakthrough
Ever since the first nuclear power generating plants were commissioned to great fanfare in the 1950s, the industry’s trajectory has been far from smooth. Indeed, by the 1970s and 1980s, it had reached its nadir following accidents at Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
However, the new generation of small reactors are claimed to be safer than large reactors from the older generation as they contain less nuclear material. Politically, there is a growing acknowledgement that, in order for the world to achieve “net-zero,” greater attention needs to be placed on nuclear power as a leading source of emissions-free energy.
On the other hand, there is still the problem of what to do with nuclear waste. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that some 370,000 metric tons of heavy metal of spent fuel, considered high-level waste (HLW), has been produced by the civil nuclear industry since the advent of civil nuclear power production. Of this amount, only 120,000 tonnes has been reprocessed.
Deep geological disposal is the preferred option for many countries in Europe, but a major sticking point is public acceptance. The European Commission is also not fully sold on the idea. Although its Joint Research Centre (JRC) Science for Policy Report 2021 concluded that deep geological formation disposal of long-lived radioactive waste was “an appropriate and safe means of isolating it from the biosphere for very long-time scales,” its Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental, and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) said there was insufficient research and a lack of modelling. “High-level waste storage remains an open research question, with considerable uncertainties,” SCHEER said in its review of the JRC report.
Currently, Finland’s Posiva Oy facility Onkalo, a deep-geological repository, is the only permanent spent nuclear fuel facility to have been licensed and in construction. Its capacity to hold 3,300 canisters of used nuclear fuel is deemed plenty for Finland’s own nuclear waste, which comes from four nuclear reactors with a 2,800 MW capacity. Final waste disposal at the site is due to start within the next few years.
*Nnamdi Anyadike is an industry journalist specializing in metals, oil, gas, and renewable energy for over thirty-five years.