EXPRESS #1 - September 11, 2018
Some important nuclear news this week.
The famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) produced a major report, “The future of Nuclear Energy in a carbon-constrained world”, on 3 September, which concludes that without nuclear power, “the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly”.
This should not come as a surprise, though, since MIT has a large Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the study was partly sponsored by the nuclear industry (e.g. EDF and General Atomics). What I found more interesting is how according to MIT the costs of nuclear power can be reduced – for the authors do acknowledge that “the prospects for the expansion of nuclear energy remain decidedly dim in many parts of the world. [And] the fundamental problem is cost.”
In effect, MIT largely follows the recommendations made by pro-nuclear activist Michael Shellenberger, who I portrayed last week on EPW and who has been advocating a cost-cutting approach that to a large extent goes against the strategy followed by much of the nuclear industry today.
Shellenberger has written a number of articles (see for example here) in which he argues that the industry should not at this stage sets its card on “advanced” technologies (e.g. sodium-cooled reators, small modular reactors or thorium reactors), but instead focus on mass-producing the standard existing pressurized water reactor (PWR) design.
Shellenberger believes the industry would best be served by one or two very big companies (comparable to Boeing and Airbus in the aerospace sector) churning out standardized reactors which would ideally be situated together in centralized locations.
The MIT report makes three major recommendations to cut costs, the first two of which follow Shellenberger’s ideas.
First, the authors recommend “An increased focus on using proven project/ construction management practices to increase the probability of success in the execution and delivery of new nuclear power plants.”
Second, they advocate “A shift away from primarily field construction of cumbersome, highly site-dependent plants to more serial manufacturing of standardized plants.”
Both are leaves taken out of Shellenberger’s book. The third recommendation seems to partially contradict the first two however. The authors write that “To address safety concerns, we recommend: A shift toward reactor designs that incorporate inherent and passive safety features.”
Such “inherent safety” features are characteristic of “advanced designs”, which have been developed at least partially to improve the safety of nuclear plants. The researchers write: “We judge that advanced reactors like LWR-based SMRs (e.g., NuScale) and mature Generation-IV reactor concepts (e.g., high-temperature gas reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors) also possess such features and are now ready for commercial deployment.”
However, it is not clear how these advanced reactors could fulfil the first two recommendations of the report – proven project management and serial manufacturing.
Shellenberger, for his part, argues that the PWR design is already the safest form of power generation that exists. “How do you make a technology that almost never harms anybody any safer than it already is?” he has written. What makes nuclear technology safer is “experience, not new designs”, according to Shellenberger.
On 7 September nuclear Mycle Schneider, with his associate Antony Froggatt, published their annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR). This is essentially an overview of all global nuclear projects, whose “status” often turns out to be more uncertain than would glean from press reports. Many nuclear projects get stuck in the planning phase or are delayed significantly.
Thus, for example, the WNISR2018 notes: “At the beginning of the year, 16 reactors were scheduled for startup in 2017, only 3 made it, plus one that was then expected in 2018: three in China, one in Pakistan (built by Chinese companies).”
In mid-2017, “19 reactors were scheduled for startup in 2018, of which one was connected to the grid already in late 2017, but as of mid‑2018, only a further five reactors were connected to the grid—three in China and two in Russia—and seven had already been officially delayed until at least 2019. The Chinese startups include the world premiere of grid connection for a Framatome-Siemens designed European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) and a Westinghouse AP1000.”
China is clearly leading the pack in new construction. Still, although nuclear power generation grew by 18 percent in 2017, it contributed a mere 3.9% to Chinese power production, up from 3.6 percent the year before.
The 2017 edition of WNISR was translated into Chinese for the first time and the authors note that “in combination with the rapid development of wind and solar power as well as the ‘excessive’ installed capacity of coal power, the need for further development of nuclear power has already diminished considerably” compared to a few years ago.
Overall, the share of nuclear power in the global electricity mix “has remained almost stable over the past five years (–0.5% over the period), with 10.3 percent in 2017, with a long-term declining trend from a historic peak of about 17.5 percent in 1996. Nuclear power’s share of global commercial primary energy consumption has remained stable since 2014 at around 4.4 percent.”
With regard to the European Union, “the region has not had any significant building activity since the 1990s. There were no construction starts in Western Europe since 1991, prior to Olkiluoto‑3 (2005) and Flamanville‑3 (2007), and none after. Only five reactors were connected to the EU-grid over the past 20 years, four in Eastern Europe (two in Slovakia and one each in Romania and Czech Republic) and one in France, none since Cernavoda‑2 started up in 2007.”
One of the few European countries that is pushing hard for new nuclear build is the UK. In addition to Hinkley Point C and other major planned projects (see here for an overview), the UK government in 2015 announced its support for the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), in which the country wanted to become a leading player.
That initiative, however, is not getting off the ground – at least according to a paper written by Andy Dawson – Small Modular Nuclear, Crushed at Birth – published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on 10 September.
It makes for an interesting read. According to the author, the program got off to a good start under then-chancellor George Osborne, but has been more or less derailed after Osborne left, whether through incompetence, resistance or inertia is not clear. (Think “Yes Minister”). “It is clear that the SMR programme, at least in the format originally implied by George Osborne, is dead”, Dawson writes.
The paper does sound a positive note about the development of the conventional nuclear projects in the UK at this moment. After Hinkley Point C, controversial because of the high cost of the EPWR design of builder EDF, succeeding projects, including Wylfa and Bradwell B, show promise of being built at much lower costs, writes Dawson.
China General Nuclear (GCN) will probably be able to build the Brawell B plant in Essex at half the cost of Hinkley Point C. It should be viable “at a strike price of £55-65/MWh”, and more likely less, around £45/MWh, according to Dawson.