A nuclear renaissance?

Materials World magazine
3 Oct 2016

Natalie Daniels takes a look at the operating, planned and proposed nuclear reactors around the world.

As of May 2016, 31 countries across the world operate close to 450 nuclear reactors, with a further 63 nuclear plants under construction in 15 countries. It is estimated that nuclear power provides more than 11% of the world's electricity, yet each country adopts different attitudes when it comes to managing its nuclear network.

At the time of press, Britain’s first new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point has been given the go-ahead, following delays in July, when the UK Government announced ministers would conduct another review. This was despite a vote by EDF directors to start work on the project, itself a decision greatly delayed within the company, which led to resignations from Chief Financial Director Thomas Piquemal and board member Gérard Magnin, in disagreement with Hinkley. Nuclear New Build Executive and Hinkley project director Chris Bakken also left EDF following a January 2016 board meeting, which did not conclude with a final investment decision. EDF commented that Bakken would ‘return to the USA, his home country, to pursue new professional opportunities whilst allowing him to spend more time with his family.' Theresa May reportedly had concerns about the Chinese involvement in a UK nuclear power deal, but has since set out 'significant new safeguards' to ensure Chinese involvement does not threaten national security. Dr Raphael Heffron, Jean Monnet Professor in Energy and Natural Resources Law and Policy at Queen Mary University of London, UK, spoke to Materials World about the decision, ‘The delay was disappointing but it was a political decision.’ May’s decision to approve the project is a major step forward for the UK's nuclear power programme and could create 26,000 jobs. 

Critics of the project have previously stressed their concerns regarding the safety and environmental impact of the project. Confidence has been undermined by a range of problems with the European pressurised reactor (EPR) in Flamanville, France, the same model to be used at Hinkley. Since its development, France’s nuclear safety authority discovered weaknesses in the reactor’s steel, casting doubt over the UK’s nuclear safety plan. Peter Storey, Professor in Nuclear Policy and Regulation at the University of Central Lancashire, UK, believes the UK will be able to navigate the difficulties experienced in France, previously noting to Materials World, ‘There is nothing wrong with the reactor itself […] Flamanville and Olkiluoto, Finland, are firsts of a kind, and you will always experience some difficulties with firsts.’ (see Materials World, December 2015, page 6).

With costs expected to rise, Hinkley Point C is faced with even more uncertainty. Its two 1.65GW EPRs will be among the biggest in the world. The original cost was estimated to be £16bln – £14bln for construction, with the remaining £2bln covering items such as the acquisition of sites, regulatory approvals and training. In 2015, EDF increased its cost estimate to £18bln, which was put down to inflation.

William Nuttall, Professor of Energy at the Open University, UK, said, ‘Hinkley C is clearly a significant project. It is widely cited as representing 7% of UK electricity supply for the 2030s. Such a contribution is indeed important, but not essential. A less discussed, but similarly important, benefit will be the role it will play in electricity grid stability. The high-speed rotation of very heavy turbines associated with the two planned reactors will represent a major contribution to the frequency stability of the national grid.’

Phasing out 

While the UK is looking to grow its nuclear industry, the same can’t be said for Germany. In 2011, Germany's coalition Government announced plans to phase out all the country's nuclear power by 2022, in response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The decision makes Germany the biggest industrial power to announce plans to phase out nuclear energy and fill the gap with renewables, following a fundamental shift in public perception towards nuclear safety. Today, eight of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants remain in operation. In March, Germany recommended that France close down its oldest nuclear plant, Fessenheim, located near the German and Swiss borders in North Rhine-Westphali, following safety concerns. It isn’t the first time that Germany has advised other countries on nuclear closures. It also suggested that Belgium temporarily close two ageing Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors near their shared border. Before the Fukushima crisis, German nuclear capacity was around 21,500MW. It now stands at 11,357MW and accounts for around 6% of the country's total capacity. The next reactor scheduled to come offline is at Gundremmingen B, expected to close by 2017. Representatives from industry have called for a reliable energy roadmap as further nuclear plants are shut down.

Japan also remains deeply divided over its future energy mix. Public sentiment has shifted, with protests calling for nuclear power to be abandoned. The Fukushima disaster led to the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from surrounding areas, and sparked a national debate about nuclear power, leading to the closure of all 54 of Japan’s nuclear reactors, as new regulations and policies were formulated. However, over the past year, natural resource poor Japan has taken a step forward in the nuclear industry to some critics’ disappointment, as it begins to restart some of its reactors. In June 2015, approval was being sought from the new Nuclear Regulatory Agency to restart 24 of the 54 pre-Fukushima units. The units also require approval by the local prefecture authorities before restarting. The Nuclear Regulatory Authority has approved the restart of Ikata-3, the fifth to receive approval so far. 

By setting out a new safety and development framework, Japan hopes it can demonstrate to the public that its reactors can be operated safely and regain confidence from the regulators and power companies. Restarting one of the Sendai nuclear plant’s two 30-year-old reactors represents a victory for Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who insists that without nuclear energy the Japanese economy will buckle beneath the weight of expensive oil and gas imports. The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, has estimated that seven reactors are likely to restart by the end of March 2017, and 12 more by March 2018.

The global climate change crisis has added further pressure to reduce greenhouse gases, leading a number of countries to maintain or in some cases increase nuclear power generation. The USA generates the most electricity using nuclear power followed by France, Russia and China.

Considering costs

Despite leading the way in nuclear power generation, managing safety, cost and environmental issues has led to delays and rising prices in the USA. Ensuring nuclear power is capable of providing reliable, carbon-free power at a low price will be crucial if nuclear is to play a bigger role in the energy market. States across the USA are struggling with the role of nuclear power. 

In 2013, the USA was home to 104 reactors, supplying one-fifth of its electricity. Construction, however, has slowed since, with five reactors closing early and seven more expected to close over the coming years. A combination of cheap natural gas, demand for new efficiency initiatives and rocketing energy costs has meant fewer reactors are being built. Heffron believes this to be ‘a failure of project management. This can be overcome if more nuclear reactors of the same type are built and a nuclear programme is planned, rather than a nuclear project. The latter involves focusing on just one plant, like Hinkley Point C, whereas a programme involves building a fleet of reactors,’ he said. 

Low gas prices have already delayed nuclear construction in the USA and caused the premature retirement of reactors in four states. Owners of nuclear plants in Florida and California (see Materials World, August 2016, page 19) have also decided to retire, rather than repair, damaged reactors based on future low-priced gas expectations. Heffron continued,
‘It is important to remember two other reasons for the high cost. This is a new nuclear technology and in essence is different from before. There are high costs involved when delivering any new technology. Secondly, the nuclear energy sector has very high safety standards. This is not the case for other energy sources – if coal, oil and gas were to have the same safety standards as nuclear energy, they would be out of business tomorrow.’

South Korea’s fleet

As the cost of nuclear power in USA soars, South Korea’s nuclear programme has been praised, having seen costs decline steadily since the late 1990s. To avoid expensive nuclear plants, South Korea has a high density of nuclear, which stems from intense research into reactors, helped by importing American, French, and Canadian designs in the 1970s and learning from other countries' experiences before developing its own fleet of reactors in 1989. By 1999, a fully Korean design was completed and designated the APR-1400. Over the past few years, Korean nuclear power R&D activity has been diversified into advanced small modular reactors and Generation IV reactors to help compete against gas and renewables. 

Despite the small size of the country, one third of the nation's electricity demand is fulfilled by nuclear power, mainly down to the lack of fossil fuel energy. Being the country closest to Fukushima's effect, the anti-nuclear movement in South Korea has become more involved since 2011, but the country has no plans to slow down its role in the nuclear energy network, with the Government announcing a new energy plan for 2029. This includes eight new nuclear reactors in addition to the four already under construction, as well as a commitment to expanding renewable energy from the current share of 4.5% of electricity to 11.7% by 2029.

Research and development

While countries are investing in more reactors, research into other options is attracting increased interest. One area in particular is the use of thorium as a replacement for uranium in nuclear plants (see Materials World, September 2013, page 38) Compared with uranium, thorium is more abundant in nature and widely distributed in the Earth's crust. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, thorium is safer than uranium as it is not prone to runaway chain reactions that can lead to nuclear disasters, and its waste product remains dangerous for a much shorter timeframe. With further research and modifications, commercial nuclear reactors could switch to thorium-based fuels. Extracting its energy inexpensively remains a challenge but both India and China are investing heavily in its development.  

Today, nuclear energy relies on the policy agendas of many countries, all with different approaches and public perceptions, with projections for new build similar to or exceeding those of the early years of nuclear power. With global population growth expected to double electricity consumption by 2030, there will be a need to replace the previous generation of reactors in the USA and Europe. Nuttall concludes, ‘Whatever happens at Hinkley, the nuclear renaissance will surely occur in some form.’

To read up on how thorium could be used for a next generation of nuclear reactors, visit bit.ly/2bySnPP