16 October 2016

Nuclear Engineering International (UK): Nuclear power in the world – pessimism or optimism?

Nuclear power in the world – pessimism or optimism?

Nuclear Engineering International, 13 October 2016

It is interesting to compare and contrast two recent reports that purport to show the status of nuclear power around the world. Firstly, the latest edition of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) has just been published, a report which has become established as a useful compendium of facts and figures about nuclear. Although the authors and their sponsors are unashamedly in the anti-nuclear camp, there has always been a lot of good information in this publication, while many of the points made are worthy of reflection.

Perhaps as a reaction to the success of successive WNISRs, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) has this year issued its own World Nuclear Performance Report (WNPR), which it also intends to update annually. The wider purpose is to monitor progress towards the goals for nuclear outlined in its “harmony” vision, setting a target for 1000GWe of new nuclear capacity to be added by 2050 (so that nuclear would supply about 25% of global electricity then).

To start with the WNISR, earlier editions have been previously dissected in these columns (November 2009, ‘Nuclear industry status – better than claimed?’ and September 2014 ‘The world nuclear industry – is it in terminal decline?’). The comments made then still apply, but the reports have got considerably better over time, with more comprehensive analysis of individual countries and much improved presentation. Nevertheless, the report arguably relies too heavily on what is readily available on the Internet and in particular from international news agencies such as Bloomberg and Reuters.

Nearly 1000 references quoted throughout the report are impressive, but do not necessarily allow the authors to get to the heart of key issues in individual countries. For example, they claim that information on the status of construction of the four Barakah units in the UAE is “scarce” (an insinuation that they are, in common with many other new build units around the world, somewhat delayed). They are, in fact, on schedule. On the other hand, they have somehow missed the corruption scandal within the Brazilian nuclear industry, which casts further doubt on the completion schedule of Angra 3.

One good feature of the new WNISR is the improved graphics. Over 50 figures greatly assist in explaining a lot of rather dry statistical information. The comprehensive coverage of all the countries operating nuclear reactors is also very welcome, although there is naturally a tendency to dwell on the problem areas. The issues in the French nuclear industry attract plenty of attention, as does the recent trend of US nuclear reactors to close for economic reasons. The authors obviously highlight any evidence that backs up their view that the nuclear industry is on its last legs, while downplaying anything to the contrary.

One general observation is that WNISR seems to see the energy world as consisting of only nuclear and renewables (which to them seems to be only wind and solar). There are brief references to fossil fuels, but the general assumption seems to be that these will all be phased out (at least in power generation) by the middle of the century and there is thus a battle for supremacy between nuclear and renewables. This being the case, growth rates of generating capacity and electricity output, plus information on dollars recently invested, serve to make a seemingly compelling case that renewables will rise to 100% penetration as nuclear suffers a slow death.

The growth rates of wind and solar are certainly hugely impressive and way ahead of what most analysts were expecting only a few years ago. And with the exception of China, South Korea and a few other countries, the nuclear situation on this measure looks bleak. But this has been the easy phase for renewables, establishing a good foothold in many power markets backed by generous subsidies. Once shares of renewables get beyond 15-20% of total power generated, a number of difficult issues emerge, as discussed in recent columns (June 2016, ‘Renewable power – can it push nuclear out of the picture?’ and July 2016, ‘Renewable power – what about the hype?’).

Perhaps it is unfair to expect a report that is mainly a critique of the nuclear industry to say anything remotely bad about renewables, but one expects at least a degree of balance. Take Germany, for example. It is certainly true that the rise of wind and solar there has been very impressive, but the substantial rise in power prices and the failure to reduce carbon emissions is leading even German authorities to question what they have done. Where nuclear plants have shutdown anywhere, they have been replaced by fossil fuels as much as renewables. This will also be the situation in the US if nuclear plants cease operating. They will mainly be replaced by gas-powered generation, not renewables, and hence carbon emissions will rise.

One interesting omission in WNISR is any substantive mention of hydropower. This is usually regarded as a renewable, is both growing rapidly and still more than twice as important as wind, solar and other renewables in world power generation. Pumped storage hydro stations will also remain easily the most important sources of large-scale power storage for many years into the future, however optimistic one is about battery storage. There is still significant potential for increasing hydro power worldwide and it is odd to discuss the Chinese nuclear situation, as WNISR does, and have lots of comparisons with wind and solar, without reference to the huge local hydro programme. And, indeed, all the remaining plans for lots of further coal plants.

Although the potential for more hydropower is somewhat limited in many countries, is it not the real rival for wind and solar, rather than nuclear? Or is hydro the main rival for nuclear rather than wind and solar? It would be nice to know more, or at least to see a few mentions. One issue is that hydro power is seen as a very bad thing by most wind and solar power advocates. It is still regarded as environmentally unfriendly (and in common with nuclear, probably irrelevant and unnecessary for the future).

To end on a couple of further positive comments on WNISR, the continued lack of Japanese reactor restarts adds power to their complaint that the statistics compiled by both WNA and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the nuclear industry status are misleading. Including reactors as “operable” along with those definitely in service, when they have not generated power for many years (and don’t even have a licence to do so) is clearly ridiculous. And their complaint that the nuclear sector is far too optimistic on the possibility of reactors getting established in new nuclear countries (as represented by the WNA’s website paper on “Emerging Nuclear Countries”) is entirely valid. The fact that only Belarus and the UAE seem set to reach there in the next five to ten years makes the point perfectly.

Turning to the WNA’s WNPR, one is immediately struck by how thin it is by comparison with WNISR. Brevity is maybe not a bad thing, however, and if one can make one’s case without WNISR’s 1000 references, all to the good. The report, unlike WNISR, is also commendably honest about the status of the industry it is trying to promote. Statements such as “the situation facing the nuclear industry globally is challenging” and “the recent history of the global nuclear industry has been mixed” are understatements, but welcome all the same. Nevertheless, as with WNISR, one has to read the report with the expectation that the best gloss will be put on facts and figures to suit the authors’ case. In particular, the few crumbs of comfort (such as any positive mention of nuclear in a prominent international report) are highlighted and accorded more significance than they deserve.

To start with the positives, the chapter on recent industry highlights provides a good and succinct summary of what has recently been happening. But the statement that industry prospects seem brighter than they have been for a while is not supported by the facts and figures in the chapter on nuclear industry performance. In terms of power output, the world nuclear sector is still stuck where it has been for the last 20 years. Although the near future should at least see more reactors starting up than shutting down, the revival rests on shaky foundations.

These include the Japanese restarts, where there remains huge uncertainties, a range of new technologies such as small modular reactors, advances in development (still many years away), several major nuclear build programmes about to get under way (where and when?), and a positive shift in public support for nuclear energy in many Western countries (where?).

The nuclear industry performance chapter, divided into five sections covering important areas such as power uprates and the extent of new build, also provides a good summary and covers a lot of ground aided by some good new graphics. The important point that once nuclear stations come into operation, they provide large quantities of reliable power relatively cheaply is well made and the fact that the age of reactors is not necessarily a crucial issue is highlighted. The section on decommissioning is particularly welcome, as this will become an increasingly important part of the industry in the future, and one where costs may fall as experience builds up.

The risk is that, as time goes on, the decommissioning section of WNPR will get progressively longer and the sections on uprates and new build rather shorter, exactly the scenario WNISR predicts. What is surprising is how weak WNPR is at trying to persuade the reader that this will not happen. The general tone is very defensive and inspires little confidence in the future of the industry. This can be seen in the preface and the chapter on nuclear energy for sustainable development. There is a huge mismatch between the targets of WNA’s “harmony” programme and where the industry is today. In reality, “harmony” is no different to WNA’s “nuclear century outlook” of a decade ago. It has lots of new nuclear stations required to reach environmental salvation. Is it a scenario, a vision, an aspiration, a target or merely a fantasy?

There is a vacant space for nuclear in the world’s energy picture of 2050. Arguably the most important reason is nothing to do with the environment but something that WNPR does touch on, namely the increased trend towards urbanisation everywhere. The world will need huge quantities of reliable power in a limited number of locations, something that nuclear is well placed to deliver. Yet in the five years since the Fukushima accident, WNA and the industry have failed to create a new paradigm for the industry that will allow it to return to the reactor construction rates that are now necessary. The paradigm of fear which has bedevilled the industry since the 1950s is still with us.

Rather than gently seeking harmony with technologies that threaten to destroy nuclear, the industry must stop waiting for external factors to change in its favour. Baseload will mean rooftop solar panels and lots of wind turbines, unless the nuclear industry adopts a more aggressive stance and starts pointing out the pitfalls of a renewables- heavy power grid – or the risks from having no power grid at all and fully distributed generation.

*Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.