What’s holding nuclear back?

For nuclear energy to make a significant contribution to the global sustainable development agenda, the sector should address the issues of economics and public acceptance while embracing the opportunities of innovation and trade, writes David Hess at the World Nuclear Association

Nuclear back Getty

Worldwide, the nuclear industry is growing, and the amount of energy produced by nuclear plants has increased steadily for over five years. However, the growth of nuclear has not proportionally matched that of global electricity demand and as a result the share of nuclear electricity has fallen in recent years to about 10%, down from a historic high of 17%.

The story of nuclear energy is different depending on where you look. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, nuclear makes a significant contribution to electricity supply (~20%). In non-OECD countries (currently at < 5%) we see interest blossoming, with some newcomers making rapid progress towards constructing their first nuclear plants. The global prospects of nuclear energy therefore depend on whether the sector can address the distinct regional factors affecting progress, and especially those in newcomer markets.

These days, the global energy dialogue is arguably dominated by four challenges:

Meeting clean development objectives. Despite progress, it is estimated that roughly one billion people still live without access to any electricity. What energy access people have is mostly produced by polluting sources, which contribute to seven million premature deaths each year. As countries industrialise, they must find ways to increase the supply of clean and reliable energy.

Mitigating climate change and protecting the environment. Limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than 2ºC above pre-industrial times requires deep cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases from the energy sector. Other environmental issues are gaining urgency and also require change, including ocean plastic, deforestation/land use, sustainable resource management and species loss.

Boosting flexibility and resilience. Within many electricity markets there is increasing demand for flexibility services to balance the impacts of variable renewables. At the same time the threats facing the electricity system are evolving. In addition to the normal challenges of fuel and resource security are the growing number of cyber-attacks and increasing impacts of severe weather events.

Integrating new technologies. Over the past 20 years, technological innovation in energy has progressed at dizzying speeds. While renewables and shale gas receive a lot of attention, breakthroughs have occurred across the sector: mineral extraction, energy production, distribution and consumption. New technologies bring benefits, but also further challenges that require adaptations to policy frameworks, market structures and from existing operators.

Nuclear energy helps to address all four of these challenges. In fact, nuclear energy is probably unique in its cross-cutting potential here, and substantial progress is made extremely difficult when it is excluded from the portfolio of available options. More generally, nuclear technology (of which nuclear energy is a major subset) directly helps countries to achieve nine of the 17 UN sustainable development goals. The case for nuclear is strong in developed countries, but it is paramount for meeting the objectives of developing ones.

Nuclear energy

  • Is low-carbon, boasting low life-cycle emissions
  • Has among the smallest land and resource footprints of any energy source
  • Helps to avoids pollution such as NOx, SOx, heavy metals and particulate matter
  • Is flexible in terms of siting and not limited by fuel resource availability and transport infrastructure (railways, pipelines, etc)
  • Is capable of operating reliably at capacity factors in excess of 90%, but can also load follow if desired
  • Provides rotational inertia that helps to stabilise the grid and regulate frequency
  • Allows stockpiling of fuel, which boosts security of energy supplies
  • Is among the most cost-competitive energy options over many decades of operation
  • Is a major employer in rural areas, supporting skilled hi-tech jobs and local economic activity
  • Offers proven technology that is available today and can be scaled comparatively quickly
  • Can provide isotopes and support for research, medicine, industrial and agricultural purposes
  • Is improving, with new technologies offering greater efficiencies and opening up new applications to enable decarbonisation of heat, industry and transport sectors

Unleashing atomic potential

So what exactly is holding back nuclear energy development globally, and what can be done about it? Traditional industry focus areas include waste management and safety. However, while these remain important issues, many organisations are dedicated to them and progress has been fairly consistent. In most places they are no longer the primary issues blocking expansion. Rather, observation suggests the following:

Trade. It is in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America that we see the largest near-term potential for rapidly expanding nuclear energy. How can the international community help to improve readiness in these places and speed their nuclear deployment? How can countries that have not yet begun to embark on reactor programmes be encouraged to do so? 
As the nuclear industry expands globally, so will the demand for advanced reactor technologies and fuel cycle services. Some of these are considered sensitive by the countries that developed them. What must be done to address these sensitivities and get governments to enable transfers instead of blocking them?

Public and political support. While it takes decades to build up a nuclear sector, it only takes one term of a sitting government to start shutting nuclear facilities down. How can nuclear energy be depoliticised so that support is maintained and industry prospects do not disappear with the next election cycle? Every nuclear facility must establish and maintain trust with its neighbours. This is implicitly based upon effective safety and waste handling, but also includes commitments to transparency and support for local communities. How can public trust be built, especially in the age of NIMBYism, digital media and well-resourced opposition groups?

How can nuclear energy be depoliticised so that support is maintained and industry prospects do not disappear with the next election cycle?

Innovation. Research and development has led to changes in all parts of the energy sector, but progress in new nuclear technologies has been slow in comparison as a result of high regulation and cost barriers. How can new nuclear technologies be brought to market faster? And how do advanced reactors break into niches such as heat and desalination? Nuclear plants may be expected to operate for as long as 80 years, but in that period the energy landscape can change profoundly. How should nuclear facilities adjust to integrate new technologies, and how can they increase their resilience to security threats and the impacts of climate change?

Economics. Recent nuclear projects in Western countries have run into construction difficulties that have inflated costs and delayed operations, in some cases leading to abandonment. This has undermined confidence in nuclear energy in policymakers, and led would-be developers to set conservative cost estimates for future projects. How can industry improve performance and start reducing costs and project schedules? How can existing nuclear facilities cut operating costs? How can policymakers effectively facilitate new nuclear investment and adjust market structures to value the benefits they bring?

These are the questions that industry, regulators, researchers and policymakers must answer in order for nuclear energy to thrive in the future. Much is at stake, since failure will seriously set back the global sustainable development agenda.

By David Hess, Policy Analyst, World Nuclear Association and member of the Harmony Team, which aims for nuclear to provide at least 25% of electricity by 2050 as part of a diverse low-carbon mix

Image credit | Shutterstock