What will be required for a significant expansion of global nuclear energy?

By Chantell Murphy, Vasily Safonov, June 20, 2019

The world's first AP1000 reactor, at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China.AP1000 reactors at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China. Credit: SNPTC

We believe the global climate crisis is imminent and must be addressed immediately and aggressively. We concur with the World Nuclear Association’s Harmony Program that nuclear energy be expanded to provide at least 25 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050 as part of a clean and reliable low-carbon mix, in harmony with an increase in renewable sources. Achieving this means nuclear generation must triple globally by 2050. This, in turn, will require an increase in the construction of new nuclear plants of roughly 1 gigawatt electrical (GWe) size from the current seven per year to roughly 30.

The nuclear energy industry is sitting at the nexus of old and new technologies and systems. The industry needs to make significant changes or risk becoming irrelevant to the quest of mitigating the impact of climate change. Meeting the goal of launching 30 plants per year, however, does not require new technological advancements. According to a recent study from the MIT Energy Initiative, lessons and common practices in other industrial sectors can play a role in improving nuclear facility planning, licensing, and construction—issues that currently plague the nuclear industry. While building 30 new nuclear plants per year is an ambitious goal, the nuclear industry achieved this level of capacity expansion during the heydays of nuclear power in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It has lost that ability in the past few decades for a variety of reasons, but the new targets are justified by the need to mitigate the climate crisis. We suggest a phased rollout of plant upgrades and construction of new advanced plants.

Most current nuclear plants are second-generation plants (Gen II). Commercial nuclear power plant design and production is often measured in generational scales starting with first-generation (Gen I) plants up to the most advanced fourth-generation (Gen IV) plants. Third- and advanced-third-generation (Gen III and III+) reactors have been completed and connected to the electrical grids of several countries around the world. We define new technological advancements as new Gen III and III+ reactors as well as Gen IV reactors and associated technologies. The Generation IV International Forum (GIF), an international organization promoting new nuclear energy technologies, has identified six nuclear energy systems with the most promise for commercial actualization. The six Gen IV systems consist of different fast reactors with closed fuel cycles, molten salt reactors, super critical reactors, and very high temperature reactors. The closed fuel cycle concept recycles spent (used) nuclear fuel to extract usable energy-producing elements such as uranium and plutonium at the same location of the reactor. Collocating the recycling process avoids shipping spent fuel containing plutonium long distances or across international borders.

Most of these advanced reactor concepts use a closed fuel cycle. Although the United States is exploring these advanced concepts, it currently employs an open fuel cycle without reprocessing or recycling. We note, however, that the United States was the pioneer of the sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor and its fuel cycle until it decided to abandon this promising technology due to proliferation concerns. On the other hand, Russia, as well as France, employs a closed fuel cycle for its current generation of reactors. The Gen IV concepts listed also explore advanced reprocessing ideas that are still in the early stages of research and development. Years of experimental work are still needed before Gen IV reactors and their fuel cycles can be deployed for reliable, safe, proliferation-resistant, and cost-effective commercial use.

To meet the goal of building 30 nuclear plants per year, we recommend life extension and license renewal for existing reactors in the near term, the launch of upgraded Gen III and III+ reactors in the mid-term, and the construction of mostly Gen IV reactors in the long term, depending on their degree of technical maturity. This ambitious goal is justified, we believe, by the pressing need to mitigate the climate crisis we face.

Near-term recommendations (2020–2030). Today there are approximately 450 operating nuclear power reactors worldwide with a capacity of roughly 400,000 megawatts electrical (MWe). Many existing Generation II reactors are between 30 and 40 years old and are facing decommissioning or license renewals. In the United States, 86 out of 99 nuclear plants obtained license renewals to extend their operation period for up to 60 years. Moreover there are plans to extend operation for nuclear plants up to 80 years, but such extensions will have to pass rigorous safety reviews and be demonstrated to be economical. France is also pursuing long-term life extension for its current fleet of reactors by an additional 10 years under the Grand Carénage. There are 214 reactors in the world with 200,368 MWe capacity that are now between 30 and 40 years old; extending their licenses instead of shutting them down will help nuclear energy to at least hold its ground in global electricity production.

In addition to extending the operating licenses of aging plants, we favor government support, including credits, for technical upgrades like steam generator replacements, flood control measures, cooling towers, or earthquake protection. We recognize there are strong objections to any government subsidies in the United States, but economic competition with low-cost natural gas combined-cycle plants have contributed to the premature closure of about 20 nuclear plants in the United States. Natural gas plants emit less carbon than coal plants, but nevertheless contribute to climate change, and government support could extend the life of existing nuclear plants slated for early closure by 2025. In Russia, for example, the nuclear industry is thriving because it is run by the government and receives assistance in many different forms.

Mid-term recommendations (2025–2040). Upgrading and extending the life of current nuclear plants will help in the near-term, but construction of new plants will be required to provide power for the developing world (where the growing demand will be) and to replace existing coal plants in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. It takes between five and eight years to construct a new nuclear plant, which drives up the interest costs of an already expensive licensing and construction endeavor. Reducing construction time is necessary to meet the requirement of 30 plants per year, and using a strategy of standardization, replication, and simplification could control and reduce the capital costs of nuclear plants.

Significant changes need to be made in the US nuclear industry to support the efficient manufacturing and construction of new plants. Compared to China, the United States faces regulatory, logistical and economic problems. For example, construction of two advanced light water reactors in South Carolina was abandoned because of rising costs, construction delays, and regulatory uncertainties. The technology vendor for the plant—Westinghouse—declared bankruptcy while two similar-design, larger-sized projects (the firsts of their kind) in China were completed successfully and connected to China’s electricity grid.

To increase the probability of success in the execution and delivery of nuclear plants, developers should use proven project- and construction-management practices and learn from the experience of successful plant construction elsewhere. We recommend that governments supply funding to share regulatory licensing costs as well as research and development costs and the incremental first-of-a-kind expenses to help the industry reach specific technical milestones. Further government support in production cost credits to reward successful operation of new designs would be useful, similar to the credits provided to wind energy generators.

In this regard, completing reactor design efforts before the start of construction will avoid costly re-work requirements later in the construction program. Some safety improvements are being implemented from the lessons learned from Fukushima, including new types of cladding and fuel pellet materials, large water reservoirs in case of loss of coolant, and two-layer reactor-building confinement. Water pumps and emergency diesel generators are being moved to higher ground.

Regarding the regulatory environment, governments should establish funding programs around prototype testing and commercial deployment of advanced reactor designs. To ensure a capable workforce, governments should provide support for nuclear training and education at universities in proximity to nuclear plants. To further ensure the pool of knowledge, we support joint international training programs based on successful experience gained elsewhere. Membership in nuclear utility organizations specializing in self-help safety improvements should be required in all nuclear plant countries. Although the US government currently opposes support for the nuclear industry, we believe the climate change crisis warrants a change in government policies.

Long-term recommendations (2040–2050). In longer timeframes, Gen IV reactors should dominate new nuclear plant construction, according to the Gen IV International Forum. Fast reactors offer many potential advantages such as significantly better utilization of uranium resources. For example, consumption of low-enriched uranium reactor fuel for a light water reactor is about 75 tons per GWe, but for advanced reactors like Russia’s new BN-1200 fast reactor it is only 4 tons per 1 GWe.

Involvement with large-sized fast reactors to date has been mostly disappointing, particularly in the United States and France. Experience with small-scale demonstration facilities in Russia and China, however, are encouraging them to pursue commercial-scale fast reactors in the in the next 10 to 20 years. Russia plans to connect an advanced sodium-cooled fast reactor, the BN-1200 with 1,200 MWe capacity, to the grid by 2032. China anticipates the CFR 1000, with a capacity of 1,000 to 1,200 MWe, will be up for consideration in 2020. Research is progressing in several European countries as well. The European nuclear research consortia are in the process of designing, developing, and constructing four demonstration reactors. France is planning to re-enter the fast reactor market, and India is also developing similar reactor and fuel-cycle pilot projects.

In the United States, small modular reactors have the most promise for Gen IV development. NuScale’s small modular reactor was the first to undergo US Nuclear Regulatory Commission design certification review. Once a design certificate is issued no changes in the design are required and technical safety issues that have already been resolved and approved cannot be re-litigated in the licensing process, shortening the licensing period prior to the start of construction. Successful small modular reactor projects might find markets in industrializing countries with small or isolated electric grids. United States startup companies are researching molten salt reactors, but the GIF timelines indicate that they are the furthest from the demonstration phase.

As developing countries require more energy, and the developed world shutters polluting coal plants, governments should work with the nuclear industry to phase in next generation nuclear power plants while upgrading existing facilities. Although our goal of opening 30 plants per year may seem aggressive, this will be key to helping the world meet the carbon emissions targets set in the Paris Agreement.


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P Carlson
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P Carlson

Generation 4 is already here! The Russian BN 800 is a Generation 4 fast breeder reactor and has been grid-connected in commercial operation since 2016. The BN 1200 design will evolve from it.

Sam Schwarm
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Sam Schwarm

A lot of current science news suggests we might be 10 or 20 years away from an operational FUSION nuclear reactor technology. Needless to say, there would be no issues over nuclear waste disposal, reactor core melt down, mining of Uranium, or nuclear weapons from plutonium (from nuclear waste),or need to enrichment in order to get fissile grade uranium, or radiation contaminating surrounding community. If we could get Helium3 from the moon (it`s there), it would make fusion plant more efficient, and also incintivise returning to the moon. Since it would prolly take years to get new FISSION reactors operational,… Read more »

Peter Bradford
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Peter Bradford

Totalitarianism, suppression of competition, massive subsidy and blind obedience should do it.

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