Nuclear Power Needed for Clean Energy Future

“Without action to provide more support for nuclear power, global efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), wrote in his foreword to the IEA’s recently released report titled Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System.

The report notes that nuclear power accounts for 18% of generation in advanced economies and is the largest low-carbon source of electricity, but it also says nuclear power could decline significantly by 2040 if action is not taken.

Market Fails to Recognize Value

“Government policies have so far failed to value the low-carbon and energy security attributes of nuclear power, making even the continued operation of existing plants challenging. New projects have been plagued by cost overruns and delays,” wrote Birol. “These trends mean nuclear power could soon be on the decline worldwide. If governments don’t change their current policies, advanced economies will be on track to lose two-thirds of their current nuclear fleet, risking a huge increase in CO2 emissions.”

Pennsylvania offers a case in point. State legislators in Pennsylvania—the second-largest nuclear power-producing state in the U.S.—worked to update the 2004-issued Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards to include nuclear power. However, lawmakers could not reach an agreement during the 2019 legislative session. As a result, Exelon announced on May 8 that it will retire the Three Mile Island (TMI) facility in September, permanently removing 819-MW of nuclear generation from the grid.

Life Extensions Provide a Stop-Gap

The IEA report says lifetime extensions of nuclear power plants are crucial to getting the energy transition back on track. It notes that the European Union and the U.S. have the largest active nuclear fleets with more than 100 GW each, but they are also among the oldest. The average reactor is 35 years old in the European Union and 39 years old in the U.S., according to the report. The original design lifetime for operations was 40 years in most cases. “Around one-quarter of the current nuclear capacity in advanced economies is set to be shut down by 2025—mainly because of policies to reduce nuclear’s role,” the report says.

Yet, life extensions don’t necessarily translate into continuing operations. TMI received a license extension in 2009. Its current license doesn’t expire until April 19, 2034, but its closure decision is based on economics. The same can be said for several other reactors retired in the U.S. since 2013. Still, lifetime extensions are considerably cheaper than new construction. Only one new-build project is currently in progress in the U.S.—Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4—and it is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

Investment in Nuclear Needed

The IEA noted that the significant upfront investment required for nuclear projects is the biggest barrier to new construction. “But without new construction, nuclear power can only provide temporary support for the shift to cleaner energy systems,” the report says. “The main obstacles relate to the sheer scale of investment and long lead times; the risk of construction problems, delays and cost overruns; and the possibility of future changes in policy or the electricity system itself.”

There have been long delays in completing advanced reactors being built in Finland and France. Like the Vogtle project, those units have turned out to cost far more than originally expected, dampening investor interest in new projects. Yet, without new investments in nuclear power, achieving a sustainable energy system will be much harder.

“While renewable investment would continue to grow, gas and, to a lesser extent, coal would play significant roles in replacing nuclear. This would further increase the importance of gas for countries’ electricity security. Cumulative CO2 emissions would rise by 4 billion tonnes by 2040, adding to the already considerable difficulties of reaching emissions target,” the report says.

Advanced Technologies Offer Promise

Nonetheless, the IEA holds out hope for advanced nuclear technologies. It said interest in small modular reactors (SMRs) is rising, and it suggested there is a case for governments to fund further research and development. “Standardisation of reactor designs would be crucial to benefit from economies of scale in the manufacturing of SMRs,” the report says.

“Policy makers hold the key to nuclear power’s future,” Birol said in a press release. “Electricity market design must value the environmental and energy security attributes of nuclear power and other clean energy sources.”

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).