The Future Looks Bright for Nuclear Power—Dare We Use the 'R' Word Again?

The term “nuclear renaissance” was very popular in the early 2000s. Nuclear power plant operators had substantially improved existing plant performance, and many new plants were being considered around the world, including in the U.S. In fact, later in the decade, contracts were signed and early site work began on two dual-unit new-build nuclear projects in the U.S.—the Vogtle and V.C. Summer expansions—and more orders were expected. Supply chains had begun ramping up to meet the predicted demand and the wheels appeared to be in motion for big things to come.

However, early construction delays and associated cost increases on the new-build projects, as well as low natural gas prices, resulting from fracking and horizontal drilling, ultimately put the brakes on. While nuclear plants continued to be developed in China, Russia, and a few other countries, the renaissance that was predicted never materialized.

A New Nuclear Renaissance

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the nuclear power industry today. While new orders for reactors have been slow to come in, particularly in the U.S., many experts are guessing they will eventually appear. In the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2022 (WEO), a 524-page flagship report released by the agency last October, the “Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario” projects nuclear power capacity worldwide will more than double from 413 GW in 2021 to 871 GW in 2050. Other scenarios are less optimistic in their projections, but all show substantial growth in nuclear power capacity and generation over the next 25-plus years.

Mark Gake, nuclear technology portfolio manager with Black & Veatch, an engineering, procurement, consulting, and construction company headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas, also presented an optimistic view. Speaking in Orlando, Florida, at POWERGEN International on Feb. 22, Gake said, “What we see today is that there’s a lot of momentum building around this, a lot of new technology entrants, a lot of potential.”

The demand is huge, according to Gake, not only from utilities, but also from industrial companies. “There is a shift change driven a lot by decarbonization but also by energy security,” he said. “It’s a large, large momentum shift.”

Gake noted that federal assistance is also helping to propel the nuclear industry forward. “There’s a lot of government support right now, not only in the U.S., but in Canada and Europe and other places where the government is saying, ‘We need to be part of this movement.’ ” he said.

What Countries Will Lead?

In a report titled “Energy Transition Trends 2023,” issued in February by international law firm Clifford Chance LLP, it says beneath the WEO’s global forecasts are “important details revealing new trends which could fundamentally change the world of nuclear energy.” Among those details is the projection that 60% of new-build plants will be constructed in China. That means China’s nuclear fleet could overtake the U.S.’s as the largest in the world within the next 10 years.

Many other countries are showing interest in nuclear power, too, often to help meet carbon-free energy goals. The United Arab Emirates entered the nuclear club in April 2021 when it placed the first unit of its Barakah plant in commercial operation—it now has three of the four units online at the site. Other countries building their first nuclear power plants include Bangladesh, Egypt, and Turkey, with more researching the option. While Russia has been the dominant exporter of nuclear technology over the past 10 years, its invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a lot of pushback against its offerings, opening the door for suppliers from Canada, China, France, South Korea, and the U.S. to fill the gap.

Small Modular Reactors Provide New Options

Excitement is building around several small modular reactor (SMR) designs. NuScale Power’s VOYGR SMR design was in the news in early March when Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) announced that 26 of the participants in its Carbon-Free Power Project had voted to continue development of the project, which aims to build a six-unit VOYGR plant at an Idaho National Laboratory site. The vote allows the project to move into the next phase, which involves completing and submitting a combined operating license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expected by January 2024.

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) has also been making news with its BWRX-300 SMR design. In February, officials in Estonia selected the BWRX-300 for a project to be constructed there. Prior to that, GEH’s design had been selected by Ontario Power Generation for its Darlington New Nuclear Project, and last summer, the Tennessee Valley Authority also began planning and preliminary licensing for potential deployment of a BWRX-300 at its Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Still, the analysis performed by Clifford Chance suggests SMRs won’t play a significant role in the power market until after 2035. In the meantime, the firm says, “Large-scale nuclear projects remain very relevant and much-needed.” Financing these projects, however, is a major hurdle. The report says, “The conventional project financing approach used for other forms of power generation is not well-suited to the large capex [capital expenditure], unique risks and lengthy construction periods associated with delivering major nuclear projects. We would like to see international take-up of the regulated asset base (RAB) scheme being promoted in the UK, further reducing the cost of financing which would otherwise ultimately be borne by consumers or taxpayers.”

Perhaps the most important item, though, is finding a way for nuclear projects to obtain cost and schedule certainty. Unless that happens, this new nuclear renaissance is likely to stall just like the old one.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.

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