What Does the Nuclear Industry Need to Do to Scale Production Toward Net-Zero Goals?

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) proved to be a historic moment for nuclear energy, with more than 20 countries including the U.S., France, Japan, and the UK pledging to triple global nuclear energy generation by 2050. The Net Zero Nuclear Industry pledge, endorsed by more than 100 companies including LRQA, set the same goal. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) also launched its new Accelerating Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) for Net Zero initiative, utilizing its network to create a practical platform for collaboration and knowledge exchange.

As the event came to a close, Director-General Magwood of the NEA noted that the global nuclear sector had been left with a renewed sense of confidence and a clear outline of actions, including boosting the workforce and sourcing new financing streams. Despite these positive developments, challenges persist, including ongoing public distrust and a history of project and cost overruns in certain markets, demanding industry efforts to meet ambitious goals.

Infrastructure. Today, 412 nuclear power reactors operate in 31 countries and make up more than 370 GW of installed capacity, providing almost 10% of the world’s total electricity and a quarter of its low-carbon supply. The COP28 pledge is grounded in the 2020 global nuclear power production figures of more than 375 GW generated by 422 reactors, so we are already behind the starting line agreed to in Dubai, increasing pressure to deliver.

For this number to increase rapidly, more licensed sites need to be established. SMRs will have a key role to play in this, opening up locations that aren’t usually suitable for larger nuclear plants. Each will have to comply with regional legislation, such as the UK Nuclear Installations Act and the Atomic Energy Act, but securing and selecting new sites will also need public and political support.

Assuring the Public. To support rapid planning and infrastructure, addressing public concerns related to safety is crucial. Education around risk and assuring compliance with regulation are key to boosting public confidence in all forms of nuclear power.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) work establishes norms for safety legislation, crucial for maintaining public confidence, while companies can boost trust through transparent communication about nuclear operations and safety measures.

The Full Lifecycle. Regulators and industry must collaborate to address concerns related to public perception and investor confidence in nuclear projects throughout their lifecycle. The costs and safety of decommissioning often overlooked in assessing the carbon impact of alternative clean energy sources, are key considerations for many stakeholders. On the positive side, nuclear projects have a longer lifespan and a smaller footprint for comparable megawatt production, offering potential for greater public support.

Encouraging Investment. Studies have confirmed that the goal of global net-zero carbon emissions can only be reached by 2050 with swift, sustained, and significant investment in nuclear energy. For long-term investments, the financial climate must be as appealing as it is for any other infrastructure project: providing secure and predictable returns over time. To avoid any surprises, project overruns must be tightly controlled throughout installation and the decommissioning burden must be integrated to represent the entire asset lifecycle cost.

These costs can be effectively understood and managed if factored in during the design and construction stages. Recent nuclear projects in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the well-executed decommissioning policy in the U.S. serve as evidence that the full lifecycle of nuclear power can be successfully managed.

Eliminating Counterfeit and Fraud. Getting installation and build right the first time is crucial to controlling cost and time overruns. Ensuring a reliable manufacturing supply chain is key.

While you may think that counterfeit, fraud, and suspect items (CFSI) wouldn’t be a challenge in this tightly regulated industry, they have been an increasing risk since the pandemic, the shipping crisis, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict began fragmenting global supply chains. These supply chains are likely to come under further pressure as demand scales up, forcing companies throughout the chain to seek new or alternative suppliers to deliver the parts and materials they need, on budget and on time.

Implementing an effective CFSI policy is vital to eliminating this threat. It should cover culture, prevention, and detection, whilst also being flexible and adaptive to the evolving climate. Regular reviews and updates to avoid any negative impact on an organization’s reputation, or in some cases, criminal investigations, are crucial to ensuring that the nuclear industry can scale production quickly and safely.

Next Steps. The pledges to triple capacity made at COP28 have been a significant step forward in the nuclear industry’s contribution to global net zero goals. To achieve these ambitions and scale production successfully, we must work together as an industry to boost public and investor trust by strengthening our supply chains and ensuring security and safety throughout the process. Collaborative assurance and proactive risk management will play a vital role every step of the way.

Simon Emeny is an international specialist in nuclear energy and head of inspection with the global assurance firm LRQA.

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