Can nuclear help avoid the worst effects of climate change?
The International Energy Agency recently provided a roadmap for nuclear power, detailing how the technology could help keep global temperature increases within a 2-degree scenario. According to the IEA report, between 2015 and 2050 total installed nuclear power capacity around the world would need to more than double from 396 gigawatts (GW) to 930 GW.
To get there, the IEA says that the world will need to see an additional 20 GW of new nuclear capacity each year, a scenario that from today’s vantage point seems highly unlikely. The IEA admits as much, and says several key things must happen in order for the industry to ramp up in such a rapid fashion.
The need to train a skilled workforce, greater standardization, more public acceptance, and a resolution to long-term nuclear waste storage feature among the key objectives. There are good reasons to believe that these problems could theoretically be addressed, albeit with great political difficulty.
Critically, however, the IEA notes that the nuclear industry is going to need to demonstrate that it can build new power plants on time and within budget. On this objective, the industry is failing miserably. Nuclear power plants have often suffered from cost overruns and delays, one factor (among many) that put the industry into a decades-long lull beginning in the early 1980’s. The so-called “nuclear renaissance” was thought to put an end to these problems with a new generation of designs and modular construction. So far, it hasn’t played out that way.
One of the showcases of the nuclear renaissance was a reactor to be built by Areva in Finland. Using a new generation technology, the reactor would boast enhanced safety systems and demonstrate lower cost and more timely construction. However, after starting construction in 2005 and slated to be completed in 2009, several delays have pushed off its completion and dramatically inflated costs. Areva now hopes to complete the project by late 2018, more than a decade behind schedule and perhaps at double its initial estimated cost.
In the United States, President Barack Obama has placed a lot of faith in the nuclear renaissance, granting loan guarantees to two new nuclear reactors now under construction in Georgia. The reactors will use the Westinghouse AP1000, a new design that promises simplification and safety that will cut down on construction times “The innovative technology used in this project represents a new generation of nuclear power with advanced safety features and demonstrates renewed leadership from the U.S. nuclear energy industry,” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said when announcing the finalization of the loan guarantees. The two new reactors in Georgia – Vogtle units 3 and 4 – are flagship projects for a new nuclear era, and the renaissance hinges on the success of these “generation III+” reactors.
Unfortunately, in January 2015 Southern Company, the owner of the Georgia reactors, announced that their completion would be delayed by 18 months and cost an additional $720 million. The reactors could end up being completed of three years behind the initial schedule. As the first newly licensed nuclear reactors in three decades, the inability to complete the project on time could put a chill on the already moribund construction queue. Even Southern Company’s CEO, who has been a big proponent of nuclear power, downplayed the possibility his company would expand beyond Vogtle. “Before we move forward on new nuclear, I think it makes sense for us to resolve these issues,” Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referring to Vogtle’s delays.
All hope is not lost – largely thanks to China, as there were 72 nuclear power plants under construction worldwide at the beginning of 2014, more than at any time in the last 25 years. But even in China reactors are being delayed. China’s most advanced reactor project announced its second delay in January. The project, using similar designs to the AP1000, may not be completed until 2016, three years behind schedule.
Meanwhile, a tidal wave of nuclear reactors will close down over the next 20 years as their operating licenses expire. There are 98 GW of nuclear capacityoperating in the U.S., many of which will see their lives end by the 2030s. And there are only about 5 GW under construction at this stage. In that context, there are huge question marks about the long-term viability for nuclear power in the United States.
A massive build out of nuclear power in China is where the nuclear industry’s best hopes reside, but it is unclear if even China can make up for the shrinking industry presence in the West, let alone meet the IEA’s ambitious scenario for 2050.