Conference: Nuclear growth relies on good policies

16 November 2018

Political support for nuclear power is crucial if this proven, sustainable and zero-carbon source of electricity is to play its part among other clean energy technologies in the fight against climate change. This was the message of ministers and industry leaders at UNECE’s 9th International Forum on Energy for Sustainable Development. Nuclear power was for the first time included on the programme of the annual event, which was held on 12-15 November in Kiev.

Agneta Rising at the UNECE workshop with Yuliya Pidkomorna and Taras Tkech (Image: WNN)

UNECE - United Nations Economic Commission for Europe - is one of five regional commissions under the administrative direction of United Nations headquarters.

Scott Foster, director of the Sustainable Energy Division of UNECE, opened the workshop on nuclear power, which was co-organised by World Nuclear Association and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"I really want to highlight how important this session is for the whole Forum. We're heading down the path to 4-6 degrees, which is quite enormous, and the question is what the role of nuclear power is going to be," he said. "A dialogue on the energy transition is incomplete without considering nuclear power. That's why the Forum has included nuclear energy on the agenda for the first time."

Sustainable development

In 2015, countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2016, the Paris Agreement on climate change entered into force, with the target of limiting global warming to 'well below' 2 degrees Celsius.

In her posted address to the Forum, UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova said the targets of SDG 7 - 'ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all' - will not be reached if the current path persists.

"I do believe the objectives of the 2030 Agenda can be met. The technologies needed exist today. The policy pathways to meet the challenges are clear. The only thing missing to meet the challenges is collective will. The recipe for success is not complicated - it requires being bold. It requires being innovative. It requires mobilisation at scale."

At the Ministerial Conference held on the first day of the Forum, Osnat Lubrani, resident coordinator of the United Nations System in Ukraine, said this year's meeting would "add resilience, focusing on our ability to cope with the effects of climate change". She added: "It will consider digitisation, nuclear power, sustainable resource management and the role of fossil energy in a sustainable future that must come to grips with climate change."

Current status

Moderating the workshop, World Nuclear Association Director General Agneta Rising noted that nuclear power provides almost 11% of global electricity. As the world's second largest source of low-carbon power, after hydro, it displaces about 2 gigatonnes of CO2 every year.

Citing the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rising said nuclear energy is a "mature, low greenhouse gas emission source of baseload generation that could make an increasing contribution to global development based on low-carbon energy supply". In the meantime, however, fossil fuels account for 65% of global electricity generation, of which coal has the largest share, of 38%, she said, and the availability of largescale commercial-level carbon capture and storage technology by 2030 "remains uncertain".

"The world is not on track to meet the Paris Agreement. Even with significant growth of renewable energy, nuclear power needs to take a larger role to address the clean energy challenge," she said.

Reflecting on her participation in the plenary session of the Ministerial Conference, Rising said: "We have all the tools, but we are lacking the policy framework and the decisions to go forward."

King Lee, director of the Harmony Programme at World Nuclear Association, said nuclear energy is growing at its fastest rate in 25 years.

There are 450 reactors in operation in 30 countries and 55 under construction, with China, Russia and India having the most new construction. There are also nuclear reactors constructed for the first time in Bangladesh, Belarus, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. There are a further 28 countries at different stages towards possible implementation of nuclear build programmes.

Through the Harmony Programme, the global nuclear industry targets a 25% share of the energy mix in 2050. This means trebling installed capacity with the construction of an additional 1000 GWe.

"We believe this is ambitious but achievable and realistic," Lee said. "We must maintain a construction rate of 10 GWe per year to 2020 and then ramp up to the rates seen in the 1980s of 30 GWe/year or more. So far in 2018, nine units have been connected to grid, with a combined capacity of more than 10 GWe. In 2018-2019, we estimate a total of 25 new reactors will come online."

Asked what he sees as the single most important factor in the growth of the nuclear industry, he said, "securing the necessary policy support".

"China has a state industry capable of delivering consistently low-cost nuclear build. In the last few years, it's built 4-5 reactors per year. Historically, in the US, Sweden and France, the industry has shown it is capable of delivering the Harmony goal, but we need policy support."

Pro-nuclear governance

Ukraine, the host of this year's Forum, has 15 nuclear units in commercial operation at four sites - Khmelnitsky, Rovno, South Ukraine and Zaporozhe - which are all operated by state-owned Energoatom.

Yuliya Pidkomorna, deputy minister of the Energy and Coal Industry of Ukraine, said the nuclear sector is the "mainstay" of the country's energy sector and that the Ukrainian government was therefore "more than happy" to invite representatives of the nuclear industry to the UNECE Forum.

"The public policy of Ukraine on the exploitation of nuclear power is informed and implemented in strict compliance with global standards, in particular with those of the IAEA. The Ministry of Energy and the Coal Industry has always provided, and will always provide, full support to projects in the nuclear sector," she told delegates at the workshop.

In August last year, the country's Cabinet of Ministers approved the Energy Strategy of Ukraine until 2035, according to which nuclear power will provide 50% of its electricity, renewable sources 25%, hydropower 13% and the rest will be covered by thermal electric power stations.

One of the developments she noted between Ukraine and international partners includes the insurance contract signed this year with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US government's development finance institution, for the Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Pidkomorna said this arrangement had made it possible for construction of the facility to start.

The Cabinet of Ministers has also approved a feasibility study for the construction of two new units at the Khmelnitsky nuclear power plant, she noted, adding that a draft law on this project is to be submitted next month. Another example of pro-nuclear policy is the 'energy bridge' project, which will enable the country to start supplying electricity to the EU network from as early as next year, she said.

Taras Tkech, director of long-term operation issues at Energoatom, said Ukrainian government policy proved that nuclear "is and will continue to be a strategic part of the economic development of the country".

He described how Energoatom has aligned its strategy with the SDGs. For example, it has demonstrated its commitment to SDG 1, 'no poverty', and SDG 8, 'decent work and economic growth', through an increase in its social spending, from UAH336 million (USD12 million) in 2016 to UAH370 million last year. This spending includes housing, cultural facilities and healthcare.

He stressed the importance of the company's cooperation with international institutions, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Association of Nuclear Operators and Foratom. It is also working on actively building a range of commercial partnerships, including with USA-headquartered Westinghouse, he said, and at the same time developing the skills and facilities it requires to be able to produce its own equipment and fuel for nuclear power plants.

Oleksandr Nemtsov, head of environmental issues at Energoatom, noted the importance of nuclear power for Ukraine's avoidance of CO2 emissions.

"We decided to prolong the operation of ten units because if we stopped the operation of our nuclear power plants then Ukraine's emissions would increase to 70 million tonnes a year," he said.

Canada and the UK are two more countries that have demonstrated a commitment to nuclear power.

Ramesh Sadhankar, director of R&D operations at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), described Canada as a 'tier 1 nuclear nation'. Canada, which is the world's second biggest uranium producer, after Kazakhstan, and has 19 CANDU reactors in operation, sources 16% of its electricity from nuclear power. He noted that the nuclear industry contributes USD6 billion to the Canadian economy and provides 60,000 jobs. Policy highlights include the refurbishment of ten reactor units in Ontario and initiatives to advance the development of small modular reactors (SMRs).

He cited the recently issued report A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors, which is the culmination of an initiative launched in February by Canada's Department of Natural Resources.

He noted that SMRs are smaller in scale than traditional nuclear power plants, with lower up-front capital costs and enhanced safety features. They also have the potential to provide non-carbon emitting energy in a wide range of applications, such as grid-scale electricity generation and heavy industry, including in remote communities such as those found in Canada's northern regions, mining and oil sands operations.

CNL has the vision it announced last year, he said, to demonstrate the commercial viability of an SMR on its Chalk River site by 2026.

Tim Yeo, a former minister and now chair of London-based think tank The New Nuclear Watch Institute, said that when he served as the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, from 1993 to 1994, climate change was a "fringe issue".

"It's moved on from what the business world found rather threatening to now, when business understands and accepts the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuel dependence and to low-carbon business models."

The future success of nuclear power, depends, he said, on "getting the message across". In the UK there is a "broadly supportive" political and public base for nuclear energy, he said, and "the more people know about nuclear power, the more likely they are to support it."

The UK has 15 reactors generating about 21% of its electricity but almost half of this capacity is to be retired by 2025. The first new reactor unit, Hinkley Point C, is expected to be online by 2025. That project is supported by the Contract-for-Difference and the Secretary of State Investor Agreement signed in September 2016 between the government, EDF Energy and China General Nuclear.

More recent policy support in the UK includes the 'nuclear sector deal', which forms part of the government's Industrial Strategy.

The cost of clean energy

Marco Cometto, nuclear energy analyst at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), said the renewables and nuclear power industries must work tougher if climate change targets are to be achieved. For this, a "complete reconfiguration" of the electricity generation system is needed, he added.

"For the first time, in 2014, energy-related CO2 emissions stalled, despite the fact the global economy expanded by 3%. A similar trend was confirmed in 2015-2016, but not in 2017 and 2018. Despite the need for early emission reduction, the world is not moving towards the Paris goals but rather away from them. Time is running out: the build-up to 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere will happen quickly," he said.

Radically decarbonising the electricity sector in a cost-effective manner represents an "enormous challenge" for OECD countries, he said, and requires the "rapid deployment and coexistence" of all low-carbon technologies available - variable renewable energy (VRE), hydro and nuclear.

"They can and should coexist," he added. VRE is non-dispatchable owing to its fluctuating nature, like wind and solar power, as opposed to a controllable renewable energy source such as hydro or biomass.

Cometto described the "cost-versus-value" of VRE compared with nuclear power.

Both nuclear energy and renewables are similar in that they are capitally intensive energy sources which require market frameworks that allow confidence that initial investments will be repaid, he said. Both nuclear energy and renewables contribute to system costs of electricity, but the system costs for renewables grow rapidly above a certain point, while nuclear stays roughly constant, he added.

The NEA and the International Energy Agency have "undergone quite a big reflection" on what could be the optimal market structure, he said. "Clearly, we are realising that current energy market models are not sufficient to promote low-carbon technologies because they are all so capital intensive, so leaving it to market forces is too risky and we don’t see investors being able to cope with the financial risks associated with the pure energy market."

He added: "Energy markets are important because they provide information on the value of energy where, when and how it's produced. We support a hybrid approach in where several different components are included. Clearly, a carbon price is important, but that won’t be sufficient and so we would like to complement it with a feed-in premium."

The challenge

David Shropshire, head of planning and economic studies at the IAEA, said reducing costs through economies of scale and deployment of innovative small and medium reactors will have to be accelerated. More than 50 models of such reactors are under design and regulatory approval in different countries, he noted.

"Small and medium reactors are a possible game changer for nuclear power," he said. "They can be deployed by 2030 as a low-carbon alternative, meet growing needs for potable water due to climate change, and support remote and niche applications."

Some 70% of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels and, of the rest, one-third comes from nuclear power, he said, adding that about 80% of electricity will need to be low carbon by 2050.

"Look at this, not as a challenge, but as an opportunity for technology to fill the gap," he said. "It will be a combination of all energy types, including carbon capture and sequestration, but if CCS is not successful, then that gap will have to be filled by others, which could be nuclear or renewables, but it seems unlikely to be renewables because you’re going to need the space, the land, whether solar or wind."

He referred to the projections of the IAEA's Reference Data Series No. 1 (RDS-1) - an annual publication containing estimates of energy, electricity and nuclear power trends up to 2050.

"This year the results were rather striking because they were quite a bit different from what we'd seen in previous years. The 2017 data of where we stand in terms of gigawatts worldwide in nuclear power and looking ahead show that in 2030 it’s about 10% less than what we have today, and in 2050 we have levels similar to 2030," he said.

"The factors are the retirements and the additions. If we had a fleet that's going to last forever there wouldn't be a problem, but many of the reactors today are going to be decommissioned over the next few decades and some are being decommissioned prematurely because the market won't support nuclear power. It's very important to consider what additions would be necessary just to stay even."

It is "striking", he said, that of the 30 countries with nuclear power only ten are "being explicit" about the role of this energy source in their Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement. One reason for this, he suggested, is a lack of effective communication between energy and environment ministries.

Claire-Louise Isted, editor of World Nuclear News

Researched and written by World Nuclear News