Costs and financing key to Europe's nuclear future

07 November 2019

Nuclear has a place in Europe's energy mix, but rising costs - even if only perceived - need to be addressed to ensure future growth, speakers agreed at the New Nuclear Watch Institute's (NNWI's) first annual forum, held in London yesterday.

A panel session at the NNWI Forum (Image: WNN)

Speaking at NNWI Forum 2019: Nuclear energy as part of Europe's energy mix, Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager at World Nuclear Association, noted that nuclear's primary role is to generate electricity, not to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. However, he noted that the use of nuclear energy - which accounts for 10.5% of global electricity demand - reduces global CO2 emissions by 2.5 billion tonnes annually, compared with fossil fuels.

"Over the last five years, we have been bringing 10 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity online every year and that is about double than in the previous 20 years," he said. "There has been an acceleration in the deployment of nuclear capacity over the past five years, but is won't be enough to meet the climate challenge."

Yves Desbazeille, director general of European nuclear trade body Foratom, noted there are 126 nuclear power reactors in operation in the European Union, providing 26% of its total electricity generation. However, nuclear power accounts for 50% of the region's low-carbon electricity output. The use of nuclear energy in the EU avoids the emission of 700 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

The long-term operation of all existing reactors could increase nuclear's share of low-carbon electricity to 58% by 2030, Desbazeille said, but with no long-term operation, it would only be 33% by 2030.

EU strategy is to have 103 GWe of nuclear generating capacity by 2050, while Foratom's 2050 scenario envisages 130 GWe. However, there is only 7 GWe of nuclear capacity under construction in the bloc, with a further 10-20 GWe planned. He said there is a clear need for nuclear power projects to be completed on time and to budget.

Peter Fraser, head of the gas, coal and power markets division of the International Energy Agency, said that, without additional lifetime extensions or new-build projects, nuclear generating capacity in advanced economies would decline by two-thirds by 2040. An extra USD1.6 trillion would be needed to offset the reduced nuclear output without raising CO2 emissions.

Fraser made policy recommendations for countries pursuing the use of nuclear power. These include ensuring a sound framework for lifetime extensions by valuing the clean nature of nuclear power and its contributions to electricity supply, as well as clarifying the safety requirements for extended operation and more flexible operations. In addition, policies should support the construction of new nuclear capacity. This includes establishing appropriate frameworks to reduce financial risks, and maintaining technical competencies related to nuclear power. Governments should also pursue research and development of new technologies, such as small modular reactors.

Keeping nuclear cost competitive

"We, the industry, need to get on top of rising costs - or the perception of rising costs - and demonstrate a downward cost trajectory, in the same way as some of the other sources of low-carbon generation have done to their benefit over recent years," said Peter Hall of Norton Rose Fulbright. "We need to demonstrate that we can deliver these projects, complex as they are, on time, on budget, and certainly at least on a cost-competitive basis".

However, Kirsty Gogan, executive director of Energy for Humanity, stressed: "The vast majority of nuclear new build that's happening around the world today is extremely competitive and being built over sensible schedules."

In order to attain the UK's target of net-zero by 2050, a median of about 45 GWe of new nuclear capacity will be needed, she said. This will require a build programme to begin in earnest in 2021, building on average 1.5 new projects every years from 2021 to 2044, with an average of six years for construction.

Fiona Reilly, managing director of FiRe Energy Limited, added: "To get to anywhere near whether it's 60 or 100 GWe, we need small and large nuclear to be built [in the UK]. And we need it to move ahead quickly - something we're not very good at."

Gogan presented three approaches to cost reduction: improving delivery via a programmatic approach (including continuous building, multiple units per site and standardised designs); designing for low cost; and designing to increase the deployment rate.

Adrian Pepper of Pepper Media, who chaired a panel session at the event, said: "Public confidence in nuclear does not rest on pure economics: energy independence matters to the general public. Stability of supply matters and green jobs matter ... People do understand the concept of baseload energy when it is explained to them, and they are waking up to the emerging climate emergency. I believe that all these factors can be used for nuclear's advantage in putting the case for nuclear in the years ahead."

"Nuclear is losing the battle on costs, certainly in the public's mind, and we have got to address that," agreed Alan Raymant, CEO of Bradwell B, CGN UK. "Part of the danger is we focus very much on the rational arguments of how we can reduce costs through replication and lower cost of finance - all of which are true - but we still have to win over the hearts of the public."

New build projects

Hinkley Point C has presented a special challenge, said Mark Hartley, EDF's technical director for the project. Although it will feature the fifth and sixth in a series of EPRs, the design has significantly changed from those already in operation at Taishan in China, as well as its reference plant at Flamanville in France. The HPC units will have 20% more equipment than the Taishan units, while safeguards buildings to accommodate additional equipment have been completely redesigned. Site-specific changes have also been made as a result of geology and sea conditions. In effect, he said, HPC is a first-of-a-kind plant in a country that has not built a new plant for three decades. In addition, the project involves two shareholders and three governments.

He noted that Taishan unit 1 was constructed in 110 months, while HPC has a construction schedule of 72 months. Experience learned from the construction of unit 1 has already quickened the excavation work and concreting at unit 2, which is running 12 months behind that of unit 1. In turn, the construction of the HPC plant is expected to make the construction of Sizewell C - an identical plant - cheaper and quicker.

In the case of HPC, "half of the cost to the consumer is the cost of construction, plus the cost of financing the risks in construction", Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, nuclear development manager at EDF, said. "Making a copy allows us to attack both of those. We can reduce the cash cost of construction, but it turns out the risk cost of construction is much bigger than the cash cost of construction. So, by attacking both we have an opportunity to make a significant reduction in costs." He suggested the industry should start thinking of nuclear power plants as energy centres, using the surplus thermal energy produced by reactors for industrial processes and applications such as hydrogen production.

NNWI Chairman Tim Yeo said climate change will become the "main driver" of policy for governments and of investment decisions for companies. "There is a new urgency in the debate," he said, and this presents a huge opportunity for the nuclear industry, which must "seize the moment".

He added: "It's now clear that the decarbonisation of the power sector must accelerate very rapidly if we are going to achieve net-zero by 2050," noting that only France and Sweden have managed to dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions, and that this was through a "massive" investment in nuclear energy. With most nuclear new-build projects now being in Asia and other developing regions, "in the West today, the nuclear industry is not grasping this unique opportunity", he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News