Nuclear's flexibility is the 'magic' to create a clean energy future

17 September 2020

The nuclear industry has merely scratched the surface of the flexible benefits of nuclear power, according to panellists in a conference held this week ahead of the 11th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM11). The CEM11 side-event, Flexibility in Clean Energy Systems: The Enabling Roles of Nuclear Energy, included high-level speakers from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as government officials from Canada, the UK and the USA. Hosted by Saudi Arabia, CEM11 will take place on 22 September.

(Image: CEM11)

The panellists all agreed that, in tandem with renewable energy, the flexibility of nuclear - from existing large-scale plants to advanced designs for small and medium-sized reactors of the future - will enable the transition to a cleaner world and a stronger global economy.

Chairing the panel discussion, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said: "Flexibility is the magic word if we want to have a secure but at the same time clean energy future. Nuclear power can both provide clean electricity and also help to have the flexibility that we need in our energy systems, regardless of whether the wind is blowing or we have sunshine."

As a resident of Paris, where the IEA is based, Birol pointed to the value of reliable electricity supply in France, where nuclear power plants account for more than 70% of generation. The lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic had reminded the whole world of the importance of electricity, he said, and the uninterrupted supply of low-carbon power from nuclear plants had been a reminder of the value of nuclear energy.

"In order to make the markets work, governments need to value, remunerate, this service that nuclear or any clean technology can bring," he said. The premature closure or the decision not to extend the operating lives of nuclear plants in some countries "may well be a major mistake when we look at the scale of the climate challenge we are facing today", he added.

The IEA is "closely following and encouraging" innovation in nuclear technologies and small modular reactors as "a very important option", he said, since their size can more easily attract investment.

Despite the health crisis and economic shock of COVID in 2020, Birol said he was optimistic about a clean energy future and for three main reasons. Firstly, the costs of solar and wind energy are falling. Secondly, some countries and investment banks are putting monetary policies in place that employ "ultra-low" interest rates, which can help to mobilise investment in those clean energy technologies. And thirdly, many governments are committing to a clean energy future, driven by climate change or air pollution concerns, and also many companies are pushing clean energy technologies for a variety of reasons - pressure from governments, citizens and stakeholders; "or because they want to be in a good position" in the electricity system.

"There are enough reasons then, and more, for me and the IEA to be optimistic about our clean energy future," he said.

Game changers

William Magwood, director general of the NEA, which is also based in Paris, agreed that nuclear power had performed "extraordinarily well" during the pandemic crisis. "We have been able to keep nuclear plants safely operating, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and in some cases longer than they were supposed to work in terms of their fuel cycles," he said.

"The exciting thing about advanced nuclear technologies is not that they are smaller and more flexible, which they are, but that they have performance and safety parameters that change the game entirely. We may, for example, with these technologies, no longer require on-site emergency preparedness. This changes the whole conversation around nuclear in many places," he said. "Some of these technologies provide not just electricity, but also heat. It's often forgotten that industrial processes that use heat today from natural gas or coal are actually a tremendous contributor to CO2 emissions. We can address that problem using high-temperature reactors that can replace fossil fuel in providing industrial heat and also residential heat as well."

The need for low-emission energy alongside economic growth is not just a matter for developed countries, he stressed. "There's the OECD countries, most of which are part of our membership, which have their electricity and want to keep it, but also there's the many countries around the world, in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, that aspire to bring more and more of their people into the middle class," he said. "We cannot delay their aspirations because of our environmental concerns. To have a clean environment and have economic expansion, we believe that nuclear, along with other technologies such as wind and solar, provide the pathway to get to that."

Team players

"The IEA has a bird's eye view; I'm just a nuclear guy, but we try to be team players and contribute to the efforts towards a decarbonised economy from our perspective that nuclear has to have a place at the table," said Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA. "2019 was the second-highest year ever for nuclear electricity production. This year, during the first few months of lockdown, we were able to see how nuclear energy worldwide continued without a single interruption; we even had a case of an earthquake in one of our Member States where a nuclear power plant was operating and there was no glitch."

Grossi reminded the audience that currently there are as many as 31 countries operating nuclear power plants, which provide 10% of global electricity supply and one-third of low-carbon power. "So, contrary to perceptions in some quarters, especially here in Western Europe, the use of nuclear power continues to grow," he said. "Some 30 countries on top of the 31 are actively preparing for nuclear power programmes. Fifty-three nuclear reactors are under construction in 19 countries, of which nine are in nuclear newcomer countries."

Innovation in nuclear is very important for the sustainability of the industry and its ability to continue making a clean energy contribution, he said, because the benefits of small and medium sized reactors to emerging economies and developing countries are clear.

The IAEA, which is an agency of the United Nations, based in Vienna, holds data on the designs of advanced reactors, which include, Grossi said, 72 different SMRs, three of which are at the construction stage - in Argentina, China and Russia.

The IAEA is holding its Scientific Forum next week. This is held in parallel with the agency’s annual General Conference. This year, Grossi said, the forum will study the role of nuclear in the clean energy transition.

He said he shared Birol's optimism. The nuclear industry faces many challenges, including finding sources of finance, "but the elements for a decarbonised, sustainable energy future are there", he said. “Events like this are proof of that and they contain lots of support for which I'm very grateful."

Flexible Nuclear Campaign

The event was held the day before the launch of a new report by the Flexible Nuclear Campaign for Nuclear-Renewables Integration (FNC) from the Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future (NICE Future) initiative. The report, The Flexible Nuclear Energy for Clean Energy Systems, was co-led by the governments of Canada, Japan, the UK and the USA, with contributions from a range of companies, NGOs, and other organisations.

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan, who helped launch the FNC last year, at CEM10 in Vancouver, said integrating nuclear with solar and wind energies "brings together the best of nuclear with the advantages of renewable energy to deliver a low-cost, resilient, clean energy system".

"We need to invest in all kinds of clean energy technologies if we’re going to meet our climate goals. That's what we're doing in Canada and nuclear energy is front and centre. In fact, we've crunched the numbers and there's simply no credible scenario for Canada to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 without it. And Canada is in a position to lead. We are a Tier 1 nuclear nation. We have world-class safety and regulatory systems and our Candu technology is being used around the globe," he said.

"Canada is also a pioneer of SMRs, essentially small, flexible, safe and affordable reactors that can be transported where they're needed, when they’re needed. This will help us bring nuclear into new parts of the economy, allowing us to decarbonise resource extraction industries and remote communities. Soon we'll be unveiling our SMR action plan, developed in lock-step with our domestic partners, provinces and territories, power utilities, industry, investors, laboratories, media, civil society and indigenous people."

The NICE Future Initiative, he noted, is an international partnership launched at CEM9 in Copenhagen with the goal to place nuclear energy at the heart of all multilateral clean energy discussions. "It's great that nuclear is front and centre of the CEM gathering but it should also be part of the conversation at so many other international gatherings," he said, including for example Globe 2020, the sustainable business summit and innovation showcase in North America, and the World Energy Congress, the global flagship event of the World Energy Council.

"Quite simply, we should all be ambassadors for nuclear energy," he said, "raising its profile, touting its benefits and, most importantly, underscoring again and again and again the fact that nuclear is safe, because it is."

Time for action

Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy in the US Department of Energy (DOE), said the FNC report reflected the need for CEM11 to be about "action and not words" and readers of the report will learn how nuclear power and renewables can be "mutually enabling" in clean energy systems.

Over the past few years, the DOE has provided over USD205 million to 35 public-private projects for advanced nuclear reactor technologies. Most recently, Baranwal's office has provided USD230 million to establish an Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program to support the completion and demonstration of new advanced nuclear reactors in the next five to seven years.

"I'm proud of the FNC efforts, led by the governments of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan, and the support of the environmental NGOs. This report highlights the work of many scientists, researchers, engineers, operators and policymakers around the world on the subject of flexibility," she said.

"In the case of nuclear energy, these flexible services mean having the operational flexibility to produce non-emitting, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, electricity as well as load-follow to meet needed demand. It means being able to produce a variety of products, like direct heating of households, driving industrial processes, producing hydrogen for transportation and for storage, and desalinating and purifying water. And it can be deployed in a variety of locations and applications. As an example, here in the United States, the DOE is currently working with four utilities to support the design and implementation of hydrogen demonstration projects using current nuclear power plants that could open up new regional markets for the industry."

Two of these demonstration projects will operate at an Exelon nuclear plant and at the Davis-Besse power plant within one to two years.

"One of the key takeaways of the report is that nuclear energy is already more flexible than many of us thought. There are many years of experience in flexibly operating nuclear plants. Its full potential can be realised by integrating with variable electrical grid infrastructure to create new hybrid energy systems, producing new products, new services and value, ultimately leading to new jobs, driving economies and lowering emissions," she said.


The urgency of action over words was underlined by Nadhim Zahawi, the UK's minister for business and energy, another of the FNC report's leaders.

Nuclear power has helped the UK to decarbonise its power generation and, "in tandem with renewables", the country has cut its CO2 emissions by around 45%, he said, "which is why I am so proud that the United Kingdom is one of the nine countries participating in the Flexible Nuclear Campaign, looking at how advanced nuclear can play an important role, alongside renewable energy of course, in a clean energy system".

"The UK's Energy Systems Catapult has modeled hundreds of ways of achieving net zero and they show that advanced nuclear could contribute significantly to a low-cost decarbonised energy system. A recurring feature in these models is the value of flexibility to balance the energy system and compensate for the intermittency of renewable energy. This is of course one of the great benefits of nuclear but it is also one that is often overlooked, so I’m very pleased to see that flexibility is the focus of the technical report," he said.

"Looking beyond the immediate benefits, there is also the exciting potential to use high-temperature nuclear technologies to produce cost-competitive clean hydrogen. A massive opportunity meaning we could use nuclear to decarbonise long-distance transport, industry, heating as well as the power sector," he added.

At CEM10, the UK government published a brochure for policymakers, reflecting its "enabling framework" for advanced nuclear technologies, for which it will have provided investments of almost GBP500 million (USD645 million) between 2016 and 2021. This year, it has invested GBP40 million in projects focused on designing advanced modular reactors and up-skilling the country's regulators. Up to GBP30 million of this has been awarded to Tokamak Energy, Westinghouse Electric Company and Urenco under Phase 2 of the advanced modular reactor feasibility and development programme.

"But I know that we do not make these decisions in a void, nor is government investment the only factor in success. One of our greatest sources of success in this field is international collaboration which is why signing our nuclear cooperation action plan with Canada, our R&D action plan with the United States, and our clean energy memorandum cooperation with Japan, were such positive steps," Zahawi said.

As the host of COP26, the United Nations' next round of climate talks, to be held in Glasgow in November next year, the UK's "major focus", he said, will be "decarbonisation and getting more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions from every country, so that as a global community we can make further cuts in carbon emissions by 2030".

He added: "I have no doubt this will take a lot of effort on the part of every participant, but I wholeheartedly believe that this COP will be a chance to achieve some truly remarkable things. Until then, I hope that we can continue to share our experiences and expertise in nuclear to help drive the global decarbonisation agenda forward, and I'm pleased to think that under the Clean Energy Ministerial, and within the Flexible Nuclear Campaign, we will keep building a better, cleaner future together."

The full panel discussion can be watched here.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News