Viewpoint: Building a belief in nuclear, financially and emotionally

08 July 2019

There are two misleading narratives about nuclear energy: one, that it is the sole answer to tomorrow’s energy and climate challenges; the other, that it could - and perhaps even should - disappear entirely. The truth is of course somewhere between the two - but what's certain is that nuclear, like every sector of the energy industry, must earn its place in the energy mix of the future, writes Rob Whittleston, VP of Insight at the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory.

VP of Insight at the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL)

If we are to achieve our global decarbonisation targets by 2050, we need the resilient and sustainable source of low-carbon electricity that nuclear provides. While everyone should welcome the strides in efficiency and competitiveness made by the renewables sector, wind and solar remain intermittent sources of energy - and storage technologies still have a long way to develop.

Nuclear energy is the most prevalent source of electricity generation in the EU - it contributes a quarter of the EU power mix, followed by coal (21%) and gas (20%). It’s also by far the largest low-carbon provider of power ahead of wind (11%), hydro (10%) and solar (4%). Overall, nuclear accounts for half of the low-carbon electricity generated in the EU.

Without nuclear we would be forced to rely on higher-carbon and less sustainable alternatives. This would make it much harder to honour the Paris Agreement on climate change and keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In fact, the IPCC recently highlighted that in order to achieve the 1.5°C target by 2050, nuclear’s share of electricity generation would very likely need to increase in almost any scenario.

Public perception of nuclear does not always tally with the important role it needs to play, however. Nuclear technology remains emotive and controversial in some countries, and public pressure can ultimately move policy, as has been seen in Germany, which is abandoning nuclear generation entirely, despite the impact this has on its ability to meet CO2 reduction targets.

Delivering projects, on time and to budget

The nuclear industry is also susceptible to wavering investor confidence, as has been evident recently in the UK. Nuclear plants are exceptionally large and long-term investments, so private-sector investors set the bar very high when it comes to incentives and the reassurances they need before making final investment decisions.

When Hitachi suspended work on its Wylfa Newydd project, it cited the size of the financial burden as one of the main factors, while the high cost of Hinkley Point has, in part, been explained by the fact that EDF could only borrow capital funding at high interest rates. That’s because this project is deemed ‘risky’, and well over half the cost was attributed to raising the money over the lifetime of the project.

Following the publication of the UK National Infrastructure Assessment last year, these high borrowing costs for nuclear have come into even sharper focus. This report recommended that the Government restrict support to "one more nuclear plant before 2025" as the costs of renewable technologies were "far more likely to fall, and at a faster rate".

Delays and cost increases don’t help public perception. It only takes a glance at the transport sector to see that when large infrastructure projects run late or over budget, criticism can be directed at government as well as at industry players. It would be a painful irony - just as the urgent need to tackle climate change is finally being recognised by the public and by parliaments - if a vital part of any action plan aimed at seriously addressing the challenge is ruled out because of a lack of will to overcome procedural obstacles.

It's our responsibility as an industry to work together to change perceptions and provide stakeholders with the confidence that nuclear projects will be delivered on time and to cost, and to set out the evidence that demonstrates why nuclear energy must form part of the future energy mix. If we can’t do this then the trust simply won’t be there, and neither will the investment.

Collaboration and a commercial focus

Collaboration will be key to proving the value of nuclear investment. The industry, regulators and researchers must work together to become more astute on everything from technology, supply chain and financial management to culture and leadership - providing more compelling and commercially minded projections that will inspire investor confidence.

That collaboration is happening, but it needs to happen quicker - and globally. That’s why we're working alongside other leading industry bodies including Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, the Electric Power Research Institute, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency to deliver events like the Innovation for the Future of Nuclear Energy - A Global Forum, which took place in Korea last month.

While the industry hosts many events, the Global Forum was the first of its kind to bring together stakeholders from across the nuclear sector, as well as leaders from other industries that have had to adapt and evolve in order to survive. An interactive event, over the course of three days, we discussed key issues and learnt how other sectors have successfully applied technology, process and regulatory innovation.

Present a more positive future

There are many exciting possibilities for nuclear, from innovation in waste management and recycling to the emergence of small modular reactors. But, in order to realise this future, the industry has some short-term hurdles that it must overcome. And in particular we must drive efficiencies into existing programmes and onto existing plants.

EDF has said that, by applying lessons learned at Hinkley Point, huge economies of scale can be achieved if a second pair of EPR reactors are built at Sizewell. Even so, the confidence may not be there yet for stakeholders and investors to appreciate where the returns lie. We need to focus on what can make a real difference now, in order to bring about that future.

It's a crucial time for the nuclear sector. Those of us working in the industry know the fantastic contribution it makes to low-carbon generation, and the potential it has to be an economical and sustainable part of our wider low carbon energy future. But can we work together to drive transformative change and help persuade all those who will need to invest in its future, both emotionally and financially, to believe in it too?

Established in 2008, the National Nuclear Laboratory brought together the UK's nuclear research and development capability into one organisation. Its workforce represents a combined 10,000 years of expertise in nuclear science and technology. 

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Researched and written by World Nuclear News