World Nuclear Industry Loses Ground to Cheap Renewables as Canada Considers Small Modular Reactors
The world nuclear industry “continues to be in stasis,” with power plants shutting down at a faster rate in western Europe and the United States, the number of operating reactor units at a 30-year low, and the few new construction projects running into “catastrophic cost overruns and schedule slippages,” according to the latest edition of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), released last week.
“Some 408 nuclear reactors were in operation in 31 countries as of July 2020, a decline of nine units from mid-2019 and 30 fewer than the 2002 peak of 438,” Reuters writes, citing the report. “The slow pace of new projects coming onstream also increased the overall age of the global fleet to around 31 years.”
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“Overall, in terms of the cost of power, new nuclear is clearly losing to wind and photovoltaics,” with the two renewable technologies now receiving about 10 times the investment, write Jungmin Kang, former chair of South Korea’s Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, South Korea, and Princeton University Professor Emeritus Frank von Hippel, in their foreword to the 361-page report. That meant new nuclear projects “were struggling to secure finance amid competition from renewables, with reported investment decisions for the construction of new nuclear plants at around US$31 billion in 2019,” Reuters says.
One of the problems facing nuclear plants is that their high capital cost “requires that they operate almost continually to bring down the capital charge per kilowatt-hour,” Kang and von Hippel explain. “They must therefore compete directly with renewables most of the time or store their output to be used during cloudy, windless periods.” But “storage does not relieve the competition with wind and solar” since, “as renewables expand and storage costs come down, they too will have increasing incentives to store their excess output.”
The report focuses in on COVID-19 as the first pandemic to have a significant, direct impact on the global nuclear industry, with large numbers of infections reported by the few operators that released precise figures. The WNISR says the pandemic has led to degraded safety and security and critical staffing issues at operating nuclear plants that also faced a tough economic hit when crashing electricity demand drove down power prices.
In 2019, Russia had a hand in 15 of the 52 new nuclear construction projects around the world, and electricity generation from nuclear facilities grew 3.7%, with half of that total attributable to a 19% increase in China. But 33 of the 52 projects were behind schedule, and eight had been delayed by 10 years or more, “including two units that had construction starts 35 years ago and one unit that goes back 44 years,” WNISR notes. Of the 13 reactors scheduled for start-up last year, “only six made it,” including three in Russia, two in China, and one in South Korea—and no new nuclear facilities went online in the first half of 2020.
Meanwhile, non-hydro renewables installed 184 gigawatts of new capacity in 2019, and “comparisons between nuclear and solar options show a large and widening gap,” the report states. “For example, a contract for 1.2 GW of solar power at US$24.20 per megawatt-hour, signed in 2017 and connected to the grid in 2019, is five to eight times cheaper than the international cost estimate for nuclear of US$118 to $192 per MWh.” [And that’s before the cost overruns that seems to be inevitable with most nuclear projects—Ed.]
While “the biggest social argument for nuclear power plants is that their carbon emissions are low,” Kang and von Hippel write, that line of thought leads more toward refurbishing existing reactors—an area where the industry is also struggling. “In some major countries such as the United States, even 30-year-old plants whose capital costs have been paid off cannot compete economically with new renewable power plants, whose capital costs have been declining. The operating costs of nuclear plants are high in part because one to two hundred workers and guards are required onsite per reactor at all times in case of accident or terrorist attack.”
And earlier this month, an incident in South Korea raised concerns about the reliability of nuclear generation in an era when climate change will make severe weather events more common and severe. The Kori nuclear plant was supplying 7% of the country’s electricity until it went into an automatic shutdown “because of typhoon impacts on their power transmission lines,” the two reviewers state. “Experts are concerned that, under different circumstances, the sudden shutdowns could destabilize South Korea’s grid and cause large-scale blackouts.”
Paris-based consultant and lead WNISR author Mycle Schneider said the long-term headwinds facing nuclear development are even more daunting than the annual snapshot.
“Don’t just look at the photograph. Look at the movie,” he told The Energy Mix in an interview last week. “It takes an average of roughly 10 years to build a nuclear power plant from official construction start to grid connection,” even when a project isn’t delayed—which raises a particularly tough series of questions in the midst of a global climate emergency.
“If I’m spending a dollar or a Euro or a yuan, I have to spend it in a way that allows me to reduce GHG emissions the most per dollar invested, the fastest.” Schneider said. But “if you look at nuclear power, it’s not only the most expensive, but it’s by far the slowest.” With even French nuclear giant EDF bidding against its own legacy technology to supply lower-cost solar projects, “do we really have to discuss what the future is or where this goes?” Schneider asked. “It’s obvious.”
More recently, the nuclear industry has been promising a technological renaissance through small modular reactors (SMRs). But “the industry is actually selling PowerPoint reactors, not detailed engineering, and it’s not the first time. They’ve been doing this for decades,” Schneider said. “Nobody, not even industry, pretends they can produce anything before 2030. That’s the earliest,” when 2050 is the latest possible deadline to decarbonize the entire global economy.
Which means that, when it comes to SMRs, “it’s already very simple—it’s much too late, and we don’t know if it’ll work or what it’ll cost.”
He cited one builder in Finland that got two years into construction before admitting that only about half of the design plans for the project had been completed. “You cannot build a nuclear power plant without plans,” he said. “At least, not in Finland!”
In a post for the N.B. Media Co-op, M.V. Ramana, a member of the WNISR production team and director of the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, argues that SMRs will be even more expensive than the existing nuclear technologies that are so quickly losing ground to renewables.
“As their name suggests, SMRs produce small amounts of electricity compared to current reactors,” he writes. “But their price tag will not be small. The reason is simple: the cost of building and operating a reactor is not proportional to the power generated, because a reactor generating thrice as much electricity as a smaller plant does not need thrice as much concrete or three times as many operators.”
That means smaller reactors “will be more expensive to build and operate per unit of power than large reactors, and their electricity will have to be priced higher. There is historical evidence for this: many small reactors built in the early decades of nuclear power shut down early because their electricity was too expensive for the market or consumers.”
And those plants weren’t up against renewable energy installations selling electricity at 2.4¢ per kilowatt-hour or less, with techniques and technologies still advancing and prices still falling.
Ramana raises serious questions about the market for smaller reactors, along with persistent concerns about radioactive waste, the risk of severe accidents, and the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. “If building nuclear reactors is unwise, pouring public money into these is worse because it will not result in any widespread economic benefit,” he writes, citing the limited number of jobs a nuclear project creates compared to solar and other clean energy technologies.
In a Toronto Sun op ed this week, Ontario Clean Air Alliance Chair Jack Gibbons compares nuclear generation to buying a Mercedes to go to the corner store.
“At a time when action on climate change has never been more urgent, the federal Liberals want to throw billions of dollars at non-existent technology that will not make a difference for decades, if ever,” he writes, citing Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan’s recent musing that there’s no path to net-zero carbon emissions without nuclear.
“Betting on nuclear as a climate solution is just sticking our heads in the sand because SMR technology is decades away, extremely expensive, and comes with a nasty pile of security and waste headaches,” Gibbons writes. “That our government would be this gullible is distressing, especially given the havoc already being wreaked by a changing climate.”
Against concerns about intermittency of solar and wind, “it is fortunate that in Ontario we live beside a giant battery,” he adds. OCAA has long been an advocate for cross-border hydropower imports from Quebec to Ontario, and in the Sun, Gibbons notes that “Quebec has an enormous water power reservoir system that Hydro-Québec is keen to integrate with renewable sources for its out-of-province customers. When we have surplus solar and wind, Quebec stores water. When not, it produces hydropower for export.”
The two provinces already “have the connections necessary to make this system work and can expand them, at a cost that looks like spare change next to what it costs to rebuild a nuclear reactor or get an SMR prototype built,” he adds.