The words “nuclear energy” tend to be polarizing. Many people immediately recall stories about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), Chernobyl disaster (1986) or Three Mile Island accident (1979). Or, perhaps in a more positive light, Doc Brown, Marty McFly, Einstein (the sheepdog) and their time traveling DeLorean from the iconic Back to the Future films come to mind. (After all, the flux capacitor was driven by nuclear fusion.)
Behind the scenes, however, nuclear energy has kept much of the world powered for decades.
In France, nuclear accounts for as much as 75 percent of electricity used. It has been a stalwart since the 1970s when the French government, largely in response to the 1973-74 oil crisis, looked to nuclear to address its energy supply and security needs.
And France isn’t alone. The U.S. operated one of the earliest large-scale plants — Shippingport Atomic Power Station starting in 1958 — and now leads the world in nuclear power generation. Nuclear meets approximately 19 percent of U.S. demand. In addition to France and the U.S., the U.K. implemented the first civil nuclear program when Windscale opened in 1956 and today sees nuclear accounting for 18-20 percent of total electricity production.
For many other countries, nuclear will play a significant role in the future. Both Russia and China, for example, plan to bring 20 new reactors online, and are also increasingly involved in nuclear energy projects in other regions. The trends for nuclear are not global, but rather country specific.
Despite anticipated growth, it is safe to say there are ample concerns and challenges:
- Germany will phase out its nuclear fleet by 2022, a decision made following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
- France signed laws in 2015 to reduce its dependency on nuclear by cutting production from 75 to 50 percent.
Even for nations embracing nuclear energy, the growth in global production won’t come quickly:
- China started to build its Taishan 1 Unit in 2009, but production isn’t expected to commence until late this year.
- In Finland, plans to build Olkiluoto 3 were approved in 2002 and construction started three years later; the plant, however, isn’t expected to generate power until 2018.
- Britain’s Hinkley Point C has made more headlines than progress for more than a decade. Initially backed by the Labour Party, roadblocks and cost overruns have conspired to delay the plant. The current government has pinned its hopes on a 2025 startup date. Meanwhile, total project costs have nearly tripled, from £14 billion to £37 billion.
All of these various obstacles have serious financial consequences for the companies involved as well. For instance, Toshiba’s Westinghouse nuclear subsidiary filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to large cost overruns from U.S.-built reactors.
Adding to the list of issues, nuclear’s role as part of a more dynamic and decentralized energy infrastructure is in question. The decline in the cost of renewables and rapid developments in storage technologies, energy efficiency and demand response all contribute to the uncertainty.
It’s unlikely there are simple or immediate answers for the nuclear industry. However, given its scientific and engineering pedigree, countries continue to explore this energy source and innovations such as small nuclear reactors (SMRs). The U.S. and U.K. governments are currently funding SMR research, for example. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have signed a memorandum to look at the feasibility of SMRs. Plus, China expects to complete its first advanced SMR installation in 2018
This may seem a little removed from the day-to-day realities of the energy markets. But it doesn’t take Doc Brown’s DeLorean and a look into the future to see the real-world consequences of nuclear generation. Commodity prices rallied in France during late 2016 given outages at a number of nuclear facilities. (Same with neighboring countries; German Cal 17 power prices jumped 9 percent in a day.) A similar scenario played out in Belgium in 2014 and 15.
So what is the future for nuclear energy around the world? While nuclear isn’t the fastest growing technology, it isn’t going quietly into the night either. Nuclear capacity will remain a cornerstone of many grids and may see slight growth. Even as gas, wind and solar get the spotlight, nuclear still provides 10 percent of global electricity.
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