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Going Nuclear: The Key to a Global Energy Transition


Spencer Toohill


Introduction

The world needs energy to support everyday life and to drive human and economic development. Energy production and use are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Because of this, countries worldwide are actively working on a clean energy transition by changing how energy is produced. Nuclear and its potential role in a transition has been long-debated. Therefore, this article will utilize a SWOT analysis to determine if and how nuclear should fit into the impending energy transition. Additionally, this article will evaluate the presence and development of nuclear energy capabilities in the United States as well as the actions of other leading international actors in the energy sector. The article will then highlight relevant alternatives and limitations to nuclear use and finally offer policy recommendations aimed at encouraging the use of nuclear energy within the dialogue of an energy transition promoting decarbonization.


Nuclear Within a Clean Energy Transition

A clean energy transition means shifting energy production away from sources that release significant greenhouse gasses to those that release little to no greenhouse gasses, like nuclear power, hydroelectric, wind, and solar. The global transition toward clean energy was agreed to in the Paris Agreement, aiming to limit the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels by encouraging the use of low carbon energy sources.


With around two thirds of the world’s electricity still produced by fossil fuels, the International Energy Agency (IEA) states that at least 80% of electricity will be required to be shifted to low carbon sources to reach these climate goals by 2050. Following hydroelectric power, nuclear power is the second-largest source of low carbon energy used to produce electricity today. According to the IEA, the use of nuclear power has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 60 gigatonnes over the past 50 years, which is almost two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions. Currently, there are 440 nuclear power reactors in operation in 30 countries with 54 reactors under construction in 19 countries, including four countries that are building their first nuclear reactors. As progress on nuclear power technologies continues, it has led to innovative, advanced, and next generation reactor designs that are helping to make nuclear power a more efficient, affordable, and attractive option for decarbonization.


Nuclear SWOT Analysis

The following SWOT analysis will highlight the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of nuclear power. All aspects are important to consider against alternative energy sources, geopolitics, the economy, international relations, and the domestic landscape for each country contemplating a clean energy transition to best determine if nuclear energy is an attractive option and how to incorporate it into the energy sector.


Strengths

Air Quality: Nuclear is a zero-emission energy source. It generates power through fission, a process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy, and the heat released by fission is used to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity without the harmful byproducts emitted by fossil fuels.


Land Footprint: Nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land than any other clean energy source. A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility in the United States needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate. The Nuclear Energy Institute says wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity while solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space.


Efficient and Reliable: Nuclear power plants provide a continuous and reliable supply of energy as they can operate at full capacity nearly uninterrupted. This use of land contrasts other variable renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, which require back-up power during their output gaps (i.e., when the sun sets or the wind stops blowing). Nuclear power plants can also operate flexibly to meet fluctuations in energy demand and provide stability to electrical grids, particularly those with high shares of variable renewable sources.


Job Creation: The nuclear industry supports nearly half a million jobs in the United States and contributes an estimated $60 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product each year. U.S. nuclear plants can employ up to 700 workers with salaries that are 30% higher than the local average.


Weaknesses

High Electricity Prices: The levelized cost of energy (LCOE)—a measure of the average net present cost of electricity generation for a generator over its lifetime—for a new nuclear plant in 2018 averages $151 per MegaWatt Hour ($112 to 189/MWhr). Onshore wind has an LCOE of $43/MWhr ($29 to 56/MWhr), and utility-scale solar has an LCOE of $41/MWhr ($36 to 46/MWhr); compared to fossil fuels and carbon-based energy costs, nuclear is much higher. While new and smaller reactors might cost less than traditional reactors to build, they'll also produce more expensive electricity. There are additional concerns that the industry might cut corners on safety and security to save money and compete in the market.


Time: The time lag between the planning and operation of a nuclear reactor includes the times to identify a site, obtain a site permit, purchase or lease the land, obtain a construction permit, obtain financing and insurance for construction, install transmission, negotiate a power purchase agreement, obtain permits, build the plant, connect it to transmission, and obtain a final operating license. The planning-to-operation (PTO) schedule of all nuclear plants ever built have been 10-19 years or more. In comparison, utility-scale wind and solar farms take on average only 2 to 5 years (PTO) and fossil fuel sites take on average 3 to 5 years (PTO).


Employment in the Fossil Fuel Sector: The National Mining Association (NMA), using Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) data, reports a total of 82,700 active coal industry employees. Replacing fossil fuels (i.e., coal power plants, oil production and refinement facilities, and natural gas infrastructure) with renewable and nuclear power would result in the loss of jobs for thousands of workers.


Nuclear Waste: The U.S. has no long-term plan for managing or disposing of the hazardous waste that can persist in the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, and there's the danger of accidents or targeted attacks for both the waste and the reactors. While nuclear reactors are largely safe compared to the number of accidents and failures that occur at fossil fuel sites (including accidents that happen in the mining and extraction of the fuels, in transportation, and at the plants themselves) there have been disasters at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and more recently, Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Nuclear disasters of great magnitude provide an enduring warning about the dangers of nuclear material and waste.


Opportunities

Climate Change: Nuclear generates nearly 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year and produces over half of the U.S.'s emissions-free electricity. Specifically, this prevents more than 470 million metric tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere each year, which is the equivalent of removing 100 million cars off the road per year.


Strengthen Energy Security: A strong civilian nuclear sector is essential to U.S. national security and energy diplomacy; the United States must maintain its global leadership in this arena to influence the peaceful use of nuclear technologies abroad. The U.S. government works with countries in this capacity to build relationships and develop new opportunities for the nation’s nuclear technologies.


Threats

Weapons Proliferation Risk: The growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or harvest plutonium or enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in their 2014 report on energy, with “robust evidence and high agreement,” that nuclear weapons proliferation concern is a risk to the increasing development of nuclear energy.


U.S. Nuclear Energy Developments

As climate change pushes states in the U.S. to dramatically cut their use of fossil fuels, many are coming to the conclusion that renewable power sources might not be enough to ‘keep the lights on’. Nuclear power is emerging as an answer to fill the gap as states transition away from coal, oil, and natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst effects of a warming planet. The renewed interest in nuclear comes as companies are developing smaller, cheaper reactors that could supplement the power grid in communities across the U.S.


An Associated Press survey of the energy policies found that a two-thirds majority of U.S citizens argue that nuclear will help take the place of fossil fuels. The momentum building behind nuclear power could lead to the first expansion of nuclear reactor construction in the U.S. in more than three decades. Roughly one-third of the states and the District of Columbia responded to the AP’s survey by saying they have no plans to incorporate nuclear power in their green energy goals. Public opinion on nuclear power ranges widely between states for various reasons including impact to industry, costs of management, fear of disaster, specific geographical limitations, and many others. States against the use of nuclear power are instead leaning heavily on renewables due to the advances in energy storage using batteries, investments in the grid for high-voltage interstate transmission, and energy efficiency efforts to reduce demand and power provided by hydroelectric dams.


U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration, which is taking consistent steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, views nuclear as necessary to help compensate for the decline of carbon-based fuels in the nation's energy grid. Nuclear reactors have operated reliably and carbon-free for many decades, and the current climate change conversation brings the benefits of nuclear to the forefront. Nuclear power already provides about 20% of electricity in the U.S., which accounts for about half the nation's carbon-free energy. However, critics continue to point out the numerous weaknesses and threats associated with a nuclear powered grid.


Nuclear Around the World

China

China permitted more coal power plants last year than any time in the last seven years, according to a new report released at the end of February, 2023. The report by energy data organizations Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air finds the country quadrupled the amount of new coal power approvals in 2022 compared to 2021. However, rapid growth in demand has given rise to power shortages, and the reliance on fossil fuels has led to much air pollution.


Nuclear power has an important role, though, especially in the coastal areas remote from the coalfields and where the economy is developing rapidly. Technology has been drawn from France, Canada, the U.S., and Russia since 1970 with local development based largely on the French element. In addition to domestic nuclear infrastructure and planning, China has ambitions to increase its nuclear technology exports in line with its wide geopolitical role and its industrial capabilities. China’s perspective on nuclear has led to a determined policy of exporting technology as one of 16 key national science & technology projects led by the initiative of China’s main nuclear operators (China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), and via its nuclear power business, State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC)).


This “go global” policy is being pursued at a high level politically, utilizing China's economic and diplomatic influence. In January 2015, China announced new incentives and financing for industry exports, particularly nuclear power and railways, on the back of $103 billion outbound trade and investment in 2014. In May 2017, the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) was formally launched, with much fanfare, to boost global connectivity and trade. Projects in Pakistan, Indonesia, eastern Europe, and northern Africa were announced along with Chinese funding of $75 billion from banks, $20 billion through a new Silk Road Fund, and $12 billion as aid.


UAE

In close consultation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the UAE has proceeded with plans to set up its own ambitious nuclear power program with huge public support. In December 2006, the six member states of the GCC—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman—announced that the Council was commissioning a study on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy with assistance from France and Iran. In February 2007, the six states agreed with the IAEA to cooperate on a feasibility study for a regional nuclear power and desalination program with Saudi Arabia leading the investigation.


The UAE accepted a $20 billion bid from a South Korean consortium to build four commercial nuclear power reactors, totaling 5.6 GWe, by 2020 at Barakah. Unit 1 of the country's first nuclear power plant was connected to the grid in August 2020, followed by unit 2 in September 2021 and unit 3 in October 2022.


Russia

Today, the Russian Federation is leading in new nuclear construction abroad. The State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) holds first place in terms of the number of simultaneously implemented nuclear reactor construction projects (2 units in the Russian Federation and 35 abroad at various implementation stages). Russia is moving steadily forward with plans for an expanded role of nuclear energy and is committed to closing the fuel cycle by implementing fast reactors. Exports of nuclear goods and services are a major Russian policy and economic objective; over 20 nuclear power reactors are confirmed or planned for export construction.


The competitive strength of the Russian Federation’s proposals can be attributed to the advanced technologies and latest know-how developed by the country’s scientists and designers. All design projects meet modern international requirements and IAEA recommendations. The projects proposed for construction are based on up to date reactor installations of the upgraded design of pressurized water reactor (PWR) which has shown good long term performance. Successful operation in international markets confirms the competitiveness of the Russian Federation’s nuclear technologies: in 2020, Rosatom’s package of foreign orders exceeded $138 billion.


Rosatom maintains competencies to oversee and work at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle and production chain, from uranium mining to decommissioning of nuclear facilities or management of spent nuclear fuel. As such, Rosatom brings together about 400 enterprises and organizations, including the world’s only nuclear icebreaker fleet, as the largest electricity generating company in the country, accounting for about 20.7% of the country’s total generation of electricity. The Russian Federation stands among the top five countries in the world for total nuclear power generation.


France

As the world’s second largest nuclear power producer, France has 56 nuclear power reactors in operation, making nuclear power plants account for about 70% of total French electricity generation in 2021 and more than 92% of total electricity generation from low carbon sources (nuclear and renewable energy). France has defined ambitious national medium and long-term targets for its energy transition thanks to its Energy Transition for Green Growth Act (LECTV) and the Climate Energy Law (LEC 2019). The majority of the 56 French nuclear reactors have reached or will reach 40 years of operation within the next 15 years. French President Emmanuel Macron stated that he did not want any nuclear reactor in a capacity of production to be shut down in the near future unless safety reasons dictated otherwise. Each reactor will then undergo a periodic and comprehensive safety review every 10 years to continue operation.


The future operation plans of French nuclear power is driven by interests in higher use of low carbon electricity and progress in energy efficiency. Research and design efforts focus on the development of enhanced safety, sustainability, non-proliferation, and economics in new reactor designs as well as on closure of the fuel cycle. Development of renewable energy alongside the continued development of nuclear energy will increase the capacity to sustain a low carbon energy mix.


Japan

Japan has numerous nuclear power reactors in operation, accounting for about 7.5% of total power production in 2019. On March 11th, 2011, an earthquake off the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region and subsequent tsunami damaged Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi and Daini Nuclear Power Stations, measuring as a Level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES).


Based on lessons learned from the accident, Japan established the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in September 2012 as an external organ of the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) with the aim of avoiding potential problems caused by having the same government organization act both as a regulatory authority and a promoter of nuclear energy. In order to eliminate the harmful effects of a vertically divided administration, the NRA integrally governs regulations on nuclear energy, nuclear security, safeguards based on international commitments, radiation monitoring, and regulations on the use of radioisotopes, which previously had been governed by other administrative organs.


Alternatives and Limitations

The Biden-Harris administration has positioned climate change at the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security, currently classifying it as one of the greatest shared problems of the world. While U.S. policymakers prioritize tackling climate change within the economy and industrial base, China, via the ruling Chinese Communist Party, is expanding its economy and diversifying its industrial base to displace America as the world’s most influential superpower. Here, it is essential to question how a unilateral U.S. energy transition and subsequent policy focused on decarbonization will impact America’s industrial base and how it will affect the capacity to project national power and prestige on the global stage relative to its most strategic great power competitor, China. The U.S. must analyze the following geopolitical and security considerations:


  • Decarbonization is not exclusively a climate science issue; it is a geopolitical issue with national security implications unaccounted for in academic decarbonization models.

  • The CCP will not sacrifice its geopolitical aspirations or dreams of national rejuvenation in an effort to battle climate change.

  • America must avoid an industrial policy that weakens our economy and national security but needs critical research, analysis, and evaluation of such an unprecedented transition.


Policy Recommendations

With nuclear power facing an uncertain future in many countries, the world risks a steep decline in its use in advanced economies that could result in billions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions. Some countries have opted out of nuclear power in light of concerns about safety and other issues. Many others, however, still see a role for nuclear in their energy transitions but are not doing enough to meet their goals. But, with the current slate of nuclear plants under construction, there is at least some hope that nuclear power is regaining acceptance. In this context, the U.S. and other countries that intend to retain the option of nuclear power should consider the following actions:


  • Keep the nuclear option open by authorizing lifetime extensions of existing nuclear plants for as long as safely possible.

  • Design the electricity market in a way that properly values the system services needed to maintain electricity security, including capacity availability and frequency control services. This would ensure that the providers of these services, including nuclear power plants, are compensated in a competitive and non-discriminatory manner.

  • Establish a level playing field for nuclear power with other low-carbon energy sources in recognition of its environmental and energy security benefits and reward it accordingly.

  • Where necessary and technologically possible, update safety regulations to ensure the continued safe operation of nuclear plants and to include allowing flexible operation of nuclear power plants to supply ancillary services.

  • Create risk management and financing frameworks that facilitate the mobilization of capital for new and existing plants at an acceptable cost while simultaneously taking the risk profile and long time-horizons of nuclear projects into consideration.

  • Support new construction and ensure that licensing processes do not lead to project delays and cost increases that are not justified by safety requirements.

  • Accelerate and encourage innovation in new reactor designs with lower capital costs and shorter lead times and technologies that improve the operating flexibility of nuclear power plants to facilitate the integration of renewables into the electricity system.

  • Protect and develop the human capital and project management capabilities in nuclear engineering.

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