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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Is There Any Hope Left For Nuclear Energy?

Is There Any Hope Left For Nuclear Energy?

Can nuclear help avoid the worst effects of climate change?

The International Energy Agency recently provided a roadmap for nuclear power, detailing how the technology could help keep global temperature increases within a 2-degree scenario. According to the IEA report, between 2015 and 2050 total installed nuclear power capacity around the world would need to more than double from 396 gigawatts (GW) to 930 GW.

To get there, the IEA says that the world will need to see an additional 20 GW of new nuclear capacity each year, a scenario that from today’s vantage point seems highly unlikely. The IEA admits as much, and says several key things must happen in order for the industry to ramp up in such a rapid fashion.

The need to train a skilled workforce, greater standardization, more public acceptance, and a resolution to long-term nuclear waste storage feature among the key objectives. There are good reasons to believe that these problems could theoretically be addressed, albeit with great political difficulty. Related: China’s Nuclear Power Gamble Is Mind-Boggling

Critically, however, the IEA notes that the nuclear industry is going to need to demonstrate that it can build new power plants on time and within budget. On this objective, the industry is failing miserably. Nuclear power plants have often suffered from cost overruns and delays, one factor (among many) that put the industry into a decades-long lull beginning in the early 1980’s. The so-called “nuclear renaissance” was thought to put an end to these problems with a new generation of designs and modular construction. So far, it hasn’t played out that way.

One of the showcases of the nuclear renaissance was a reactor to be built by Areva in Finland. Using a new generation technology, the reactor would boast enhanced safety systems and demonstrate lower cost and more timely construction. However, after starting construction in 2005 and slated to be completed in 2009, several delays have pushed off its completion and dramatically inflated costs. Areva now hopes to complete the project by late 2018, more than a decade behind schedule and perhaps at double its initial estimated cost.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has placed a lot of faith in the nuclear renaissance, granting loan guarantees to two new nuclear reactors now under construction in Georgia. The reactors will use the Westinghouse AP1000, a new design that promises simplification and safety that will cut down on construction times “The innovative technology used in this project represents a new generation of nuclear power with advanced safety features and demonstrates renewed leadership from the U.S. nuclear energy industry,” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said when announcing the finalization of the loan guarantees. The two new reactors in Georgia – Vogtle units 3 and 4 – are flagship projects for a new nuclear era, and the renaissance hinges on the success of these “generation III+” reactors.

Unfortunately, in January 2015 Southern Company, the owner of the Georgia reactors, announced that their completion would be delayed by 18 months and cost an additional $720 million. The reactors could end up being completed of three years behind the initial schedule. As the first newly licensed nuclear reactors in three decades, the inability to complete the project on time could put a chill on the already moribund construction queue. Even Southern Company’s CEO, who has been a big proponent of nuclear power, downplayed the possibility his company would expand beyond Vogtle. “Before we move forward on new nuclear, I think it makes sense for us to resolve these issues,” Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referring to Vogtle’s delays. Related: Europe And Iran: The Nuclear Dispute And The Syrian Crisis

All hope is not lost – largely thanks to China, as there were 72 nuclear power plants under construction worldwide at the beginning of 2014, more than at any time in the last 25 years. But even in China reactors are being delayed. China’s most advanced reactor project announced its second delay in January. The project, using similar designs to the AP1000, may not be completed until 2016, three years behind schedule.

Meanwhile, a tidal wave of nuclear reactors will close down over the next 20 years as their operating licenses expire. There are 98 GW of nuclear capacity operating in the U.S., many of which will see their lives end by the 2030s. And there are only about 5 GW under construction at this stage. In that context, there are huge question marks about the long-term viability for nuclear power in the United States.


A massive build out of nuclear power in China is where the nuclear industry’s best hopes reside, but it is unclear if even China can make up for the shrinking industry presence in the West, let alone meet the IEA’s ambitious scenario for 2050.


By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Jim on February 20 2015 said:
    Of course, Germany and Japan have capacity that has been idled recently. Any mention of India also is missing in the article. The politics of nuclear energy are at least as problematic as any technical difficulties implied in the article.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on February 20 2015 said:
    As with Godwin's Law, Betteridge's Law of Headlines doesn't work when
    invoked deliberately.

    The black magic that thwarts the mild pro-nuclear-power tendencies of the public, and the strong ones of scientists, seems to be to the benefit of cynical government employees, contractors, and subsidy recipients. Kharecha and Hansen review the literature and find nuclear energy, over the decades and worldwide, to have kept 64 gigatonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere and 1.84 million people out of untimely, fossil-fuel-dug graves.

    But through most of those decades, in many countries, there have been grand nuclear plans that fell through, sometimes after huge investments. How many lives would *those* reactors have saved, and for each of those lost lives, who gained, and how much?
  • Tim on February 20 2015 said:
    Yet another article showing why coal and oil are the greatest resources we have. New nuclear plants in the U.S. have been shelved by progressive legislators who have not allowed them due to accidents which will always occur, in any energy industry. These same individuals also have not allowed a new oil refinery to be built in over 30 years. No wonder China gets all the plants. And there, they will be built haphazardly and without regard to people next door. We need to get serious about an all-the-above approach to energy, here, and worldwide. Oil, coal, and nuclear can lead the way, with the other sources supplementing, where feasible.
  • Lee James on February 20 2015 said:
    Thank you, Oil Price, for this article. I have been looking for an update on how the newer, advanced nuclear plant designs are coming together. I have high hopes for nuclear power, but apparently the reality is still sobering.

    Other than the possibility of more nuclear power, we know that electric transportation, robust and secure electric grids, and electric storage are very much needed.
  • Jack Lovell on February 20 2015 said:
    What is missing from the article (and the IEA) is consideration of the role of technological innovators. Were we not have run out of oil by now? Without them, yes. In nuclear, the same. Within 50 years, probably by 2050 in fact, commercially viable laser acceleration will have been fully developed, opening the door to a huge groundswell of research that will lead to realizable accelerator driven seed reactors (ADSR). Not only will these have a vastly reduced risk of proliferation, absolutely no risk of meltdown, low carbon footprints and hazard output, but they will initially use existing nuclear waste as their fuel source. When that is used up, and its hazard reduced, Thorium, which is essentially a worldwide, massive resource, will be the fuel source.

    Much cheaper, smaller and less complex than current reactors, building ADSRs to serve even small metro areas will be possible and achieve the dream of abundant, cheap, reliable base load energy.

    The future is bright.
  • CaptD on February 21 2015 said:
    ? Food for thought from 2013/07/30

    The Post-Fukushima Nuclear Industry: A Case Study in Institutional Self-Deception


    At the recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Ministerial Conference in St. Petersburg (June 2013), director general Yukiya Amano repeated the familiar platitudes about Fukushima that deflect and deny the heavy responsibility of the IAEA and the Japanese nuclear establishment for having failed to prevent the catastrophe – one that every anti-nuclear group in Japan had been warning about for years.
  • Tim Smith on February 22 2015 said:
    300 reactors were built between 1970s & 1980s, but today, they were struggling to build few reactors because all the labor and materials have moved to different industries.

    So the first few reactors will take time to build, but once built, the rest will be easy.
    Global warming is serious issue and 2014 was the worlds #1 warmest year.
  • seth on February 23 2015 said:
    Actually, the illiteracy of anti nuke zero science "journalists" is legendary. This boilerplate comes straight out Big Oil's Denier operation.

    The Korea UAE project based on the Korea's Shin Kori units is on time on schedule, as are numerous Russian units. The last 7 Candu 6's built to 007 were all on time, on schedule, following delays and a 30% cost overruns on the first units.

    Delays with American AP1000's are nearly all caused by the Obama administration Big Oil funded antinuke agenda headed by Obama's appointee and antinuke zeolot Gregory Jazcko following a long tradition of Democrat appointments of anti science foes to the NRC. Fortunately the budget's are out by only small amounts.

    Nearly all the Chinese delay was due to the Fuku reassessment process.

    Large first of a kind civil engineering projects, particularly with regulatory implications, are often over budget and delayed.

    Note that the long overdue and many times over budget Boeing 787 is now flying nicely.

    With today's interest rates at historic low levels even in the US with ponzi scam gas priced at 30% its cost of production, new public power nukes are half the cost of any alternatives, cheaper even than the operating cost of existing fossil plants giving them a pass for the tens of thousands murdered by air pollution annually.

    France was able to go from near zero to 75% nuke in a little over 10 years a few decades ago at half the cost of fossil fuels, while German engineers joke about achieving the same standard 40 years from now using wind and solar. The more than a 100 million that will die from air pollution while waiting for this miracle and the possible billions that will lose their lives if the wait drags us over an AGW precipice, seems like a reasonable sacrifice to the renewable religious nut or fossil energy scammer.
  • CaptD on February 28 2015 said:
    It is really sad that US Energy R&D is primarily determined by Tax Incentives instead of what is best for the USA in the long run!

    Because we now live in a far different country than we did several decades ago, we are now at the mercy of elected officials that support whatever is best for their BIG Donors, most of which represent Old School Energy Producers.

    Happily, Public opinion is shifting and we are now seeing large numbers of both investors and ratepayers that are demanding better from their Utilities. These Utilities must now pay attention to this demand if they are to convince investors and ratepayers that they don’t need to install their own Solar Energy generating systems, which now threaten the profitability of Big Utilities bottom line as never before.

    Big Utilities must now cope with decreases in Energy generating costs that make long term investments in Old School energy generation like new Nuclear, something that is becoming ever harder to justify, since Solar (of all flavors) cost is decreasing almost monthly and storage battery technology is going to dramatically change the Energy Generation/Storage equation in the very near future.

    Here is one just one example of what is coming very soon to the Energy Marketplace:

    LOOK OUT NUCLEAR PLANTS ===> Putting the world’s largest and most powerful gas turbine to the test


    Just imagine what will be “online” in 10 to 30 years from now at much less cost than using Nuclear…

    I believe that turbines this size and even larger ones which will follow will be used to maintain Large Capacity Grid Storage batteries in various locations across the USA and make sharing Energy an even better deal, once the Grid gets upgraded.
  • GF on March 05 2015 said:
    All this wasted money on oil and nuclear. When will you open your eyes and realize you have to think outside of the box. There is unlimited energy in all space all around us, figuring out how to tap into it should be our number one goal to truly eradicate global warming. But lets keep spending billions on energy sources that come from limited resources instead. Of course most of, if not all of you on here don't actually care about preserving our planet, you feel better leaving your grandchildren lots of money which will coincidentally be useless when the EARTH is uninhabitable. You just care about what will make the most money. So sad.
  • CaptD on March 23 2015 said:
    The short answer to

    Is There Any Hope Left For Nuclear Energy?

    Is N?

Leave a comment

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