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Nuclear power is back in the spotlight for its potential contribution to curbing carbon emissions. A UK parliamentary committee recently urged the government to come up with a strategy, rather than vague targets, to more than triple nuclear generating capacity by 2050. In the US, the Vogtle 3 unit began delivering electricity to Georgia’s power grid — the first reactor the country has built from scratch in more than three decades. Yet the fact that Vogtle 3 and the coming unit 4 might also be among the last big US reactors to be built is a sign of the questions over such plants, despite their promise.
The basic climate case for nuclear power is solid. It can provide a “firm” generation bedrock to underpin more intermittent solar and wind. Since so much more generating capacity will be needed as vehicles and industry switch from fossil fuels, it would be a big stretch for renewables to fill all of the gap.
But nuclear is much more expensive than renewables, whose cost has come down sharply, even when everything runs smoothly, which it rarely does. The challenge of safely storing nuclear waste has not been entirely resolved. And recent experience in Europe and the US is almost entirely of projects being completed late and over budget. That has put off private investors, too.
France’s EDF now says Hinkley Point C, Britain’s first new nuclear power station for almost 30 years, is likely to cost more than envisaged. EDF’s Flamanville-3 reactor in France is over a decade behind schedule. In the US, the $14bn original cost of Vogtle 3 and 4 has blown past $30bn.
Japan and South Korea have a better record, but Japan is not building overseas. South Korea’s Kepco, though it successfully built Abu Dhabi’s first nuclear plant, is facing a copyright lawsuit from America’s Westinghouse over using the same design elsewhere. China and Russia have completed multiple reactors largely on time, but few western nations want to buy from them.
Small modular reactors — cheaper and quicker to build — may start to play a role, but are still in development. So if nuclear power is to play the part many western governments envisage, the industry needs to improve financing, construction and supply chains, and demonstrate it can build big reactors within the time and resources allotted.
The cost of capital and overall costs can potentially be held down through the regulatory asset base model, now adopted by the UK, where consumers pay towards a new plant through energy bills even during construction. This can avoid interest charges mounting up, but increases bills upfront.
In terms of project selection and planning, with several “third generation” reactor designs from the US, Europe and Japan now in operation, one rule of thumb should be to look for what has worked elsewhere and set out to replicate it. A 2018 report by industry and the UK government found that plant designs had to be nailed down before work began to reduce costs. If not, late changes and resulting construction delays were almost bound to cause expenses to balloon.
Industry insiders say building large reactors is not a technology challenge but an engineering and project management one. A vital need is for people with relevant skills and experience — knowhow that has atrophied in some western nations. The UK this month launched a nuclear skills task force to try to address the gap.
Many of the things engineers say are needed to keep nuclear costs down — better planning and communications, applying best practice — sound humdrum, but seem hard to achieve in real life. If “gigawatt-scale” reactors are to play their part in the west’s climate transition, the nuclear industry must be better at planning and execution.