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UK commits to nuclear new build – a critical decision for the future of nuclear

More than a decade since then Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a review into UK energy policy, a positive decision has been taken to approve the construction of the first new nuclear station in the UK in a generation, Hinkley Point C.

Finally, after more twists and turns than a good British mystery novel, including: EDF’s purchase of British Energy, the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan, agreement to an innovative Contract for Difference (CFD) type of contract to support the project, the introduction of a significant role for the Chinese, and most recently the Brexit vote; the UK decision shows that Europe remains a nuclear continent.

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The project is not without its opponents; some of whom are supportive of nuclear new build in the UK, but do not support this particular project.  Concerns range from the cost of energy to the inclusion of the Chinese.  But following extensive review and assessment, the decision has been taken, and its importance goes well beyond just approving a single new nuclear project in Britain.

Following the Fukushima accident in Japan, a number of European countries reconsidered their commitment to nuclear power, the most significant being Germany, who immediately shut down a number of their nuclear units and made a clear plan to retire the remainder.  Many said nuclear in Europe, where there are the most nuclear units in the world, is a technology of the past.  Renewables are the future.  Even the French government, with the world’s largest nuclear fleet in terms of share of electricity generated, said it would cut back on its use.

Through it all, the UK maintained its strong commitment to new nuclear.  Its existing fleet is aging and with domestic gas waning and energy imports on the rise, it recognized that new nuclear is the best, and likely only way, to both achieve energy security and meet its carbon reduction goals.

While all the talk has been about delays in securing approvals for its new nuclear ambitions, EDF Energy, the operator of the current UK fleet, has been quietly going about its business and making game-changing improvements in its operations.  On September 16, Heysham II was taken off line after 940 days of continuous operations, a new world record beating the record held by Pickering Unit 7 in Canada (894 days) for more than 20 years.  [As we all think about light water reactors (PWRs and BWRs) as the global standard, we often forget that these other reactor types, AGR in the case of Heysham and CANDU in the case of Pickering, have their own specific advantages.] In addition, EDF has been able to extend the lives of the AGR fleet by an average of 8 years.  This shows the strong capability of EDF Energy as an operating entity and bodes well for the next step; new build.

So why is the approval of Hinkley Point C so important to the nuclear industry?  First of all, it is the first new build nuclear project in the UK since Sizewell B came into service in 1995 and, even more importantly, is expected to be the start of a major ongoing new nuclear program.  It is the base to rebuild the UK nuclear supply chain, once a world leader, and support the broader European nuclear supply chain.  It is the first new unit to be built supported by a CFD type agreement and as stated by Duncan Hawthorne, CEO of Horizon Nuclear, likely the next to build in the UK, it “blazes the trail” for those that follow.  The UK is taking an interesting approach to new nuclear going forward as there are multiple companies who are planning to build a multitude of designs (EDF Energy with the EPR, Horizon with the ABWR, NuGen with the AP1000 and CGN with its HPR1000).  And finally, after years of cooperation in China, it entrenches EDFs global partnership with CGN and establishes China as a reputable exporter of nuclear power.

But most of all, it is further evidence that Europe remains a nuclear continent.  While most articles on nuclear tend to say nuclear is languishing everywhere except for its saving grace –  China – Europe is moving forward.  Sweden is taking real steps to keep its fleet operating, France and Finland have new build underway albeit while experiencing First of a Kind (FOAK) issues, Finland now has a second new unit going ahead, Hungary is waiting for an imminent decision from Europe on state aid and is ready to start its a new station at Paks, with other countries continuing to plan for new nuclear plants.  And now the UK starts a new program – one that will ultimately include a number of vendors and countries.

Of course the real challenge is just beginning – that is for EDF Energy to demonstrate that it can build Hinkley Point C on time and on budget – and as the 5th and 6th EPR units to be built, there is certainly a very good chance that they will.

Nuclear, a technology of the past in Europe – I don’t think so – in Europe nuclear power is a technology of the future.

Fighting for the environment – keep nuclear in the mix

Earlier this month I enjoyed a week of vacation sitting on the beach in front of a beautiful camp (or cottage, cabin or country house, depending on where you are from) staring at a stunning view of the north shore of Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh water lake.  This is pretty far north (at the 49th parallel), and this year the summer has been very hot.  Once again, July has been the hottest month ever recorded.

Environment

It’s times like this of quiet reflection that the issue of environment comes to the forefront.  Contrast this idyllic view to that of some of the world’s cities where pollution is rampant and health is impacted every day.  This is the short term need – make the air breathable for all those that are having their health impacted negatively by pollution primarily coming from burning coal to generate electricity and from burning fossil fuels in cars each and every day.  And then there is the issue of climate change.  Harder for many to understand as the consequences are not as easy to see in the short term; but clearly the environmental issue of our time.

Let me start by saying that I am not one of those people that believe we should directly tie the future of nuclear power to climate change but rather that the case for nuclear needs to be made on its merits – reliability, economics, sustainability and yes, its environmental attributes.  In fact, today environmental attributes of any generation technology should be the price of entry – low carbon and low polluting technologies are the ones that should make the list to be considered for deployment.   However once on the list it is the other attributes that need to be considered when planning and implementing a robust electricity supply system.

Looking at this beautiful view, I find it hard to understand how so many are trying to disadvantage the environment by excluding nuclear power from the list of technologies that are environmentally friendly.  And not just for new generation, but many are fighting to close existing plants that have been providing clean, economic and reliable electricity to the grid for decades.  Examples abound.

In California, a decision was recently taken to shut down Diablo Canyon in 2025 rather than extend its life and replace it with renewables and demand management.  This decision has recently been severely criticized by Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists who has asked the Governor for a debate on the issue stating “Retirement of the plant will make a mockery of California’s decarbonization efforts. Diablo Canyon’s yearly output of 17,600 gigawatt-hours supplies 9 percent of California’s total in-state electricity generation and 21 percent of its low-carbon generation. If Diablo closes it will be replaced mainly by natural gas, and California’s carbon dioxide emissions will rise…” [Read the entire text of the letter here]

In New York state there has been an important victory as nuclear has been included in the clean energy standard as legislators have acknowledged the important role that nuclear plays in reducing carbon emissions; and in fact accepts that meeting carbon objectives is simply impossible without nuclear.   However, this is just a first step. It protects existing nuclear but also maintains the future target of 50% renewables, making nuclear a bridge to the future.  Well if existing nuclear is good, then so should new nuclear – but that fight is for another day.

Of course the battle to include nuclear as a low carbon energy option is not uniquely a US issue.  A new study by the University of Sussex and the Vienna School of International Studies suggests that “a strong national commitment to nuclear energy goes hand in hand with weak performance on climate change targets”.  While the authors do note that “it’s difficult to show a causal link”, this does not stop them from suggesting it is likely there.   It is easy to say that Germany has done a good job and reduced its carbon emissions by 14% since 2005.  What is not said is that Germany’s carbon reduction efforts have really struggled since it closed a number of nuclear plants in 2011 after the Fukushima accident and has yet to get back on track; which was likely a key factor in Sweden where the Greens have accepted the need for continued nuclear operation to meet its climate goal.

Here in my home jurisdiction of Ontario Canada, we had the largest carbon reduction in all of North America as coal was removed from the generation mix in 2014.  This was not done by replacing coal with renewables although renewable generation has increased, but was made possible by refurbishing and returning nuclear units into service.

I have written extensively about peoples’ belief systems over the years and this is what is standing between nuclear and success.  Ask anyone in the street about clean electricity and you will hear that renewables, primarily wind and solar, are what is needed to transform our energy systems.  Ask about nuclear and the response is much more likely to be mixed.

It is great news that many environmentalists are now seeing the necessity of nuclear in the mix.  As concluded by James Hansen in his letter” It would be a tragedy if we were to allow irrational fear to harm the climate and endanger the future of our children and grandchildren.”  So if we are to avoid a tragedy, we in the nuclear industry have a lot of work to change the narrative and continue to increase public support.  The agreement in New York is a good beginning but the hard work has only just begun.

Let’s create awareness for all the benefits that nuclear technology brings to mankind

When a report on the benefits of nuclear technology starts with “The public are often unaware of the extent to which aspects of their everyday life involve products and processes originated from the application of nuclear technology via the nuclear industry”, it tells me that the time has come to tell this story and increase public awareness.

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I had the opportunity to attend the Nuclear Industry Summit in Washington last month and was privileged to participate in Working Group 3 which had the mandate to summarize the role of the nuclear industry globally.  The NIS was a very successful event.  It was a companion event to the Nuclear Security Summit held by President Obama and provided an opportunity for the nuclear industry to interact and present its views to global leaders on the key issues of nuclear security and how the industry addresses it.

With the 5th anniversary of Fukushima having just passed last month and the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl this month, we have a steady reminder of the issues that never seem to go away for the nuclear industry.  It is our nature.  In his very enjoyable talk to the Canadian Nuclear Industry Conference in February, Malcolm Grimston asks the key question of why is it that the safest source of large scale electricity generation we have ever come up with is considered so dangerous by enough people that in a number of countries there is an effort to stop using nuclear energy?  I have commented on Malcolm’s presentations before and I really enjoy his perspective.  We in the industry tend towards the problem being an irrational public – Malcolm insists the public are quite rational and that it is actually the industry that is providing much of the information that frames public views.  An example is the constant talk by the industry about safety and how safety is the most important issue.  While intended to provide comfort, it can achieve quite the opposite effect.  If safety is even more important than generating electricity reliably and efficiently the answer is quite simple – shut down the plants and safety is assured.  I won’t go into more detail but I do recommend you watch Malcom’s presentation when you have 25 minutes to spare.

Or as was so eloquently put by the CEO of Ontario Power Generation at the CNA conference when talking about the nuclear industry, “we make sure to find the black cloud around every silver lining left to our own devices.”  Yes, we in the industry often succumb to the narrative and as Malcom suggests, probably even feed the beast. (Aside:  I also urge you to watch Jeff Lyash’s presentation when you have 20 minutes to spare.  It is an excellent view of the industry going forward.)

So rather than talk about safety and nuclear waste as we tend to do over and over again; in this post I want to help increase awareness of the many benefits that nuclear technology brings to us all across a range of industries.  The paper submitted by Working Group 3 led by Dr. John Barrett, President of the CNA is a must read.  It is one of those papers that once read makes you wonder; why hasn’t this paper been written this way before?  So please read the paper – it is about 20 pages and well worth it.

But for those who may not get there quickly enough here is a summary of the benefits that nuclear technology brings to society each and every day.  As stated in the paper, “Nuclear technology is vital for more than just providing reliable, low-carbon energy. It also has life-saving medical application; improves manufacturing, mining, transport and agriculture; and help us discover more about the planet we live on and how we can sustainably live with it.

So for example, did you know that

  • nuclear technology saves lives through use of radioisotopes for screening, diagnosis and therapy of various medical conditions? According to the WNA, over 10,000 hospitals worldwide use radioisotopes. Radioisotopes are used in therapy to control and damage cancerous growths. Iodine-131 is used to treat thyroid cancer; Phosophorus-32 to treat leukemia.  Nuclear techniques are used for neonatal screening for sickle cell disease, hypothyroidism and cystic fibrosis, as well as childhood cancers.
  • radiation is used to preserve seeds and food products and breed disease-resistant plants. In plant breeding, some 1800 new crop varieties have been developed through mutation induced by ionising radiation.
  • irradiation technology is increasingly being used to preserve food – spices, grains, fruit, vegetables and meat. It avoids the use of potentially harmful chemical fumigants and insecticides
  • use of the IAEA’s Sterile Insect Technique irradiates the eggs of these insects to sterilise them before hatching. The IAEA estimates that, by suppressing insect pest populations with SIT, pesticide use worldwide has been reduced by 600,000 litres annually.
  • in industrial radiography, nuclear substances are used for the non-destructive examination and testing of new materials. Radiation from the substances passes through the material and allows defects in welds or constituency to be recorded on film or a digital imager.

This list does not do justice to the report itself which I strongly suggest you read.  It’s time to stop being on the defensive and make sure that we no longer have to write reports that start with “The public are often unaware of the extent to which aspects of their everyday life involve products and processes originated from the application of nuclear technology via the nuclear industry.”  It is time to celebrate our successes and not just talk about where we need to improve.  We are proud to be part of the nuclear industry and we are confident that we are making a difference that helps to make the world a better place.

It’s not about being “advanced”, it is ongoing innovation that will keep nuclear strong

This month in the United States, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was passed to support federal research and development and stimulate private investment in advanced nuclear reactor technologies.  All this good news about investment in the future made me think about how we use the words advanced and innovation in the nuclear industry.  We first wrote about innovation in the nuclear sector two years ago.  And what we said then still applies, in fact even more so, today.

When thinking about innovation in the nuclear industry, the discussion often centres around future reactor designs.  However, this far too narrow focus tends to an argument that a so called advanced design is what is required to save the industry and implies that today’s designs are just not good enough.  When we have a technology that produces abundant economic and reliable electricity with very low carbon, all while being one of the safest on earth; what we have today is something worth celebrating.  Yet it is not unusual for some supporters of nuclear power to use the idea that new advanced designs are the magic sauce that will make nuclear great again.

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                    Futuristic Thorium Plant from the Norwegian series “Occupied”

I was recently at a meeting where it was noted by someone who had recently visited Havana Cuba, that without access to newer technology, cars in Cuba are stuck in the past.  The Cubans have found ways to keep these old cars running well past their original lives as they had no access to anything newer.   And while we may find these relics fun to look at, we certainly don’t expect to be driving cars of this vintage.  In fact, we know that while the cars of today basically look the same and operate in a similar manner to those of the 1950s, there is likely not one part that is the same as was made 50 years ago.  Today’s car is made up of different materials, is computer controlled, is way more efficient and much much safer.  This is all due to years and years of innovation.  The same applies to nuclear plants.  What would have happened if back in 1955 or so people only talked about and invested in what would replace cars for individual transport (i.e. “advanced” cars meaning electric vehicles or even flying cars) instead of how to make them better?  The thought of it is just ridiculous.  Yet that seems to be a common view of nuclear – that all we are doing is keeping old outdated plants (like 1950’s cars) operating until we get these shiny new plants of the future ready for deployment.  Nothing can be further from the truth.

While yes, it is important to research and develop new concepts based on specific needs, for example closing the fuel cycle or using new types of fuel such as thorium; it is not the case that this is what is required to continue to evolve safety, reliability and economics.  For that we must continue to focus our efforts on improving what we have – innovating, taking the reactor designs available today – and making them better.  Just like cars, there is abundant technology in any given nuclear plant that extends far beyond what kind of fuel we choose to burn.  Implementing changes means using a large spectrum of new technologies that are being constantly developed as is necessary in every industry that wants to keep moving forward.

A great current example is the commitment in the US through the “Delivering the Nuclear Promise: Advancing Safety, Reliability and Economic Performance” initiative as the way forward to address falling prices of alternative generation options.  As stated, this “three-year program will identify efficiency measures and adopt best practices and technology solutions to improve operations, reduce generation cost and prevent premature reactor closure.”   Now this is what drives innovation.

Extending the lives of current reactors through better understanding of how materials age, first to 60 years and next possibly to 80 years, use of remote tooling to reduce dose and shorten outages, use of new technology in controls to improve reliability; all of these things require innovation.

When it comes to new build, there is innovation in methods to reduce construction time and improve quality such as computer engineering tools, modularization and even simple things such as moving platforms to replace scaffolding and on and on and on.  This is innovation.   And let’s not forget about commercial innovation.  Innovative business models such as those used in Canada for refurbishment and in the UK for new build are critical to future industry success.  This even includes models from places like Russia where they are working with foreign customers in ways thought not possible in the past.  Will this all work?  Some things will and some things wont, but this is innovation.  It is messy, it takes time – and it continues to move the industry forward.  And most of this innovation will apply to all reactor types, todays and those of the future.

I support the development of future designs– just not at the expense of making the public think our current designs have hit their ‘best before date’.  I am concerned that the industry is risking too much on the importance of government money for advanced designs– i.e. here is a few hundred million dollars to study designs for the 2030s so shut up and focus on the future – then come back in 20 years or so when you have the next great thing.  We cannot afford a mindset that says nuclear must stop until then as the world continues to build more and more gas plants and renewables.  Every year these alternatives, wind and solar get better – and we need to do the same (and frankly we are).

The world needs abundant low carbon, economic and reliable electricity now if we are to replace coal and meet the needs of an energy hungry world.  To meet the WNA target of 1,000 GW – 1000 new, 1000 MW nuclear plants by 2050 means we need to be building lots of new plants TODAY – not waiting until the next big thing comes around in a decade or two.

So, today’s nuclear technology must continue to move forward and demonstrate it is a technology of the future and that improvements are continuing to come that make every project better than the last.  We need to better celebrate our achievements and we need to continue to invest in further innovation because there is no choice but to continue to get better.

Our strength is through our performance.  And our performance continues to get better through innovation, each and every day.

Canada makes big decisions to further strengthen its commitment to nuclear power

As Canadians, we were truly excited when this past fall, Arthur McDonald of Queens University in Canada was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics with Takaaki Kajita of Japan for discovering that neutrinos have mass. Dr. McDonald and his Canadian team captured neutrinos using a uniquely sensitive new detector 6800 feet below ground at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO).  SNO is a collaborative effort by six Canadian universities and the group were able to borrow $300 million worth of heavy water – used in the country’s CANDU nuclear reactors- for 10 years for $1. Dr. McDonald began his career at the AECL Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory (now CNL) and is the 4th Nobel Laurate to have worked there.

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When we think about nuclear power around the world these days, two things come to mind – the rapid growth in Asia led by China fueling the industry forward, and the challenges facing the industry in the west with some plants closing early in the USA and new build projects in Europe being delayed and over budget. With so much going on in the global nuclear industry – it’s hard to find people talking about Canada and our home-grown CANDU reactors. In fact, in my very frequent travels, I often get asked if there is anything at all going on in the Canadian industry.

Well, we are here to tell you that nuclear power is indeed alive and well in Canada – and that 2015 was a bellwether year with hugely important decisions having been made by government that will set the stage for a strong nuclear industry for decades to come.

Canada is blessed with natural resources. When it comes to electricity, Canada has one of the lowest carbon and most economic generation anywhere. Most of the country is lucky to have large hydro resources, so much so that in Canada, we call electricity “hydro”, not electricity. We pay the “hydro” bill and worry when a storm knocks down “hydro wires”. Many of our electric companies have the word “Hydro” in their name. Yet what many people do not know is that in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, about 60% of our electricity is generated by nuclear power. Yes, in Ontario more than half of our electricity comes from nuclear plants. And in New Brunswick, the only other province with an operating nuclear plant; the 630 MW Point Lepreau Generating Station is the workhorse of the electrical system, supplying a third of that province’s electricity.

Ontario’s nuclear electricity comes from three plants operated by two utilities. The Bruce Nuclear Power Station, again to many people’s surprise, is currently the world’s largest, generating 6,300 MW of electricity, and the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station and Pickering Nuclear Generating Station together add another 6,600 MW to the system. While these stations are generating most of Ontario’s electricity, these units are aging as are most nuclear power stations in the western world. CANDU type reactors can be refurbished to extend and effectively double their operating lives, but this requires significant investment and hence, a strong commitment to a nuclear future.

Over the past two months, decisions have been taken by the government of Ontario to refurbish both the remaining 6 units at Bruce (2 have already been refurbished) and the 4 units at Darlington. Together this represents a 15 year, $25 billion program of work that will have these nuclear units remain the backbone of the Ontario electricity system until the 2060s. Making things even more interesting, the Bruce refurbishment will be undertaken by Bruce Power, a private sector operator with private funds, through an agreement to buy electricity from the Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) while the Darlington refurbishment will be undertaken by its public sector owner/operator, OPG on a regulated basis.  To top it off, a decision was also taken to extend the lives of the older Pickering units to 2024 before they are shut down at their end of life.

This is an exciting time for the nuclear industry in Canada. These refurbishment programs provide the industry with a stable work environment for the next 15 years, allowing it to hire and train a new generation of young engineers and trades people who can look forward to an exciting career in nuclear.

This alone would be exciting enough as Canada recommits to nuclear power for the long term, but that is not all. Canada has long been known for its excellence in nuclear research. The Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory has been an institution in nuclear research for 60 years. Today CNL has emerged from its restructuring as a government-owned, private-sector run world-class nuclear research centre.

And finally, we cannot talk about the nuclear industry in Canada without talking about uranium. Canada’s Athabasca Basin is home to the world’s highest grade uranium and is the world’s second largest producer of uranium, fueling nuclear reactors around the world, helping countries lower their carbon emissions.   This past year Cameco, the region’s major producer, placed its newest uranium mine, Cigar Lake, into production producing about 10 million lbs of U3O8 and is on track to increase this production to 16 million lbs in 2016. They also signed a deal to provide India with uranium, the first since Canada and India signed a nuclear cooperation agreement in 2013, paving the way for renewed nuclear cooperation between these two countries.

As Canadians, we were extremely proud to see Dr. McDonald’s work recognized with a Nobel prize. Canada has a great history of research and development in the nuclear industry, from fundamental nuclear physics to medical applications to power production. This is a pleasant reminder as to why we went into this challenging industry so many years ago. At that time, we had a vision – to make the world a better place through use of clean, economic, safe and abundant nuclear energy. Now here we are 35 years later – a little grayer and with a little less hair – and with the decisions made this past year, we feel confident that Canadians will continue to reap the benefits of this industry for the foreseeable future.

 

Abundant and economic – Nuclear power delivers

The past few weeks have seen lots of excitement as the world reached agreement to tackle climate change in Paris. What is key to the Paris deal is a requirement that every nation (all 195 of them) take part. Ahead of the talks, governments of 186 nations put forth public plans detailing how they would cut carbon emissions over the next 10 to 15 years. However, these plans alone, should they come to fruition, will cut emissions by only half the levels required to meet the targets set out in the agreement. The plans vary significantly from country to country with some like China depending upon nuclear power as part of their plan – and others not. With no concrete plan to achieve the goals in the agreement, one thing is clear; that if there is any chance of meeting these ambitious goals, there will have to be a larger role for nuclear power.

Critics of nuclear power generally focus on two main issues: safety, mostly concern that the consequences of a possible nuclear accident are not worth the risk; and cost, with many noting that nuclear is a high cost option that just diverts funds from the real environmental options for future generation, wind and solar. This month we will talk about cost and how to ensure that nuclear is seen for what it is, a capital intensive yet highly economic option for reliable 24/7 generation. If nuclear is to play the role that it can, and must play in the future generation mix, it can only get there by being the economic option of choice.

In our last post we noted the updated version of “Project Costs of Electricity” has recently been published. This is an important report that is now in its 8th edition from the IEA and NEA looking at the costs of various forms of electricity generation.

The results of this study are very clear. It shows that nuclear is a very competitive option on a Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) basis.

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renewable costs 2015 dec

In fact, at low discount rates (3%), it is the clear winner among both traditional fossil technologies and the cost of renewables. While the report acknowledges the huge gains made by renewables in reducing their costs, it also notes the belief that nuclear costs continue to rise is false.

What is of interest is how the results are presented. The main comparisons in the executive summary are provided varying only one parameter, discount rates, that range from 3% to 10%. This represents a three-fold increase in the discount rate over the range. It is therefore not surprising that the technologies that are capital intensive, i.e. nuclear and renewables show the greatest sensitivity to this one parameter. This is one way to look at the comparative economics. On the other hand, generating stations powered by fuels like coal and gas are much more sensitive to fuel price. This sensitivity is only shown later on in the report in a sensitivity section.

                                       Figure 7.12: LCOE as a function of fuel cost

Fuel Sensitivity

So for example, while gas plants (CCGT) vary little with discount rates due to their relatively low capital costs and higher fuel costs, their LCOE is very sensitive to fuel prices. In the chart above, the sensitivity only varies fuel prices by up to 50%; rather small in comparison to the three-fold change in discount rates in the earlier chart. Yet we all know that today’s very low gas prices in North America are easily less than half as much as they were only a few years ago. Doubling gas prices or more would have a huge impact on electricity costs.

As would be expected, the economics also vary by region. It is no accident that China is building the most nuclear plants in the world. Even though they are also building many more coal plants to meet their ever increasing hunger for energy, nuclear plants provide clean reliable energy at about half the cost of coal in China making it an easy decision to move forward with new nuclear plants as quickly as they can. On the other hand, this past month we have once again heard about nuclear plants in the United States that are likely going to close prematurely due to poor economics. This results mostly from very low gas prices that impact the economics in those parts of the country that have open competitive markets. The units that are most impacted are the older smaller single unit stations that are requiring capital investment at this stage of their life cycle. Without any acknowledgement of the low carbon characteristics of nuclear, or the reliability of fuel supply (gas plants generally are fed by pipelines that are at risk in cold winter months), these units are struggling. Yet the industry in the USA is not standing still. As reported in the December 10 Nucleonics Week, the US industry is targeting to reduce its costs for the existing fleet by 30%. Once achieved, this will ensure that once again nuclear will be the lowest cost generation on the system.

However, this is only the first step. Being a low carbon generator is only sufficient to ensure that nuclear remains an option. The key to long term success is the ability to reduce the capital costs of constructing the plant; producing low cost energy is what will really drive a strong new build program. This can be seen in countries such as China and Korea, where capital costs are relatively low, making nuclear by far the most economic option available. Lessons learned in these markets must be shared and implemented globally to bring down capital costs in other markets as well. China and Korea are showing the way. If the rest of the world follows, abundant nuclear power will play a large role in tackling climate change as the electrical grid workhorse of reliable low-carbon and mostly, economic generation, for decades to come.

Optimism is the way forward – Nuclear Power delivers

We had an important piece of good news this month as Sendai Unit 1 was restarted in Japan, ending a long period of no nuclear generation in that country after the Fukushima accident in 2011. Sendai Unit 2 is following close behind and Japan will continue to restart many of its nuclear plants as it moves to put the accident behind it and reap the benefits of nuclear generation once again. Recent experience without nuclear has led the country to import vast quantities of fossil fuels, increase its carbon emissions and damage its balance of trade. While difficult for many, the Japanese understand the benefits of continuing with nuclear power are essential to the well-being of their society.

Sendai Nuclear Japan

                                                   Sendai Nuclear Power Plant

Unfortunately as we have learned from this accident so far, it is fear of radiation that is having the largest impact on peoples’ health rather than the radiation itself. To date no one has died from radiation at Fukushima and no one is likely to die from radiation in the future, yet fear is what is consuming these people and their lives – and the policy decisions being taken by government.

Of course, we must always think about those that were directly impacted by the accident. Many remain out of their homes and those that are permitted to return are often afraid. We must continue to understand their plight and work together to help them get their lives back and of most importance, once again have hope for their future.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Fareed Zakaria on CNN interview President Obama about the Iran nuclear deal. I don’t want to talk about that here but I do want to share Fareed’s thoughts on President Obama’s optimism. He suggested that Obama is an optimist and noted that “history suggests that it’s the optimists who have tended to be right”. He went on to say that “today we are awash in pessimism, with people who see the world as a dark and dangerous place, where threats are growing and enemies are gaining strength.”

It made me think of our own world of nuclear power, where we are awash in pessimism; And it is easy to be pessimistic when articles such as the one by Michael Ignatieff, (who has previously run for Prime Minister of Canada) concludes after his visit to the Fukushima area with a message that seems to be the prevailing view of nuclear power to many. “For the rest of us, outside Japan, we have moved on, more dubious about nuclear power than before, but still locked into the energy and economic system that requires it. Fukushima is now classed with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in a trio of warning disasters, but so far none of these has persuaded the world, at least so far, to exit nuclear.” Clearly the message is – we need it for now, but when are we going to realize that the risk is just not worth the benefits?

It is easy to be pessimistic when there are documentaries that reach similar conclusions. In “Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” by Dr. Derek Muller, a physicist by training, the two part series focused on the bomb in Episode 1 and on the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima in Episode 2. Watching one can see that positive facts are presented such as radiation is not as dangerous as people think but the series is not about the benefits of nuclear power – rather it focuses on fueling the fear.

And there is no doubt the biggest issue is fear of radiation. As stated in Mr. Ignatieff’s article, “Today, Tokyo shoppers still won’t buy rice, soya, or miso produced in the region and nobody will touch the catch from the local fishermen, even though the fish have been pronounced safe.” On his visit to the region he says “In the enclosed valleys, as our bus climbed up the winding roads towards the coast—still many miles from the nuclear plant—radiation rose to double the levels in Tokyo. We’re told it’s safe to travel to Namie but it’s still not clear what safe means.” After this accident trust is in short supply and lack of trust definitely increases the fear.

What is also clear is that setting policy based on fear does not result in good policy. In Germany, they prematurely shut down safe, effective and economic plants much earlier than needed. Even while building a huge amount of renewable generation, the Germans had to also build new coal plants both increasing electricity costs and emissions. It doesn’t take much to realize that even with a strategic goal of eliminating nuclear power, taking the time to build clean replacements and shutting the existing plants down more slowly would have worked just fine – but setting policy driven by short-term fear of radiation doesn’t allow for sensible decisions. With over 200 nuclear plants throughout Europe, nuclear power has been a safe and essential element of electricity generation for decades without a single incident of harm.

Going back to what was said by Fareed Zakaria, “history suggests that it’s the optimists who have tended to be right”, we definitely choose to be optimistic and here is why.

The world needs clean and abundant energy for a better future for us all. For those with limited or no access to a reliable source of electricity, providing this resource makes a huge positive impact in their standard of living. And while we all agree that in richer countries there is opportunity to become more energy efficient, just look how dramatically our lives are impacted if there is an outage for any sustained period of time. Nuclear energy meets that need. It provides clean, abundant, economic and reliable electricity. Its energy density is matched by none so it can provide huge quantities of electricity from very small quantities of fuel, clearly what will be needed as the world population approaches 9 billion in the years to come.

The rapidly growing economies in the world like China and India are very aware of the benefits that come with robust nuclear programs as they embrace nuclear power to support their rapid growth in energy demand. Other energy-poor countries are also eager to move forward. The 67 units under construction around the world represents the largest new build program in decades and while many (25) are being built in China, the rest are distributed in 12 different countries.

But most of all what makes us optimistic about the future are the large numbers of energetic, bright and talented young people entering the industry. This month I had the opportunity to lecture at the World Nuclear University Summer Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. The current generation of young engineers and scientists have grown up in an era where they are strongly supportive of technology and believe that anything is possible if they put their mind to it. It did not take long to see that the future of the industry is in good hands.

The time has come to get off our hind foot and stand up proudly and proclaim what we know to be true – that nuclear power has an important place in the world and will continue to expand its role as we need reliable economic and abundant energy for society. It is an essential energy option of choice, not of last resort, that we shouldn’t wish we could do without.

Reliability means being connected – we need a strong integrated electricity system with nuclear generation as its workhorse

It was with great fanfare that Tesla launched its home battery recently.   Headlines like “Tesla launches Powerwall home battery with aim to revolutionize energy consumption” were the norm as the public read about this revolutionary jump forward in energy storage. A recent article on where famed author Margaret Atwood is investing says it all …. “if [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk was putting his Powerwall on the market, I would certainly buy a piece of that. My feeling is that, once that becomes affordable, everyone is going to do that. I think that’s definitely the wave of the future.”

After all, this is the dream isn’t it? We can all generate our own electricity with clean energy efficient solar panels and store enough on our home batteries to keep us going when the sun goes down. What can be better for our common future?

Well, in fact, just about everything.

It must be my age and my years in the energy industry that remind me of what are the real essential attributes of electricity supply. Reliability and Economics. Yes, that’s right. For anyone who works in a modern electricity utility, that is what they focus on; delivering cost effective reliable electricity to users. And in today’s energy intensive world where we need electricity for every aspect of our hyper active and energy intensive lives, this is even more critical. We have all experienced temporary blackouts and know well the negative impact it has. The problem then with renewable energy generated at home is that, at least for now, it is neither reliable nor economic. Since the announcement from Tesla there have been a number of articles that explain this in detail, but of course supporters will just say that in time all problems will be solved. And frankly they may be right.

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So let’s step back and ask ourselves a more important question – are we trying to solve the right problem? Most people have no idea what it takes to generate and deliver the electricity (the so-called “grid”) we take for granted in the modern world. In fact, many just think electricity is something that comes out of the wall outlet. What we all want is that when we turn on the switch, or plug in our phones, it just works. We are not in any way prepared for a world in which we say – oh, it’s cloudy so we better not charge our iPhone today! I love the recent TV ads where BMW is explaining how they build their new I3 electric car in wind powered factories. Yet, do any of us really think that on days when it is not windy, these factories sit idle? No, of course not.

In most advanced economies around the globe we have achieved a high level of reliability in electricity supply. In fact this is one of the measures that makes an economy ‘advanced’. The problem is that much of our electricity is generated with fossil fuels; primarily coal. (Coal continues to be the largest source of Germany’s electricity where BMW has its factories, at nearly 50% of total supply). And along with this comes both pollution and a high level of carbon emissions. Therefore, the only way to address these environmental issues is to reduce the use of fossil fuels, not to eliminate an integrated grid.

Just like being connected to the internet improves our lives, so does being connected to a reliable electricity grid. Do we really want to live a life where if it is cloudy for a few days and our batteries run dry we do without? Of course not. Just imagine how much excess battery capacity we would each need to avoid this possibility. Even Elon Musk notes that his battery is currently for emergency backup – not for daily use – and yes it would be great to have some amount of reasonably economic backup for when we experience an outage. But as is starting to be seen in California where there are numerous discussions of the “duck curve”, people want it all – they want to generate their own electricity when they can believing this is the best approach, but they also want the system to be there just in case they need it; and at a moment’s notice. The result – higher costs all around. The less the grid system is used, the more it costs to keep the infrastructure in place to make up the shortfall when needed.

The answer is simple, let’s take what works and make it even better.  That is a large interconnected grid that includes large scale reliable economic generation based on nuclear power, and hydro where available, supplemented by wind and solar depending upon the local availability of these resources. To be reliable and cost effective, a system needs generation that can run all the time, not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. As storage technology improves, it can then contribute to both help manage the intermittency of renewable generation as well as flattening the demand curve to enable an even larger share of nuclear generation.

Remember, our economy, and in fact our very way of life, is completely dependent upon the availability of reliable, clean and economic electricity. So while we may dream of not needing the grid as we each generate our own electricity, what we really need is a strong well interconnected grid made up of reliable economic nuclear power as its work horse, with wind, solar and other forms of generation contributing when they can; all coupled with new forms of large scale storage to both even out demand and supply. Now this is more likely to be the system of the future.

A nuclear future means clean, reliable and economic electricity; yet fossil fuels reign supreme

This past month, following the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima accident, it is good to see there is less emphasis on the nuclear accident and more discussion of the significant natural disaster – the tsunami and earthquake that killed some 20,000 and destroyed so much, leaving 300,000 homeless. It is now clear that the nuclear accident will not be a cause for radiation-induced cancer, food is not contaminated, and most people can return to their homes should they so desire. While there continues to be a big mess to clean up and many important lessons in managing nuclear accidents to learn, there is no disaster in terms of either immediate or long-term health impacts. Yet we still see news such as was reported this week- that Fukushima radiation has reached the west coast of Canada – one then has to read the report to find out it is so minute as to be a non-event.

So now 4 years on, if we look at China one could conclude the nuclear industry is booming. CGN reported 3 new units were connected to the grid in March, with 2 more expected to be connected within this year. Overall China now has 24 units in operation and another 25 under construction targeting 58 GW in service by 2020 and then accelerating from there to bringing as many as 10 units per year into service in the 2020s targeting about 130 GW by 2030. Two new reactors have just been approved in the first approvals for new units post Fukushima. In addition to this, China is now developing its Hualong One reactor for export as it strives to become a major player in the global nuclear market.

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                                          China Hongyanhe 3 completed

China’s commitment to nuclear power is strong and unwavering. An important reason for this rapid expansion is the need for clean air. Pollution in China is a real and everyday problem for its large population. The Chinese see nuclear power as path to ultimately reducing their need to burn coal and hence help the environment.

On the other hand, in Germany a decision to shut down some nuclear units in 2011 immediately following the Fukushima accident and to close the rest by 2022 has led to a large new build construction program of lignite-fired units to meet short term energy needs. With several under construction and some now in operation, coal is producing about half of Germany’s electricity. Keep in mind that these new plants will likely be in service until about 2050. This is while Germany supposedly is focusing its energy future on ensuring a cleaner environment using renewables. I would expect their goal would be easier to reach without a number of new coal-fired units going into operation to replace clean carbon free nuclear energy.

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The lignite coal fired power plant Frimmersdorf

It is with these two extremes in mind that I noted when attending the Nuclear Power Asia conference in Kuala Lumpur this past January that while almost all South East Asian countries are planning to start nuclear power programs, they have had little success in getting them off the ground. Currently Vietnam is in the lead and countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are continuing with their plans, but with little progress. For example, Indonesia has been talking about nuclear power for more than 30 years. With a need for 35 GW of new capacity in the next five years and an annual expected growth of 10 GW per year after 2022, it is easy to ask why a decision for new nuclear seems perpetually stalled while there has been no problem building new fossil plants.

While in Malaysia I couldn’t help but think – why is it so difficult to make a decision to invest in new nuclear plants, especially for first-time countries? Is it a fear of nuclear itself and the issues associated with public acceptance – or is it the commercial aspects whereby nuclear plants have relatively large capital expenditures up front raising financing and risk issues? Or, more likely, a combination of the two.

At the same time as decisions on new nuclear seem to be so difficult to take, literally hundreds of coal plants and thousands of gas fired plants are being built around the world.   If the environment is actually important, why is it so easy to invest in fossil stations and so hard to invest in nuclear? One simple answer is the size of the global fossil industry. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have huge industries with fossil fuel development being an essential part of their economies. The public is comfortable with this industry and many either work in, or profit from the industry in some way. The same is even true in Germany, where coal and lignite mining is entrenched. While committed to reducing hard coal use over time, once again this is an important industry in the short term.

For a country looking at nuclear for the first time, like those in South East Asia, there has to be a strong base of support to get the industry off the ground. They need to be serious about their consideration of the nuclear option, not just dabbling with little real interest. While these countries have modest research and other programs, there is simply not enough going on nor a strong belief that there are no alternatives to garner the political support to move forward. Starting a nuclear program is a large undertaking and the fear of securing public support and concerns about safety and financial ability to support the program are paramount. This makes it difficult for decisions to be taken. A strong and committed view from within government is needed and this can only be achieved with a strong need for energy and an even stronger belief that the public is on side.

China has passed this milestone and now has a large and vibrant domestic industry. Government support is assured so long as the industry continues to thrive. To the Chinese, the issue is clear. Nuclear plants are economic and their environmental benefits are essential to helping solve their huge environmental issues. The Chinese have CONFIDENCE in their ability to deliver safe, economic and reliable nuclear power stations.

On the other hand, the Germans have decided their fear of nuclear is stronger and more urgent than their need to reduce their carbon emissions in the short term even though they had a large and strong domestic nuclear industry. In this case, Germany is an outlier and to this end they justify building new coal units even when their overriding goal is environmental improvement.

I am confident that nuclear plants will expand their already important role in the future electricity mix of the world and, as such, the industry needs to find new and innovative ways to make taking a nuclear decision easier. This includes ways to gain a higher level of public support, ensure that project risks are manageable and that costs can be kept under control. In some future posts, we will talk about some of these ideas and how we can unlock the global nuclear potential.

How can Nuclear Power Build Trust in a time when denying science is rampant?

Recent public outcry as a measles outbreak has managed to impact much of North America has once again showed the nature of public deniers of science. In this case it is concerns about vaccinations that have led to numerous children falling sick with measles. While not considered a highly risky disease, some children get very sick and some may actually die. The main concern is that it is very contagious so that without vaccinations it moves quickly within a community to infect large numbers of people, greatly increasing the public risk.

This is only the most recent large scale public outcry where science is ignored. It is the same as those who deny climate change and those who deny the safety and benefits of nuclear power.

April 15, 2014

The role of nuclear power in combating climate change has once again been demonstrated in the most recent update of the IEA Nuclear Power Roadmap.

  • Based on the 2 degrees Celsius (°C) scenario (2DS) – nuclear power would continue to play a major role in lowering emissions from the power sector, while improving security of energy supply, supporting fuel diversity and providing large-scale electricity at stable production costs.
  • Global installed capacity would need to more than double from current levels of 396 gigawatts (GW) to reach 930 GW in 2050, with nuclear power representing 17% of global electricity production and a formidable growth for the nuclear industry.
  • Governments have a role to play in ensuring a stable, long-term investment framework that allows capital-intensive projects to be developed and provides adequate electricity prices over the long term for all low-carbon technologies. Governments should also continue to support nuclear research and development (R&D), especially in the area of nuclear safety, advanced fuel cycles, waste management and innovative designs.

This means that a larger commitment to nuclear power is an important element of any strategy that has a chance of getting climate change under control.

The report also notes that public acceptance continues to be one of the major impediments to a stronger commitment to nuclear power in many markets. Concerns about safety, costs and waste disposal continue today; the same issues as they were back when I started work in this industry more than 30 years ago. While science can clearly demonstrate that nuclear power has benefited the environment, by avoiding significant amounts of pollutants and carbon emissions; is very safe; and that waste management is more of a social issue than a technical one: public attitudes remain very hard to change.

Generally the public has very different views on key issues than scientists. In this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) a significant number of discussions were about how the public thinks about science issues and how scientists communicate about their work. On key issues the difference in opinion according to PEW research is striking. While 57% of the public believe that eating GMO food is unsafe, 88% of scientists believe the opposite. Only 68% of adults believe vaccinations should be mandatory while scientists are at 86%. And finally only 50% of the public believe that climate change is man-made while 87% of scientists believe in man-made climate change. Clearly there is a huge gap between science and public beliefs. We in the nuclear industry are not the only ones to suffer from this lack of effective communication.

I have long noted when told the industry must better educate the public that in reality, the public does not want an industry science lesson which tends to be the approach most used in the past. In fact, when this approach fails, experts just shake their heads and try again. In reality what the public want to know is that the industry is safe, and that this safety is in the hands of experts that they trust to deliver upon this promise. We see that one of the largest impacts of the Fukushima accident in Japan is the loss of trust in both the utility and government by the population. The impact to the public of this is significant – the health impacts of the fear of radiation and the accident is far larger than the actual health impacts of any radiation to the public.

Trust is not something that is built overnight. It takes years, even decades to develop trust with the public – and only a moment to destroy it. People are skeptical (as they should be) and unfortunately are always ready to believe stories that discredit those they don’t trust.

So why do I bring up the measles outbreak? Because we finally have an incident where the public seems outraged at deniers and supportive of science. Measles vaccinations are safe. Millions of doses have been safely given to children over decades. They save lives. And those that disagree have been putting not only their children at risk but also the children of their neighbours and colleagues. One has to ask, how can any educated, concerned adult put his or her own children at risk? Clearly they believe that the risk of vaccination is higher than the risk of the disease. In the midst of all of this, recent news surveys are showing that significant numbers of people still believe the vaccination can put their children at risk. This is just not the case given the science.

It was said best by a mother in Pickering Ontario who has already lost a young child to illness and who now has her baby at risk, “If you have chosen to not vaccinate yourself or your child, I blame you,” she writes. “You have stood on the shoulders of our collective protection for too long. From that high height, we have given you the PRIVILEGE of our protection, for free. And in return, you gave me this week. A week from hell. Wherein I don’t know if my BABY will develop something that has DEATH as a potential outcome.”

It is essential to understand these words. It is easy to oppose something when you are already benefiting from it. Yes, don’t vaccinate your child because you know the risk of disease is low since all others are vaccinated, oppose GMO foods when you have ample safe food to eat while others are starving, and oppose climate change while you have reliable electricity and relatively clean air while others can’t breathe and are the first to suffer the consequences.

There seems to be a large scale shift from public good to individual good in society these days. Trust in government, scientists and other institutions is very low. The public is not willing to accept that these institutions have their back so they quickly rush to beliefs that are not supported by science with the resulting ultimate negative impacts on society. To be fair these beliefs come because many of these institutions that were trusted in the past have let the public down. And in this day of instant news and social media, it is easy to attack, but then interest is lost by the time the truth comes out and only a small subset of those who read the original story of concern remain interested enough to see the truth when it comes out.

Trust – it is essential for the future of nuclear power. The public must trust the industry to deliver on its promise of developing and operating safe, reliable and economic nuclear plants. They must trust the government to provide a strong regulator to oversee the industry and ensure public safety. This industry is dependent upon this trust if it is to flourish.

Building trust in science is a task that goes well beyond the nuclear industry. Yes, scientists have much work to do to build that trust with the public and government, but governments must then ensure that they use science as a basis for policy. While it remains reasonable to question the results of science, it is not reasonable to base policy on the assumption that science is wrong. Government in all countries need science advisers in key positions to ensure that real science is heard when policy is being made.

The media is also part of the solution. Poor reporting looking for the sensationalist point of view is not helpful. Science journalists must be the ones to cover science issues and they must take the time to report on them correctly. Just this week there was a fascinating editorial in the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail when a reader complained about the lack of “balance” on the vaccination issue. The response by the Globe is important reading,” The reader is correct that news stories should be fair and balanced, but if The Globe were to include someone “credible” from the anti-vaxxer community, that would be false balance….False balance is when journalists twist themselves into a knot to try to balance scientific and expert views with someone whose views are not fact-based, expert or scientific….. False balance is not only poor journalism, it can harm the readers’ understanding because it suggests there is a balance between the views. In politics, for example, it is important and responsible to offer fair weight to different parties’ views. It is not responsible to offer equal weight to science versus flimsy beliefs.”

The issue is that most people today listen to those they are familiar with and trust and discount those they don’t know. Therefore nothing is more important than the scientific community listening to and speaking with the public in a way that earns their trust. Getting this done is essential to all of our futures. The work ahead of us all to build trust in science is huge and it will take a long time but we must be relentless in our efforts to make this happen.

Given the public push back in this measles outbreak, we can ask – is this the beginning of a new opportunity for dialogue on issues that are supported by science? Is the public starting to understand that their beliefs may be hurting them more than helping? If so, then we need to ensure that the nuclear industry is continuing to deliver open, honest and transparent information in support of its benefits while clearly explaining the magnitude of the risks. Science is on our side. Now it’s time to make a strong case to the public.