After years of being pushed to the sideline of electricity generation, with the industry having suffered from decline and stagnation, nuclear energy might be on the verge of delivering on the promises made since its first introduction in the 50’s. Projected increased global electricity demand and growing the importance of energy security, combined with the need to limit carbon emissions, are the main factors that lead to the belief that nuclear power will revive after a period of decline due to uncertainty about the safety. A Nuclear Renaissance could be forthcoming, catalysed by the further development of existing or new nuclear technologies.
The Renaissance – literally translated as ‘rebirth’ – is a period in European civilization that followed immediately after the Middle Ages. This period is characterized by a renewed surge in interest for the culture and values of the Classical Antiquity; the period that preceded the Middle Ages. Admittedly, it might be a bit far-fetched to compare the evolution of nuclear electricity generation with almost a millennium of human cultural development, but at the 60th anniversary of commercial nuclear electricity, numerous similarities can be observed.
The Classical ‘Nuclearity’
The prospect of a disastrous weapon being turned into a peaceful resource for civil use, that was envisioned to supply electricity so cheap and plentiful that there was no point in even measuring it, appealed to both the general public and governments. The knowledge obtained during WWII, together with the enthusiasm about nuclear electricity production, translated into the first commercial nuclear electricity plant that was opened in Calder Hall, UK in 1956.
After Queen Elizabeth II opened the first nuclear electricity plant, hundreds of other plants would quickly follow. Until 1989, nuclear reactors were connected to the European grid at a rate of about five or six per year. The total installed nuclear capacity initially grew at a more modest rate due to the small capacity of the first nuclear power plants. In the early 70’s, however, after the 10 GWe milestone was reached, the capacity started growing with an average of almost 35% per year to reach a total of 123 GWe by 1988. This growth is mainly due to technological advancements and economies of scale which reduced the costs of producing nuclear electricity.
In this early period, with the use of the first reactors, steep learning curves and high growth rates can be referred to as the ‘Classical Nuclearity’. An allegory with the Classical Antiquity can be made in the sense that this period gave birth to the first scientists ever and is characterized by an unprecedented level of learning and wisdom with the introduction of numerous novelties and economic growth.
As is commonly known, after the Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages was the next main chapter in European history. Put in an extreme way, this era was a dark, and dirty period characterized by cultural and intellectual impoverishment. The transition between two periods does not happen overnight, but there is usually an event that marks the transition. Similar to the fall of Rome that crushed the dream of cultural and political unity that Rome once was and marks the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 marks the transition to a dark period for nuclear power in Europe.
The transition from the Classical Nuclearity to the ‘post-Chernobyl period’ began in the late 70’s with the Three Mile Island incident in the US. From then on, nuclear reactor construction began to decline in the US as well as in the EU. Despite that, the number of reactors connected to the grid, as well as the total installed capacity, were still growing mainly due to a high number of gigawatt-capacity reactors coming online in France – which still has the world’s highest share of nuclear electricity in its generation mix today.
The true turning point for Europe was the 1986 accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine (former Soviet Union). This accident significantly decreased public acceptance and induced stricter government regulations. It served as a catalyst to put nuclear power totally out of favour in Europe where it already faced many barriers. Nuclear power faced an electricity generation environment with a focus on short-term returns and high interest rates. Nuclear power was further threatened by its cost overruns, tightened regulations and the advent of cheap gas technologies.
The post-Chernobyl period is characterized by a stagnation of the growth of nuclear capacity. The capacity of reactors coming online only slightly surpassed those of the reactors that were retired. The overall capacity grew slightly and started to decline from 2004 onwards. Although there was an overall upward trend in the electricity consumption in Europe, the share of nuclear electricity remained fairly constant, amounting to about 11-12%. A further downward trend in nuclear electricity production can be observed after the 2011 Fukushima disaster which might have led to the accelerated retirements of nuclear power plants.
Figure 2. Shares of electricity generation from 1965 to 2014
Renaissance of Nuclear Energy
Facing all of these historical barriers and downfalls, one might expect nuclear energy to die a silent death, but this is unlikely. A brief outlook to the future allows the completion of the comparison with human history. The Renaissance was partly a result from a change in philosophy, from God-centric--oppression by the Church, towards a centralization on man with an emphasis on freedom. During this period, great advances occurred in the world of science. An allegory can be made with the electricity sector that currently is centred on fossil fuels in a world that feels ‘oppressed’ by carbon emissions but experiencing a change of ‘philosophy’ towards a clean energy future. Similar to the Renaissance which became a great era due to art and unprecedented advances in science, the renaissance of nuclear energy can only become great by advancements in reactor technologies and the application of new concepts.
First let us take a look at the new philosophy. The world needs to shift to a cleaner electricity production and high hopes are on renewables. Being highly intermittent and difficult to predict, there is still a need for a clean energy source to provide a stable base load of electricity that can satisfy demand, achieve security of supply and minimize carbon dioxide emissions. This is where nuclear energy comes in.
Forecasts about future nuclear capacity vary strongly among the different scenarios taken into account and change every year. On a global scale, the nuclear capacity is expected to rise significantly mainly due to Asia, South- and Central-America and Russia. In Europe, however, the nuclear capacity is expected to decrease significantly by 2030 as a wave of nuclear plant retirement is coming up followed by an increase in capacity by 2040.
These forecasts provide an indication of what might happen, but due to the high number of factors in play, a lot can change between now and 2040. Similar to the Renaissance, in which rich families such as the Medici family provided crucial sponsorship that led to the flourishing of new arts and knowledge, the renaissance of nuclear energy will depend on investments as well. A good start for the renaissance of nuclear power has been given by the European Commission which indicated that it wants massive investments in nuclear power – about 550 billion euros by 2050 – as it will be a necessity for Europe.
Although investments are of crucial importance, another main driver will be technological advancements in nuclear technology that are necessary to boost nuclear power. Although there are many promising projects going on right now, I want to highlight three general paths that have the potential to tackle some of the main barriers to the renaissance.
A first advancement is the focus on developing small modular reactors that can be combined with each other for a higher capacity plant. These modular reactors can be built in central factories and shipped to the nuclear sites. Therefore, they can be built for only a fraction of the cost of a conventional nuclear plant and will be cost-competitive with other technologies. This technology has high potential to break the barrier that the high upfront investment costs pose on nuclear power.
Secondly, nuclear reactors based on molten salts are being developed which are essentially immune to meltdowns and are capable of running on nuclear waste that abounds from our nuclear past. This will help tackle the barrier that nuclear waste disposal problems pose on nuclear power.
Last but not least, a nuclear fusion reactor – the holy grail of nuclear power – is being constructed as a first experiment in France under the name ITER. This basically imitates the working principle of the sun and theoretically will be able to produce energy highly efficiently without long-lived radioactive waste. The reactor is expected to be completed by 2035 and is funded by 45% by the EU. Other similar projects are in development, but it needs to be said that electricity from fusion reactors is not expected before 2050.
It is up to us and the industry
Thus it can be concluded that the life path of European nuclear energy has been very similar to that of European history, but that the Renaissance still needs to be confirmed. Nuclear power production was highly in favour since its introduction in 1956 but was sidelined after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. Now, the necessary transition towards a clean energy future gives nuclear power the chance to live again. There is global support for this revival, but to achieve a true Renaissance it is highly dependent on itself. More specifically, technological advancements to overcome several barriers and becoming more cost-competitive are of great necessity. The purpose of this article is not to advocate the use of nuclear energy, but rather, to indicate that nuclear energy can be a strong asset for a green energy future. Therefore, society must draw from the experiences of nuclear disasters and the lessons learned to ensure that--if reactors are built--they are built with strong focus on safety, reliability, and sustainability; rather than letting this fear result in the complete abandonment of nuclear energy as a possible option for a sustainable future.
In Collaboration with The CommUnity Post
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The History of Nuclear Energy – U.S. Department of Energy (Published in 1994)
‘ “Too Cheap to Meter” Nuclear Power Revisisted’ – IEEE Spectrum (Published 26/09/2016)
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Historical data sources:
BP Statistical Review (Generation data for many countries globally from 1965 to 2014)
IAEA-PRIS: Data about the number of reactors in operation and the operable capacity (1954-2016)