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Nuclear Innovation: Hedging Bets

The nature of energy supply is changing and changing fast. Nuclear technology must also evolve if it wishes to survive, or so the argument goes. However, this change presents its own set of risks which are best addressed by carefully selecting priorities. As we race to introduce new reactor designs flexibility is key, and we shouldn’t necessarily hasten to discount the old.

It is true that many electricity markets are undergoing radical transformations at the moment, most notably through the rapid increase in renewable and gas-fired generation. Arguably less clear is just how global these trends really are and how lasting they will prove to be. This uncertainty must be considered by nuclear innovators, since in addition to the risks of possible obsolescence there are serious risks in adapting for the ‘wrong’ future. Certain energy visions, and especially those based around narrow preconceptions, are not as robust as many people think. It can also be argued that at least some of the economic and acceptance challenges currently facing today’s nuclear technology require policy-led solutions, rather than more advanced reactors.

Nuclear energy facilities are long-term investments, but uncertainty about the future energy landscape should not jeopardise the expansion of this crucial low-carbon energy source.

Room for improvement

Today’s nuclear power plants can achieve availability factors of over 95% and produce emissions-free electricity at costs typically lower than those of fossil plants. Modern reactor designs have become very large (over 1000 MWe) and offer improved operational economics and reliability compared to older ones. They are engineering marvels and the issues they face relate mostly to their constructability, rather than their expected performance. Serious delays and cost over-runs have been encountered during the construction of recent reactor projects in Western countries, namely Finland, France and the USA. However, in other countries projects are being delivered more-or-less on time and budget and an increasing number of emerging economies are starting to build them.

Rather than being ‘old’ – as it is often characterised by opponents – nuclear counts among the very youngest of energy technologies. The first man-made sustained nuclear reaction only took place in 1942. By contrast, fossil fuels have been widely used since the industrial revolution, wind and water energy have been powering human activities for thousands of years, and the first solar cell may be traced back to  the 19th century. Nuclear technology is still in its infancy and the potential for improvement is vast.

There is little doubt that advanced reactor technologies will one day change the face of nuclear energy. They offer the potentially to radically increase the available fuel resource and will operate with greater efficiency, ultimately reducing waste and environmental impact. Unfortunately, they often over-shadow the many amazing innovations which have more immediate bearing on the energy debate. These innovations apply to current reactor designs and span the whole nuclear fuel cycle and life cycle.

Recent nuclear innovations – a short list

In the nuclear fuel cycle

Across the nuclear lifecycle

  • Virtual reality and digitalisation. Mapping plants and all their interiors allows practice runs of important plant projects. Can assist with worker training and plant security
  • Cavitation peening. This technology uses collapsing bubbles – the same property which creates sonoluminescence – to prolong the life of certain alloy components.
  • Ultrasonic cleaning. This sound based cleaning technology can be used to reduce corrosion and crud build up.
  • Robots and drones. Many robots have been developed which can do tricky cleaning and maintenance jobs in nuclear, like pipe inspections. Robots are also increasingly used for clean-up and decommissioning.
  • Centrifuges for nuclear waste. Allows for faster, more efficient and more economic separation of nuclear waste.  

Component manufacture and upgrades

  • Advanced materials.  Hardly a week goes by without a new material breakthrough announcement relevant to some nuclear application or other.
  • 3-D printing of nuclear components. Chinese companies are doing it, and other countries/companies are set to follow suit.

What really leaps out is the amount of crossover. Breakthroughs in other sectors and basic materials have opened up the potential for improvements in many areas of nuclear performance. The reverse is also true, with nuclear research leading to spin-off technologies and sometimes even fundamental physical insights, for example in fusion research. Many of these innovations act to increase the energy output from the existing reactor fleet, or to extend plant operating lifetimes.

This last point especially tends to confuse many participants in the innovation discourse, since they assume that innovation must always be ‘disruptive’ and means replacing the old with the new – rather than operating existing technologies for longer and more efficiently. It also means that advanced reactor designers face a tough source of competition in established nuclear markets. It is much cheaper to extend the operating lifetime an existing nuclear plant than build a new one.

Expanding the nuclear envelope.

There is a hot debate over the speed and type of reactor innovation required to meet future global energy needs. Under the dominant state-led model of nuclear R&D there seems to no urgent impetus to introduce new reactor technologies. The first so-called ‘Generation IV’ design is not expected to be commercialised until sometime in the 2030s, even within a framework for international cooperation. However, there is an increasingly influential group of thought leaders (most notably the Third Way institute based in the USA) who argue that accelerated technology change is essential, and that whatever future reactor offerings looks like they will not be based on today’s technologies. These advocate a break from the state-led R&D model and  a switch to an ‘innovation culture’, where start-up entrepreneurs commercialise novel concepts with the support of private backers, public funding , state test-bed facilities, expedited regulatory process and national innovation centres.

There are now many advanced nuclear reactor concepts at different stages of development. Some are essentially still ‘paper’ designs while others have demonstration units built and operating. Not all are Generation IV reactors. Small modular reactors (SMRs) stand out since several are currently on track for first-of-a-kind deployment within ten years – with one notable example being a Russian floating nuclear power plant due for commissioning in 2019. In recent years an encouraging number of private start-up technology companies has emerged.

SMRs can fill niches that today’s large reactors cannot, and therefore they don’t necessarily have to compete directly with them. They are inherently more flexible. Depending on the specific design, SMRs will…

  • Almost completely be built within a controlled factory setting and installed module by module, improving the level of construction quality and efficiency.
  • More quickly realise cost reductions due to economies of series production. As large numbers of a specific design are manufactured this may eventually compensate for lost economies of scale.
  • Be easier to finance compared to larger plants. This will be true on a per-unit basis, but if they successfully reduce the policy, regulatory and construction risk then they should also help secure lower financing costs per megawatt.
  • Be easier transport to their intended destination and to clean up at the end of their operating lifetime.
  • Have an even smaller environmental footprint than larger reactors. They will take up less space, require access to less cooling water and contain smaller radiological inventories.

Therefore they are well suited for:

  • Remote regions and for specific applications such as mining or desalination.
  • Countries with smaller grids as well as those with little or no experience of nuclear power.
  • Specific purposes in developed grids, such as the onsite replacement of retiring fossil units (reusing the same infrastructure), adding reliability and flexibility (especially important as the share of intermittent renewables increases), and for industrial and district heat purposes.

From paper reactors to real ones

Nobody should expect advanced reactor technologies to just develop themselves. There is an obvious role for government in helping to overcome the innovation valley of death – whether they are directly funding the research or facilitating private investment. Among other things the nuclear industry believes that one key requirement for accelerating future nuclear energy deployment is greater international standardisation of reactor design licensing.

SMRs currently face a significant challenge with respect to existing licensing procedures, both site licensing and design licensing, as the costs and requirements are typically large and fixed. These can be absorbed by a larger reactor project but are usually enough to cripple a smaller one. (This is one reason that reactor designs have become larger over the years.) Inflexible site licensing requirements can undermine the usefulness of individual SMRs for remote regions or specific industrial applications, while expensive design licensing (costing of the order of $100 of million in some countries) and the need to repeat this process in new countries is a significant barrier to SMR deployment – reducing their attractiveness for emerging nuclear countries. Without changes to the current licensing regime, a large part of the potential market for SMRs will simply be lost.

Conclusion

Innovation is key to the future of the nuclear industry, and always has been. It continues to drive improvement in today’s nuclear facilities. Advanced reactor technologies are unquestionably needed, but among these it is the designs which are opening up previously closed market niches that deserve prioritisation from government and industry. No one knows for sure what the energy future will look like, but SMRs looks like a pretty safe, flexible bet to make.

This article is a fuller version of an article that originally appeared on Agenda.

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