Can Emerging Economies Continue Their Development Without Nuclear Power? - Part 3
In Part 1 of this paper we have assessed the amount of electricity that would need to be generated in emerging countries to reach a level of economic development and living standards close to those enjoyed by citizens of developed countries. We have set the target per capita electricity consumption at 5,000 kWh. The required amount of electricity to reach that target is 17,000 TWh, almost 2/3 of electricity produced in the world in 2019. We have shown that without reliance on fossil fuels, all non-fossil sources will need to be relied upon with nuclear power playing an essential role as the only available dispatchable low-carbon source that is scalable, with the obvious exception of a few countries particularly endowed by certain renewable resources, hydro in particular. We have provided an overview of advantages of nuclear power compared to other low-carbon sources of electricity.
In Part 2 we have analysed the all-important economic aspect – the cost of nuclear power. Referring to certain recent studies from reputed institutions we have shown that with a systemic and holistic view, nuclear power is not only competitive with other low-carbon sources, if its advantages are appropriately valued by the electricity system and “equal footing” comparisons are made, but in many situations remains the lowest cost option.
In this Part 3 we look at the available nuclear technologies and how they may fit the economic development needs of emerging countries and we conclude the paper.
Which types of Nuclear Power Plants for emerging countries?
In the previous parts we have shown that a long-term systemic vision, strong commitment and determination from the governments are indispensable for the development of nuclear energy and the associated industrial, organisational and human capabilities.
To launch a large-scale nuclear development, international cooperation and ambitious national strategies are required in order to reach the development goals outlined above. There are currently multiple large-size Generation III reactor technologies available on the world market, practically all of them now proven and operating reliably.
The French EPR 1650 MW reactor has now two units operational at the Taishan NPP in China; two more will come onstream in France and in Finland in the next two years, after multiple delays. Two more units are under construction at Hinkley Point C in the UK. Several other projects are in development.
Four units deploying the US AP-1000 reactor are operational at the Sanmen and Haiyang NPPs in China, two units should be connected to the grid at the Vogtle NPP in the US this and next year.
Russia’s Rosatom Generation III workhorse, the VVER-1200 reactor, has two units operational in Russia and one in Belarus, multiple units under construction in Turkey, Bangladesh, Finland, Hungary, Belarus, China, Egypt.
The South Korean KEPCO’s APR-1400 reactor has two units operational in Korea and one in the United Arab Emirates, 6 units are under construction in Korea and 3 in the UAE.
The first unit of the Chinese Hualong One started operation at the Fuqing NPP in January 2021, 7 other units are in construction in China and 2 at the Karachi NPP in Pakistan, of which one is expected to start operations shortly.
Many smaller countries or remote regions and islands with relatively small grids are very well suited for the Small & Modular Reactors (SMR) having a broad capacity range from 10 MW to 400 MW. While we observe a wave of enthusiasm in favour of SMRs in the recent years, it should be noted that the concept has been around for several decades. The fundamental driver behind this renewed interest in SMRs is directly linked to the growing awareness that nuclear power will be indispensable for deep decarbonisation of the economy, that such decarbonisation relying exclusively on intermittent renewables like wind and solar would be extremely challenging and probably impossible without necessary dispatchable back-up plants (fossil-fuelled, hydro and nuclear). SMRs are very well suited to complement intermittent renewables in electricity generation through their high flexibility, in particular for high penetration of variable renewables where flexibility of dispatchable resources becomes crucial.
There are multiple types of SMRs under development worldwide (over 70), using different technologies. Some of them are already close to industrial implementation, others still require years of development efforts. Some SMR technologies are well-proven, typically the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) technology, others represent disruptive innovations offering very interesting and promising improvements in terms of safety and cost (e.g. the high-temperature gas cooled reactors or liquid fuel molten salt reactors). Most SMR designs rely on higher levels of intrinsic safety and/or passive safety systems compared to large Generation III reactors. This should facilitate their acceptability by the public and allow their operation within existing industrial sites, in replacement of fossil boilers in thermal power plants and/or closer to large cities. It is not the objective of this paper to evaluate the different advanced reactor technologies in detail but there are a number of promising solutions with varying levels of design maturity.
The key economic drivers of SMRs that have to override the diseconomy of scale factor are well known: (1) they need to be built in series (the larger the better) to maximise the benefit of the learning curve and of factory production, (2) they have to be built quickly with minimised construction risks. The goal of SMR vendors is to move from nuclear new build projects or fleet construction programmes to delivering products. Not only the reactor itself but the complete plant should be, to the extent possible, manufactured in factory and assembled on-site.
Several countries in South America, Asia and Africa are already investigating some of these concepts and evaluating which of them would represent the optimal choice for the country in terms of its power level, safety features, sustainability, localisation potential etc. The smaller overall investment, shorter construction times, the possibility to build SMRs closer to big cities represent additional attractive features for many nuclear newcomer countries.
Localisation considerations are extremely important to maximise the benefit from the development of nuclear power and develop progressively a strong domestic industrial base and highly qualified jobs.
Another important element to keep in mind is that nuclear energy can do much more than produce electricity. Some SMR designs can efficiently provide thermal storage to increase system flexibility, produce other forms of energy like low and high enthalpy heat to be used in for heating, water desalination, to produce competitively low-carbon hydrogen that could be used to decarbonise industrial sectors that are very difficult to decarbonise otherwise, like steel making, production of ammonia or synthetic fuels. SMR designs offering high outlet temperatures could replace coal-fired boilers in existing coal plants.
Based on the fundamental premise that future economic development will have to avoid reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, coal in particular, in order to avoid the climate breakdown, this paper makes the argument that nuclear power is the only option compatible with economic development and low-carbon electricity generation. Economic development is not possible without sufficient supply of affordable energy. In an effort to decarbonise other sectors of the economy, the share of electricity in the overall energy demand will increase. Hence decarbonising the electricity sector is of primary importance.
To meet this challenge and increase rapidly and substantially the share of low carbon electricity in the generation mix in emerging economies, the key imperative is for the governments to make the decision in favour of nuclear energy, to prepare the corresponding legal framework and institutional infrastructure, and to define the strategy, the road map and the adequate organisational and financial support for their implementation. The International Atomic Energy Agency has developed the methodology and guidelines and can provide the necessary support in this process.
As we have highlighted several times in this paper, nuclear energy is characterised by a high degree of complexity and its development requires a strong commitment of all stakeholders and a structured, coordinated and organised development process from the outset. Capacity building, public awareness and transparent information are essential for the adoption of nuclear energy. This is a long process. The development and construction in the United Arab Emirates of for APR-1400 reactors at the Barakah nuclear power plant is an example demonstrating that a nuclear newcomer country can successfully develop the program if a structured, funded and purposeful government support is put in place, fostering collaboration between government, industry and other stakeholders. Countries embarking on the development of nuclear energy can benefit from the rich accumulated experience and expertise available in countries using nuclear power. The importance of international cooperation cannot be overestimated.
The key stakeholder in deciding in favour of nuclear energy is the government. The market is unlikely to achieve such a goal on its own: a clear vision and understanding of the common good and interest, of the priorities based on solid technical, economic and social analyses and the sense of the long-term to prepare the future can only be carried by the governments. The decision to embark on nuclear power generates commitments and obligations for at least a century.