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The Barrier To Nuclear Is Perception, Says Panel

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As policymakers grapple with the twin challenges of climate change and a post-COVID economic recovery, the benefits of nuclear power are clearer than ever, but the industry still has some way to go in addressing perceptions of its alleged drawbacks with cost, safety and radioactive waste. This was the overriding message of the three panellists in a webinar held last week by Utilities Middle East in partnership with Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom.

The 24 December event – Nuclear Energy: Accelerating a clean energy future – included Mohamed Al Hammadi, CEO of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation; Alexander Voronkov, regional vice-president and director of Rosatom’s Middle East and North Africa division; and Sama Bilbao y León, director general of World Nuclear Association. It was moderated by Martin Menachery, editor of Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.

Benefits

Barakah unit 1 – the first nuclear reactor in the Arab world – will be the single largest power generator in the UAE when it begins commercial operations early next year.

“The UAE will benefit from this clean source of baseload energy and we are expecting that once we have all four units in operation about 25% of the nation’s electricity will be generated from nuclear. That’s equivalent to taking 3.2 million cars off the road annually,” Al Hammadi said. To match the energy density of nuclear power with solar panels would require “covering a major part of the country”, and “other than hydropower, nuclear is the only form of clean energy that can work 24/7”.

Adoption of nuclear power has to be a strategic decision taken at the government level, Al Hammadi said, because each new-build project entails a commitment of up to 60 years, from construction to decommissioning. The UAE has made this commitment, he said, because it understands the benefits “clean and abundant electricity” will provide many of its industries, not only existing ones but also the hydrogen market of the future.

The UAE’s Energy Strategy 2050, launched in 2017, aims to increase the contribution of clean energy in its total energy mix from 25% to 50% by 2050, and reduce the carbon footprint of its power generation by 70%. “We aren’t just talking about it, we’re doing it,” Al Hammadi said.

The Barakah project has boosted the UAE’s development of a home-grown workforce of nuclear specialists, he said.

“When we started 10 years ago we had a limited number of Emirati nuclear engineers. Today 60% of our staff of 3000 people are Emiratis. Of the 30 UAE nationals who are trained reactor operators, three are female, and 20% of the total workforce is female. Having a mix of international and developing local talent is like a mosaic – beautiful and mixed.”

He highlighted academic courses, such as the M.Sc. in Nuclear Engineering Program at Khalifa University, and corporate training that means UAE companies will be able to produce nuclear-grade steel and cables. Such progress gives the UAE a “competitive edge”, he said.

Rosatom’s Voronkov highlighted three important features of nuclear energy: reliability, environmental friendliness and efficiency.

“A lot of sectors, like transportation, communication and medical facilities, work non-stop and that requires uninterrupted and steady power supply. Nuclear energy fits that profile perfectly,” he said. “But social responsibility demands not only economic development but sustainable economic development, which is unimaginable without clean sources of energy and the decarbonisation of our economies.”

Rosatom operates 37 nuclear power units in Russia which Voronkov said avoids the emission of 100 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. All the reactors it has built outside of Russia achieve about the same reduction, which is equivalent to removing about 57 million cars, he said.

“Nuclear energy should be put at the heart of low-carbon energy systems, alongside wind and solar,” he said, adding that, “one small pellet” of nuclear fuel can generate the same amount of power as 400 kg of coal.

Every dollar invested into nuclear power plant project generates two dollars of additional revenue for local companies, as well as 1.5 dollars in additional tax revenue and 4 dollars in GDP, he said.

The character of the nuclear industry is never to stand still, but to innovate, he said.

“The fast pace of development of nuclear energy at the global and regional levels reminds me of the quote from Lewis Carroll’s book [Alice in Wonderland]: ‘… we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that’. And the nuclear industry is running really fast.”

He highlighted two developments – small modular reactors and the closure of the nuclear fuel cycle. Last year, Rosatom commissioned the first and so far only floating nuclear power plant, Akadmik Lomonosov, which has demonstrated the stable supply of heat and electricity to remote areas that are hard to access by land.

The plant serves the northern Russian city of Pevek, where it will help the 50,000 inhabitants halve their CO2 emissions and thus reduce the damage to “fragile Arctic ecosystems”, he said.

Russia has two fast neutron reactors in operation – BN600 and BN800 at Beloyarsk – which use mixed-oxide fuel made from reprocessed uranium and plutonium, and are bringing its nuclear industry “closer to waste-free and actually renewable nuclear energy”, he said.

Bilbao y León described the two units in Pevek as the “first in a long series of SMRs that are going to be put forward all over world”, and noted the recent commissioning of a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor in China “that is going to generate heat for all applications”.

Innovation has led to a new generation (Gen III) of large reactor designs – VVER-1200, AP1000, EPR and Hualong One – but at the same time there has been a “lot of excitement” about SMRs and advanced reactors (Gen IV designs), she said.

“SMR concepts are moving speedily through the regulatory process and incorporate enormous amounts of innovation, while Gen IV reactors will be instrumental in closing the nuclear fuel cycle by reusing fuel and producing the maximum possible amount of energy,” she said.

The nuclear industry is “taking note” of innovation in advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence, not only for the design process, but also for the construction and operation of nuclear power plants in the future, she added.

The real costs

Calculating the actual cost of nuclear power requires an understanding of whole system costs and of the efficiency of this source of electricity and heat, the panellists said.

Some of the nuclear projects in Western countries have not been on time or to budget, she said, but the industry is reaching a “very good level of know-how” and is building the supply chain. Russia, China and the UAE have already done this and have therefore shown that projects can be completed according to schedule, she said. “We now need balanced know-how at the global level.”

Barakah 1 reaching 100% output a couple of weeks ago showed that countries in the Middle East can successfully adopt nuclear generation as part of their energy mix, but particularly when they are working with international partners, she said.

“This is a good example of leadership but also of a very successful international collaboration,” she said, “And I am excited to see how the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy is moving forward in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the leadership of Saudi Arabia as the host of the G20 summit this year, where they talked of incentivising low-carbon energy and described the very important role that nuclear power can play.”

Comparing the cost of nuclear projects with the falling cost of solar power “needs much more clarification”, she said.

report published earlier this month by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Energy Agency shows that the levelised costs of electricity generation of low-carbon generation technologies are falling and are increasingly below the costs of conventional fossil fuel generation, she noted.

The cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants remains stable, yet electricity from the long-term operation of existing plants constitutes the least-cost option for low-carbon generation. Nuclear electricity is expected to have lower costs in the near future, the report says.

“This report summarises the levelised cost of electricity from all types of generation in 2020-2025 and nuclear energy is actually quite competitive with all other energy sources. The long-term operation of existing nuclear power plants is the lowest cost of electricity hands-down, and by far the lowest cost low-carbon electricity,” she said.

“We need to move forward with long-term operation because it is important to join the gap between the current and future fleet of nuclear power units,” she added.

Nuclear generation not only can be but already is competitive with existing variable renewable energy (VRE) sources, she said.

“Nuclear power plants can run according to what is needed by the grid, which was shown during the pandemic in France where they were a key source of flexibility and compensated for the intermittency of VREs,” she said. “And new nuclear technologies are going to be capable of even greater flexibility with VREs. This isn’t simply a technical matter of energy generation, but also indicative of how nuclear has elements that are indispensible for the stability of the grid, including as a source of low-carbon inertia. This was proved when Swedish units were brought back up earlier in order to provide the inertia stability that was needed by the grid as a whole.”

This is equally relevant to the Middle East, she said, because an abundance of solar power will still need baseload electricity to balance the system and ensure the stability of the grid. This requirement can only increase with the growing demand for electricity, such as for the future electrification of transport, she said.

Safety, security and quality “come as standard” in the nuclear industry, Al Hammadi said, but there are ways to reduce cost. “Building four identical units at Barakah was a very good idea and very innovative in creating efficiencies, which means 50% of the staff that constructed units 1 and 2 built 3 and 4,” he said. “In the operation phase we will benefit further by leveraging the spare parts, training and capacity building. And so we look forward to enjoying the fruits of the highly qualified and high standard of resources we’ve developed over the years.”

Rosatom has also produced efficiencies from building reactors in series, Voronkov said, with VVER-1200 projects in Turkey, Egypt, Belarus, Bangladesh and Hungary that can draw on the experience of units of the same design in Russia – at the Leningrad and Novovoronezh nuclear power plants.

Of its projects in the Middle East, he said Rosatom expects to receive a construction licence from the Turkish regulator for the fourth Akkuyu unit by the middle of next year, and that it is participating in the “competitive dialogue” in Saudi Arabia for the right to build that nation’s first nuclear power plant. Rosatom has also in recent years signed intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy with several other countries in the region, including Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan.

The waste issue

The public’s perception of nuclear waste requires an understanding of the actual volumes involved, Al Hammadi said.

“The energy density of nuclear means that just 7 grams of uranium is equivalent to one tonne of coal. I saw a power plant in the US that has been in operation for 40 years, with its lifetime extended to 60 years. The amount of spent fuel it has had in all that time would cover one tennis court.”

Used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste are two topics where nuclear power is open to misperception by the public and some policymakers, Bilbao y León said, and this is in stark contrast to how the industry operates in reality.

“Nuclear energy is the safest form of electricity generation and the nuclear industry is the most responsible at managing all of its wastes,” she said. “The nuclear industry has had the tendency however to emphasise how safe we are, how important safety is to us and how many safety measures and protocols and regulatory measures we go through to ensure the safety of a plant. That is obviously true but the fact we emphasise safety so much makes the public assume we do so because nuclear energy is dangerous.”

She added: “We need to avoid the way we make the safety case for nuclear so that we make it clear that in fact nuclear is the safest form of electricity generation and one of the safest industrial processes there is.”

The fear of nuclear waste is “ironic”, she said, because the nuclear industry has responsibly managed all its used nuclear fuel and waste “from day one”.

“We know where every ounce of used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste is because we have been managing it throughout the history of the nuclear industry. The fact that uranium is so energy dense means that the volume of waste we create is tiny compared to the huge amount of generation we produce, especially when compared with other forms of generation, including their emission of CO2, SOX, NOX and other particulates. Renewable energy sources are also going to produce waste, including when they are decommissioned. That toxic waste is not manageable and will remain toxic.”

The high density of uranium is a “good story to tell” to illustrate the reality of nuclear waste management, she said. “At end of the lifecycle of a nuclear unit, there is only a small amount of waste, and there are sophisticated and well-proven technologies that are being developed so that this final waste can be disposed of in deep geological repositories,” she said, noting progress in this regard by Sweden and Finland. In addition, used fuel can be recycled in advanced reactors, she said. “We really need to do a better job in communicating how well the nuclear industry is doing in managing its waste.”

Public acceptance

Voronkov said public acceptance of nuclear energy is vital to the successful implementation of any nuclear power plant project.

“It’s make or break. That’s why it’s important to put in place an effective communication programme at the very early stage of an NPP project with the public and the other key stakeholders, to address their concerns. We have learned that if you work with the public constantly and comprehensively it is possible to reach a high level of public acceptance of nuclear power.”

In Russia as a whole, that level is as high as 75%, he said.

“The closer people live to an NPP site, the greater the chance they will have a positive attitude towards nuclear energy,” he said. “They have the facts and figures, they work at the plant or they know someone who does. They see the economic benefits – that an NPP project is a major job creator and that salaries are higher than average. Rosatom also supports social, cultural and sporting events, which contribute to the public’s positive perception of a project. For example, the level of public acceptance of the Novovoronezh plant now exceeds 90%.”

A low level of public acceptance of nuclear power is usually due to a lack of knowledge, he said, so it is important to create diversified communication programmes to explain, in simple terms, what nuclear energy is and its benefits.

“We have developed different tools in line with international best practice, with the Press and NGOs, through the establishment of nuclear energy information centres near construction sites,” he said.

The role of “traditional” communication channels, such as by word-of-mouth, cannot be overestimated, he said. In the summer of 2019, Rosatom organised a fishing competition in the Gulf of Finland and invited fishermen from countries where it has nuclear power plant projects, including Egypt, Finland, Bangladesh and Hungary. The fish they caught were immediately examined using dosimetry equipment, which proved the nuclear power plant located nearby doesn’t have any harmful effect on the environment, he said.

“They visited the NPP to see how it operates. They spoke to the operators and the people living there. They were impressed and they went back to their countries, talked about it with their families, friends and colleagues. That contributed to public acceptance,” he said.

The outlook

Menachery noted that, although the adoption of nuclear energy continues to grow in different countries, with over 450 nuclear power reactors and 398.9 GWe in net installed capacity worldwide to date, the technology currently supplies only 10% of the world’s electricity.

Bilbao y León said: “Electricity output from nuclear generation has increased each year for the last several years, and in 2019 reached 2657 TWh, which is more than 10% of the world’s electricity needs. This is despite the fact that the global capacity of nuclear energy actually decreased a bit. This means we are running the existing fleet of nuclear power plants incredibly effectively. Nuclear plants are operating with a capacity factor in excess of 80% on average and this is true for reactors of all ages.

“Not everything is perfect and we see some challenges, particularly where markets do not recognise the value of reliable generation or they don’t recognise the cost of carbon in the electricity mix. But when they are allowed to compete equally, nuclear plants compare favourably.

But the climate emergency and the post-COVID recovery are spurring policymakers and the financial community, she said, to increasingly recognise the role that nuclear power can play at a global level.

World Nuclear News

World Nuclear News is an online service dedicated to covering developments related to nuclear power. Established in 2007, WNN has grown rapidly to welcome over 40,000 individual readers to the website each month, while its free daily and weekly emails both reach more than 16,000 people. These figures represent a broad audience that includes not only nuclear professionals but also journalists, researchers, opinion leaders, policy-makers, and the general public.

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