The Future of Nuclear Power and The Long View

Below is a comment from Future of NuclearChair Henry Vehovec on his opening remarks and in response to post-event press coverage:

“The day after Wednesday’s Future of Nuclear 2013 Conference in Toronto the Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Province of Ontario announced that new build nuclear reactors would not be pursued at this time. Articles in the press cited pricing pressure from cheap shale gas, a decline in energy demand, and increased resistance to nuclear power in the post-Fukushima world as reasons for the decision. Although there has been a recent decline in nuclear power in the global energy mix it would be premature to dismiss nuclear in the longer term.

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

The global mix of major energy sources evolves over decades and plays out in time frames of a century or more. The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, however, it wasn’t until the development of the Model-T Ford fifty years later that oil truly took off as a major global energy source. Similarly, civilian nuclear energy started about fifty years ago and the industry now needs game changing innovation if it is to compete with shale gas and address concerns of radioactive waste, safety and proliferation.

Are there any such game changing innovations on the horizon? At the Future of Nuclear Conference we heard about several nuclear technologies that hold the paradigm shifting potential to compete with shale gas.  New nuclear technologies that are on the drawing board can burn spent fuel, are incapable of meltdown, and do not produce fissile material. We heard about fusion from General Fusion, thorium and molten salt reactors (MSR) from Terrestrial Energy, small modular reactors (SMR) from Babcock and Wilcox, portable reactors, travelling reactors, floating reactors and more. These technologies have attracted investors such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as some of the wealthiest sovereign funds. The only problem with most of these technologies is that they require at least a decade to develop and would cost several billion dollars to produce their first prototype let alone a commercially available product. In this era of short term pressures for quarterly results in business and governments that rarely think beyond the horizon of a 4-year election term it is difficult to find jurisdictions that plan decades into the future as is required when considering energy infrastructure.

China, India, Russia and UAE are examples of countries that are taking an appropriate long view to energy planning. Not coincidentally, these are also among the countries that are proceeding aggressively with their plans to build nuclear power capabilities. China alone has 29 reactors currently under construction. Although some jurisdictions in the west do not have local demand to support new reactors it would certainly make sense to stay engaged with the industry and act as a supplier to international markets where possible. As a commodity, shale gas will not be cheap and plentiful forever.”

U.S. Department of Energy continues support for small modular nuclear reactors

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has recently shown their continued support for the development and eventual deployment of small modular nuclear reactor technology, or SMR for short.  An agreement with Babcock & Wilcox will see $150 million in funding in support of their mPower technology. [1]

SMRs have many apparent benefits over existing nuclear reactors.  The DOE’s Nuclear Energy Department say that SMRs “offer the advantage of lower initial capital investment, scalability, and siting flexibility at locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors.  They also have the potential for enhanced safety and security.” [2]  This is due to intervals of four years or more between refueling.  Furthermore, Babcock & Wilcox claim that “the overnight cost for an mPower reactor is about $5,000/kW.” [1]

The estimated cost has more than doubled since 2004.  The hard numbers are still a long way away with the University of Chicago Energy Policy Institute reporting that only 20% of the detailed engineering analysis has been completed.[3]

Sources:

1. U.S. Sustains Support For Small Modular Nuclear Reactors – www.forbes.com

2. Small Modular Nuclear Reactors – US Office of Nuclear Energy

3. Small Modular Reactors – Key to Future Nuclear Power Generation in the U.S. – Energy Policy Institute at Chicago