Next generation nuclear? Don’t buy the hype
Gen III is failing and Gen IV is unproven and a long way away
Nuclear advocates make a couple of good points. But then they wrap themselves into pretzels trying to state that the downsides will be addressed by next generation technologies, especially the much hyped Gen IV reactors.
Let’s start with what they get right. Nuclear generation is pretty safe, in the same range as wind and solar. It has very low fatalities per TWH and the fear about radiation is vastly overblown. Nuclear generation doesn’t emit much CO2, once again being in the same range as wind and solar on a full lifecycle basis. And nuclear generation doesn’t pollute the air in other ways, with no particulate or chemical emissions, once again like wind and solar.
These are all good things, and if nuclear were inexpensive, flexible, could be implemented in the majority of countries in the world without concerns and other alternatives weren’t available, they would make nuclear an excellent choice. Unfortunately, none of those things are true and the nuclear industry knows it but doesn’t like to admit it.
So nuclear advocates tend to point to as-yet-uncommercialized nuclear generation technologies as the ones which will make nuclear great again, especially Gen IV reactors as the current batch of Gen III reactors are failing in the same ways as earlier technologies.
So let’s look at Gen IV. Is it a commercially viable technology?
It certainly isn’t today as no reactors are in commercial operation and there are none likely to be in commercial operation before 2040 at the earliest. By the time any get to commercial market availability, the cost of renewables will have only fallen further, making any nuclear even less competitive.
How do we know? Let’s start with what the World Nuclear Association has to say about Gen IV reactors.
After some two years’ deliberation and review of about one hundred concepts, late in 2002 GIF (then representing ten countries) announced the selection of six reactor technologies which they believe represent the future shape of nuclear energy. […]
At least four of the systems have significant operating experience already in most respects of their design, which provides a good basis for further R&D and is likely to mean that they can be in commercial operation before 2030.
What about the Gen IV International Forum?
Some of these reactor designs could be demonstrated within the next decade, with commercial deployment beginning in 2030.
That’s an even less enthralling statement. Demonstrated sometime within ten years. Maybe commercial deployment beginning in 12 years. And given that the average nuclear plant takes 15 years for a commercial deployment, and that’s for known, established technologies, it could easily be 2045 by the time Gen IV reactors are pumping electricity into the grid commercially.
So in 2002 six technologies were chosen and it’s possible that a couple of them might be generating electricity commercially sometime after 2040. That’s 38+ years to commercialization of a technology. I’m trying to think of something equivalently slow-paced in the world of modern generation technology that isn’t fusion generation and mostly failing.
Maybe in 2002 the thought of competitive nuclear generation was reasonable. But the chart above highlights the precipitous drop in the price of both wind and solar, technologies. Those renewable technologies have all of the advantages of nuclear — very low carbon emissions per MWh, very low pollution per MWh, low direct or secondary mortality impacts per MWh — a bunch of additional advantages — cheaper, faster, viable in all countries — with none of the disadvantages of nuclear — nuclear waste, terrorism concerns, inflexibility, low social license.
The low modern cost of wind and solar along with the low cost of natural gas generation and the inherent challenges of nuclear has seen a bunch of reactors shut down and fleet reduction announcements globally. There was a blip of increase due to China finally getting some of its reactors going, but that’s ended as China has delayed most new starts while simultaneously increasing wind and solar.
From the chart of global nuclear production you’ll note that nuclear started its decline in 2006, long before Fukushima. Most of the reactors in Japan that were shut down won’t be coming back on line. France is on track to reduce its nuclear capacity. The nuclear industry in the USA is lobbying for subsidies and tax breaks to allow existing reactors to stay open, mostly without success. Toshiba Westinghouse is bankrupt and was bought by Brookfield for the 40 to 80 years of decommissioning service revenue, not to build new reactors. That’s the same reason SNC Lavalin bought Candu.
It’s worth looking at the unsubsidized LCOE for different forms of generation. You’ll note what the cheapest forms of generation are in 2019: utility-scale wind and solar. You’ll note what isn’t cheapest: nuclear. And that isn’t commercially unproven technologies, that’s technology which has been being commissioned for 50 years.
Hinkley in the UK is a Gen III reactor design and continues to be pushed forward by the conservative government there despite a price tag of 15 cents USD per KWH guaranteed for 35 years. Similarly, other Gen III reactors in France and Finland are years and billions over budget. That’s the reality of nuclear technology advances. Nuclear doesn’t get cheaper. Unlike almost every other technology we’ve invented, it just gets more expensive.
There’s no reason to think that Gen IV reactors whenever they actually get to a stage where they might be deployed commercially will end up being cheaper than alternatives. The opposite is likely to be true, that they will be much more expensive than the alternatives and with other unappealing characteristics. They’ll have to fight for commercial share in a space where they are very much the unknown, unproven, risky alternative against very well known, widely deployed, effective and cheap competitors.