Nuclear power is the most controversial energy technology. New power plants are prohibited in a few European countries and, everywhere else, it remains a topic of public debate. There are strong differences of opinion about whether nuclear power plants are safe, how to store nuclear waste and whether nuclear power is a necessary technology to fight global climate change
Mostly for economic reasons, fewer new nuclear power plants are planned for the developed economies while many more will be built in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, including countries that are new to nuclear power. It will be important that the “newcomer” countries operate these new plants with a “culture of safety.” While the power plants being built today are safer than past reactors, plant operators must be highly trained and independent regulatory authorities must maintain due diligence over their licensing and operation
New nuclear power projects are doing poorly in many of the countries that pioneered nuclear power. Construction delays and cost overruns are common. For example, in the United States, after spending $9 billion, South Carolina E&G and Santee Cooper stopped building two Westinghouse reactors. As it stands now, in competitive power markets that depend on private-sector investment, new nuclear power plants are too risky. This explains why large nuclear power plants are mainly being pursued in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East where private financing is less of a concern.
New reactor vendors are also emerging. The historic leaders, General Electric, Areva and Westinghouse have either expired or face uncertain futures. For example, while Rosatom has a long experience in building nuclear power reactors, its emergence as a major technology exporter is relatively new. Their VVER-1200 reactor possesses the latest advanced safety features and is now a tested design. Likewise, China, who is gaining experience building their own nuclear reactor fleet, is entering the expor
market. These new vendors are also experimenting with ways to reduce the financial risk to their customers. For example, the “build, own and operate model”, being employed at Turkey’s Akkuyu nuclear power plant project, shifts the construction risk to Rosatom. Turkey’s financial obligation is limited to fulfilling a power purchase contract. Rosatom is also responsible for the “fuel cycle” (refueling the reactor and returning spent fuel to Russia). This is significant since a publicly acceptable plan for the long-term storage of nuclear waste has yet to be found in many countries. For example, the U.S. government has failed to build a civilian nuclear waste repository. As a result, despite six decades of nuclear power plant operation, all spent fuel rods remain in “temporary” onsite storage. The International Energy Agency expects that nuclear power will remain at about 15% of global electricity supply through 2040. Prospects for increased use of nuclear power will require a new generation of reactors that are both more economically attractive and have a greater likelihood of public acceptance than current designs. There are numerous projects worldwide to develop this potentially gamechanging technology: the small modular reactor (SMR). Instead of undertaking a time-consuming on-site reactor build, the SMR would be produced in a factory and delivered to a power customer, vastly reducing their financial risk. A variety of SMR designs are being explored. Many designs promise inherent safety. For example, in some designs, the physics of the reactor makes core overheating impossible. SMRs could also have less frequent refueling and better options for waste disposal. The private sector, with government support to enable licensing and testing, is accepting the financial risk to produce this new generation of nuclear power technologies. Even without any new government policies, we should see in a few years whether or not the SMR can overcome its economic and public acceptance challenges and grow the role of nuclear power in future decades.