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Advanced reactors promise a new era for nuclear power

The complexities of construction and operation mean that hopes of low-cost nuclear power have often been disappointed. The industry now has a chance to break that cycle

11 minute read

US Admiral Hyman Rickover, known as “the father of the nuclear Navy”, famously drew a distinction between two types of reactors. The “academic reactor”, existing only in the minds and drawing boards of its designers, is simple, cheap and quick to build. The “practical reactor”, an actual construction project, is complex, expensive and always behind schedule.

He was describing the nuclear industry’s perennial cycle of hope and disillusionment. New technologies in their early stages apparently promise efficient construction and low-cost electricity. But when the time comes to pour concrete and weld steel, projects present unforeseen difficulties. Costs rise and start-up dates are pushed back, and enthusiasm for nuclear power wanes. Until a new set of technologies emerges, raising a new round of hopes about the potential for abundant low-cost power.

In the US, we are seeing the end of one such nuclear hype cycle and the early stages of another. What is probably the last ever new Generation 3-plus reactor to be built in the US is nearing completion, at the same time as new technologies loosely categorised as “advanced nuclear” are approaching over the horizon.

Nuclear power, generally – if not always – providing reliable electricity around the clock, 365 days a year, without carbon emissions, has to be part of the world’s toolkit for addressing climate change. There is only a limited number of technologies capable of providing what is sometimes referred to as “clean firm power”, including fossil fuels with carbon capture, long-duration storage, hydrogen, hydro power and geothermal. Those technologies all have advantages and drawbacks, and in some places nuclear is going to be the best option.

But as a recent Wood Mackenzie Horizons report explains, “lower costs are key to realising new nuclear potential”. Nuclear power has to be competitive on costs, if not with wind and solar, then with other clean firm power options such as carbon capture and geothermal. The companies developing advanced nuclear projects need to show that the cycle of excitement and disappointment can be broken.

Years late and many billions over budget, the project to build two new AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia is finally coming to fruition. Unit 3 last week reached 100% power output for the first time, after being connected to the grid in April. Unit 4 began hot functional testing in March, and is scheduled to be in operation by the first quarter of next year.

Jigar Shah, director of the Loans Program Office at the US Department of Energy, which has supported the Vogtle project with loan guarantees, commented: “We respect the perseverance and grit of Southern Nuclear to get this plant completed. It makes a nuclear renaissance possible.”

But to the extent that there is going to be a nuclear renaissance in the US, it is not going to be based on any more Generation 3-plus reactors like the AP1000s built at Vogtle. When pre-construction work at the site began in 2009, Unit 3 was intended to come into service in 2016, and Unit 4 in 2017. They are finally coming on line seven years behind that schedule. In 2009, the two new units were expected to cost about US$14 billion. Now they are estimated to cost about US$30 billion.

Not every nuclear project around the world has faced such severe setbacks. Kepco of South Korea has been building four Korean Generation 3 reactors in the United Arab Emirates, and three are now completed. The programme has slipped behind schedule — the original plan was to have all four reactors in service by 2020 — but not as badly as reactor construction projects in the US and Europe. The UAE’s strategy was commended by the International Atomic Energy Agency as holding lessons for other countries.

In developed economies, however, severe problems with large nuclear projects seem endemic. The Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland began a regular production schedule in April of this year, having originally been intended to come on line in 2009. Flamanville 3 in France began construction in 2007, and has still not yet been completed. Fuel loading is scheduled for the first quarter of next year.

The new generation of what are known as “advanced nuclear” technologies promise to avoid the long delays and cost overruns that have dogged those large reactor projects. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are designed to be modular, with more of the assembly work done in a factory, enabling much more efficient construction.

Wood Mackenzie analysts think SMRs could supply electricity at a lower cost than the large-scale Generation 3-plus reactors built in Europe and North America.

“Nuclear power will never approach wind and solar on a levelised cost of electricity basis,” says David Brown, a director in Wood Mackenzie’s energy transition practice. “But it doesn’t have to. It’s not only levelised cost that matters: variable power from wind and solar does not have the same value as dispatchable power from a nuclear plant. The new reactors need to be competitive against sources of supply with similar characteristics, such as fossil fuel plants with carbon capture.”

In the US, those reactors are making steady progress. NuScale Power this week began a round of meetings with investors, reiterating that it is on track for its first plant using SMRs, in Idaho, to start up in 2029.

Its reactor design was given final certification by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January, the first SMR to receive such an approval. NuScale has signed agreements to deploy its reactors in 12 different countries, including Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Jordan

TerraPower, the nuclear company founded by Bill Gates that is using an innovative sodium-cooled reactor design, last month held an event in Wyoming, where its first plant will be built. Terrapower is aiming for a start-up date of 2030 for that first reactor, with potentially two more by 2033.

The question now is whether NuScale, Terrapower and other companies working on advanced nuclear technologies can deliver on their plans. Chris Colbert, NuScale’s chief financial officer, emphasised on a recent TD Cowen call that the construction for its plant would be very different from the process at Vogtle, even though the components for those reactors were also built in factories.

“The Vogtle AP1000 was a modular design, and it took… 11 years, and 8,000 people on site,” he said. “For a NuScale plant, we are looking at three years and 1,400 people on site.”

However, the cost estimates for NuScale’s first plant have already been rising sharply, as a result of factors including higher steel prices and higher interest rates. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which is supporting the project and will be one of the customers for its electricity, has said it now expects the power to cost US$89 per megawatt hour, in 2022 dollars, up from an earlier estimate of US$58 / MWh.

For any first-of-a-kind plant, the expense is likely to be higher, and NuScale and other advanced nuclear companies can hope to bring down costs for plant number two, three and beyond. But the companies still have to prove that they can do that when the time comes to turn their plans into concrete and steel reality. For now, they are still working mostly with Rickover’s “academic reactors”. The real challenges of the “practical reactors” are yet to come.

Dam breach threatens Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

While momentum is building behind a new wave of nuclear development, the worries about safety that have always surrounded the industry have been stirred up again over the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine.

The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam has left hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians without reliable sources of drinking water, and left tens of thousands in flooded areas. It has also heightened concerns about the Zaporizhzhia plant, which draws water for its cooling system from the Khakovka reservoir. The level at the reservoir has fallen sharply as a result of the dam breach, and if the depth drops below 12.7 metres, which could happen in a few days, it will no longer be possible to pump water to the plant.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told its board of governors this week: “Absence of cooling water in the essential cooling water systems for an extended period of time would cause fuel melt and inoperability of the emergency diesel generators.”

He added that the agency’s current assessment was that there was “no immediate risk to the safety of the plant”. There are other usable sources of water, including a large pond next to the site, which could provide supplies for months. However, Grossi warned: “It is therefore vital that this cooling pond remains intact. Nothing must be done to potentially undermine its integrity.” He plans to visit the Zaporizhzhia plant next week.

If the situation at Zaporizhzhia continues to deteriorate, the effect on human health may be limited. Just one death has been officially linked to the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011. But as that accident showed, the clean-up costs and impact on the nuclear industry worldwide could be significant.

In brief

There has been a significant breakthrough in electric vehicle charging standards in the US. General Motors has announced that will adopt Tesla’s charging connector, known as the North American Charging Standard (NACS). GM’s move follows a similar announcement from Ford last month, and means that the NACS now seems likely to emerge as the universal standard for all manufacturers’ EVs in North America.

A common connecting standard will make it easier for drivers to find charging points, helping erode resistance to EV ownership. GM and Ford EV drivers will from next year have access to 12,000 Tesla Superchargers across the US and Canada. The change is likely to have a profound impact on the build-out of charging infrastructure.

Crude oil prices have largely held on to their gains after Saudi Arabia last week announced a unilateral cut in production of 1 million barrels per day for July, intended to help stabilise the market. Brent crude was trading at around $76 a barrel in Friday morning trading in Asia.

Ofgem, the UK energy regulator, welcomed the government’s plan to give it a net zero mandate. A proposed amendment to the Energy Bill now in Parliament would order Ofgem “to protect existing and future consumers’ interests” by supporting the government as it sets policies to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The Biden administration was told last June that the Ukrainian military had been planning a covert attack on the Nord Stream gas pipeline system, the Washington Post reported. The pipeline was ruptured by explosives, planted by persons unknown, in September of last year.

Ørsted has pledged to recycle all the solar panels it uses in the US when they reach the end of their useful lives. As solar installations soar, worries about equipment end-of-life and waste disposal are becoming increasingly pressing.

New York was reported to have the world’s worst air quality on Tuesday, as a result of drifting smoke from wildfires in Canada. Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, said it had already been one of the country’s worst fire seasons on record, “and we must prepare for a long summer”.

Other views

Simon Flowers, Leslie Cook and Andrew Latham — Does the bull market in oil rigs signal a slower transition?

Scott Walker, Neivan Boroujerdi and Lucy King — Harbour and Talos in merger discussions: what are the drivers?

Michelle Davis — Supply chain relief slowly arrives for US solar

David Brown — Energy transition in the Americas: three key questions

Darryl Xu — Plastic circularity: how much will recycled plastics displace oil-based feedstock?

Implications of the OPEC+ meeting for H2 2023

Julian Spector — The South is building the most vibrant EV and battery hub in the US

Gabrielle Coppola — America’s long, tortured journey to build EV batteries

Noah Smith — The reverse OPEC manoeuvre

Quote of the week

“For the leader of the opposition to consider that the forest fires that are taking people from their communities and destroying their homes are a mere distraction…is shameful… The fact of the matter is, he doesn’t have anything to say about that because he refuses to put forward any real plan to fight against climate change and he does nothing but fight against our plan to fight against climate change. If he has a better plan, let him say it because we’ve been waiting a long time for it! But he has no plan to fight climate change, he still questions whether it exists while Canada is burning!” — Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, clashed in parliament with Pierre Poilievre, leader of the opposition, over climate policy and the connection to the wildfires that have been wracking the country.

Chart of the week

This chart showing a record-breaking quarter comes from the latest quarterly US Solar Market Insight, produced by Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association. The US solar industry installed 6.1 gigawatts of capacity in the first three months of the year: down 19% from the fourth quarter of 2022, but up 47% from the first quarter of 2022.

This year’s number is the best first quarter in the industry’s history. Perhaps even more impressively, solar accounted for 54% of all new electricity-generating capacity added to the US grid in the first quarter of 2023.

Abigail Ross Hopper, president and chief executive of SEIA, commented: “As the Inflation Reduction Act begins to flex its muscle and drive demand, the US solar and storage industry is eagerly awaiting further guidance on some of the most impactful pieces of the law. Timely, specific, and workable implementation guidance from the administration will have a major impact on our success in both the near and long-term.”