Nuclear Power – A Quick State of Play


Picking up on a previous post (can we supply low carbon energy to 9 billion people) which highlighted the potential importance of next generation nuclear power if we are to meet the world’s energy needs with low carbon energy sources, I wanted to take a closer look at the practicalities and the realities of nuclear power.

A Quick State of Play

There are currently 441 operating nuclear power plant in the world, with a combined capacity of 386GW and total production of over 2,700 TWh, or 16% of the world’s electricity consumption. Of these plant 147 are located in Europe, 104 in the US, 31 in Russia, 17 in India and 11 in China.

The first commercial nuclear power station was built in Calder Hall in the UK in 1956. Since then the technology has evolved through first and second generation reactors. The first examples of third generation reactors are only just being built. And while active research is underway on fourth generation technologies, it will be more than 20 years before Generation IV reactors will be ready for commercial operation. First generation nuclear reactors, such as the British Magnox design and the French UNGG design were based upon early military applications. In total ? Generation I reactors were built, predominantly in the US, the UK and France. The UK is the only country that still operates Generation I reactors – 4 of the original Magnox reactors are still operating, but are scheduled for closure within the next 5 years.

Second generation reactors are largely Light Water Reactors (LWR) that use water as the coolant and neutron moderator and enriched uranium as the fuel. There are different variations of this type of reactor including pressurized water reactors (PWR) and boiling water reactors (BWR), as well as the Canadian CANDU heavy water reactor (HWR). These Generation II reactors account for 90% of existing operational nuclear power plant, and more importantly they account for 88% of all current new builds, which are predominantly of the PWR and BWR varieties. Clearly, second generation technologies will continue to dominate the nuclear sector until at least 2025, if not beyond.

Third generation reactors are largely Advanced Water Reactors (AWR) and are only now beginning (very slowly) to enter commercial operation. There are more than a dozen Generation III reactor designs in various stages of development. The majority are evolutionary designs from the PWR, BWR and CANDU designs above. These include Mitsubishi’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), Westinghouse’s Advanced Passive 600 (AP600) design and the French/German designed European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) which were designed during the 1980s and 1990s. There are six ABWRs currently in operation in Japan, and two EPRs under construction in Europe – one in Olkiluoto, Finland and one in France at La Flamanville. It needs to be said that some (though not all) of these projects have met with difficulties, delays and cost overruns. Generation III+ reactors, which are largely evolutions of the Generation III technologies, are under development. Examples include Westinghouse’s AP1000, the Advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR) and GE’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR). The best-known radical new design is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which uses helium as a coolant at very high temperature to drive a turbine directly. PBMR technologies are under development in China and in South Africa. In general though, Generation III reactors are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, offering modest, though important, improvements in safety, efficiency and cost.

In contrast, fourth generation reactors are intended to be revolutionary. Research is being led by the Generation IV Forum (GIF), a consortium of ten countries. The GIF has selected 6 designs – 4 of which represent significant departures from the thermal designs used in preceding generations. These Generation IV technologies are fast reactor types that operate at higher temperatures than previous technologies, and make use of a closed fuel cycle. Examples of Generation IV technology include Gas Cooled Fast Reactors (GFR), Sodium Cooled Fast Reactors (SFR) and Very High Temperature Gas Reactors (VHTR). All of these technologies face technical and economic hurdles – some of which may be insurmountable.

There are currently 36 new nuclear power plant under construction with a combined capacity of 31GW – the majority in Russia (7), China (6) and India (6). Again, the majority of these plant (88%) are second generation LWRs.

Between now and 2030, the IEA estimate that an additional 500 nuclear plants will be commissioned, increasing capacity to 433 GW or about 3,400 TWh of electricity – representing just over 10% of total projected electricity demand in 2030. This is one-quarter of the estimated supply that will come from coal (44%), just under one half of the estimated supply from renewables (23%) and just over one-half of the estimated supply that will from gas (19%).

Some Important Questions

If nuclear power from next generation fast-breeder reactors are to play an important role in the future supply of low carbon energy, then certain key questions will need to be addressed.

  • Uranium Supplies – Is there enough uranium?
  • Fourth Generation Nuclear Technology – Is it technically feasible? How long will it take to commercialise? And what will it cost?
  • Environmental concerns – What are the full cycle environmental impacts?
  • Security – Is it safe?

We look at each of these questions in subsequent posts.


One Response to “Nuclear Power – A Quick State of Play”

  1. 1 Jeff

    In response to your first question,

    “certain key questions will need to be addressed.

    * Uranium Supplies – Is there enough uranium?”

    some of the breeder reactors sound promising, and GE seems to have convinced one of the Reuters Business writers that fuel shouldn’t be a major problem for their IVth generation reactor.

    Nuclear Power: Going Fast
    Felix Salmon

    “GE’s Eric Loewen was there, talking about nuclear power, and specifically what he calls a PRISM reactor — a fourth-generation nuclear power station which runs on the nuclear waste generated by all the previous generations of nuclear power stations.

    PRISM is GE’s (GE) name for an integral fast reactor, or IFR, and it’s a pretty great technology. The amount of fuel which already exists for such reactors would be enough to power the world for millennia — no new mining needed. Fast reactors also solve at a stroke the problem of what to do with the vast amounts of nuclear waste which are being stockpiled unhappily around the world.”

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