x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

IAEA report: Nuclear power expansion to slow before growing again

New nuclear nations such as the UAE will help erode doubts about the energy source, experts predict

Saudi Arabia's plans for nuclear follow the construction of the UAE's Barakah nuclear power plant. due to come online next year. Arun Girija / Enec / AFP
Saudi Arabia's plans for nuclear follow the construction of the UAE's Barakah nuclear power plant. due to come online next year. Arun Girija / Enec / AFP

Nuclear power’s long-term potential remains high, although its global expansion is projected to slow down in coming years, according to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The International Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power 2017 report found that the decline was mainly due to early retirement or lack of interest in extending the life of nuclear power plants in some countries.

“[This] was caused by the reduced competitiveness of nuclear power in the short run and national nuclear policies in several countries following the accident at Fukushima [in Japan] in 2011,” read the report, which analyses factors that could influence the future of nuclear power, such as funding, electricity markets and public acceptance.

“If nuclear power’s potential as a low-carbon energy source grows in recognition and advanced reactor designs further improve both safety and radioactive waste management, the use of nuclear power could grow significantly.”

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Since IAEA’s last report in 2014, the UAE has started building its first nuclear power plant, the first phase of which will become operational next year, with the entire project expected to be up and running by 2020.

“Since I began to study nuclear energy in 1987 and formally enrolled at MIT in 1988 to pursue my PhD in nuclear engineering, I have been a keen advocate and spokesperson for the benefits of nuclear energy,” said Dr Anthony Hechanova, head of advanced energy technology at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic.

“The very unpredictable energy markets and even more unpredictable natural events and socio-political acceptance of nuclear energy makes the growth sporadic.”

He said, however, that in the very long term, nearer the end of the century, he was extremely confident that nuclear power would have become a major provider of clean energy for not only electricity but also transportation.

“There simply isn't any other large-scale source to satisfy the global energy thirst after the end of the fossil fuel economy,” he said. “The nuclear industry is maybe only equalled by the aviation industry in its safety culture. It speaks volumes that safety is always on the forefront and that the industry and regulators seek even safer plants.”

The IAEA’s projections for global installed nuclear power capacity anticipates a worst-case scenario decline in capacity of 12 per cent by 2030 and 15 per cent by 2040 before it rebounds to present levels by 2050.

“I believe the recognition of nuclear power’s potential as a low-carbon energy source will grow in the future, particularly because of China and the central European countries, including Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as Thailand, Turkey and indeed the Middle East, such as Jordan, Egypt and, of course, the UAE,” said Lady Barbara Judge, former head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and member of the International Advisory Board for the development of nuclear energy in the UAE.

“All of these countries need low-carbon baseload generation and they are the future of nuclear. The technology of reactors is improving all the time and, after Fukushima, there is an even greater focus on safety.”

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She said new reactors being built are safer than existing ones. “However, people who understand energy know that even before Fukushima, nuclear power had the best safety record of any energy source,” said Lady Judge.

According to Nobuyasu Abe, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, the long-term future of nuclear power very much depends upon three major uncertainties - how serious people become about reducing carbon emissions; how far the technology has come for overcoming the intermittency of renewable energy; and how people understand the improved safety and accept the risk of nuclear power stations.

“In Japan, people are still very averse to nuclear power,” he said. “If it should maintain a certain degree of nuclear power, it may have to introduce some kind of incentive to do so, such as subsidies, financial support and price assurance. Carbon tax is a way to generate a level playground for nuclear and other energy sources.”

Others believe there will be a growing recognition of the important role nuclear power has in international efforts to curb carbon emissions and address climate change.

“Other forms of clean energy contribute to this as well but, within the foreseeable future, renewable energy sources will not be able to cover the increasing energy demands,” said Dr John Bernhard, Denmark’s former envoy to the IAEA.

“For nuclear energy to be a significant part of the energy mix of many countries in the future, various factors are essential. The safety and security measures must be convincingly strong and credible, and similar attention must also be paid to waste management. These aspects are of crucial importance both to decision-makers and to the general public.”