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Nuclear power – a renaissance? or another false dawn?

Nick Butler: Nuclear power has been in decline since the Fukushima
disaster in Japan more than a decade ago. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and soaring natural gas prices have led some to argue that nuclear energy can help solve the twin
challenges of energy security and climate change. Is the industry back in
business, or will this prove to be another false dawn?

Until recently, nuclear power’s prospects seemed poor. Plants built in the 1970s and
1980s are nearing the end of their working lives, while Germany and Japan
decided to shut down theirs for political reasons. Of the relatively few
new nuclear plants currently being built, many have been blighted by
management failures and technical faults.

The flagship EPR pressurized
water reactors at Flamanville in northern France and Olkiluoto in Finland
are, respectively, 13 and 12 years behind schedule. Hinkley Point in
southwest England, which was supposed to have provided the power to cook
Britain’s Christmas turkeys in 2023, may now be operational in 2027.

Inevitably, all of these projects are massively over budget. However, there
is significant interest in the potential of nuclear power to replace the
Russian natural gas supplies on which the EU has depended for the past 40
years. French President Emmanuel Macron announced before the recent
presidential election that France would build up to 14 new nuclear
reactors, starting in 2028. And Poland submitted plans in March for the
construction of six new reactors.

Supporting this trend, firms such as
Rolls-Royce in the United Kingdom and NuScale in the US are developing a
new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) that can be built and
commissioned in under 10 years.

But a nuclear renaissance is far from
certain. Today, more reactors are at risk of closure and decommissioning
than are being built. Although public sentiment has become more favourable
to nuclear power in most countries, entrenched resistance, underpinned by
environmental and safety concerns, continues to impede a renaissance.

Local planning processes are extensive and bitter. Construction takes time, not
least because of the extensive safety assessments required, and time costs
money. As a result, projects will proceed only where there are credible
guarantees regarding future pricing and power purchases. The nuclear
industry is still failing to deal effectively with the problem of waste
disposal. At plants such as Sizewell in eastern England, there is the
additional challenge of securing sufficient water supplies to operate the
reactors. Because of the lead times involved, nuclear energy cannot offer a
solution to today’s challenges. 

Irish Examiner 8th June 2022

June 11, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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