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Shaping the future of nuclear power

The next generation of innovation in nuclear power generation technology will not be like the last one

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Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, Nuclear Energy

For most countries, a successful energy policy is one that fulfils the three pillars of sustainability — security of supply, environmental protection and affordability. In the rapidly evolving electricity market, the value of nuclear power to the energy mix will depend on its capacity to meet current and future energy needs — as reflected by these three pillars. It is evident that meeting these expectations will require innovation in nuclear technology.

Nuclear power plants provide reliable dispatchable power generation that is transmitted as needed by electricity grid operators day and night, all year around, and in all weather conditions. Moreover, nuclear power plants are deployable on a large scale to meet the expected increase in demand for carbon-neutral electricity.

It is likely that with the share of variable renewable energy increasing substantially, nuclear generation will need to be flexible beyond its traditional baseload operation mode. Increased flexibility will imply a need for optimisation and innovation in areas such as: reactor and fuel designs; enhanced load-following capacity of nuclear reactors; the deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs); and the development of co-generation strategies that can provide additional demand and revenue streams to plant operators.

While there is general consensus that nuclear is a clean, low-carbon technology that can address environmental concerns, its ability to adapt to today’s very challenging market conditions is in question. Such market conditions include a decrease in the costs of renewable energy coupled with very favourable government policies and subsidies towards renewables, as well as a growing share of non-conventional sources of fossil fuels such as shale gas without carbon pricing in the market.

Because electricity markets are not structured to reflect these changes in technology and policy, these factors reduce the profitability of many existing baseload electricity plants, particularly nuclear power plants. To be sustainable, the electricity markets must be modernised to ensure long-term reliability; but whatever path the future takes, nuclear power’s future will require innovation to decrease the overall cost of generation while maintaining high levels of nuclear safety.

While some innovations that are taking place outside the industry will present challenges to the process of designing a new generation of nuclear reactors, others will present opportunities. Success will more likely come to those developers of advanced nuclear technologies who can grasp the important factors that are shaping it.

The latest innovation in the industry is the Floating Nuclear Power Plant (page 36). On October 2, 2018 Rosatom reported that it completed loading nuclear fuel into the second of two reactors of the world’s only FNPP “Akademik Lomonosov”, which is based in Murmansk. It is expected to start generating power in late 2019, marking a major milestone not just in the history of world’s civil nuclear power industry, but also in the highly anticipated energy trend of supplying power on demand, a concept well suited for the Middle East where demand for power is growing fast.

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