Congress sees growth for the nuclear sector worldwide

A combination of New Build opportunities, strong growth in the Decommissioning Market and future opportunities for Small Modular Reactors mean that the Nuclear engineering sector is set for two decades of expansive growth, according to speakers at the World Nuclear Decommissioning and Waste Management Congress held last week at Waltham Abbey.

The key themes were the increasing demand for carbon free generation, overcoming constraints on nuclear new builds, the ever increasing demand for decommissioning, and the need for an understanding of the roadmap and regulatory envelop for Small Modular Reactors, where expectations are running high, although it will take time to establish the market for SMRs.

One area of particular interest was the economics of nuclear power, with research being undertaken by the University of Leeds led by Dr. Giorgio Locatelli, and by the NEA through Professor Geoff Rothwell’s efforts, his book, The Economics of Nuclear Power, recently published by Routledge.

The conference highlighted the economic incentives on plant owners to extend the plant life and these life extensions have generally been supported by the engineering facts and accepted by regulators. Plant constructed in the nuclear industry have enjoyed better utilisation than expected, and the exacting standards of engineering and construction and their safety record have led to robust cases for plant life extension for both generation and waste processing plant.

This is better news for investors in new build and in waste plant, as life extensions gives an improved yield both for investors and for governments seeking to ensure security of supply and environmental security from carbon-free generation.

The rate of new build in Europe remains constrained by the difficulties in financing such very capitally intensive projects, and the long payback period and structurally asymmetric risk profile are key challenges, noted by Dr. Nadira Barkatullah, Director of ENWa Economics in a compelling analysis of the financing challenges. The consensus was that investor confidence would grow strongly when Gen III+ stations were being commissioned much closer to schedule and Budget.

Edward McGinnis of the U.S. Department of Energy highlighted global opportunities and some challenges facing nuclear power, and reinforced the high levels of support for embarking nations, including Jordan and Kenya.

The combination of demand for new build and for decommissioning and waste management, has particular consequences for developing the supply chain and for ensuring skills. Decommissioning programmes may be constrained by contractor and skills availability as efforts are directed towards new build.

The situation in Europe is that there will be more closures as early plant passes the end of design life. Currently there are 102 closed reactors, and the European commission estimate this will increase to 1/3 of the 185 currently operational reactors by 2025. That means a rapidly increasing workload for decommissioning over the next ten years, with speakers from the European Commission, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Hungary outlining their plans for and approach to decommissioning and the need to share best practise.

One key issue raised by the NEA’s Simon Carroll was the lack of cost information relating to decommissioning, and the ongoing efforts to seek to find good benchmarks not only for unit cost, but also for scope and for contingent risk.

There are consequently enormous opportunities for supply chain development and commercialisation of decommissioning know-how, and these will most likely require cross-border partnerships to successfully win work, adapt to local conditions and the supply chain and take decommissioning forward.

The key message is that the future for nuclear skills and engineering looks very bright.