WNA Director: Nuclear Reborn?

There has been a clear shift of public opinion in favour of nuclear energy in key countries, with public consent now unlikely to be withheld from new reactor plans in many countries of the world. Public opposition to nuclear

 - By Stephen W Kidd -

In Europe and the United States, signs of the long-discussed “nuclear renaissance” are increasingly positive. But it’s in China (which now has 21 out of the 53 reactors under construction around the world) that the initial boom is occurring. Increasing mentions of nuclear power in the mass media, often with a generally positive slant, are very welcome, but the industry now needs to build new reactors in great volume. China, with its vast requirements for clean power generation, is therefore the key.

An important element has been public statements from respected third-party advocates for nuclear, many of whom were previously either strongly opposed or seen as agnostic. Some of these come from the environmental movement, notably Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, but the support of James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Theory of the Earth as a self-regulating organism, has been particularly important.

There has been a clear shift of public opinion in favour of nuclear energy in key countries, with public consent now unlikely to be withheld from new reactor plans in many countries of the world. Public opposition to nuclear, however, remains an important issue in some European countries, notably in Germany, but the new government there and reversal of nuclear phase-out policies in Sweden and Belgium indicate that things are generally improving. The industry has recognised that securing public buy-in is critical and conditional upon in-depth dialogue. It accepts that concerns over safety, waste and non-proliferation will continue to impose a strict regulatory regime on the industry and that this is necessary, despite it costing a great deal of valuable time and money. 

One possible barrier to renewed industry growth is the 20-year mummification of the industry’s supply sector. However, this is changing, with membership of the UK Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) booming as companies realise that there will be many new opportunities in this sector as the UK returns to building reactors. Another possible negative, namely the need to ensure a strict world non-proliferation regime, has been reinforced by the North Korean and Iranian cases, to which endless column inches and analyses have been devoted.  On the other hand, three highly important factors have moved very strongly in the industry’s favour: the industry’s own operating performance, the greenhouse gas emissions debate and concerns over energy security of supply.

The 435 reactors around the world generate electricity very cheaply and earns significant profits for their owners, irrespective of the power market, whether it is liberalised or regulated. The challenge for the industry is to cut the capital investment costs of new reactors to enable many new reactor projects to go forward. Concerns over climate change and the perceived need to moderate greenhouse gas emissions has worked strongly in the industry’s favour and, at the very least, have opened an opportunity for the industry as a viable mitigation technology. The argument for more nuclear power as a means of securing additional energy security of supply has also become increasingly important, particularly in those countries who perceive themselves as becoming increasingly reliant on supplies from geopolitically unstable or otherwise unattractive countries. It is important to recall that this was the main argument that prompted both France and Japan, now numbers two and three in world nuclear generation, to go down this path in the 1970s in the aftermath of two “oil shocks”.

Proof of whether the mooted nuclear renaissance is merely “industry hype” as some commentators suggest or reality will come over the next decade. Before many new countries can take on the challenge of running large nuclear reactors, the established players need to start building reactors again, and now is as good a time as any.

Stephen W Kidd is Director of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association.