Nuclear power “renaissance” not the expansion boom the industry expected

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), an Ottawa a Waterloo, Ontario-based think tank founded in 2002 by Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, says we shouldn’t expect any major expansion of the nuclear market before 2030. After that, the future of the industry is no more certain.

After three and a half years of extensive study, which included exhaustive consultation with industry experts and review of peer-reviewed literature, the policy think tank released a report yesterday that says the nuclear industry will have a hard enough time just replacing older reactors in the existing global fleet. Fact is, nuclear’s contribution to the global power mix since 2000 has fallen, as has the number of reactors in the fleet. Meanwhile, 2008 was the first year since the mid-1950s that no new nuclear reactor was connected to the grid. There have been refurbishments and life extensions, and there has been a lot of talk about building new reactors, but so far the massive, fast-paced expansion the industry has touted simply isn’t materializing. There will be some modest growth, but CIGI doesn’t expect nuclear will play a major role in combatting climate change before 2030. Between now and then, it also says alternatives — solar, wind, energy efficiency, conservation, smart grid technologies — will gain momentum and may ultimately prevent nuclear projects from getting a foothold. “Research and development is proceeding at such a pace for most of these alternatives that improvements in performance and cost will likely arrive faster than for nuclear technology,” the study concluded.

Think about it: by 2030 it’s quite possible we’ll have energy storage breakthroughs that give intermittant renewables baseload characteristics, but instead of deploying them in massive multibillion-dollar chunks, they could be part of a distributed energy system that locates power closer to consumers, and deploys it quickly and when needed.

CIGI lists a number of issues that have held back expansion of the nuclear power market:

  • High upfront cost — reactors that can cost up to $10 billion a piece.
  • Labour shortages resulting from boomer retirements and lack of investment in training and education.
  • Long construction lead time.
  • High risk of cost overruns and delay.
  • High reliance on government subsidies and public backstopping.
  • Ongoing concerns with waste management.
  • Alternatives becoming increasingly more competitive.

Now, the nuclear industry isn’t oblivious to these issues, and indeed, there is a move underway to build smaller reactors that can be built more quickly, on time, and at a more manageable cost and pace. Also, these mini reactors would fit better into a distributed generation model, and attempts at developing small thorium-fuelled reactors would address waste management and nuclear proliferation concerns. CIGI acknowledged these developments, but said we’re not likely to see thorium reactors or mini-reactors being adopted in any significant way before 2030 — again, too late to be relied on for climate-change mitigation.

All this said, there will be growth — in China, in India, and a handful of other countries — and there will be refurbishments. This should keep the industry busy for the next couple of decades. No jobs are likely at risk here. Over the long term, however, the future of the nuclear industry would appear more uncertain.

3 thoughts on “Nuclear power “renaissance” not the expansion boom the industry expected”

  1. I’ll note that half (*half!*)of that average 10 billion per plant is directly spent fighting off lawsuits and other legal challenges by the anti-nuclear lobby (which is largely funded by the various national coal lobbies, unsurprisingly:P). It’s remarkable how much money the anti-nuclear lobby has to throw around.

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