Challenges of the Nuclear Sector
This week we are treating you to a piece by our very own expert Christian Jeanneau, (SVP Nuclear, Assystem) sharing his thoughts on Energy Transition, challenges that the nuclear industry faces and how strategies need to be implemented to secure the position of nuclear within the energy mix of the future.
Assystem believes that by 2030, electricity generated from decarbonised sources will constitute the main form of energy consumed on our planet. Nuclear will have to be a crucial part of the future energy mix as it is the only real, sustainable source of energy that can replace fossil fuels for low carbon energy and satisfy base-load electricity demands.
At 25 to 100€/MWh for nuclear (with a median value at 49€/MWh) compared to 40 to 100€/MWh for wind (with a median value of 73€/MWh) and 40 to 150€/MWh for solar (with a median value of 90€/MWh), nuclear power with wind power remain the cheapest and most decarbonized sources of electricity (having 4 time less emissions than solar).
To secure its position in the world’s future energy mix, the nuclear industry must continue to demonstrate that it is capable of operating safely, reliably and sustainably within a competitive energy market, while addressing key challenges:
- Developing new nuclear capacity while optimizing time schedule and budget
In 2015, the International Energy Agency’s Technology Roadmap concluded that “Global capacity must more than double, with nuclear supplying 17% of global electricity generation in 2050, to meet the IEA 2-degree scenario for the most effective and efficient means of limiting global temperature rise to the internationally agreed maximum.” Worldwide, 440 reactors are operating, 65 are under construction, 173 are planned and 337 are under study to meet the goal of production capacity. This increase, from the current level of 11%, when combined with the need to replace existing stations which are nearing the end of their operating life, represents an enormous challenge for the industry.
A major issue for the industry is the lead time for implementation of new nuclear build programmes. Here, digitisation of the design & build process can be a key factor in helping major new nuclear investments to be delivered on schedule and within budget.
- Extending the lifetime of existing generation facilities
Many facilities originally designed for a 30-year operational life are now being extended to operate for 40, 50 or even 60 years. These extensions must be justified on the grounds of both safety and financial viability. Replacement of components and systems can be undertaken to maintain adequate margins of safety which requires major investments and planning by plant owners.
Maintenance and replacement of obsolescent control systems is another key consideration that must be planned in advance to ensure reliability of nuclear generated power.
- Improving the operating performance
Latest smart technologies can help operators improve efficiencies and reduce operational costs. Digital control systems combined with plant-wide sensors can provide greater insight into the status of the plant, enabling optimisation of operating parameters and facilitating intelligent planning of maintenance activities.
The industry needs to capitalise on developments in new technologies, such as robotic systems for performing previously impossible inspection and maintenance operations to support the safety case for longevity of operating plant life.
- Bringing benefits from the new generations of nuclear reactors
The design of new, high efficiency, Generation IV type reactors, some using closed fuel cycles, will bring benefits in terms of reduced nuclear waste, higher fuel efficiency and lower risks of nuclear proliferation. These reactors have huge potential for the future but the ‘industrialisation’ of these designs to achieve the levels of safety and reliability for commercial power generation and acceptance by the industry regulators will be a big challenge.
The SMR (Small Modular Reactor) is a cost-effective alternative to the high-power reactor. For countries in need of low electricity demand and small grid, the SMR is an opportunity, which allows an increase in electricity production gradually and plan their investments over time. Ultimately, there is also the aspiration of developing nuclear fusion as the new nuclear technology to solve the world’s energy needs, and the commercialisation of this will be a further challenge for engineers in the coming decades.
- Rising to the challenge of safety, environmental and security issues
Expansion and renewal of nuclear power is conditional on the industry’s capability to continuously upgrade safety standards. Consequently, plant adaptation and conformance to ever-tighter levels of safety and environmental legislation is an ongoing obligation for the industry.
Digitalisation of systems and processes increases the risk of cyber-threats by an order of magnitude. Whether this is from malicious data input to a system, or by the loss of valuable data from the system, nuclear operators need to implement robust measures to safeguard themselves and the public from such risks.