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Even oil-rich companies of Middle East are eying reactors, as more nations announce plans for SMRs Russian troops occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station, which was damaged by shelling. File photo courtesy IAEA. 2022 was a year of mega milestones for nuclear energy.

Countries around the world turned to nuclear as a reliable low-carbon energy source as they looked for ways to wean themselves off Russian imports and lower carbon emissions.

New plants began operating, deals for small modular reactors were signed and countries announced ambitious plans for new-build.

On the political front, US president Joe Biden signed into law new legislation that will help to finance struggling nuclear reactors and could save dozens from being shut down early. In Europe, the nuclear industry celebrated when members of the European parliament decided to “follow the science” and support legislation which includes nuclear in the bloc’s sustainable finance taxonomy for green investment.

And it all took place against a backdrop of war in Ukraine, where Russian troops occupied Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station and the International Atomic Energy Agency called for restraint, warning that reactor safety and security could be compromised. As the New Year began, the agency was still working on plans to establish a safety and security zone around the six-unit facility.

Here are five major developments that are setting the stage for an even bigger year for the nuclear sector in 2023.

US-based NuScale’s Voygr nuclear power plant. Courtesy NuScale.

1. Deploying SMRs

Around Europe, companies signed deals related to all stages of SMR development and deployment. Companies in Poland and the Czech Republic have announced SMR programmes. Most recently, US nuclear plant developer NuScale Power and Romania’s RoPower signed a contract for front-end engineering and design (Feed) work, marking a significant step towards the deployment of a NuScale Voygr small modular reactor power plant in Romania. The UK is looking at its first SMR by the early years of the next decade. The potentially game-changing technology is under consideration as far afield as Canada, the Philippines, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced its intent to issue a final rule to certify NuScale Power’s SMR. Once published, companies can soon start referencing the SMR design in their combined licensing applications. Tennessee Valley Authority announced an agreement with GE-Hitachi to support planning and preliminary licensing efforts for the potential deployment of a BWRX-300 SMR at the Clinch River site. Other big announcements included Dow and X-energy agreeing to deploy an Xe-100 SMR at one of Dow’s US Gulf Coast sites by 2030 as well as TerraPower and PacifiCorp exploring the possibility of building five additional Natrium reactors in the PacifiCorp service area by 2035.

Sizewell C in England will have two EPR plants. Courtesy EDF.

2. New Build Gets The Go-Ahead

The British government confirmed the Sizewell C nuclear power station will go ahead, backing the scheme with a £700m (€809m) stake and saying it wants to see more nuclear projects being prepared. Funding for the project was signed off by Boris Johnson at the start of September in one of his last acts as prime minister and confirmed by chancellor Jeremy Hunt in his autumn statement. The twin EPR station is a joint endeavour with French state energy giant EDF and is expected to take a decade to build at the cost of between £20-£30bn. Large-scale reactors are under construction or consideration around the world. Test production has begun at Olkiluoto-3 in Finland and Flamanville-3 in France is close to completion, while fuel is being loaded at Vogtle in the US. Construction continued at Akkuyu, Turkey’s first nuclear station, with a second under consideration. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, around 30 countries are considering or embarking on the construction of new reactors. They include established nuclear nations such as the UK, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, China and India, and newcomers such as Poland, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The International Energy Agency says a new wave of construction will be key to achieving net zero and ensuring energy security.

Poland said its first unit is scheduled to be online in 2033. Courtesy Lukas Plewnia.

3. Poland Gets Going

In a major policy announcement, Poland confirmed the selection of US-based Westinghouse Electric Company for the construction of the country’s first nuclear power station near its Baltic Sea coastline. Three Westinghouse-made AP1000 pressurised water reactor units will be deployed at the Lubiatowo-Kopalino site in the northern province of Pomerania. The first unit is scheduled to be online in 2033 as set in Warsaw’s 2020 nuclear energy programme while the start of construction is earmarked for 2026. Under a 2020 nuclear programme, Poland has ambitious plans to build from 6,000 to 9,000 MW of installed nuclear with commercial operation of a first nuclear unit in a proposed set of six is planned for 2033, with the rest to follow throughout the 2030s and into the early 2040s. Warsaw Also said it remains “open” to cooperation with the European and global nuclear industries for the deployment of a second nuclear power plant in the country despite selecting Westinghouse for the construction of a first nuclear power station. Polish energy companies ZE PAK and PGE signed a letter of intent with South Korea’s KHNP for the proposed construction of a third nuclear power station at the Patnow site in central Poland – a project described as one to be developed by “private business” and not run by the government.

Coals plant sites are being eyed for small modular reactors. Courtesy IEA.

4. Repowering Coal

Repowering existing coal plant infrastructure – including with small modular reactors – is the largest single carbon abatement opportunity on the planet and could greatly accelerate the clean energy transition while using existing infrastructure and maintaining vital jobs and a major topic to watch in 2023 and beyond. A report by TerraPraxis said replacing coal-fired boilers at existing coal plants with carbon-free SMRs, also known as advanced heat sources, would transform coal-fired power plants from polluting liabilities facing an uncertain future, into a central component of a clean energy system transition – an important part of the massive and pressing infrastructure buildout needed to address climate change. The US Department of Energy said This “coal-to-nuclear” transition could add a substantial amount of clean electricity to the grid, helping the US reach its net-zero emissions goals by 2050. TerraPower, a company co-founded by Bill Gates, plans to deploy its Natrium reactor technology at a coal site in the US state of Wyoming. In Poland Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power began investigating the site of coal plant in southern Poland for the construction of APR1400 nuclear power plants. The Polish private sector is considering SMRs at former coal sites to power industry.

Saudi Arabia has begun the process of choosing a technology vendor for its first nuclear plant. Courtesy Wikipedia.

5. Oil-Rich Saudi Arabia Turns To Nuclear

Even longstanding non-nuclear nations are waking up to the potential benefits of diversifying their energy mix with nuclear, which is increasingly seen as a reliable form of baseload power that isn’t weather-dependent. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia began the process of choosing a vendor for the construction of its first commercial nuclear power station with bids likely to come from South Korea, France, China and Russia. Riyadh wants to build two 1,400 MW nuclear power plants, a down-sized effort from an ambitious goal set in 2014 to build 16 units of about 1,000 MW each. Saudi Arabia said earlier this year it is aiming to take advantage of its significant uranium resources to develop a commercial nuclear power programme. The United Arab Emirates, another of the world’s largest oil producers, is already building four reactors at Barakah. Two units are operating and a third is due to begin operating soon.

Date: Tuesday, 10 January 2023
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