Nuclear energy has faced serious challenges in recent years because of several factors: competition from low gas prices, subsidised renewables and slow growth in electricity demand in certain markets. But because of several powerful forces we are seeing signs that this year nuclear energy will come roaring back, writes Jarret Adams.
Several nuclear plants have closed prematurely in the United States, and other shutdowns have been announced. But in every instance, the nuclear plant closures have led to higher emissions and electricity prices, pointing out a difficult truth.
Experts say it is virtually impossible for a major economy to have a reliable, low-carbon grid without nuclear energy. The Germans are learning this lesson the hard way.
Wave of new plants on the horizon
With more than 50 nuclear plants under construction today and 150 more planned, the pace of construction is faster than at any time since the 1990s. This year we expect to see 14 new plants come online, with some key new-generation plants, such as Westinghouse's AP1000 and Framatome's EPR, both in China, expected at or near completion.
The first of four APR1400 reactors in the United Arab Emirates, built by Korea's Kepco, is nearing completion largely on time and on budget. This clearly demonstrates there is nothing inherent about nuclear that prevents this technology from being built economically and on a predictable timeline.
Nuclear giants reorganising
Meanwhile some of the biggest players in the nuclear sector have reorganised to come out leaner and meaner to tackle the global market.
• The restructuring of the former Areva into Framatome and Orano is complete, with the world's largest nuclear plant operator EDF taking ownership of Framatome, which focuses on reactors, fuel fabrication and services. With new international partners and French government investment, Orano is in a stronger position to keep its focus on uranium mining, enrichment, recycling and decommissioning.
• Brookfield Asset Partners of Canada has agreed to buy Westinghouse Electric Company, which analysts say will help the company finalise some of the international deals it has been pursuing.
• Meanwhile, the China National Nuclear Company (CNNC), China's second largest reactor owner, merged with China Nuclear Equipment Company (CNEC) to create another powerhouse with 100,000 employees-strong aimed at the export market.
With the reorganisation of these companies behind them, we can expect to see some major nuclear energy agreements this year.
Nuclear's climate role becoming impossible to ignore
Another driver is the increasing threat of climate change, which is motivating countries to invest in new nuclear projects or at least keep existing plants operating. Nuclear energy is the largest source of emission-free power in the United States, the European Union, South Korea and other countries.
Why are emissions per capita far lower in France than in neighboring Germany? One word: nuclear. While nuclear supplies about 75% of France's electricity, Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear plants.
Thanks to its high concentrations of nuclear and hydro, Ontario, Canada has largely decarbonised its grid - and shut its last coal-fired plant in 2014.
According to James Hansen, one of the world's leading thinkers on climate, and three other experts: "Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change."
Avoiding a gas bubble
The low price of natural gas has helped it replace coal as the largest source of power generation in the United States, which is good from an emissions perspective. But when gas plants replace nuclear ones, emissions go up. Decarbonizing the grid means all fossil generation will have to capture its emissions.
Our growing reliance on gas, ramping up of exports and difficulty of pipeline construction raise other questions. Driven by increased domestic oil and gas production, the United States expects to become a net energy exporter by 2022, which is expected to pay huge economic and geopolitical dividends.
Gas proponents say prices will stay low indefinitely, but price spikes have happened before. When you consider the next three largest gas producers after the United States are Russia, Iran and Qatar, what could go wrong?
Innovation is helping nuclear energy become more competitive with other energy sources, such as advanced reactors or fuel designs. Advanced reactor plants use different technologies, such as molten salt or high-temperature gas, that will make them safer and less expensive to build.
Whether they use alternative approaches or traditional light water designs, the trend is toward small modular reactors (SMRs) that suppliers can build in a factory and deliver to plant sites. Many more are flocking to this space - Third Way reports the number of North American advanced nuclear companies is up by 56% over the past three years.
Whatever happens, rising demand for reliable, emission-free power is on the horizon. A lot depends on whether the nuclear energy sector can seize this opportunity.
Jarret Adams is founder and CEO of Full On Communications, a public affairs and strategic communications consultancy focused on the nuclear energy sector.