The 'advanced' nuclear power sector isn't advanced ‒ it is dystopian (see the article in this issue of Nuclear Monitor). And it isn't advancing, thankfully. Many 'advanced' reactor projects are promoted ‒ there are lists of them, even lists of lists1 ‒ but meaningful funding, from governments and industry alike, is lacking.2 Kevin Anderson, Project Director for Nuclear Energy Insider, noted earlier this year that there "is unprecedented growth in companies proposing design alternatives for the future of nuclear, but precious little progress in terms of market-ready solutions."3
In the US, even if all the private-sector Generation IV R&D funding was pooled together (an estimated US$1.3 billion4), it is unlikely that it would suffice to build a single prototype reactor. An article by pro-nuclear researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2018, argues that no US advanced reactor design will be commercialized before mid-century and that purported benefits remain "speculative".4
A 2015 report by the French government's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) states: "There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen."5 IRSN is also skeptical about safety claims: "At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors ... "5
The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July 2015 on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other 'advanced' reactor concepts in the US.6 The report concluded:
"While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges. Both SMRs and advanced reactors require additional technical and engineering work to demonstrate reactor safety and economics ... Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels ... Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process, with costs up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design, and there is an additional construction cost of several billion dollars more per power plant."
The 2015/16 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission concluded:7
"[A]dvanced fast reactors or reactors with other innovative designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in South Australia in the foreseeable future. No licensed and commercially proven design is currently operating. Development to that point would require substantial capital investment. Moreover, the electricity generated has not been demonstrated to be cost-competitive with current light water reactor designs."
Fusion will likely never be commercialized. Commenting on problems with the supply and usage of both tritium and deuterium fuel, the sizable problem of parasitic energy consumption, and the inevitability that fusion reactors would share many of the drawbacks of fission reactors, fusion scientist Dr. Daniel Jassby states:8
"These impediments ‒ together with colossal capital outlay and several additional disadvantages shared with fission reactors ‒ will make fusion reactors more demanding to construct and operate, or reach economic practicality, than any other type of electrical energy generator. The harsh realities of fusion belie the claims of its proponents of "unlimited, clean, safe and cheap energy.""
Thorium is a very long way from commercial deployment.9 A 2012 report by the UK National Nuclear Laboratory states "more work is needed at the fundamental level to establish the basic knowledge and understanding", "thorium reprocessing and waste management are poorly understood", and the thorium fuel cycle "cannot be considered to be mature in any area."10 The World Nuclear Association notes that the commercialization of thorium fuels faces some "significant hurdles" and a "great deal of testing, analysis and licensing and qualification work is required before any thorium fuel can enter into service. This is expensive and will not eventuate without a clear business case and government support."11
While there is a great deal of hype about small modular reactors (SMRs) from the nuclear industry and its enthusiasts, informed opinion is skeptical. For example, a 2017 Lloyd's Register report was based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and manufacturers who predict that SMRs have a "low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive".12 The OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency estimates a very modest <1 to 21 gigawatts of worldwide SMR capacity by 203513 (by which time, at the current rate of installation, an additional 2500‒3000 GW of new renewable capacity will have been installed).
The slow death of fast reactors
The prospects for fast reactor technology ‒ the most significant sub-set of 'advanced' nuclear concepts ‒ have arguably never been bleaker. The number of operating fast reactors reached double figures in the late 1970s but has steadily fallen and will remain in single figures for the foreseeable future. Currently, just five fast reactors are operating ‒ all of them described by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors.14
The historical pattern strongly suggests that fast reactors are on the way out, not on a pathway to becoming "mainstream" as the World Nuclear Association claims:14
1976 ‒ 7 operable fast reactors
1986 ‒ 11
1996 ‒ 7
2006 ‒ 6
2019 ‒ 5
One country after another has abandoned fast reactor technology. Nuclear physicist Thomas Cochran summarizes the history: "Fast reactor development programs failed in the: 1) United States; 2) France; 3) United Kingdom; 4) Germany; 5) Japan; 6) Italy; 7) Soviet Union/Russia 8) U.S. Navy and 9) the Soviet Navy. The program in India is showing no signs of success and the program in China is only at a very early stage of development."15
The Russian government recently clawed back US$4 billion from Rosatom's budget by postponing its already-glacial fast neutron reactor program; specifically, by deferring hold plans for what would have been the only gigawatt-scale fast neutron reactor anywhere in the world.16 Construction of a lead-cooled fast reactor (BREST-300) was scheduled for 2016 but construction has not yet begun.17 Plans for a SVBR-100 lead-bismuth cooled fast reactor have been abandoned.17
France recently abandoned plans for a demonstration fast reactor18 and the pursuit of fast reactor technology in France is no longer a priority according to the World Nuclear Association.19
France's disinterest in fast reactors extends to other Generation IV concepts. French nuclear agency CEA says that "industrial development of fourth-generation reactors is not planned before the second half of this century."18
Other fast reactor projects have collapsed in recent years. TerraPower abandoned its plan for a prototype fast reactor in China last year due to restrictions placed on nuclear trade with China by the Trump administration20, and requests for US government funding to support its fast reactor R&D have reportedly received a negative reception.21
The plan for a 'versatile test reactor' to advance fast reactor technology in the US has not yet collapsed but probably will22, as was the case with the 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project' initiated in 2005 but abandoned in 2011 because of an impasse between government and industry over cost-sharing arrangements.23
The US and UK governments have both considered using GE Hitachi's 'PRISM' fast reactor technology to process surplus plutonium stocks ‒ but both governments have rejected the proposal.24 China's fast reactor program is rudimentary and underperforming; India's is troubled and underperforming.25
Fast reactor technology has been around since the dawn of the nuclear age and is best described as failed Generation I technology ‒ "demonstrably failed technology" in the words of Prof. Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.26
An existential crisis?
The situation for fast reactor technology could hardly be bleaker. The 'advanced' nuclear sector more generally faces a bleak future... and so does the conventional nuclear power industry. A sober assessment published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science last year concluded that it is most unlikely that any new large nuclear power plants will be built over the next several decades in the US; no US advanced reactor design will be commercialized before mid-century; and establishing an SMR industry would require subsidies amounting to several hundred billion dollars over the next several decades.4
Westinghouse neatly illustrates the nuclear industry's existential crisis. The company has designed small, medium and large-sized reactors over the past two decades:
- Its SMR program is modest and will likely be abandoned in the absence of ongoing government subsidies.
- The plan for medium-sized reactors was abandoned without a ball being bowled.27
- The catastrophic failure of AP1000 projects in South Carolina (abandoned after the expenditure of at least $US9 billion) and Georgia (the cost estimate for two reactors under construction has doubled to US$27‒30+ billion) bankrupted Westinghouse and almost bankrupted its parent company Toshiba.
The efforts of Westinghouse and Toshiba to profit from the 'nuclear renaissance' could hardly have ended any more disastrously.
With the aging of the global reactor fleet, the International Atomic Energy Agency expects that more than 80% of nuclear power capacity to be shut down by 2050.28 It seems increasingly unlikely that nuclear new-build will match closures over that period. And it seems most unlikely that 'advanced' nuclear will come to the rescue.
2. See for example: Nuclear Monitor #872‒873, 7 March 2019, 'No-one wants to pay for SMRs: US and UK case studies', https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/872-873/no-one-wants-pay-s...
3. Nuclear Energy Insider, 2019, 'The time is now – build the investment case to scale SMR', https://www.nuclearenergyinsider.com/international-smr-advanced-reactor
4. M. Granger Morgan, Ahmed Abdulla, Michael J. Ford, and Michael Rath, July 2018 'US nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge', Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/06/26/1804655115)
5. Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, 2015, 'Review of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems', www.irsn.fr/EN/newsroom/News/Pages/20150427_Generation-IV-nuclear-energy... Direct download: www.irsn.fr/EN/newsroom/News/Documents/IRSN_Report-GenIV_04-2015.pdf
6. U.S. Government Accountability Office, July 2015, 'Nuclear Reactors: Status and challenges in development and deployment of new commercial concepts', GAO-15-652, www.gao.gov/assets/680/671686.pdf
8. Daniel Jassby, 19 April 2017, 'Fusion reactors: Not what they're cracked up to be', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/2017/04/fusion-reactors-not-what-theyre-cracked-...
9. Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015, 'Thor-bores and uro-sceptics: thorium's friendly fire', https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/801/thor-bores-and-uro...
10. UK National Nuclear Laboratory Ltd., 5 March 2012, 'Comparison of thorium and uranium fuel cycles', www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/11/meeting-energy-demand/nuclear/6300-compar...
12. Lloyd's Register, February 2017, 'Technology Radar – A Nuclear Perspective: Executive summary', https://www.lr.org/en/latest-news/technology-radar-low-carbon/
See also: World Nuclear News, 9 Feb 2017, Nuclear more competitive than fossil fuels: report', http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/EE-Nuclear-more-competitive-than-fossi...
13. OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, 2016, 'Small Modular Reactors: Nuclear Energy Market Potential for Near-term Deployment', https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2016/7213-smrs.pdf
14. World Nuclear Association, Sept 2016, 'Fast Neutron Reactors', https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-gen...
15. International Panel on Fissile Materials, 17 Feb 2010, 'History and status of fast breeder reactor programs worldwide', http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr08.pdf
16. World Nuclear Association, 13 August 2019, 'Rosatom postpones fast reactor project, report says', http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Rosatom-postpones-fast-reacto...
18. Reuters, 30 Aug 2019, 'France drops plans to build sodium-cooled nuclear reactor', https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-nuclearpower-astrid/france-dro...
19. World Nuclear Association, June 2019, 'Nuclear Power in France', https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/count...
20. Reuters, 2 Jan 2019, 'Bill Gates' nuclear venture hits snag amid U.S. restrictions on China deals: WSJ', https://www.reuters.com/article/us-terrapower-china/bill-gates-nuclear-v...
21. Dan Yurman, 10 Feb 2019, 'Why are so many firms investing in new uranium fuel projects?', https://neutronbytes.com/2019/02/10/why-are-so-many-firms-investing-in-n...
22. Ed Lyman, 15 Feb 2018, 'The "Versatile Fast Neutron Source": A Misguided Nuclear Reactor Project', https://allthingsnuclear.org/elyman/a-misguided-nuclear-reactor-project
23. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, accessed 20 May 2019, 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP)', https://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/advanced/ngnp.html
24. See Appendix 3 in: Australian environment groups and conservation councils, Sept 2019, Submission to the Federal Parliament's Standing Committee on Environment and Energy, 'Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia', https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019-Federal-Nuclear-Inqui...
25. See Appendix 2 in: Australian environment groups and conservation councils, Sept 2019, Submission to the Federal Parliament's Standing Committee on Environment and Energy, 'Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia', https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019-Federal-Nuclear-Inqui...
On China's program see also: https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/The-World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-Rep...
26. Stephen Stapczynski and Emi Urabe, 1 June 2016, 'Japan's Nuclear Holy Grail Slips Away With Operator Elusive', http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-31/nuclear-holy-grail-sli...
27. W.E. Cummins, M.M. Corletti, T.L. Schulz / Westinghouse Electric Company, 2003, 'Westinghouse AP1000 Advanced Passive Plant', http://nuclearinfo.net/twiki/pub/Nuclearpower/WebHomeCostOfNuclearPower/...
28. International Atomic Energy Agency, 28 July 2017, 'International Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power 2017: Report by the Director General', www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC61/GC61InfDocuments/English/gc61inf-8_en.pdf