Civilian Nuclear Power in 2021: Geopolitics, Climate Change, and Innovation

The year 2021 saw global developments in civilian nuclear power with important implications for geopolitical tensions, climate change goals and strategies, and competition in technological innovation.

An overall assessment is that considerable positive movement was evident in increased US and Western policy support and financing for nuclear power and in enhanced public-private partnerships for the research, development, and demonstration of new nuclear power technologies. Three basic realities continued however to challenge its future: (1) Russia and China are outpacing the West in building and exporting large, third-generation reactors; (2) nuclear plants continue to close early in the US and Western Europe, reducing a source of carbon free generation; (3) the readiness and economic competitiveness of new Small Modular Reactors (SMR) remains to be demonstrated. With the first units not slated for operation until 2028-29, SMRs cannot be expected to make much of an additional nuclear contribution to reducing GHG emissions in this critical decade on the path to net zero.

Geopolitical Tensions:

Geopolitical tensions between United States and Russia and China intensified in 2021 and as of this writing are at the highest levels since the Cold War. The new Biden Administration released in March 2021 its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance continuing the great power rivalry paradigm. The Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and Putin’s combative statements on maintaining “spheres of influence” were of special concern to both the US and NATO. Amid continuing and imminent threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and energy security, including Russia’s efforts to push through the Nord Stream II gas pipeline by-passing Ukraine, Westinghouse signed in November an agreement with Ukraine’s Energoatom to begin development of a Westinghouse-designed AP-1000 nuclear power plant for Khmelnitsky 4.

Russian pressure was also felt by the three Baltic states as they continued to work towards the disconnection of their electricity systems from the Russian IPS/UPS network and their synchronous interconnection with the European grid and ENTSO-E by 2025. In this context, Lithuania demonstrated its strong opposition to the newly operating, Russian-financed nuclear power plant at Ostrovets, imposing along with Latvia and Estonia restrictions on electricity imports from Belarus.

Although Russia's Rosatom is proceeding with the construction of the two VVER-1200 units at Paks 2 in Hungary, the United States and several EU states scaled up their efforts to limit further new Russian nuclear projects in Eastern Europe. The Czech government decided to proceed with a new nuclear unit at Dukovany and excluded both Russian and Chinese companies in the lead up to a planned tender. Meanwhile, both Romania and Bulgaria concluded cooperation agreements with Western nuclear companies with the Romanian Parliament approving a major program to upgrade and complete units at the Chernovoda NPP. Poland continued to pursue its plans for up to six nuclear plants in 2030 in close collaboration with United States and French companies and governments.

Russia however retained its position as the leader in international nuclear power project development and finance although China is building domestically more nuclear power units than any other country. Rosatom and other Russian state companies now are involved in overseas construction of new reactors in Egypt (Dabaa 1&2); India (Kudankulum 5); Belarus (Ostrovets 2); Bangladesh (Rooppar 1&2); Turkey (Akkuyu – four units); China (Tiansan –four units); Hungary (Pak2); Slovakia (Mochovce 3&4); and soon Uzbekistan and possibly Finland (Hanhikivi), providing external financing of as much as $100 billion.

China’s international nuclear power presence is currently limited, but they continue to look for opportunities to market their Hualong One (HPR-1000) 1000 MW system. Two units of this design were completed in Pakistan and two in China during 2021. Although a decision to proceed with such a plant in the United Kingdom is unlikely, the UK nuclear regulator did given approval of the HPR-1000 design. But in South America after several years of delay, a new agreement was recently reached between the China National Nuclear Corp. and Nucleoelectrica of Argentina for the construction of a Hualong One at the Atucha III site.

The only nuclear units with Western technology completed in 2021 were South Korean APR-1400 units at Barakat in the United Arab Emirates, although the Olkiluoto 3 (OL3) EPR plant in Finland reached critically and is expected to be commissioned soon. The two Westinghouse AP-1000 units at Vogtle-3&4 in the United States and the EDF EPR unit at Flamanville-3 in France are still not yet operational.

Climate Change Goals and Strategies

With the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement and the COP26 convening in Glasgow in November, the year saw increasing attention to climate change and growing policy support for nuclear power as an important means of producing carbon-free energy. Notably, President Macron of France reversed his position on phase out and embraced new nuclear power development in line with positions of Eastern European EU members pushing Brussels to include nuclear in the EU Taxonomy of Sustainable Investments. A decision on a the EC Commission’s Complementary Delegated Act which would allow both nuclear and natural gas under certain conditions is expected soon by EU legislators.

In the United States, the Biden Administration proposed a record $1.8 billion budget for nuclear power, signed into law the bipartisan infrastructure bill with important provisions sustaining existing units and spurring innovation, and stepped up its international nuclear initiatives, including activities by the US Export-Import Bank, US Development Finance Corporation, and the US Trade and Development Agency. A $25 million Nuclear Futures Package was announced by the United States Department of State at COP26 which will provide technical and capacity-building assistance to countries interested in developing nuclear power.

Spiking natural gas prices and supply constraints, especially in Europe as Russia reduced gas supplies, fostered an increase in coal consumption and higher emissions, including in the US and Europe. Leading coal consuming countries, China and India continued their energy diversification programs and had 25 reactors under construction, along with their huge renewable energy development efforts. But nuclear remained at less than 5% of their electricity generation.

Competition in Technological Innovation

Although 53 large reactors were under construction as of mid-2021, many countries are now looking to SMRs as they consider their future clean energy investments.

The United States is emerging as a leader in developing and demonstrating SMR technologies. NuScale continued its development of a commercial demonstration of its advanced 77MW, multi-module LWR with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS in Idaho and signed several international cooperation agreements. X-Energy is pursuing a demonstration of its high temperature gas cooled reactor in Washington State while TerraPower/ GE-Hitachi announced plans for a project with their sodium-cooled Natrium system near a retiring coal plant in Wyoming. All three companies were awarded funding from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

Canada continued to implement its comprehensive SMR Action plan for both SMRs and MNRs (micro nuclear reactors for remote areas). Saskatchewan Province joined the pact with Ontario and New Brunswick for planning new SMRS. In December, Ontario Power made an important decision to proceed with GE-Hitachi on a BWRX-300 unit at its Darlington nuclear complex.

In Europe, the UK, in addition to huge financial support for the Hinkley C EPR, made an enhanced commitment to advance SMRs, including financing for a Rolls Royce consortium, which announced plans to build 16 SMRs, 80% of which could be sourced from suppliers in the United Kingdom. France’s SMR program received a boost from President Macron’s announcement of a $1.2 billion commitment under its $35 billion Industrial Investment Plan that includes support for green hydrogen.

This burst of nuclear power technology innovation and policy support in 2021 was impressive, especially given the larger economic and covid-19 environment. These new technologies are coming by the end of the decade. Having them ready for a safe takeoff in the 2030s will be vital to enhancing longer-term energy security and tackling the twin challenges of global climate change and sustainable global development.

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