Net-Zero for the Grid Not Possible Without Nuclear Energy, Analysts Say, an Industrial Info News Alert

SUGAR LAND, Texas--()--Researched by Industrial Info Resources--Decarbonization will remain largely out of reach in the power sector without nuclear energy, and trends are pointing to the emergence of smaller and cheaper reactors, analysts say.

Industrial Info is tracking 249 nuclear power units under development globally, with a combined capacity of more than 220 gigawatts. Of that, only around 10% of those units are planned for the U.S. energy sector for a combined 4.3 gigawatts of power.

As of 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated nuclear power accounted for about 10% of total electric power--and more than a quarter of the world's low-carbon electricity. Global nuclear capacity expanded 13% between 2012 and 2021, though North America was the only major region to see a decline in power generation as aging plants retire.

In the U.S. economy, nuclear power capacity appears at a standstill. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistical arm of the Department of Energy, showed renewable energy increases from 20% of total electricity generation in 2021 to 26% by next year. Coal declines from 23% in 2021 to 17% next year, though other sources are stable. Natural gas stays at around 37% next year, while nuclear power should account for 20% of the mix--unchanged from 2021 levels.

Congressional leaders, however, heard recently from representatives from the utility sector who said nuclear power was an essential part of the energy transition, though there are concerns about the pace of new developments.

Armond Cohen, the executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, told lawmakers that China is the only country building up any significant amounts of new nuclear energy capacity. For congressional leaders, meanwhile, nuclear energy and decarbonization go hand in hand.

"In order to achieve 100% decarbonization in the power sector while keeping prices low for consumers, we need reliable, carbon-free resources that can sustain output for long periods of time," said Frank Pallone (Democrat-New Jersey), the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, "Nuclear power can meet this test."

Development, however, is slow to non-existent. The retirement of the Palisades nuclear power facility in Michigan will be offset by some degree by the Vogtle plant in Georgia, which is expected to come online in July.

Vogtle marks the first addition to the U.S. nuclear power fleet since 2016, though it's already a half-decade late and two times over budget. Vogtle, meanwhile, is the only conventional nuclear power facility found in Industrial Info's list of upcoming U.S. projects.

Instead, nuclear is getting downsized. Most of the units coming online are small--less than 300 megawatts for small modular reactors (SMRs)--but they have their proponents.

"Small modular reactors are moving forward globally, but it will be later in the decade before we see any move to the construction stage," said Britt Burt, Industrial Info's vice president of research for the global Power Industry. "We are tracking about 20 in the USA and Canada in various stages of development."

Canada's provincial government in Alberta signed memoranda of understanding with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute to explore SMR technology in the province.

"SMR technology has great potential to supply non-emitting energy in many different industries and applications, including in Alberta's oilsands," the government said.

More than a decade after the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011, and amid concerns about the safety of Ukrainian facilities during a time of war, nuclear is making something of a comeback.

Germany is in the process of shutting down its three remaining nuclear power plants as it embraces conventional renewable energy strategies in pursuit of net-zero ambitions. But a mid-pandemic review from the IEA, however, found that nuclear energy was a "secure and reliable low-emission electricity," with 2021 marking the year for the second-highest annual additions over the last decade.

Small modular reactors are less expensive than their conventional counterparts, though they're not without problems. A study from Stanford and the University of British Columbia found SMRs release more nuclear waste than large-scale models.

"Our results show that most small modular reactor designs will actually increase the volume of nuclear waste in need of management and disposal, by factors of 2 to 30 for the reactors in our case study," said Stanford's Lindsay Krall, the lead author of the report. "These findings stand in sharp contrast to the cost and waste reduction benefits that advocates have claimed for advanced nuclear technologies."

Burt, however, said when it comes to net-zero ambitions, the power sector won't be able to decarbonize without nuclear power. While tax credits outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act do more to keep existing facilities from retiring, SMRs are catching on. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, could have 20 new small-scale facilities built by 2040.

"Bottom line, for the most part nuclear is not a fuel type that's getting a lot of attention from U.S. power generators; although it probably should be," added Joe Govreau, Industrial Info's vice president of research for the Metals & Minerals Industry.

Industrial Info Resources (IIR) is the leading provider of industrial market intelligence. Since 1983, IIR has provided comprehensive research, news and analysis on the industrial process, manufacturing and energy related industries. IIR's Global Market Intelligence (GMI) helps companies identify and pursue trends across multiple markets with access to real, qualified and validated plant and project opportunities. Across the world, IIR is tracking over 200,000 current and future projects worth $17.8 Trillion (USD).


Brian Ford


Brian Ford