Amongst the growth of the renewable energy sector and the negative coverage surrounding the industry, it hasn't been plain sailing for the nuclear power sector of late. However, is the negativity surrounding the industry justified? Looking behind the headlines and scratching the surface on the performance of the nuclear sector is HTL Group, a hydraulic torque wrench specialist.
Nuclear power today
Our global dependence on nuclear power has grown in recent years. According to the World Nuclear Performance Report 2017, created by the World Nuclear Association, the world's new nuclear capacity experienced its largest annual increase in 25 years back in 2016, as more than 9 GWe of new nuclear capacity was made available. The number of reactors increased globally, from 441 at the start of 2016 to 448 at the turn of 2017.
Turning our attention to 2017, 21% of the UK's electricity is generated from 15 nuclear reactors, which have a current combined capacity of 9.5 GWe. Despite this, there are plans for half of this capacity to be retired by 2025, largely a result of aging reactors. New generation plants will be created in their place and are expected to come online by 2025. By 2030, the government aims to have 16 GWe of new nuclear capacity in operation.
A global picture
For the fourth consecutive year, global nuclear generation rose in 2016, weighing in at 2441 TWh. Asia's share of nuclear output rose most significantly in 2016 — 72 TWh higher than the average growth across the previous five years.
In April 2017, a further 60 new nuclear power plants were under construction in 15 countries. Of the ten reactors that were connected to the grid in 2016, half were constructed in China. India, South Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the USA each connected one reactor.
In terms of speed of constructing and building, China had the best performance — five of the six reactors that were built in the shortest time were built in China.
Issues impacting the nuclear power sector
In 2011, a nine magnitude earthquake and tsunami shook Japan, sending three of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors into melt-down. The event naturally shocked the world, triggering many governments — not just Japan's — to rethink their attitudes to nuclear power.
Before the accident, there were 442 nuclear reactors in the world, producing 14% of the global electricity output. In the aftermath of the event in 2012, 15 reactors exited service and electricity production fell to 11%.
The disaster naturally threw a spanner in the works for nuclear power as an industry, as Japan, Germany and Switzerland rethought their nuclear plans in wake of the event. Switzerland even vowed to phase out its nuclear production by 2034. To this day, many are still not convinced about the potential offered by nuclear power, due to safety concerns around meltdowns and how waste is disposed of.
However, not all countries reacted in the same way following the Fukushima disaster. With their determination unwavering, France and the USA all endeavoured to continue their reliance on the power source. Likewise, by 2050, India aims to supply 25% and Russia 45% of their electricity from nuclear power. In addition, Brazil plans on building five new nuclear reactors by 2030, while China plans to operate 20 nuclear reactors by 2020.
Addressing the issue
Clearly, while some are cautious of its use, others fully support nuclear power. However, before the sector can move forward, considerations must be made to address its existing drawbacks.
Compare the build-time for a nuclear power plant against building a renewable energy alternative, such as a wind farm. Nuclear power plants can take between five and 20 years to build — or sometimes more. In contrast, a large wind farm (50 MW) can be constructed in just six months. We need to bridge this construction time gap without compromising on safety, or at the very least, get to a point where nuclear power stations are built at such a rate that they're able to better support the UK's energy use.
One of the main benefits of nuclear power is the reduction in carbon emissions it can help deliver. However, for the UK to get the greatest benefit from emissions reductions, we need to make a decision around how we can best make use of nuclear power. Only then can nuclear power sway its critics and help us move forward.