The nature of energy supply is changing and changing fast. Nuclear technology must also evolve if it wishes to survive, or so the argument goes. However, change takes many forms and as we race to introduce new reactor designs we shouldn’t necessarily hasten to discount the old.

It is true that many electricity markets are undergoing radical transformations at the moment, most notably through the rapid increase in renewable and gas-fired generation. Arguably less clear is just how global these trends really are and how lasting they will prove to be. This uncertainty must be considered by nuclear innovators, since in addition to the risks of possible obsolescence there are serious risks in adapting for the ‘wrong’ future. Certain energy visions, and especially those based around narrow preconceptions, are not as robust as many people think. It can also be argued that at least some of the economic and acceptance challenges currently facing today’s nuclear technology require policy-led solutions, rather than more advanced reactors.

Nuclear energy facilities are long-term investments, but uncertainty about the future energy landscape should not jeopardise the expansion of this crucial low-carbon energy source.

Room for improvement

Today’s nuclear power plants can achieve availability factors of over 95% and produce emissions-free electricity at costs typically lower than those of fossil plants. Modern reactor designs have become very large (over 1000 MWe) and offer improved operational economics and reliability compared to older ones. They are engineering marvels and the issues they face relate mostly to their constructability, rather than their expected performance. Serious delays and cost over-runs have been encountered during the construction of recent reactor projects in Western countries, namely Finland, France and the USA. However, in other countries projects are being delivered more-or-less on time and budget and an increasing number of emerging economies are starting to build them.

Rather than being ‘old’ – as it is often characterised by opponents – nuclear counts among the very youngest of energy technologies. The first man-made sustained nuclear reaction only took place in 1942. By contrast, fossil fuels have been widely used since the industrial revolution, wind and water energy have been powering human activities for thousands of years, and the first solar cell may be traced back to the 19th century. Nuclear technology is still in its infancy and the potential for improvement is vast.

There is little doubt that advanced reactor technologies will one day change the face of nuclear energy. Some offer to potentially radically increase the available fuel resource and will operate with greater efficiency, ultimately reducing waste and environmental impact. Others are inherently more flexible, opening up new market niches and applications for nuclear technology. Unfortunately, these advanced reactor designs often over-shadow the many amazing innovations which have more immediate bearing on the climate and energy debate. These effect current reactor designs and span the whole nuclear fuel cycle and life cycle.

What really leaps out is the amount of crossover. Breakthroughs in other sectors and basic materials have opened up the potential for improvements in many areas of nuclear performance. The reverse is also true, with nuclear research leading to spinoff technologies and sometimes even fundamental physical insights, for example in fusion research. Many of these innovations act to increase the energy output from the existing reactor fleet, or to extend plant operating lifetimes.

This last point especially tends to confuse many participants in the innovation discourse, since they assume that innovation must always be ‘disruptive’ and means replacing the old with the new – rather than operating existing technologies for longer and more efficiently. It also means that advanced reactor designers face a tough source of competition in established nuclear markets. It is much cheaper to extend the operating lifetime of an existing nuclear plant than build a new one. This leads one to consider whether certain advanced reactor designs should perhaps be prioritised and what needs to be done to help them become commercial realities sooner.

Nuclear energy is in fact evolving faster than most people realise, although not always in the way they expect. Innovation continues to yield better performance and longer operation of valuable assets. Advanced reactors will one day change the face of nuclear energy, but countries need not wait for them before committing to this vital climate-saving technology.