Uranium Week: The Future Of Nuclear Energy

Weekly Reports | Aug 15 2017

The International Atomic Energy Agency has projected global nuclear power growth, or lack thereof, out to 2050.

By Greg Peel

The conclusion of the International Atomic Energy Agency is that the long term potential for global nuclear power remains strong. Global expansion is nevertheless expected to slow in coming years, mainly due to the early retirement of, or lack of interest in extending the life of, legacy plants in various countries, given the reduced competitiveness of nuclear power and changes in the policies of several countries post-Fukushima.

A shift in policy away from nuclear power in countries such as Germany has come about since the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan brought the safety of nuclear reactors back into question for the first time since Chernobyl. If today’s advanced reactor designs can further improve both safety and waste management, the use of nuclear power could grow significantly, the IAEA suggests.

Also required is greater recognition of nuclear generation as a low-carbon power source. Nuclear “greenness” has always been a matter of debate. Once up and running, nuclear plants require small amounts of uranium to keep going and emit no carbon. However, nuclear power plants take several years to construct (significant emissions) and require a large initial amount of uranium to fire up, which has to be mined (significant emissions). It is the long life of a nuclear reactor which tips the balance towards “green” in the long term.

But gas-fired power generation, while not green but a lot greener than coal-fired, is a lot cheaper by comparison and can be switched on and off at will, unlike nuclear. It is the rise of gas-fired power and the cheapness of gas thanks to ever developing fracking technology that has led to the US nuclear power industry both shutting down legacy reactors and abandoning new projects despite billions having already been spent.

Wide Range

In terms of global nuclear power projections, the IAEA has offered a high case assumption and a low case assumption. The high case sees nuclear capacity rising by 42% to 2030 from the 2016 level, by 83% to 2040 and by 123% to 2050. These seem like very encouraging numbers for uranium miners. Until we see the low case.

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