Nuclear energy report shows progress is two steps forward, one step back

By Robin Bromby – May 20, 2020

Uranium mining hopefuls are fond of tables showing how many reactors are operating around the world and — even more exciting — how many are in construction, being planned or being thought about.

The picture from the 2020 annual report of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) reveals a situation where, yes, there are more nuclear reactors coming on stream — but also, some producers are pulling out of the sector.

Fortunately for the uranium miners and the proponents of nuclear-produced electricity — the only base load option that is emission-free — the gains outnumber the losses.

The NEA report sets out a detailed account of developments through 2019 that fills in the background to the headline reactor number figures.

As at 31 December 2019, 449 power reactors were operational worldwide, between them capable of producing 399 gigawatts of electricity.

Six new reactors connected in 2019

The year saw six new reactors connected to a power grid — four in NEA member countries (three in Russia and one in South Korea) and the other two in China.

Two of the Russian ones were small, 35-megawatt modular reactors on a floating barge, the Akademic Lomonosov, designed to be towed to remote locations and provide power and heat; in this case, it was towed above the Arctic coast to the city of Pevek in Siberia.

The reactors began generating power last December to be followed by connection to the local heat grid.

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The end of the year saw 52 reactors under construction, with projects begun during the year located in China, Iran, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Russia is the most active of the NEA members with five plants at present under construction.

Argentina last year completed refurbishing its Embalse nuclear power plant and it is back with generating capacity of 683MW and an expected life of 30 years. Argentina and China continued talks on Beijing providing finance for a new 1,150MW reactor.

Several European countries expanding nuclear

The Czech Republic decided in 2019 to increase nuclear capacity by 40%, giving preliminary approval for one planned reactor.

Finland’s newest nuclear reactor, Olkiluoto 3, was due to have its nuclear fuel loaded next month but this has been delayed by the COVID-19 prevention measures. The country is planning to phase out all coal-burning power plants by 2029.

France, a country heavily reliant on nuclear energy (about 75% in its case), is this year starting research and development on a new generation of reactors. The new Flamanville 3 reactor was completed last year.

During the year, Japan saw plans to build a new nuclear power station at Aomori, while Tohoku Electric got the green light to restart Onagawa 2, one of the reactors that closed after the Fukushima disaster.

Other countries that began work on new plants or plan for them, or decided in 2019 to refit old ones, included Poland, Hungary, Romania and Brazil, while India announced plans to build 21 new reactors.

Belgium, Spain seek to abandon nuclear

On the negative side, Belgium plans to shut down all of its seven operating reactors (which provide 50% of the country’s electricity) by 2025, with the first closure in 2022. Belgium will need to build at least five gas plants and greatly expand wind power generation to ensure sufficient electricity supply in a post-nuclear country.

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Spain drafted its new national energy and climate plan in 2019 which includes the phasing out of all nuclear plants by 2035. Nuclear at present provides about 20% of the country’s electricity.

Plant operators have agreed to meet the deadline and to decommission the nuclear waste agency, Enresa.

Spain has seven nuclear reactors in service.

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