future of atom

New Nuclear Power Plants: This Is Where the Future of Nuclear Energy Is Decided

Outside of Germany, nuclear power is currently experiencing a renaissance. But satellite images show that the construction of new power plants does not always go smoothly. Hope rests on a new technology.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Florian Güßgen“. Access the original article here.

A spoiler in advance. There are no pictures of German nuclear power plants to be seen here. How could there be? Germany wants out of nuclear power, that’s decided and sealed, isn’t it?

In other countries, however, nuclear power is not as frowned upon as it is here. On the contrary. There, at least in public statements, it’s currently undergoing a veritable renaissance. Suddenly, nuclear energy is no longer seen as a planet-destroying fire hazard, but as a climate-saving clean energy. France, for example, traditionally a friend of all things nuclear, sees nuclear energy essentially as green energy, and would even like the European Union to see it that way, so that it can then better attract investor funds. Great Britain, which got out of coal early, relies on wind power, but doesn’t want to rely on it, is also flirting with new piles. And Eastern European countries anyway. They also want to get away from dirty coal, but they certainly don’t want to become dependent on Russian natural gas. As far as nuclear power is concerned, things are pretty relaxed outside Europe anyway. China, at least, loves the nuclear option – and so does the USA.

A look at a few nuclear power plants currently under construction with exclusive satellite images from LiveEO shows one thing above all: construction is taking longer than building Berlin Airport and costs are skyrocketing. Example number one: the Flamanville nuclear power plant in Normandy, which is being built by the French energy company EDF: A billion-dollar grave. Originally, the power plant was supposed to cost 3.3 billion euros. When it goes online in 2023, eleven years behind schedule, the cost will have risen to 19 billion euros.

  • flamanville nuclear power plant
  • flamanville nuclear power plant
  • flamanville nuclear power plant

The situation is hardly any different with the Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, England, in which the French operator EDF also has a stake. It is building the plant of the so-called EPR type with a Chinese partner. The output of the new plant in southwest England is to be around 3200 megawatts.

According to current estimates, the plant, which is scheduled for completion in 2026, will cost around 27 billion euros – twice as much as assumed in the initial plans in 2008.

  • hinkley point c nuclear power plant
  • hinkley point c nuclear power plant
  • hinkley point c nuclear power plant
  • hinkley point c nuclear power plant

Because comparable large-scale projects, for example on the island of Olkiluoto off the west coast of Finland, tend to have a deterrent effect, the trend is also toward the so-called mini-nuclear power plant, the SMR NPP. SMR stands for Small Modular Reactors. These SMRs generate up to 300 megawatts of power. Larger nuclear power plants can generate more than 1000 megawatts.

Mini power plant? What initially sounds like putting a radiant, cute garden gnome behind your house is seen by many as the great opportunity for a renaissance of nuclear power. Proponents of small nuclear power plants see them as a complement to a strategy that in principle relies on renewable energies. But when renewables fail to deliver enough solar or wind power, for example because of the notorious dark doldrums, another energy source must step in. Coal. Gas. Or nuclear energy.

The small power plants would have many advantages, argue their proponents, including those from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): The power plants would be small and require much less space than conventional nuclear power plants. They are modular, the individual components can be prefabricated in factories and then assembled on site. All this makes these reactors very flexible, experts emphasize. They can also stand in flexibly in the event of slack periods. 84 reactors are under construction in 18 countries, the agency reported, with a total of 70 different types of mini-nuclear power plants being developed.

Akademik Lomonosov arrived in Pevekakademik lomonosov nuclear power plant
Akademik Lomonosov nuclear power plant, Pevek, Russia
03.06.2018 (left picture): Only recently the Akademik Lomonosov arrived in Pevek.
18.09.2021 (right image): The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) considers the ship to be the world’s first SMR power plant.

Russia, for example, has developed the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating SMR. It is anchored in the Arctic Ocean, not far from the town of Pelenek, as satellite images show. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it is the first SMR power plant. SMR supporters argue that, on balance, the mini-versions are cheaper than larger nuclear power plants. The cost of a 300-megawatt power plant is estimated at one billion euros. The costs for larger power plants are exploding, as the examples of Flamanville or Hinkley Point C show.

In the UK, Rolls Royce has entered the mini-nuclear business and is hoping for government help. And in China, too, development work is in full swing. As recently as October, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) announced that the foundation for the SMR ACP100, a demonstration project, had been laid in Hainan Province. The ACP100 is expected to be the first commercial mini power plant built on land. 125 power is to be generated by the power plant.

changjiang nuclear power plantchangjiang nuclear power plant
Changjiang nuclear power plant, China
24.09.2020 (left picture): Here in China, a demonstration project for SMR power plants is to be built.
01.11.2021 and 07.11.2021 (right picture): In the meantime, some structures of the future power plant can already be seen on the construction site. (The image was cropped from two shots taken earlier this month due to cloud cover).

In the USA, interest is also huge. Politically, U.S. President Joe Biden supports the further development of small nuclear power plants, and financially, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is betting on this technology to advance the fight against climate change.

And, of course, France is fully back on the nuclear track, despite doubts in the meantime. President Emmanuel Macron has just announced the “France 2030” plan, and by 2030 he wants to invest one billion euros in mini power plants. So does the future look like the past? Nuclear, only smaller?

The critics cannot follow the arguments of the nuclear friends. While there would be less nuclear material in each reactor, they say, safety precautions would not be comparable to those at larger power plants. Moreover, in the event of an accident, the effect of the nuclear material could be multiplied. Costs are miscalculated in two ways, he said. Lower initial costs could only be achieved if the mini-nuclear power plants were produced in large numbers. And if the final disposal of the nuclear materials is included in the costs, the prices would explode anyway. After all, such nuclear materials would have to be controlled for several hundred thousand years – for contemporaries, a period of time that is quite difficult to keep track of. An expert report for the Federal Office for Nuclear Waste Disposal Safety also states that in order to generate the same electrical output worldwide as with today’s new nuclear power plants, a number of plants many times larger would be required. “Instead of today’s circa 400 large-capacity reactors, this would therefore mean the construction of many thousands to tens of thousands of SMR plants.”

Even though more supporters of nuclear power are now coming out of the woodwork again in Germany, those who matter are rejecting a renewed debate: the companies in the energy industry and, above all, the operators of the six remaining nuclear power plants, Eon, RWE and EnbW. “Starting a debate shortly before shutdown in Germany about whether nuclear power plants make an important contribution to climate protection is disconcerting,” Eon CEO Leonhard Birnbaum told Handelsblatt: “It comes far too late and benefits no one.” And this rejection seems to apply to all nuclear power plants, large and small.

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