An Iranian nuclear power plant has been shut down due to a technical fault. The Bushehr facility has been off-grid for several days and the national electricity company is calling on Iranians to minimise their electricity consumption. Repairs may not be finished until Friday. As global nuclear capacity grows, the Bushehr facility’s ongoing difficulties should serve as a reminder of the unique risks associated with nuclear power.

Nuclear power is uniquely risky power source

The catastrophic damage nuclear power accidents can cause is widely known. The Chernobyl disaster is the most infamous case. Consequently, nuclear’s ‘social license to operate’ is more fragile than that of any other power source. Public opinion will oppose nuclear operations at the first sign of danger, and nuclear power projects must proactively assuage fears of disaster. The 2011 Fukushima disaster was caused by an earthquake and tsunami. Several countries bordering Iran have expressed concerns about earthquakes causing radioactive leaks at the Bushehr facility. After a 5.9-magnitude earthquake in April, Bushehr officials reported that the facility had sustained no damage.

In addition to its inherent risk, nuclear facilities also attract external risk from malicious actors. The Bushehr facility was repeatedly attacked in the Iran-Iraq war. Saboteurs know that an effective attack on a nuclear facility can cause massive fallout. Last year, the Natanz atomic plant was allegedly sabotaged. Today, when war increasingly occurs in cyberspace, nuclear facilities will doubtless be a target for hacking agents. And if nuclear operators follow the industry trend and improve operations through the installation of internet of things (IoT) sensors and the use of machine learning algorithms, they must be extremely careful with their cybersecurity: every new sensor is a new potential entry point for hackers. Finally, two of Iran’s top nuclear scientists were assassinated last year. Assassination does not tend to be a danger for those operating other power sources.

Opinion on nuclear is divided

Currently, the US, France, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have more than 25 gigawatts (GW) of installed nuclear capacity each. Canada and Ukraine operate around 13GW each. The UK, Germany, Sweden, Spain, India and Belgium have five to ten GW of installed nuclear power capacity each. Another 16 countries have one or more reactors.

The US, the largest nuclear power generator, plans little nuclear expansion. Of its 95 reactors, 90 are more than 30 years old, and there are only two reactors slated for future construction. Other nations are actively shrinking their nuclear portfolios; Germany has already halved its capacity since 2010 and is on course for zero capacity by 2022. Belgium, Taiwan and Switzerland are implementing similar programmes to phase out nuclear power by 2030. Though among the cleanest sources of electricity emissions-wise, nuclear power is considered too risky.

Overall, however, the nuclear power market will grow. Globally, there are more than 400 active nuclear reactors that are currently under operation and 55 nuclear reactors are under construction in 17 different nuclear power countries. There are around 475 announced upcoming nuclear reactors. This growth is due to the attractive cleanliness and reliability of nuclear power in the face of rising sustainability concerns. China will lead this growth.

Resilience during COVID

Since safety is so crucial to the nuclear power industry, almost every nuclear reactor site had several contingency plans in place, including one for a pandemic situation. Consequently, nuclear operations were especially resilient to COVID disruption. Very few active reactors reported lay-offs during COVID-19.

Expansion must be cautious

Nuclear is a promising source of clean energy, so long as operators are mindful of the unique risks that come with it.