Nuclear energy systems comprise complex physical and institutional infrastructure that span several human generations, encompassing uranium mining, electricity generation, radioactive waste management, permanent high-level waste disposal, and the related legal and regulatory framework.
Developing or expanding these systems inevitably requires extensive planning, lead times and resources, particularly for the design and commercialisation of new and innovative components.
In addition, nuclear plants in operation worldwide today are expected to supply electricity for 60 years or more, meaning that requisite skills and knowledge need to be transferred and retained throughout the construction, operation and eventual decommissioning of such facilities.
“Prior to starting a nuclear energy programme, it is important that people are trained to develop the skills required to build and operate nuclear plants, as well as establishing an effective regulatory body,” confirms Dr Jonathan Cobb of the World Nuclear Association.
“In the past, countries developed their own national nuclear energy systems independently. Now it is more likely that new entrant countries will partner with reactor vendors with a well-established history of operating nuclear plants. This can make the development of a new nuclear energy system easier through the transfer of skills and provision of training from the vendor country.”
The IAEA’s roadmapping tool explained
In May 2018, experts from 16 countries finalised the results of the project on ‘Roadmaps for a transition to globally sustainable nuclear energy systems’ and its final report, published by the IAEA.
Developed over a period of four years, the new tool is designed to help countries develop ‘roadmaps’, defined as plans and visions on how to “achieve, enhance and monitor an increasingly sustainable nuclear energy system in the long term”.
It can also be used to identify how countries can benefit from innovations in nuclear technology and infrastructure, both nationally and through cooperation with other countries.
“Undertaking roadmapping for a national nuclear energy system facilitates finding answers to several key questions,” said Vladimir Kuznetsov from the IAEA’s International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) Section, which led the project.
“The major one is how to get from the present system to a future national nuclear energy system with enhanced sustainability, and to do that efficiently – without excessive investments in national infrastructure.
“Roadmapping that is performed in cooperation among technology users and suppliers could also provide strategic insights into international markets for products and services for the various peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”
Sustainability refers to the establishment of a nuclear energy system in a way that – in line with the United Nations definition – can “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
A nuclear energy system can be assessed by applying methodology from the IAEA’s INPRO to determine if it is sustainable.
The IAEA describes this methodology as “a complex and holistic assessment method of the entire nuclear energy system in several key areas: economics, infrastructure, waste management, proliferation resistance, safety and environment”.
Roadmapping can also address other issues, including the evolution of nuclear energy systems over time, domestic production versus import of products and services such as entire nuclear power plants, fuel, maintenance and operations services, as well as preferences about innovative technologies and potential cooperation with other countries.
Non-electric applications of nuclear energy
An example of how roadmapping can act as a catalyst for more sustainable nuclear power is in the area of nuclear cogeneration, whereby excess heat from electricity generation by nuclear power plants is used for a range of non-electric uses, including to desalinate seawater, produce hydrogen for heavy industry, decarbonise the transport sector, and supply heat for residential and commercial use.
“Nuclear cogeneration is very important, particularly if nuclear power is to expand much more broadly in energy markets to meet the need for clean and sustainable energy, while helping to mitigate climate change through avoidance of carbon emissions,” said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Energy.
Cogeneration has the potential to increase the flexibility of electricity production by adjusting a nuclear plant’s output between electrical and heat products as demand for electricity fluctuates.
Barriers to widespread adoption include economics and energy market conditions, a lack of political commitment, low public acceptance and, in specific cases, technical and regulatory issues, and a requirement for an operating reference plant.
Speaking at the 16th Dialogue Forum of INPRO in Vienna, Austria in December, Xin Yan of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency summarised how to overcome such challenges.
“First, we need to learn from other conventional industries who have been successful in forming alliances,” he said. “This is happening already on a smaller scale, as the Republic of Korea and Saudi Arabia have joined forces to develop an SMR for desalination and cogeneration in the Middle East.
“Second, the IAEA is the best international body to help guide member states to develop non-electric applications and should play a larger role in increasing public awareness.
“And thirdly, nuclear newcomer countries should make use of available tools, such as those offered by the IAEA, to understand non-electric applications, to help them in their economic development and to understand the technical challenges.”
Synergies between nuclear and renewables
Nuclear–renewable hybrid energy systems – integrated facilities comprised of nuclear reactors, renewable energy generation and industrial processes – also have the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with conventional fossil fuels.
Simultaneously addressing the need for grid flexibility, GHG reductions and the optimal use of investment capital, hybrid systems offer multiple benefits.
Nuclear power can provide flexible operation based on energy demand, addressing the problem of intermittent generation from renewables such as wind and solar. By adjusting output as demand for electricity fluctuates, known as load following, nuclear power enhances the efficiency of renewables.
“We are not looking at eliminating fossil resource use, but changing how we use it,” said Shannon Bragg-Sitton of Idaho National Laboratory, which also leads a programme on Nuclear–Renewable Hybrid Energy Systems on behalf of the US Department of Energy.
“This carbon resource is very valuable and could be converted to higher-value products, such as plastics or chemicals and other products that can be utilised beyond heat.”
Five countries – Armenia, Belarus, Romania, Russia and Ukraine – have already applied the roadmaps tool on a trial basis and developed examples of national plans.
The IAEA is making the tool available to member states and provides training in its application, as part of a new service designed to incentivise and encourage the development of future nuclear energy systems with enhanced sustainability.