atw - International Journal for Nuclear Power | 04.2019


atw Vol. 64 (2019) | Issue 4 ı April



John Shepherd is a

journalist who has

covered the nuclear

industry for the past

20 years and is

currently editor-in-chief

of UK-based Energy

Storage Publishing.

Reference links:

Testimony from

Dr Fatih Birol

EPRI study

Events of the Past Need Not Dictate

an Industry’s Future

The US will have reached an important milestone in March of this year, when it marks 40 years since the accident that

damaged the core of the Three Mile Island (TMI) 2 nuclear reactor.

As I write, there has been no public relations offensive of

note by nuclear energy opponents in the build up to the

memory of what happened in Pennsylvania on 28 March

1979 – which is perhaps testament to how the nuclear

debate has moved on since.

For the record, the event was caused by a combination

of equipment failure and the inability of plant operators to

understand the reactor’s condition at certain times during

the event.

And while there were no reported injuries or adverse

health effects from the accident, TMI was a turning point

for the industry in the US and arguably worldwide.

In the US, the event led to the establishment of the

Atlanta- based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and

the formation of what is today the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Despite its setbacks, nuclear has powered ahead and is

increasingly recognised for its durability, reliability, safety

and sustainability in a world that sometimes seems to have

lost sight of the need for real energy security while

pursuing fads of the day. Indeed, a study published in 2018

by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) indicated

that US plants are nearly 100 times more safe than the

safety goals set by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

One welcome intervention came recently from the head

of the Paris-based International Energy Association (IEA),

Dr Fatih Birol, who gave testimony to the US Senate Energy

and Natural Resources Committee on prospects for global

energy markets, including the role of the US.

In his wide-ranging testimony, no one could be in

any doubt about the relevance – and the importance – of

nuclear energy now and into the future.

Birol said nuclear “should be seen as a key asset in the

US (which) has been a leader in nuclear power generation

technology for 60 years, alongside France, Japan and


Nuclear still generates “twice as much low-carbon

electricity in the US as wind and solar combined”, Birol

said, adding that nuclear’s baseload capacity in the country

also played a “major role in maintaining electricity

security”. He said this was especially true in the northern

regions, which “experience spikes in electricity and gas

demand during extreme cold spells like the recent polar

vortex – times when solar production can be challenged”.

But Birol pointed out that China is set to be the “new

leader” in terms of nuclear energy if US policies do not


“China has rapidly developed nuclear power over the

past two decades, increasing from just three operating

reactors in 2000 to 46 at the end of last year,” Birol said.

Nuclear capacity in China is set to overtake that of the US

within 10 years.”

According to the IEA chief, “effective policy action” is

needed in the US if it is to avoid the loss of “a substantial

proportion of its (nuclear) capacity”. “From my vantage

point, this would be detrimental to both energy security

and clean energy objectives.”

Birol said American innovation could also play a leading

role in the development of small modular reactors (SMRs),

pointing out that there was “significant international

appetite for innovative approaches to nuclear power,

including SMRs”, which could offer significant benefits,

such as factory fabrication, flexibility in where they can be

deployed and lower upfront investment.

The US has to continue to “accelerate innovation in new

nuclear technologies” such as SMRs to safeguard the long

term contribution of nuclear, Birol said.

However, “a first priority should be to safeguard the

existing fleet”. Birol told legislators: “Nuclear plant lifetimes

should be extended as long as safety considerations

allow. In large parts of the US this presents a challenge, as

wholesale markets don’t value the energy security and

clean energy contribution of nuclear.”

This was the third consecutive time the IEA’s executive

director has given testimony to the Senate committee, so

his remarks should not be seen as a dramatic intervention,

particularly in terms of nuclear, because the agency’s brief

is to cover the full spectrum of energy issues in its 30

member countries and beyond.

What is notable, however, is that nuclear is rightly

recognised by the IEA as a valued and much-needed

contributor to the international energy mix.

From a strictly personal point of view, I found it

refreshing to hear the head of an esteemed international

body talk about nuclear in such terms. I’ve heard no such

endorsement for some time now in the UK (although I

stand to be corrected). By the same token, I don’t recall any

public airing of note of late on the benefits of nuclear in the

European Parliament, regardless of that body’s largely

consultative role in such matters.

Nuclear continues to enjoy strong political support in

other countries, such as China (as Birol mentioned),

Russia, and nuclear newcomer the United Arab Emirates.

Policies in those countries are driven of course by a more

‘top-down approach’, but that does nothing to dilute the

value of nuclear in terms of energy security and its

contribution to supporting a nation’s economic well being.

Meanwhile, the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum

reported that two ‘nuclear recruiting’ events were held in

the country recently, attended by students expecting to

graduate in 2020 and looking to start their careers.

Memories of the Fukushima-Daiichi accident have not

faded in Japan, but lessons have been learned and the

country is moving on – and preparing for a new nuclear

generation at the industry’s helm.

We would do well to reflect on some words from Sir

Winston Churchill if the nuclear industry is to forge ahead

in helping to resolve the energy challenges of the future:

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an

optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Nuclear Today

Events of the Past Need Not Dictate an Industry’s Future ı John Shepherd

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