Nuclear Politics

IEA Head: With China Set To Become Nuclear Leader, US Needs Policy Changes

By David Dalton
1 March 2019

IEA Head: With China Set To Become Nuclear Leader, US Needs Policy Changes
Fatih Birol with US energy secretary Rick Perry. Photo courtesy IEA.

1 Mar (NucNet): Nuclear energy in the US is facing major challenges and without effective policy action the country will be on track to lose a substantial proportion of its capacity and see China become the leader in nuclear power generation technology, International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol has told the US Senate energy and natural resources committee.

Mr Birol told a hearing into prospects for global energy markets that nuclear should be seen as a key asset in the US. He said the US has been a leader in nuclear power generation technology for 60 years, alongside France, Japan and Russia.

However, if US policies do not change China will become the new leader in nuclear power generation, he said. “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. Nuclear capacity in China is set to overtake that of the US within 10 years.”

Mr Birol said the US should make it a priority to safeguard its existing fleet and to extend plant lifetimes. But in large parts of the US lifetime extensions present a challenge because wholesale markets do not value the energy security and clean energy contribution of nuclear.

He said nuclear still generates twice as much low-carbon electricity in the US as wind and solar combined. The baseload capacity of nuclear power plants plays a major role in maintaining electricity security. This is especially true in the northern regions of the US which experience spikes in electricity and gas demand during extreme cold spells like the recent polar vortex – times when solar production can be challenged.

There is significant international appetite for innovative approaches to nuclear power, including small modular reactors. SMRs can offer significant benefits, such as factory fabrication, flexibility in where they can be deployed and lower upfront investment. This is yet another opportunity for American innovation to play a leading role, Mr Birol told the hearing.

To safeguard the long-term contribution of nuclear, the US needs to continue to accelerate innovation in new nuclear technologies, including SMRs, Mr Birol said.

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