World Energy Outlook Warns Nuclear Industry On Decommissioning And Disposal

By David Dalton
12 November 2014

World Energy Outlook Warns Nuclear Industry On Decommissioning And Disposal
Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency

12 Nov (NucNet): The nuclear energy industry needs to be ready to manage “an unprecedented rate” of decommissioning with almost 200 of the 434 reactors that were operating commercially at the end of 2013 to be retired by 2040, a report by the International Energy Agency says.

World Energy Outlook 2014 (WEO), released today in London, says “the vast majority” of these reactor retirements will be in the European Union, the US, Russia and Japan.

The industry will need to manage this unprecedented rate of decommissioning, while also building substantial new capacity for those reactors that are replaced, WEO says.

The IEA estimates the cost of decommissioning plants that are retired to be more than $100 billion.

But WEO warns that “considerable uncertainties” remain about these costs, reflecting the relatively limited experience to date in dismantling and decontaminating reactors and restoring sites for other uses.

Regulators and utilities need to continue to ensure that adequate funds are set aside to cover these future expenses, WEO says.

It also warns that all countries which have ever had nuclear generation facilities have an obligation to develop solutions for long-term storage.

In one scenario examined in WEO, the cumulative amount of spent nuclear fuel that has been generated (a significant portion of which becomes high-level radioactive waste) more than doubles, reaching 705,000 tonnes in 2040.

Today – 60 years since the first nuclear reactor started operating – no country has yet established permanent facilities for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste from commercial reactors, which continues to build up in temporary storage, WEO says.

It says nuclear power is one of the few options available at scale to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while providing or displacing other forms of baseload generation. Nuclear has avoided the release of an estimated 56 gigatonnes of CO2 since 1971, or almost two years of total global emissions at current rates.

Policies concerning nuclear power will remain an essential feature of national energy strategies, even in countries which are committed to phasing out the technology and that must provide for alternatives, WEO says.

In WEO’s central scenario, global nuclear power capacity increases by almost 60 percent from 392 gigawatts in 2013 to more than 620 GW in 2040. However, its share of global electricity generation, which peaked almost two decades ago, rises by just one percentage point to 12 percent.

This growth is concentrated in just four countries – China, India, South Korea and Russia. These are markets where electricity is supplied at regulated prices, utilities have state backing or governments act to facilitate private investment.

Of the growth in nuclear generation to 2040, China accounts for 45 percent while India, South Korea and Russia collectively make up a further 30 percent. Generation increases by 16 percent in the US, rebounds in Japan – although not to levels seen before the Fukushima-Daiichi accident – and falls by 10 percent in the European Union.

WEO says despite the challenges nuclear faces, it has specific characteristics that underpin the commitment of some countries to maintain it as a future option. “Nuclear plants can contribute to the reliability of the power system where they increase the diversity of power generation technologies in the system. For countries that import energy, it can reduce their dependence on foreign supplies and limit their exposure to fuel price movements in international markets.”

Although the upfront costs to build new nuclear plants are high and, often, uncertain, nuclear power can offer economic benefits by adding stability to electricity costs and improving balance of payments, WEO says.

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