When it comes to nuclear energy, there are two distinct and opposing trends in the world today—in the United States and Europe, aging reactors are being phased out and there is a reluctance to build new ones, while countries like China are on a building spree, according to Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.
Birol worries about what will replace nuclear energy in countries that are decommissioning their aging plants. “What are we going to do with the phasing out of nuclear… what are the environmental, economic, and market implications? For me, that is a very serious issue for the OECD countries,” he said referring to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Birol spoke at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi on January 13 where he took part in a panel discussion with Christina A. Back, vice president for nuclear technologies and materials at General Atomics; Daniel B. Poneman, president and chief executive officer of Centrus Energy Corp.; and John Giordano, a partner at Archer, a US-based law firm. David Hobbs, vice president of research at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, moderated the discussion.
Poneman contended that it is a “pivotal moment” for the US nuclear industry, which, he said, is under severe stress. One of the challenges would be sustaining the existing fleet of nuclear power plants five of which had been “prematurely retired” and had been operating “perfectly well,” he said.
“The real question facing US industry is can we adapt and change,” said Poneman.
Poneman, who served as US deputy secretary of energy in former US President Barack Obama’s administration, praised US President Donald J. Trump’s administration for its commitment to sustaining the US nuclear reactor fleet and reviving US nuclear leadership.
Noting the US commitment to safety, security, and nonproliferation, Poneman said: “If we start to lose the leadership that we have had for many decades in these areas, it is not going to be down to the disadvantage of the United States, but of the world.”
As the United States has phased out plants, China has rushed to embrace the technology.
There are about 450 nuclear power plants in the world that are responsible for about 11 percent of the global electricity generation. Today, more than 40 gigawatts are under construction and more than half of that is in China, said Birol.
The apprehension about nuclear energy stems from concerns about nuclear waste as well as the likelihood of an accident, as was driven home by the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in March of 2011.
“When people realize that nuclear is the only way, with all the efficiencies and the gas and the renewables, then people rethink their assumptions,” said Poneman.
“To me it is not a public relations challenge so much as an educational challenge and, frankly, an intellectual honesty challenge,” he added.
Back, who expressed a firm belief in the diversity of energy sources, said: “People need to keep an open mind and look at nuclear as part of the mix.”
Birol said nuclear energy is an integral part of the fight against climate change—particularly in the countries where it is accepted.
In a keynote speech that preceded the panel discussion, Mohamed Al Hammadi, chief executive officer of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, said nuclear energy has created a “new age” for the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In 2009, the UAE government launched its peaceful nuclear energy program.
The UAE is one of those countries cited by Birol that is constructing a nuclear power plant. Barakah 1 is the first nuclear reactor in the Arab world. It will be followed by three more units.
“Once fully operational, the Barakah plant—all four units—will save twenty million tons of [carbon dioxide] emissions annually,” said Al Hammadi. “That, for the UAE, is a big number.”
It will also create 2,500 jobs, he added.
“Nuclear energy brings a unique set of opportunities, but it requires a change and adaptation to a new order in the energy industry,” said Al Hammadi. “We need to demonstrate that nuclear energy is resilient and can provide long-term solutions.”
“The UAE is in a position of nuclear technology as a strategic source for electricity generation, a unique source of scientific development, and a unique contributor to sustainability of the UAE and sustainability of the world,” he added.
Natural Gas: Fuel of the Energy Transition?
Natural gas, which has lower emissions than coal, is seen as a bridge fuel of energy transition.
In a separate session, participants discussed the opportunities and challenges presented by natural gas.
The United States is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas as a result of the shale revolution. It surpassed Russia in 2009.
The shale revolution and the growing number of LNG export terminals in the United States have resulted in a decline in the cost of liquefaction of gas, said Mohamed Bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s oil minister.
Noting that Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are looking to build LNG import terminals, while Kuwait already has one, Al-Khalifa predicted that by 2019 there will be a glut of supply hitting the markets. This, he said, should lead to lower prices.
“The dynamics of the market should start changing; customers will have to come on board which will be a good thing for the future of the industry,” he added.
Natural gas isn’t without its share of challenges.
“One of the challenges with gas is that it is not as fungible as oil… transporting it is a challenge,” said Al-Khalifa, noting that two-thirds of the gas price is actually delivery cost.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, meanwhile, face depleting reservoirs of gas. As a result, these nations are targeting tight gas resources. Tight gas refers to low-permeability reservoirs that produce mainly dry natural gas.
“Conventional sources of gas, tight gas coming on board, and the imports of LNG is what’s going to shape the future nature of this commodity, which remains the best source of electricity,” said Al-Khalifa.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.