Nuclear power remains the largest source of low-carbon electricity in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Supported by robust technical evidence and growing operating experience, many countries are already taking advantage of nuclear long-term operation (LTO) to meet their climate engagements in a cost-effective manner while enhancing the security of electricity supply.
As demonstrated by the NEA and the International Energy Agency (IEA) in the 2020 edition of Projected Costs of Generating Electricity, continued operation of existing nuclear power plants is one of the most cost-effective investment opportunities for low-carbon generation in many regions. The consideration of the long-term operation of existing nuclear reactors could intensify, especially in the light of increasing government pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by, in most cases, 2050.
Nevertheless, and despite the benefits offered by the LTO of nuclear reactors, early closures are observed in some regions. These closures have been primarily driven by policy decisions and challenges with existing electricity markets.
In this context, the NEA has explored in depth the key policy, regulatory, technical, human and economic aspects necessary to enable LTO to support ambitious decarbonisation strategies in a new report, entitled Long-Term Operation of Nuclear Power Plants and Decarbonisation Strategies. The report was launched during an expert roundtable discussion on 29 July 2021, which brought together a panel of legal and industry experts to explore the conclusions of the report and policy implications.
NEA nuclear energy analyst Antonio Vayá Soler, who provided a briefing on the key findings of this study, explained that there are no major technical showstoppers for LTO . “Supported by technical evidence, R&D and actual experience, we do not see any major technical LTO,” said Vayá Soler. “Almost all the components of a nuclear power plant can be replaced, and existing plants can also be enhanced with retrofits, such as power uprates, instrumentation and control upgrades, increased to support flexible operations and overall plant modernisation activities.”
However, LTO decisions are complex and require a holistic evaluation of multiple factors. “Beyond technical feasibility, there are several additional conditions for successful long-term operations – supply chains and talent pipelines including skilled trades and the next generation of leaders, legal and regulatory frameworks, market conditions and enabling policy frameworks, as well as public confidence. As circumstances evolve over time, several different actors need to be playing their respective roles to maintain the conditions for long-term operation, which we have learnt is the lowest cost option for low-carbon power,” said Diane Cameron, Head of the Nuclear Technology Development and Economics Division of the NEA.
The panellists agreed on the necessity to maintain nuclear skills and supply chain expertise in order to sustain the economic and operational performance of nuclear power over longer time frames. They also suggested that the electricity markets need to adequately reward the added value brought by LTO into power systems. In parallel, and as highlighted in the new NEA report, policies need to take into consideration the full value of LTO in supporting ambitious decarbonisation strategies on the path towards a clean energy future.
The new NEA report complements the 2019 report The Legal Frameworks for Long-Term Operation of Nuclear Power Reactors. As noted by Lisa Thiele, Senior General Counsel at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and Chair of the NEA Working Party on the Legal Aspects of Nuclear Safety (WPLANS), “It is important to keep in mind that the legal and regulatory requirements of any LTO review process need to be incorporated into the considerations as early as possible in decision-making on long-term operation.”