How the war in Ukraine and climate change are shaping the nuclear industry

  • The future of the nuclear power industry is being pushed on both climate change and security fears fueled by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and targeting of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
  • In 19 countries, 55 new nuclear power reactors are being built right now. Only two are in the US, both at the Vogtle facility in Georgia.
  • Recently, China and Russia have been the most dominant forces in nuclear power. However, with modern nuclear technology, the US is attempting to make a move to win.

Climate change and global security are competing for control of the future. This is especially evident in the developments around nuclear power this week.

Nuclear power facilities produce energy without emitting carbon dioxide, making them a viable alternative to the fossil fuels that are warming the planet.

"Coal and other fossil fuels are suffocating mankind," said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday, following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report. "The current global energy mix is unsustainable."

Russian military forces attacked Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant the following week. A fire broke out in one of the nuclear power plant's buildings.

"We are giving a warning; no country has ever fired a shot at a nuclear power plant save Russia," according to a translation, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video statement. "The terrorist country has reverted to nuclear terror for the first time in our history, in the history of humanity."

Later on Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that the nuclear power station was still operational and that no radioactive material had been released. Nonetheless, the security incident sent shockwaves of terror around the world.

"It'll be a teeter totter," Kenneth Luongo, the founder of the organisation Partnership for Global Security, which works on security and energy policy, said.

It's new to see Ukraine's nuclear reactors under attack, and it's especially concerning to "much of the populace that associates nuclear with weapons and danger, as well as radioactivity and health issues."

At the same time, countries are realising that renewables like wind and solar will not be enough to reach their climate targets. At the COP 26 climate summit last year, Luongo claims there was a "sea change" in attitudes toward nuclear power.

In terms of nuclear power, China and Russia have been the most prominent political forces.

There are roughly 440 nuclear power reactors in operation in more than 30 nations, supplying about 10% of the world's electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. At the moment, 55 nuclear reactors are being built in 19 countries, 19 of which are in China. Only two are now underway in the United States.

"China, without a doubt, has the most active programme of new nuclear building," stated Nuclear Energy Institute's John Kotek.

"The world's fastest-growing commercial nuclear energy or civil nuclear energy sector is China," according to the report. "They're building at a rate that's basically comparable to what you signed in the 1970s in the United States, or in the 1970s and 1980s in France," Kotek added.

Some of China's concentration on building new nuclear reactors is a response to a significant increase in energy demand from a rapidly increasing middle-class population.

Russian has a "pretty continuous programme" of new nuclear buildout, according to Kotek. Russia is currently constructing three new nuclear reactors.

However, Russia is the world's leading exporter of nuclear technology.

A VVER design, which stands for vodo-vodyanoi enyergeticheskiy reaktor in Russian and water-water power reactor in English, is now being built in a number of nations other than Russia, including Bangladesh, Belarus, India, Iran, Slovakia, and Turkey.

The United States has lost "the muscle memory" to develop conventional nuclear reactors as Russia and China have gained prominence, according to Luongo. After the nuclear catastrophe at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the mishaps at Chornobyl in the Ukrainian Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima in Japan in 2011, nuclear power gained a bad reputation in the United States and around the world.

However, the tide is beginning to turn.

The solution proposed by the Biden administration was incorporated in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which was signed into law in November and was effectively a large subsidy. The law includes a $6 billion initiative aimed at preserving the existing nuclear power reactor fleet in the United States.

At the state level, between 75 and 100 nuclear-energy-related measures are currently pending in state legislatures around the country, according to Kotek. He estimates that there were a dozen nuclear-energy-related bills in state legislatures a decade ago.

"While not every bill will pass, it is indicative of a significant increase in interest in nuclear," Kotek added.

Concerns about climate change are driving most of the renewed interest in nuclear energy, which is often highest in places where coal industries are dwindling.

"There is worry in towns and states that are looking at the prospect of coal plant closure, and want to make the most use of the highly educated labour and asset that exists at that retiring coal plant," Kotek said of the "coal-to-nuclear transition."

West Virginia, for example, lifted a 1996 moratorium on nuclear power plant construction in February.

Simultaneously, the Russia-Ukraine conflict provides the US with power to expand its footprint in the global market. While the conflict is terrible, "it will result in increased opportunities for US nuclear enterprises as Russia disqualifies itself," according to Kotek.

Russia's deadly attack on Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, as well as China's refusal to support an IAEA resolution to prohibit such attacks, "will have a negative impact on both countries' nuclear export reputations," Luongo told CNBC.

"The question is whether the United States and other democratic nations will act quickly to make these points and seize this opportunity."

The United States is concentrating on developing new nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power facilities are costly to construct and, in many regions, have become more expensive than other baseload energy options such as natural gas.

The United States, on the other hand, is pushing hard for what could be the next generation of nuclear power.

"The United States has decided that Russia and China will not be allowed to dominate the next phase of the nuclear market." As a result, the United States is investing billions of dollars — surprisingly, billions of dollars — in the construction of tiny modular reactors," Luongo remarked. The Idaho National Lab is being used as a test bed for these reactors by the government.

These smaller, more advanced reactors aren't necessarily new — certain variants of the technology have been available since the 1950s — but, according to Luongo, they're experiencing a revival right now.

They can be manufactured using more standard parts rather than unique parts, allowing for speedier and less expensive production.

However, while the United States is preparing to be competitive technologically, it is not prepared policy-wise, according to Luongo. Uranium enriched to roughly 5% is used in conventional reactors. Advanced reactors use uranium that has been enriched to around 19 percent, just shy of the 20 percent threshold that the IAEA has assessed to be weapons-grade uranium.

"We haven't even scratched the surface of what it entails from the perspective of nuclear security and non-proliferation," Luongo added.