Nuclear energy is a critical pillar of a carbon-free future, says GE
As the world continues to decarbonise the energy sector and strives to attain net-zero greenhouse gases to combat the threat of a warming planet, producing dependable, cleaner power is a global priority. As the most dependable source of carbon-free power generation providing around-the-clock energy supply without interruption, nuclear energy is an important part of the power generation landscape, and it is a critical pillar in the transformation to a carbon-free future. Countries of all sizes are setting their sights on carbon-free nuclear power generation as part of their energy mix to ensure a dependable source of cleaner power with the highest level of reliability, while supporting their own energy security. With the urgency of the climate challenge, decision makers should ensure nuclear energy is included in the discussion.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), nuclear energy already accounts for 10% of the world’s total global power generation and 25% of all carbon-free electricity generation today with the USA, France, China, Russia and South Korea generating the most nuclear power. Over the past 50 years nuclear power generation has avoided CO2 emissions by over 60 gigatons globally – nearly two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions.
GE has been at the forefront of innovation in nuclear power generation since the mid-1950s, providing leading technology and services to its customers since the industry’s early days. In 1957, GE connected the first nuclear reactor to the commercial electricity grid and continues to build on its nearly 65 years of experience having constructed more than 65 reactors in 10 countries. Today, the company’s steam turbine technology operates in 50% of the world’s nuclear power plants, producing 200GW for the global grid. The company believes best-in-class technology, continued innovation and optimisation, as well as a strong regulatory framework are critical to securing a carbon-free future with nuclear energy, following two parallel paths.
The first path is maximising the lifetime output of the existing installed fleet. As new technologies come online, it is critical to maintain existing carbon-free nuclear power generation as part of the cleaner energy mix. With some 450 nuclear reactors in the world, one of the most effective and economical solutions will be to extend operating licenses to support the shift to a zero-carbon economy. According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the original 40-year term for reactor licenses was based on economic and antitrust considerations, not nuclear technology limitations. Market recognition of nuclear power as an emissions-free generation source is key to extending these licenses and keeping nuclear plants operating. Streamlining regulatory requirements and increasing investment to incorporate new technologies, including digital solutions, will further support efforts to reach carbon-free energy sector goals.
Industry leaders are expected to continue to develop new offerings to help customers service their equipment, as well as improve efficiency, lower operating costs and extend the lifetime of their plants. GE estimates increasing the thermal power rating and retrofitting a typical steam turbine and generator can achieve up to 20% or more additional gross power output. Even simply retrofitting a typical steam turbine shaft line with no reactor flow changes can achieve an additional 2.5 to 4% gross power output and lengthen the time between outages from typically 6-8 years to 12 years.
The Next Generation
Secondly, building new nuclear plants with best-in-class technology, with a focus on innovating the next generation of nuclear technology and accelerating new large-scale projects. Continued innovation across the industry is expected to deliver world-class technology to reduce construction costs and schedule, as well as ensure operational reliability and safety.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) have the potential to drive down investment cost per MW. SMR deployment can be accelerated with government support. Nuclear industry players such as GE, along with industry partners, are developing patented breakthrough reactor technology innovations to reduce cost and complexity.
GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), an alliance created by GE and Hitachi to serve the commercial nuclear power industry, has developed the BWRX-300 SMR, which GEH projects can be deployed by as early as 2028. The Natrium sodium fast reactor, in co-development by TerraPower and GEH, includes thermal energy storage and is well suited to support electricity grids with high levels of renewable generation sources.
GE Steam Power also has a range of nuclear steam turbine designs from 50-400MW that can be modular and factory built to reduce onsite work and costs. For example, the firm’s 70+MW class steam turbine can be shipped to site fully assembled as a module.
With respect to large- scale projects, while there are plans to phase out nuclear power plants in some countries, GE forecasts about 10GW per year of demand for new nuclear power plants over the coming decade which is in line with the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) forecast. Beyond 2030, nuclear deployment is only expected to accelerate in an increasingly carbon-constrained world. IEA’s NZE forecasts an average increase of over 20GW per year in net nuclear capacity between 2030 and 2040.
With a fleet of 53GW globally, GE’s Arabelle steam turbine is compatible with all large size reactors and can generate 2% more power output than previous turbine configurations while delivering 99.96% reliability. Today, the world’s most powerful steam turbine is operating at China’s Taishan Nuclear Power Station, generating 1,750MW of power output per unit. The two Taishan units can generate 3.5GW of carbon-free power generation, enough to prevent 21 million tons of CO2 emissions a year. The UK’s Hinkley Point C plant is expected to break this record; the steam turbines for those units are fitted with a 75in last stage blade, generating an additional 20MWs per unit.
Deploying proven construction techniques will significantly decrease costs. One way is to establish and consistently use global standard, repeatable designs to benefit from volume effects and learning curves. Customers should consider the fleet approach by building multiple identical units, where and when possible. Akkuyu, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, includes four identical units featuring GE’s Arabelle steam turbine. India’s NPCIL plans to develop a fleet of at least 12 nuclear units built with its PHWR-700 domestic reactor. This approach can help drive down costs and development time in both countries.
A range of technologies are needed to meet the Paris Agreement targets and achieve the CO2 reduction commitments by country. Each country faces a unique set of circumstances and constraints that could be historical, geographical, or political in nature. GE believes policymakers must address highly-emission intensive power systems by urgently requiring action from technologies that can be deployed today. Countries must consider both existing low-carbon and emissions-free technologies and innovative new solutions to ensure a cleaner energy transition around the world.
Governments must consider nuclear power as a dependable emissions-free generation option, while planning for the transition and their future energy systems. To maintain the nuclear power generation option, GE supports policies that: value low-carbon and emissions-free energy sources, such as nuclear power generation, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; embrace the important role of existing (and future) nuclear power plants in the energy mix to provide reliable base-load electricity; and that fund research, development, and demonstration projects to encourage early adoption of cleaner technologies, such as advanced reactors and SMRs.
GE also supports policies that create financing frameworks that facilitate access to capital for new and existing nuclear plants at a cost aligned with the risk profile and lead-time of nuclear projects, as well as ones that educate the public about nuclear power as a dependable and safe emissions-free technology.
The company also sees a strong need to protect and develop a well-trained workforce to sustain and build the next generation of nuclear power plants and also to ensure the licensing process enables safe operations and does not cause unnecessary cost increases or delays.
Finally, GE supports policies that will promote the commercial application of nuclear power technologies beyond electricity generation, including industrial heat, district heating, water desalination, and electrolysis to produce cleaner hydrogen.
Decarbonising the energy sector and attaining net-zero greenhouse gases to combat the threat of a warming planet must become a more urgent worldwide priority, with a focus on significant investments, national commitments and consistent policy and regulatory frameworks. It will require cooperation across national boundaries, sectors of the economy and the political spectrum.
What Happens Next?
GE recommends the following steps for the power generation industry. Invest urgently in a combination of nuclear, renewables, energy storage, combined cycle gas turbines with carbon capture, and hydrogen. Next, advocate for policies aligned with the Paris Agreement and its goals to reduce CO2 emissions while ensuring safe, affordable, and reliable sources of electricity. Then increase funding in research, development and deployment to innovate and adopt cleaner energy technologies as well as remote international cooperation and free flow of goods and services aligned with the World Trade Organization. And finally, encourage cross-sectoral cooperation to reduce CO2 emissions, including providing hydrogen produced from emissions-free energy.